Category Archives: First World Problems

Care and Maintenance of Gadgets in the Wild

We sometimes act as though our shiny gadgets are thoroughly reliable constants. By simply living outside of the norm, I constantly expose my computer equipment to difficult circumstances. As a friend said “Your gadgets are tested more than any tool since Deliverance.” Paddle faster?

A few ridiculous equipment circumstances from my own life:

  • My iMac regularly develops a film of condensed water that blurs half of my screen, making HD or retina display options seem completely optional. Do they make Rain-X for computers?
  • An inch and a half long hornet somehow committed suicide in the backside of my eMac. The hornet was much larger than any vent, so it was a mystery how it gained entrance.
  • A mud dauber (another wasp-like flying insect) plugged the headphone jack on my iPad with mud while attempting to build a hatchery for its young.

Living in humid Virginia in a log cabin is at times difficult on the body… but it’s hell on my gadgets. There are other challenges as we move further outside Western suburbia. When traveling to Ghana last year I carried a used laptop as a gift to my host. While she had some correct electrical adapters, she didn’t have a sufficient surge protector. The power cable overheated, burning out the power adaptor and rendering the laptop temporarily unusable. Thankfully as I traveled with the laptop I didn’t run into the problem that my friend had with another laptop in Israel. A Palestinian friend had passed along a laptop in hopes that she would be able to repair it. The Israeli border patrol stopped her and wanted to know why she was traveling with a non-working laptop with a non-US power supply. She was questioned for quite a long time while they ensured that she was not ferrying an explosive device.

It’s easy to think that we can ship extra computers to the underserved corners of the world and fix access problems. It’s not that simple. Any computer, including mine, not housed in a tightly-sealed, climate and environment-controlled building, is at the mercy of insects, humidity, dust, heat and a myriad of other concerns. Electrical surges and differing currents wreak havoc. Security at schools continue to be an issue; computer labs set up previous years by other visitors were robbed. Even when all these hurdles are surmounted, basic maintenance remains a problem. Older computers are likely to have hardware malfunctions and updating software through dial-up Internet connections is challenging.

It’s critical, and inevitable, that computers will continue to penetrate to all parts of our globe, but it’s likely that we’ll bypass many of the challenges that desktop models give us and instead replace it with mobile and cellular technologies. As the world moves to mobile, it’s hopeful that we’ll have more durable gadgets with fewer environmental and maintenance issues.

Too Many Apps

It’s only been four years since the Apple app store was launched, but there are over a half million apps available. In addition there are also all the apps that are embedded in websites and in Google’s store. How do we possibly focus on getting our key tasks done while being told that we need to try this or that new life-changing app? Here are some techniques that I’ve been using to good effect:

Reading Headlines
I don’t read every blog and article the moment it comes out. If I read tech blogs everyday I’d get whiplash. Every new app and tech company is going to change the world. Except they don’t. I wait for the hue and cry to die down and let others weed out the technologies that won’t last. I resist the need to try every last fix-all solution by remembering my History of Ed Tech professor showing us the lantern slide, blackboard, tape player, TV, etc that was going to change the education world and bring in a golden age of human development.
Asking Questions
When a technological break-through lasts long enough to make it worthwhile to invest, I ask friends who I respect what the educational applications are, what the limitations are, and what’s the likelihood that it’s going to be around for a while. Even if there is no cash cost for using a tool, the time and energy that a user spends learning the tool has a price and that becomes a complete loss if the app is going to be absorbed or cut (e.g. Google Wave).
Rejecting Tools (even popular/useful ones)
There are some services that I don’t I need. Spotify is probably great, but I haven’t been convinced that it will add value to my life. I like music, but I’m not an audiophile. I often want it to provide background to other productivity. I mostly don’t want it to bother me. I’ve collected a pretty good iTunes library and I’ve curated some pretty great Pandora stations. I know that Spotify probably is great, but I’m cheap– I don’t want to add another subscription to get the features that really set it apart from competitors. I also want to minimize the amount of time that I spend taking care of my technology– each app that we install means another tool with its own updates, subscriptions to manage, privacy to consider. When we adopt and adopt again we’re devoting more of our time to means not the ends. I’ve got 3-4 ways to listen to music I like already, I’m not sure that I need to add another.
Following Instincts
Sometimes a new app just seems great, a no brainer. If it’s appealing, easy to use, with a clear educational component– then yes, I use it– hello Bitstrips.com. I don’t reject apps just because they’re new. I’m not a crazy luddite. I hope that I am merely a thoughtful luddite. Following my instincts has made me reject any locator type program like foursquare as creepy and unneeded even before I read articles like this.
Investigating on Need
I figure out what I need to do before searching out the app. I don’t find an app and try to shoehorn it into a curriculum or task just to say that I used something new. Using this method we’ve found apps to calculate percentage change, to create secure passwords and teach students how to use javascript.

One technique that has proven invaluable for me is accepting that I can’t stay abreast of every innovation. I shift the focus back from the shininess on the web, and back to the reality of what I really want to do and accomplish. Freeing myself from being an early adopter has definitely reduced my anxiety about what I am missing.