Category Archives: Hardware

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.

Unplug the Games: The value of human to human play

This summer we’re teaching a series of optional free camps at Computers4Kids. The goal is to provide a fun and engaging experience, but also introduce concepts that might pique the students’ interest. Last week I observed a phenomena that I had noticed before — a definite lack in students’ problem-solving skills. This wasn’t in an unfamiliar content area, but a simple game of 20 questions where the items were familiar animals, foods and objects. It was hard to watch the student stymied by the task. He wasn’t able to construct questions, even with prompts, that would lead to him guessing his hidden animal. He seemed frustrated and embarrassed, but other students lent him support and he was able to succeed eventually. This game that seemed so familiar to me and most of the students was clearly foreign to him.

Observing this interchange made me think about how important games are to children’s development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills. How many hours of my childhood  journeys were occupied with searching for objects that started with certain letters or fit into different categories, guessing a word, or out-spelling the driver? Thinking about strategy, getting tricky, and being clever were all skills that offered gratification and reward. Successful thinking was play and fun. It was valued.

Certainly many of these experiences can be duplicated on smartphones. There are plenty of free or cheap apps with guessing games built in, some lacking a few key components:

  1. An authentic feedback loop. It’s more gratifying to hear a peer or adult congratulate you for fresh thinking or more efficient guessing than canned computer feedback, no matter how intelligent the system is.
  2. Evolution of gameplay. When you’ve planned the same game mile after mile, you begin to shift the rules and boundaries to keep the gameplay challenging and new. The negotiation of the rules to keep play fun, challenging, or to make it appropriate for different levels of players is a critical skill for young players.
  3. Reading the opponent. When people play games against one another, they observe the strengths and weaknesses of the other’s play. Predicting a player’s next steps is often crucial in competitive games. Being able to parse the psychology of a colleague is a valued skilled in real life.
  4. Spontaneity. Humans almost always bring a sense of unpredictability to gameplay. While a computer algorithm can be analyzed and predicted, humans tend to ignore logical steps and respond “irrationally”; sometimes a perceived “losing” move is a strategically savvy one. Many computer programs aren’t equipped to play the long game.

Certainly I don’t disdain computer games and apps completely. I can’t stop playing a Tetris clone on my phone, but I see that games still need to come out of the digital sphere and into our human one. Sitting in the backseat affixed to the smartphone is no substitute for playing a game of I Spy out the window. Just because an activity is lo-fi, doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable.

Our Gadgets Own Us

I’ve got too many gadgets. But I find that I need one more. I want a laptop again.

I miss laptops. While the iPhone and iPad provide mobility and the sexy design that makes want one (until we find out the human cost behind them and probably ALL of our gadgets), they’re awfully hard to write much beyond a tweet on.

The students in my school district all got tablets to use this year. They were so excited initially. At Computers4Kids we were concerned that the students wouldn’t come to us anymore because they had this gadget and wouldn’t need the computer access that we’d always provided them. But they still come. The promised keyboards haven’t materialized, and even if they had, would you want to write and edit a 3-4 page paper on a tablet screen?

Both me and the kids love to watch movies on the tablet– it’s great and portable, but I’d rather write an email on an iPhone and I’d rather write a paper on a desktop or laptop.