Tech Dilemmas

For a variety of reasons, I’ve lately had the need to rethink my technological footprint. Over the past five months or so my job has taken a few left turns that now have me working on projects that were not contemplated when I was originally hired. Many of these find me making treks back and forth between my offices on the U of A campus. In turn, I’ve felt the pull to travel lighter, and to pair down my tech footprint to only the essentials.

Enter Apple’s new iPad Air (or iPad Air 3).

As any good technophile knows, the decision was not one easily made. I had five key criteria in seeking a new tablet:

  • Portability
  • Digital Note-Taking
  • Laptop Replacement
  • Processing Power
  • Word Processing Capability

I’ll explain each below.

Portability. As mentioned, my new job obligations see me schlepping across resort-like U of A on a fairly regular basis now (I’m clearly not biased toward my alma mater at all). By way of explanation, the University of Arizona is in the midst of developing programs that involve a major commitment to Native American Advancement at the institution, and I’m grateful to be a part of the team that’s seeing some of these initiatives through. But the changed reality for me is that I’m no longer tethered to a desk at any particular location, on any given day. This means that much of my work was being done on my MacBook laptop circa 2016.

To be fair, my MacBook is still a fine machine. It has ample storage and I’ve yet to run into a processing task (or series of processing tasks) that it can’t handle. Even so, having replaced the keyboard twice, it was quickly becoming less portable and more a computing station in my home office. The wear and tear of trips across campus would not have served its longevity very well, and I’m not overly eager to spend upwards of $2k USD on a replacement. I could probably have made the arrangement work for another year or two, but the hinge of the screen and top case had become gradually more flexible (loose), and the screen itself was beginning to show faint signs of degradation in the coating of its Retina display. Not something uncommon after a usage-intensive three year run, but clearly happenstances that would not bode well over the long-term.

Thus, my need for a newer, portable replacement.

Note: The iPad was not an obvious choice for me. I had considered getting a new laptop altogether. The price point of the MacBook line is still pretty good and some of the internal hardware has been upgraded overtime. But in my three year break from the iPad, some quick research told me that the internal processing, app selections and software upgrades had all made the iPad a much more formidable player in the productivity space. (I had an ailing iPad Air 2 that hadn’t really seen much use since my, then, toddler son scraped up the back of it while playing on a less-than-sparkling wood floor). Given the price difference between a tablet and a laptop in the Apple ecosystem, a tablet replacement for my laptop seemed like a good option for what I envisioned.

Digital Note-Taking. Another key component of my job involves taking copious amounts of notes. Formerly, I had done most of these by hand and then manually transcribed them word-for-word on my work computer. In a laptop replacement, I wanted to avoid this if at all possible and find a combination of hardware and software that would transcribe my abysmal scrawl into usable text that I could edit and modify as needed without the need to transcribe. On this score, the Apple Pencil seemed like a nice alternative. So, whatever iPad I bought would need to be compatible with this function of the Apple Pencil.

I should probably mention that I’m not an artist by any means. Some users seek out the Apple Pencil purely for sketching and drawing – and nearly any iPad available today has this function and capability. But given how atrocious my handwriting is, despite Mrs. Gensman’s best efforts during Senior year of High School, I needed something with the power and ability to do the impossible: make my handwriting legible, recognize it (something my Mother still can’t do), and transform it into digital text like you’re seeing now.

Laptop Replacement. Above all, the replacement had to wield the ability to take the place of my laptop in my technological day-to-day existence. This may seem an obvious point but I reckon it’s an important distinction. Some tablets are great at providing options to consume media. One can use a Kindle to read voluminous amounts of books. The iPads of yore, even, were great vehicles for watching movies and streaming videos on YouTube and Netflix.

But whatever I opted to purchase needed not only to handle both reading books and watching movies (flights are long after all), but also help me stay atop the steady and increasing workload that is now coming in. In sum, I needed a machine that would both allow me to consume media, and be productive. (This narrowed the options considerably but more on this later).

Processing Power. Given the above, the device I sought would need to have top of the line processing power. It would need to handle multiple applications at once and accommodate my spastic nature. It’s not uncommon for me to type a few paragraphs, hit on a word that pops into my mind, and then send me reeling on a lesson in etymology, and wondering whether the word selected is fit for the occasion. Self-doubt is a cruel mistress.

Suffice it to say, the ability of the internal processor needed to be stronger than my undiagnosed, adult ADD at a price that wouldn’t break the bank.

Word Processing Capability. And finally, my “forever” device needed to provide multiple, and ample opportunities for me to write.

To the kids reading (I so hope you’re not reading, kids), pay attention during your English class. Pay attention to your English professors in college (no matter how lame they may be). And above all learn to write. And when you’ve mastered this basic skill, learn to write well.

As a university yokel-in-residence, I can’t claim to have followed the advice I’ve just given. But writing in all its forms, from emails, to contracts, to law review articles (yay – new publication coming soon!), to hiring decisions, to blog posts – writing is 90% of what I do. So, my laptop replacement needed to provide the capacity to accomplish this basic function with aplomb.

(Lest anyone think I’m being overly dramatic, think about the apps any given professional might use on a daily basis: Apple Mail. Outlook. Microsoft Word. Dropbox (file syncing across devices and because Box sucks). iA Writer. Scrivener. Facebook Messenger. iMessage. Skype. Snapchat. Kik. Twitter. The lone thread in all of these apps is that they all depend upon the ability of an individual to translate the thoughts in the mind to digital text on a platform. Simply this and nothing more. And as our robot overlords come to take our jobs, the ability to write and communicate is one of the lone bastions of human ingenuity that they have not quite mastered. Or have they?)

Outcome

Out the gate, I immediately bought the new iPad Mini (or iPad Mini 5) that was released alongside the iPad Air this past March. The Mini ticked nearly all of the boxes above. It’s portable. It accommodates the Apple Pencil and digital note-taking. It has superb processing power. And I thought that this made it was a viable laptop replacement. Until it wasn’t. Alas, I overlooked the key final component: It was incredibly difficult to actually write on the iPad Mini.

Consider the following image:

The iPad Mini checks four out of the five boxes that I wanted in a laptop replacement. It’s incredibly portable. The entire bezel of the device is only slightly larger than than the largest Apple iPhone. It’s size makes it great for note-taking. Any moleskin notebook aficionado will appreciate the form factor of the new Mini. And it’s processing power is actually equal to that of the iPad Air. It is also an amazing media consumption device. Users can happily surf the web, watch movies, and read books to their electronic heart’s desire.

But it’s 7.9 inch screen means it also has a concurrent 7.9 inch (or so) keyboard. And this made it terrible for word processing, and thus a terrible laptop replacement. I honestly didn’t think that this would be a problem given that my hands are only slightly larger than those of a large child. But even for me, it was ridiculously difficult to type on the external keyboard that I purchased for the Mini, and the onscreen keyboard wasn’t any more convenient. Suffice it to say, I had made a costly miscalculation (the iPad Mini with 256 GB of storage, and Wi-Fi only capability runs $549.00 USD – excluding tax).

Given the tech dilemma, I wrote off the mistake à la Seinfeld  and purchased an iPad Air (or iPad Air 3).

As you can see in the image above, the iPad Air 3 is considerably larger than the iPad Mini. The extra 2.6 inches doesn’t seem like a lot, but in the context of onscreen real estate, the difference is dramatic. The iPad Air allows me to tick the final box and actually be productive in the crucial area of word processing capability. This transforms the device from one that permits media consumption to one that also allows for creativity, and communication. I’m sure there are some users that would not see so stark a contrast, but here are some side-by-side comparisons that illustrate the point:

Above, the Air and Mini showcase their respective screen viewing capacities. The Mini is scarcely larger than the Apple Pencil that I used for taking notes, while the Air has a full-sized keyboard that makes typing a breeze.

Above, you can see how much easier it is to write on the iPad Air than the Mini. Both are actually great for taking notes. But the larger screen makes transcribing my scrawl much easier – both to do, and to read!

Afterward

In sum, I’m a few weeks into the experiment, and I can’t say that I’ve missed a beat by not lugging around my laptop. Even when I work from home, the experience of using the Air makes me inclined to sit at the kitchen table with my iced coffee and work, rather than dragging the laptop out from the doldrums of my home office. In terms of price point, the iPad Air is in the almost dead center of the iPad lineup and retails for $649 USD, excluding tax. I find that this extra $100 over the Mini is worth every cent for its larger screen and word processing capability.

While there are some limitations, and a few processes that can be done faster on a computer, unless you are in the top 1% of tablet users, I think the iPad Air is a reasonable middle ground between Apple’s smallest iPad and its most expensive (the iPad Pro).

With that, here’s that a new device will inspire more blogging, and increased productivity.

Why Dads Matter

My Post

It has been a long while since I’ve graced the pages of Pax Plena with a new post. Given a quiet Father’s Day Sunday here in the U.S., I couldn’t think of a better time to resurrect our ailing blog once again. Like Lazarus rising from the dead, this disease of blogging silence never quite seems to lead to death. Our blog has merely fallen asleep.

 

What prompted me to write this afternoon was an opinion column by the Washington Post’s Megan McArdle that shared some personal reflections on why fathers matter.

[Link]

Truth be told, I don’t really know of any camps that are ardently claiming that fathers do not matter. Granted, an article in the Atlantic, circa 2010, made the case that “there’s nothing objectively essential” about the contribution of a father to the well-being of a child. The point seems a bit weak. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Indeed, other sources cite a wide body of literature that assess the importance of fathers and their role in fostering the well-being of their kiddos.

Then again, it is the Atlantic, so one would do well to consider the source… 

By contrast, McArdle notes of her own family life that “my mother was usually the one who dressed wounds if you fell off the jungle gym; my father was the one who encouraged you to climb a little higher than felt strictly safe.”

Sure, the point is anecdotal, but I think it’s about right. In our family, Mother was always the one who set the rules, bedtimes, and made sure that we went to church. My Father seldom went to church, and had zero inhibitions about letting me ride in the open bed of a pickup truck while we drove around dusty county roads picking up cans to take to the recycling center. Note: This wasn’t something we did for the sheer virtue of a good deed, or environmentalism. There were no such bourgeois luxuries in the Fodder family of the 1980s. We just needed the money.

Such parenting today would immediately draw the ire of the nearly every child advocacy group in America, and quite possibly one’s local Department of Child Welfare. Suffice it to say, times were different in the 80s. And, to be fair, if Dad had insisted that I sit next to him inside the cab of the truck, I probably would have pitched a royal fit, and left him wishing that I had just rode in the back of the damn truck to begin with. We poor kids could be a precocious lot. 

But there was something that was actually quite important that I learned from those dusty drives with dear old Dad. I gained a sense of independence, and self-sufficiency that I never would have gotten had either of my parents been the “helicopter parent” that’s en vogue today. From Dad, I learned to search within myself, and try to solve problems instead of complaining about them. I learned that you can’t always have what you want, but that you can obtain what you want if you’re willing to work for it. And I learned that there are literally millions of ways one can perish by eating a Twinkie.

(Family Joke: Whenever someone passes away, and one is foolish enough to inquire as to their cause of death within earshot of my Father, Dad’s glib response is always that they “choked on a Twinkie.” We usually groan and laugh, but I suppose normal folks might think this is morbid. Tomāto/Tomăto.) 

And really, that’s why Dad’s are important: they show love to kids in a fundamentally different way from that of a Mom. And the difference is accounted for in that each parent brings their own lived experiences to the child rearing table, and kids are better for it. After all, what kid doesn’t need more love in their life?

So, to all of the Dads out there, take heart: you matter. And don’t let the Atlantic tell you otherwise.

Change and Home

Changes

Today finds me in the sterile confines of Denver International Airport en route to Oklahoma. After only a few days on the job at the University of Wyoming, I am traveling back to Walters for the annual Comanche Homecoming Celebration. 
To be sure, I realize the benefits of air travel. I’ll be reunited with friends and family from near and far in a matter or hours, traversing great distances that even a car ride would take north of 14 hrs to compete. 
And yet, flying is certainly an abominable way to travel. Just a few minutes ago, I was comfortably seated at the far end of seats near gate A49, when a middle-age woman sat uncomfortably close to me.

True to form, she immediately popped open her laptop, fired up her cell phone, and began yelling into the receiver. In the course of ten minutes, I heard every detail about the new house she and her husband are purchasing, right down to the interest rate of the mortgage, and the need for her husband, David, to be very careful in making sure that all of the paperwork gets filed in a timely manner.
Poor David. I suspect there will be hell to pay when she gets home. Seems he misplaced the documents amid the sea of folders in their home office.

When I could no longer take listening to the details of a perfect stranger’s life, (keep in mind I had no choice in the matter), I moseyed toward the restroom for a brief pit stop prior to boarding.
And even in that hallowed sanctum, I could hear a voice from the stall next to mine, barking complaints into his cell phone about the poor planning that went into the entire trip. Apparently, he wanted a direct flight to begin with and couldn’t countenance having a layover in Denver.

All of which leads me to conclude that the golden age of air travel had to have been in the 60s and 70s, when flights were cheap, the cocktails flowed freely, and cell phones weren’t yet thought of.

Even so, it’s nice to be going home. I’m enjoying my new job in Laramie and excited for our future there. But the allure of home in Walters is never far from my mind. Change is afoot in my life. But Walters, I suspect, will always be my true north – no matter how far south I have to travel to get there.

Language, Identity and Culture

We had a farewell morning tea for a colleague earlier today. My friend is a lovely woman of British extract who will be moving away to start life anew with her ‘partner’. The use of the term partner as a synonym for all manner of couplings is something I’ve found strange here in New Zealand. I suspect that if I ever called Gwyn my partner rather than my wife, I might see more than a few raised eyebrows back home in the good old U.S. of A.

Language

While stubbornly drinking my morning coffee (all good Patriots know that tea is for redcoats and commies), I had a chat with an acquaintance who forcefully insisted that New Zealand’s adoption of the Māori language (te reo Māori) as one of the country’s official languages was one of the most ‘liberal’ and forward-thinking moves NZ had made in recent years.

Before I had time to reply, she then took aim at the United States, arguing that America’s refusal to adopt Spanish and the 566 languages of America’s Indian tribes was an especially sordid transgression. By the same token, she ignored the fact that America doesn’t actually have an official language. Perhaps this was an inconvenient truth as Al Gore might say. Nevertheless, in her view, such a lack of linguistic accommodation reduced the American values of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to nothing more than empty falsehoods.(They [Americans] don’t support those [values]. Not really.)

Identity

As one might imagine, I’ve had several conversations about America with my Kiwi friends. The lone commonality between them is that everyone seems to have an opinion of America. (Do you really own a gun? What’s Walmart like?). Despite the many chats I’ve had, I can’t recall having ever been told, prior to today, that the bedrock values of my Country are a sham. Suffice it to say, this particular conversation did not last long and I excused myself for the comforts of a quiet office.

When my blood pressure reached a plateau, I paused to consider her comments. She was correct in that in so many places, the notion of language is inextricably tied to notions of culture – almost to the point that a language can define one’s national identity. This is true, perhaps, in most places – China, France, the UK, Germany and even Mexico all come to mind. Still, I don’t think my colleague quite appreciates how things work in America.

Unlike New Zealand which has a total population that is roughly the size of Boston, the United States is a massive, free-wheeling, culturally diverse Nation. In previous posts, I’ve likened the US to a big dysfunctional family that stays together for tax purposes. Like it or not, the left is stuck with the right because, let’s face it, the costs associated with revolution and secession would really cramp our style. We’ve already tried a separation, and as the fates would have it, we’re better off together than apart. True love lasts, as the kids say.

As this matter of population diversity relates to identity, perhaps nowhere in the world is identity so loosely linked to language than in the United States. English is spoken by the vast majority of Americans, so this is the de facto language in which we do business. It’s not prescribed by law (although attempts have been made). It’s simply the way things are done. In America, language, then, is not so much a matter of national identity as it is a matter of national convenience in a wildly diverse country.  

Culture

Even so, perhaps my acquaintance’s remarks are more on point as they relate to culture. Perhaps American values are moot points because we do not accommodate a plethora of languages and the cultures they purportedly represent. It’s true that culture is a thorny concept in America. Historically, we don’t do very well with cultures that are not our own. The trail of tears and subsequent expropriation of American Indian lands come to mind. Slavery and Japanese interment camps also ring a bell.

Still, I’d like to think that these are exceptions to the rule of American exceptionalism. Our values aren’t diminished because we fail to meet the standards. Even under our founding documents, the values of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are objectively self-evident truths. As such, our standards should rather inform our future actions as opposed to being defined by them.

And I think, in general, this is how it works. This is why Edward Snowden’s revelation of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programme prompted such a strong reaction. Same for Obamacare. Same for drones. Same for Benghazi. Same for the IRS harassment of conservative groups. These issues became big deals because they so starkly cut against the core of what America stands for as a Nation. 

As a country, then, America is not a Nation that finds its identity through the mass conformity to or accommodation of a particular language. America finds its identity through the common acceptance of a shared set of values, no matter how imperfect our policies may be.

Sum

And with that thought, my temper cooled. My pulse no longer raced. In fact, I quite nearly felt a twinge of sympathy for my acquaintance. For unless one is an American and rather accustomed to breathing the sweet air of freedom, I suspect that it is very difficult to apprehend how this all works in practice. Easier to find inconsistencies and write off the whole system of universal human rights than to accept the nuance reflected in the universality of the human condition.