Friday, November 11, 2011

Loving my Samsung Chromebook -- for all the wrong reasons

Before the summer I was excited by the possibility of getting a Chromebook whilst in the US before coming up to Newfoundland. I was thinking that during the two weeks of perpetual internet access during our teaching sessions I would get a good chance to start finding my way around it. That, however, was not to be. There was the inevitable delay in stock arrival and shipment, etc., and in the end we were up in Newfoundland a good fortnight before delivery. So I got to grips with a new laptop that Michele insisted on getting me "for making the New Year music videos in Mexico and any other media creations I might entertain". And at the end of summer I brought the laptop back to Mexico.

Wherein hangs a take. You can only bring one computer into Mexico when you arrive, unless to want to go through a ton of customs rigmarole and negotiate duty, and so on. I'd travelled up with my netbook, picked up the laptop in New Jersey when I arrived at the start of summer, and by the end of summer I also had a lovely new Samsung Chromebook. (I had bought the Samsung model out of solidarity with them over the White Company successfully suing to have the Samsung Galaxy tablet outlawed from sale in whatever countries think it is appropriate to kowtow to such claptrap.) I took the new laptop back first, since it was a gift, and a lovely one at that. For pragmatic reasons I decided the netbook would come second. That meant I wouldn't be getting to the Chromebook any time soon. And, in fact, I travelled up empty-handed on this trip so that I could bring the machine back to Mexico.

The irony of the sequencing is that I am learning to use a computer that depends on high speed internet access for most of its functionality when I only have access at the library down the road. Even when wireless access is available in the car park outside of library hours (and it does drop out from time to time, especially during weekends, and will only be reset next time the library opens), sitting in the car with the motor running to keep the heater toiling against the chill is hardly conducive to serious computing.

So, the Chromebook is mainly based on Google apps, running on Google's Chrome OS. It has an SD slot to allow you to boost the relatively small hard disk space available on the machine. The main idea is that you do your stuff online and your work mainly resides "on the Cloud" (in Google Docs, or on Google Sites, etc. The machine is light, elegant, boots up in a few seconds, has a good 12 hours plus of battery life, and has a screen and keyboard that are as good as they respectively get. It has a lovely feel and is great to work on.

I knew it would do the things I wanted given web access, but I didn't know what I would do for offline stuff like word processing. A quick search recommended Scratchpad, and that has provided the icing on the cake. The app is lite, but more than adequate for any word processing I do on the run. It opens like an IM pane, but has an icon to click for opening it up as a full screen tab. Once you are there it looks like a stripped back typical word processing package. And it behaves like one. Just key in your content and it saves automatically. A text file just sits on the small hard drive and is accessed by opening Scratchpad and going to the appropriate note title. I did a trial run on Scratchpad and found that a right click allows you to select and copy. You can also save to the local folder, make an automatic sync to google docs, and save to a smart card or external hard drive. I'm writing this post offline in Scratchpad and will copy and paste it into blogger sometime tomorrow; and offline email goes the same way, although there is a handy offline gmail app as well.

The same process worked with responding to students' online work in google docs. I could have sat in the library working in their google docs online, but prefer to use library time for keeping on top of other stuff. So I copied and pasted the students' latest google docs into Scratchpad and brought them back home to read and respond to offline. I usually do this by making my contributions to their evolving written work as obvious as possible, using a coloured font. Scratchpad permits this. Once I got back online again it was a simple-enough matter to create new google docs by copying and pasting into the online app and then sharing with the members of the various student teams (6 teams in the current semester, so 6 google docs. Obviously, you wouldn't want to have to use this process with many more than 6 'student units'. Doing it individually for cohorts of 30-40 students would be unworkable, but with anywhere up to 10 it would be fine.)

I'm fast getting a renewed appreciation of lite computing, in conjunction with lengthy stretches of time offline. A lot of my formerly online writing is now migrating offline, and my sense of how to work around the absence of an always on internet is shaping up. Habits will change, and right now the kinds of change suit me because for quite some time I have wanted to untether myself from the wire for good long stretches of time. I'm hoping that the 5 weeks up here will be enough to consolidate practices of writing "online stuff" offline, and only "going online" for certain periods of time during the day. I'm also hoping that in addition to giving me some "time back" it will start re-shaping my sense of time by opening up some serious space between "events". The past 2 years in particular have been a blur, and I know from recent conversations that I'm far from alone in this perception. My own sense of it is that multitasking with an always on internet obliterates definition and space between events so that everything feels like "now" or, maybe, "five seconds ago".

Paradoxically, perhaps, my Chromebook -- designed to let you do much more much faster on the Web -- might have the effect of encouraging me to spend a lot less time online, because I am learning to use it away from immediate and constant access to the internet. Making this choice, of course, has nothing to do with the kind of machine in question. It's a choice that could equally easily have been made in conjunction with any computing device I have ever owned. It's a matter of personal values and decision-making. But there is something about having found Scratchpad in the context of scarce access to the wire that makes it a little more tempting for me to work more offline and let texts "sit" rather than being fired off immediately. A text can just sit there in Scratchpad waiting until there's an internet connection. For some reason I find that a cute thing to anticipate; something worth waiting for. I think that for me it has something to do with the charm of "workarounds". I always enjoy "making do" ways of doing things, even where there exist elegant off-the-shelf resources. There is something about cobbling together workarounds that makes a process inherently more interesting and engaging to me. At the same time, letting texts sit around in Scratchpad waiting to be fired off at the next car park or library session establishes a distinctive kind of routine in the course of a day. It creates a moment in the rhythm of the day, or the two days, that breaks up time in ways that time is not broken up -- at least for me -- when I am always within a mouse click of doing something online. For me, Scratchpad -- and other apps that I will discover and use -- is part of compartmentalising and, indeed, marginalizing, the wire and the experience of being "online". It is also a means for getting into the practice of writing *less* and being more "choosy" about what and when to write. And when the weather is conducive, it is a way of enabling me to get outside and stay there for good long stretches of time.

I like that.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Convivial space: The Lark Harbour Public Library

Among the things I love most about our getaway place in Newfoundland is its relatively unmediated state: there's no landline, no cable, no internet and, best of all, there is no mobile phone access within 20 kilometers. It is like a small liberation to be able to get out and about without seeing people everywhere with their heads buried in a phone and, especially, to be free from being hostaged to conversations I have less than no interest in having forced through my ears. I feel blessed having another full month of such liberation at this time of the year. Of course, there'll be a massive culture shock returning to Mexico which, I suspect, is mobile phone culture at pretty much its worst. It's not for nothing that Sr Carlos Slim, owner of Telmex/Telcel, is currently listed as the world's richest man (or thereabouts).

On the other hand, I do need at least some communication access to the outside world -- and pretty much on a daily basis. While I am here life, in a larger sense than landscaping the perimeter of our land and doing routine maintenance on the cottage and barn, goes on. Students have evolving tasks unfolding on google docs, there are book proposals to process for our series, and family and friends to keep in touch with. Less, to be sure, in my case than if I were tethered to social media -- but I am not.

Maintaining contact with the world beyond, as well as keeping up with a fair bit of local stuff on a daily basis, is enabled by the Lark Harbour Public Library -- a warm, convivial, expansive wee space, located 2.7 kilometers back down the road toward town. Integrated into the St James School building, it maintains generous public hours during the working week, including two evenings when it is open until 9pm. The library is a CAP site -- CAP being the Community (internet) Access Program maintained across Newfoundland by the provincial government. There is a small bank of networked desktop computers down one end, as well as wireless access, which can easily be availed from the carpark after hours. Most days after school there are at least a few students accessing the machines, and during the summer months it's common to find tourists in there sending into the ether the photos they have taken of the physical beauty around here along with their thoughts about it all. And during the evening sessions a handful of locals drop in, mostly to return books and get new books out, and to have a chat with Lesley, a community librarian with a manner that is as expansive and welcoming as the library itself is. This wee space has become my "home away from home" up here, and I wile away many happy (and productive) hours down there. There is something close to wonderful about making it through the door out of the snow, sleet, or chilling wind and rain of Newfoundland's late fall and summer, and into the warm calm of the library.

There is a great magazine rack, an excellent section of books by and about Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders, as well as ample general reading fare, plus the internet, and good company.

Supply and demand of resources are in good balance, and when demand exceeds supply on the computers a time limit arrangement works amicably ad efficiently. "The library" has now come full circle for me. As kids we used to frequent the Stoke Public Library, back in New Zealand, browsing shelves, taking our time, and always coming back with some book or other which would be devoured with pleasure and a sense of personal expansion over a few days and then returned for another spin of the dice. That library faded somewhat for me during adolescence, when summer and winter sports and a newspaper round (to fund the sporting interests) usurped my leisure hours. Of course, by then there was also the burden of qualifying scholastic exams, and when there still were library excursions they were typically for more utilitarian and -- frequently -- alienated purposes than my earlier experiences.

Then, following that, for decades, there were successive university libraries -- places I went to raid in search of stuff to get me through assignments and exams and, subsequently, through the regime of "publish or perish". I have always envied colleagues who were born (to be) academics. I think of them as being able to go to the (university) library to get resources they would read and reflect upon in a way likely not *too* different from the quality of reading and reflecting experiences I had as a pre-adolescent back in Stoke. Unfortunately, for me, academic life never came naturally. I had a sustaining curiosity about the social phenomena I researched and, in time, wrote about. But it always felt like *work* much more than pleasure. There wasn't a lot of serious *fun* to it. It was always more like a challenge to be met than a pleasure to be enjoyed naturally -- which is not to imply that pleasure is never a challenge. It can be, and often is. But for me academic work was largely challenge; I rarely recall a sense of pleasure in the doing of it. It never came easily and, especially after the 80s, I found myself working on topics and tasks that seemed to be aligned more toward "market forces" than liberally chosen topics of interest. Some of my closest academic friends and colleagues did considerably better in striking a resonance between their work as academics and their "real selves" than I managed. I used to observe them with admiration (and a little envy) wondering how they managed to end up shaping their working lives into such an apparently natural extension of "their real selves". Bless them. But I never learned their art.

Now, however, with the most of the *werk* and writing behind me, I am finding *reading* again -- online, offline, virtual and material. Books and reading on devices. Reading for its own sake. Reading, out of the wind and snow, in the convivial warmth of the Lark Harbour Public Library, whatever it is that takes my fancy. I feel like the kid who has found the candy tree. It's like the most outrageous privilege has fallen on my head. Like all the christmas presents came at once.

Like untirement has arrived and I have at least a bit of a notion of what to do with it. Like what literacies were created for at their liberal expansive best.

I feel like such a chump for having lost so much of it for so long. But it surely is nice to have some of it back. And what better to mediate it than the Lark Harbour Public Library? It feels right.

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