All posts by jer_

I’m southeastern Michigan dwelling programmer, public speaker, project manager, educator, and geek of varied interests, esp. those related to development, mathematics, writing, and event management. You can find me strewn about the web at places like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and probably a million other places.

The Whys of Learning

In my experience both inside of and in front of classrooms, students can be broken into three general categories. Those that are simply filling a seat is the smallest group by far, and I’ve never entirely understood why those students are there. This group is not really the focus of my post, though. The last two groups are those that I wish to discuss: the Knowers and the Learners.

Knowers want to know facts…they want to be in possession of knowledge. I envision them as the intellectual version of hoarders. They collect information in a way that is astounding to me. My brain simply doesn’t work in a way that would allow me to amass trivia in that way. This shortcoming has been the bane of my existence throughout most of my education. I struggled my way through history, English, and mathematics courses for a long time because of this. Memorizing streams of date-event combinations, completely inane grammatical dictums, or seemingly arbitrary mathematical rules seemed so boring, pointless, and useless.

It is fairly simple to find the Knowers in a classroom. Knowers are the ones that have their heads down as they frantically scribble every word that the lecturer says onto a piece of paper. They are the students whose hands shoot up into the air to waste the valuable time that follows an instructor’s request for questions with the pointless “Will this be on the exam?” They are the students who will argue with an professor over some obscure piece of minutia or semantic quibble on an evaluation rather than acknowledge that there is a fundamental lack of understanding in play. They revel in multiple choice and in concepts being made black and white.

Sometimes, you will find the Knower in front of a classroom, although they are harder to spot.1 These are characterized by educators issuing a barrage of vocabulary and trivia on students. The Knower-Educator will teach ‘to the test’ oftener than not. Closed-book, closed-note, multiple-choice exams are often their mode of evaluation. It is possible to pass one of their courses—to excel, even—and still not understand any of the material at all. In many cases, it is laughably easy to do so, and I certainly made it a habit through much of my K-12 schooling.

Conversely, Learners want to know why the facts are…well…the facts. They want to be able to figure out the facts on their own. They are rarely satisfied with concepts in the form of “A is true, B is false” when there is a chance to learn in the form of “A is true because of X and Y, B is false because of Y and Z” or better still “We know X, and we know Y, what does this tell us? Yes, A!” This is the group I identify with the most. I learn because I want to know more than mere facts. Facts are largely boring things of no consequence in my life. What good is a pile of facts? In what way is my life going to be bettered by knowing the year that the Magna Carta happened2 or the formula for the quadratic equation? I want to be given the reasons for those facts. Given sufficient reasons, I can almost always backtrack and find the fact itself. Malcolm Gladwell has an example in Outliers: The Story of Success wherein a young lady is re-learning how to obtain the slope of a line and runs into a concept that derails many a math student: the slope of a vertical line. By working through the concept of slope, rather than just memorizing the formula, she was able to grasp and understand why such a line would be considered to have no slope3.

Learners are a little bit harder to distinguish, but there are some indicators. Learners will often sit back and watch a lecturer speak. They take infrequent, short notes. They interrupt the class to ask questions. They veer off topic as they make mental connections. They will argue an infrequently seen boundary case endlessly until they grasp why that case doesn’t jibe with the rest. The fact that many of these traits are often found in the group of students who just don’t care makes it hard to pick Learners out. One point of differentiation, though, is questions that begin with “Why” or “How come.” It is no coincidence that the period of our lives during which we are learning the most (and capable of verbalizing) is characterized by repetitions of these two questions, “Why” is the sound that learning makes.

A Learner-Teacher tends to teach in metaphors and examples. They will sometimes deliver new material as a narrative, as if they were sharing a story rather than a concept. Sometimes they will work from theory to practice, other times from practice to theory, but they always find a way to put the theory in there. They often fail entirely to answer a specific question directly, but answer in a series of leading questions; it is my understanding that this can be maddening to Knowers in exactly the same way that rote memorization is maddening to Learners.

I have never understood collecting things. I have trouble throwing things away that I think there’s even an the remotest possibility that I might use, but collecting for the sake of collecting baffles me. I have an extensive collection of books, but I have read (or intend to read) every single one of them. Among those that I have read, I have read most more than once, and intend to read them again. If I don’t expect to read a book (or to revisit it), then I don’t keep it. If I decide at some future time to read something, I can always obtain it through borrowing, a library, or a purchase. I don’t understand owning something for the sake of owning it.

I feel the same about knowing things. I cannot fathom knowing something for the sake of knowing it. I want to know why and how, because with the why and the how, I can open up a vast, boundless expanses of knowledge. I don’t have to memorize the formula for the slope of a line, I can figure it out because I understand how it was derived. If I don’t need the knowledge, I don’t bother with it; I can always look it up later. Anything that is more trouble than it is worth to look up or calculate I will take the time to memorize, but that is a last resort not a manner of learning.

I write about this today because I am frustrated by what I see as a shift in percentage between Knowers and Learners. It seems as though there is an increased focus on knowing fact in classrooms, and it comes at the expense of learning concepts. Every semester, it seems that I sit alongside more and more memorizers and less and less people inclined to work things out. Each class I stand in front of seems comprised less of people asking “why is that true” and more of people asking “will we be graded on this?” Students seem genuinely angry when they aren’t taught ‘to the test’ or when they aren’t presented a list of bullet-pointed facts to memorize and regurgitate like intellectual bulimia. In a time when acting out in classrooms or demanding better grades has become depressingly commonplace, I have seen the toll being taken on fellow instructors by Knowers wielding a sense of entitlement and misplaced senses of righteous indignation.

I don’t really know how to teach to a Knower…well…technically, I suppose that’s not entirely true. I do know how to teach to a Knower, what I don’t know how to do is to teach to both Knowers and Learners at the same time, and I am entirely unwilling to teach to the Knowers at the Expense of the Learners. This is something new that I am learning about myself. The first practical result of this new knowledge is going to be some changes to my future syllabi; the first of which is an addition to my FAQ:

Is this going to be on the exam? The short answer to this is “Yes, if I took the time to put it on a slide or talk about it, it is potential exam fodder.” The more complete answer is this: I do not require you to know many facts, but I do require you to understand concepts. When I am evaluating your understanding of the material, whether that be through assignments or exams, I will be evaluating your ability to use that conceptual understanding in some practical way. For example, I will not ask a C class to list the data types, I will ask which data type should be used for a given piece of data. As a result, yes, everything we discuss is likely to be on the exam, because when you put all of this stuff together, it dovetails beautifully to form a complete understanding of the thing you are learning about. You should probably just stick to the short answer.

I’m sure as I put together a more comprehensive set of thoughts on the subject, there will be many, many more changes.

1 It can be difficult to spot a Knower as an educator because many of the earmarks of a Knower are also found in bad teachers regardless of the sort of learner they are. Learner-Educators often teach like Knowers because they don’t have a better way at their disposal.

2 1215. I can still recite this off the top of my head. I could not, however, tell you what it is, why it happened, or anything practical about it…but even after 20 years, I can tell you when it happened. That, my friends, is being taught by a Knower.

3 No slope, not zero slope. You could also say the slope is ‘infinite’ or ‘undefined’ with equivalent impenetrability to those who do not understand the underlying concepts.

Still Crazy, After All These Years

In two hours, it will be Geralyn’s and my third anniversary. That means that three years ago today, I was putting the finishing touches on Penguicon 7 and on our wedding which was to take place immediately prior to the convention. There is a certain symmetry then in having this anniversary serve as a bookend to these three years of con.

When we first chose to celebrate our nuptials at the hotel immediately prior to the con it was, in part, recognition of the convention’s role in our meeting, dating, and our highly unlikely relationship. For me, it was paying tribute to whatever geek gods chose to bestow upon me a woman so out of my league& mdash;so unfathomable beyond the reach of a foul-mouthed misanthrope like myself—that all manner of superstitious rites seem warranted. What we failed to factor in was that it meant that each year, our anniversary would fall on or around this busy, social time.

On our first anniversary, it was still an adventure. How sweet was it that we could spend a few hours sequestered in our hotel room over chocolate covered strawberries (both of us), wine (her), and Monster (me). Even better, we could then spend time with our friends too! By last year, the shine was very clearly off the rose, and Geralyn proved what an amazing partner she was: she didn’t pitch a fit, and she didn’t remain silent, but she did point out that she would like for us to arrange to celebrate somewhere other than a convention. Our conversation coming midway through the second year of our marriage, I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t a factor in our date selection.

It’s no secret that Ger has been having a rough time of it, lately. That didn’t stop her from being entirely supportive through these last few planning months. Without her, juggling work, school, other work, family, conventions, and a little time for fun would be far too difficult. I’ve proven time and again that I can’t manage the balancing act; I just sacrifice things like fun and family. Ger makes it possible, and she makes me actively happy when I’m going through it.

Well, she makes me less rage-filled; that’s pretty much my version of happy.

So Geralyn, please know that I love you. I appreciate everything you do for me and our family, and I could not be more happy that you are a part of it. I cannot wait to see what we are doing on our tenth anniversary and those beyond! (Spoiler alert: it rhymes with “blenguicon bleventeen”) Thank you for being you.

(Also, for the sex, but mostly the other stuff.)

Losing My Mind

So, at some point I need to revisit that blog post wherein I discussed how overwhelmed I have been and what I’m going to do to fix it with an eye toward “well, did I fix it?”

This is not that post. This post, in fact, flies pretty effectively in the face of that post…this is a post of sharing my busy-ness. Never let it be said that I learn from the past even slightly.

Last weekend was slammed: a birthday party, seeing friends I don’t often get to see, tons of work…then a concom meeting for Penguicon that was simultaneously gratifying (we got a LOT done) and grating (a pretty key member “overslept” a noon to three meeting, and only started responding when I snarked about it on Twitter). So, in one weekend I had to jettison someone who used to be a friend and take on a tremendously increased amount of work to make sure the con happens well.

That part could have gone better.

This weekend is similarly beyond the pale: Ger and I are having company Friday, then Saturday it’s volunteer work at the school, Ikea, and the AASFA spring voting meeting (where a small but whiny group of jack-holes are clamoring for the ability to go to cons at a cheaper rate. It’s weird…when I was poor, I went without. It never occurred to me to demand that it becomes mandatory that everyone else must finance my frivolity…) Sunday, Ger and I are hosting a work meeting/gathering so that programming and anyone else that wants to can socialize, work, and get ready for con.

In the weeks that follow, I have a trip to Boston for PAX East (where I’ve volunteered to be an Enforcer), a brief respite, then Penguicon (coinciding with final exams, term projects, and probably more than a few tears).

So how is your spring shaping up?

Choosing Words

A while back, I was posting on my blog and referred to something that I disliked as “retarded” while railing against it. I’m sure it was something important like snack foods or archaic, opinion based tech topics (you fucking emacs wankers). I had long since eradicated “gay” as a pejorative term (with the ironic exception of any time prior to which I had been hanging around a homosexual friend who used the term frequently referring to things he dislikes), but calling some thing or situation I disdain retarded, or affectionately referring to a friend who had done something foolish as a “tard” was still very much a part of my vocabulary.

On this particular occasion, an online acquaintance called me on it. What she said boiled down to “you’re funny, that’s not, and you’re smarter than that.” I drafted a hasty rebuttal referencing free speech and an argument referring to the blog as my house in a way that was not entirely unlike Cartman’s daytime TV quote, “it’s my life, I’ll do what I want.”

It was probably not entirely unlike what is quoted in this article. Fortunately, I faltered when I got to the part where I tried to defend the usage. How do I defend that in a way that is logically sound and fits with my own ethics? I don’t. In my own unthinking way, I had lumped retarded in with a bunch of other words that had no real meaning, save for disparaging. Like “gay” before it, I had used the language without consideration that it had an initial meaning that was wholly free from negative connotation; and when I used it to mean something was bad, I was equating “gay”, “lame”, and “retarded” with “bad”…with “undesirable.” 1

That’s not alright.

Now, I’d love to say that my vocabulary is entirely free from those, but it’s not. The fact is, I never really used “gay” all that often, so it was pretty easy to ditch. Lame and retarded, however, I used much more often: and so they still seep out. The best I can manage now is to not do it when I’m choosing my words with care (such as in writing), and when I catch myself doing it verbally, immediately stop and correct it.

Well, that and ponder what other words I use casually that don’t mean what I think they do.

1 Before you give me that trite shit about “being retarded *is* undesirable” remember that you’re not saying “dude, that rule is totally being retarded”…you are saying that it *is* retarded, and therefore unwanted. You are putting out in the world that things (people) that are retarded, gay, or lame are unwanted.

Epic Failure

Today should be a day of victory. By all reports that I’m seeing so far today, this weekend’s ConFusion went brilliantly. Our numerous author guests had an enjoyable time, attendees seem unanimous in agreeing that the event was amazing, and most of the staff has expressed a wish to return in the same capacity because of the fun they had putting this thing together. I should be glowing, but I’m not.

We fucked up big.

Instead of feeling elated and spending Sunday evening and Monday morning celebrating, I spent much of the time receiving a well-deserved dressing down from the director of events and the general manager. A relationship that has lasted nearly a decade has been damaged severely, and it that stings considerably.

Some background.

As the hotel liaison, I have several responsibilities, but the most important ones include ensuring a consistent channel of communication between the hotel and the convention, protecting the convention’s interests and facilitating the throwing of the event we are trying to create, and protecting the hotel’s interests to ensure that the trust they have placed in our treatment of their considerable investment is not misplaced.

The first I achieve principally by serving as a single point of contact between all of the various departments of our convention and the various departments of the hotel. In this way, I am able to collect all of the information that is available and use that big-picture view to coordinate with the chairperson to ensure that his or her vision for the convention happens. Sometimes, this means that I must whine, beg, borrow, and cajole in order to get special concessions from the hotel and its staff. Sometimes it means I have to engineer cooperation between multiple convention departments to make sure their desires match the physical realities of the convention space. Sometimes, it means that I have to tell the hotel or the convention “No” or “Not in that way” during planning.

During the course of doing all of the above, so it is that I protect the convention and the hotel from one another. This is not to say that there is an adversarial relationship—nothing could be further from the truth between ConFusion and the Troy Marriott (although I have certainly worked events where calling the relationship “adversarial” would be being very kind)—but it is to say that both parties are understandably focused on their own goals and often have difficulty seeing the goals of the other party. It is my job to smooth that out…to establish what is the most important to both parties and to convey that sufficiently to each side.

One of the many reasons I adore working with the staff of the Troy Marriott is that they, more than any facility I have ever worked with in all of my years of doing events, see our “side” of the event very clearly. They readily grasp what is important to our event and its attendees in a way that has made the event a pleasure to put together. Our convention staff, conversely, have very little understanding of what is important to the hotel. It makes for an interesting dynamic that is quite the opposite of professional events I’ve managed where the corporate-types all readily grasp what the venue needs and the venue neither knows nor cares what the event needs.

I present all of this as a necessary backdrop for the disrespect that we displayed for the hotel this year. During the setup of the convention we destroyed the planning that the banquets staff had put in by running them around undoing things that had been requested (and in some cases re-doing that which they had undone), giving contradictory requests, and in several cases being outright verbally abusive to their staff. Throughout the convention itself, we repeatedly ignored their rules on signage, attire, and food and alcohol consumption.

Then, we started really misbehaving.

By weekend’s end, we had flagrantly ignored several issues of considerable importance to the hotel, and in many cases caused literally THOUSANDS of dollars in damage. We undid much of the benefit of their remodeling in a way that, were this a sitcom, would have seem hyperbolic and unrealistically absurd. We were complete assholes.

Let me take a moment to clarify, though. This was not the attendees…this was the doing of our staff and department heads. If you were an attendee, guest, or volunteer, you very likely did not do anything untoward at all. Every single major issue that occurred was perpetrated by the people who should know better than anybody how to behave.

It is this fact, more than anything else, that really adds sting to the insult. It would appear that when I indicated to the staff and concom that we were not allowed to do certain things and that we were allowed to do other things but only in certain ways, the take-away from that was that I was simply being a dick and could be ignored. Clearly, it seems, I only say these things to pick on people. Obviously, I’m just being mean. So I was ignored.

When I saw the wreckage we caused (and heard about more that I hadn’t had a chance to witness), I was enraged. When our event director—and later the general manager—described to me the things that they had seen, that rage turned to shame and embarrassment. These people had treated us like friends and family for years. I have had a relationship with them that is longer than most relationships I’ve had with individual people; and I’m relatively new on the scene. We were never treated merely as clients and we treated them worse than we would even vendors. We abused staff, we violated their property, and we did so with ruthless aplomb.

I am not generally disposed to tears, and when Christie, the director of events, shared with me what she had found I had to literally put down my head and fight back tears. Whatever betrayal I might have felt must have been pitiful compared to sitting on the other side of that desk.

The worst part of it is, the vast majority of this can be hung directly on me. It was my responsibility. With departments directly by my friends and by associates I trusted implicitly, I was lax in surveying their areas. I spent less time doing circuits of the convention and, when I did, I expended precious little focus on those areas governed by people that I had known for years, that had stood up in my wedding, or that had done admirably in the past. I allowed my trust and my natural propensity toward laziness to result in a piss-poor performance.

Perhaps the lake of beer that soaked carpet in one room would have been a mere puddle had I been more conscientious. Maybe the furniture that was to varying degrees damaged would not have been had I been on the scene more frequently to prevent its movement. Even the food chunks and grease that were run down bathtub drains by individuals doing dishes might have been prevented by closer inspection of the property. Perhaps if I had been more vehement in preventing certain individuals access to the hotel staff, they wouldn’t have been given the run-around as much as they were.

Certainly the actual perpetrators of these acts (and countless others) are in the wrong and should certainly feel their own sense of shame for a job done poorly, but that does not ease my share of the burden. I failed, and I failed miserably. It would not be inaccurate to say that I failed epically. Epic ConFusion indeed.

I would like to apologize for the torrent of words this became, but it’s been weighing on me for nearly 48 hours now. I’m still not okay with this, and I have some significant decisions to make as to how to proceed with…well, pretty much everything.

For now, however, I have to return to the tasks of real life while dealing with the wreckage that we have caused. There’s a set of tasks I really look forward to…

Epic ConFusion Announcement

Today and tomorrow…the Tuesday and Wednesday before the convention…the calm before the storm.

Last night I submitted the final revisions of our layouts to the hotel. Tomorrow, I meet with the complete hotel staff to get last-minute feedback and provide last-minute instructions for the event that kicks off this Friday. Then, on Thursday, all hell breaks loose and ConFusion descends upon us like a deep, unsettling madness.1 A little bit about the weekend to come:

Guest of Honor Dinner

Things kick off a bit early for those that can make it to the hotel Thursday night. We have arranged to take over the hotel’s restaurant for a few hours so that we can dine with our honored guests and some of the roughly infinity 2 authors that are coming out for the weekend. Afterwards, we usually wander up to the consuite for an informal meet & greet while we test to make sure our snacks are fresh and our beer is at the proper temperature.3

If you want to participate in the GoH Dinner, seating is obviously limited by the space we have available, so please RSVP at hotel12 (at) stilyagi (dot) org so we can save you a seat. There are a handful of seats available, so respond soon!

Programming

We have a TON of great panels and events going on this weekend; and for once I’m not scheduled to be on a single one of them. It feels rather nice, actually, to know I’m not required to be anywhere that my role as hotel liaison doesn’t lead. That having been said, there are several things I’m pretty interested in…

I, Suck (Friday 7pm) — some of my favorite authors of genre fiction (John Scalzi, Pat Rothfuss, and Jim Hines) and a few other authors that I haven’t had a chance to read but I’m told are pretty great5 talk about some of their worst work. All are very funny panelists, so this should be fun.

Opening Ceremonies (Friday 8pm) — obviously I’ll be milling about here to hear our GoHs speechify and to make sure all goes smoothly…and perhaps to dance in a thong to “Sexy and I Know It”

Superhero Movie Roast (Friday 10pm) — Dawn and Greg have been mocking movies at cons for years and it never fails to kill, and this year’s movie is a great pick for roasting…plus you get the added bonus that the movie roast generally supplies half the quotes that become the in-jokes amongst convention attendees for the rest of the weekend…just…like…Scarlett Johanssen…

John Scalzi and Tobias Buckell Reading (Sunday 10am) — I have no idea which stories they’ll be reading from…but I cannot imagine it will matter, I’m eager to read more from both of them.

Patrick Rothfuss Reading (Sunday 2pm) — All I know is that this better be from the third book in the Kingkiller set, or I might actually cry. WHY ISN’T THIS BOOK DONE YET!!! :)

Closing Ceremonies/Feedback Session (Sunday 3 & 4pm) — Find out who you can thank for all of the fun you’ve been having all weekend, get an introduction to ConFusion 2013 (including the announcement of several really exciting honored guests), then give us feedback so we can improve the convention movign forward.

Randy Bradakis (Sunday 4:50pm) — From the program book: “Randy Bradakis tells you things that he wants to say, and explains why things in the program book weren’t right. Jer Lance yells at him.” Just one of the things I do for you, the attendee…

Parties

Friday and Saturday nights both have a great lineup of parties. Wander the 15th to 17th floors to partake in free food, free booze, music, merriment, and probable debauchery. Oh, and if you see the ConChair, make sure to give him a drink. He needs it. Don’t let him say no…he’s just being modest…he needs that drink. :)

1 That’s not so much “metaphor” as “an accurate assessment of a future event” for what it’s worth…in all the best possible ways.

2 For really loose definitions of “infinity” that means something entirely different.

3 Studies have shown3 that the most effective way to verify these things is by having people eat our snacks and drink our beer.

4 Source: Jer’s Head, 2012

5 Hey, there’s like, eleventy-billion authors at this con, I can’t be expected to have read them *all* can I? :)

A Flash in the Pan

Life, most of the time, ranges from just sort of boring-and-common to actively shitty. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love my life…but don’t confuse a general happiness with this state of affairs for a lack of recognition of the realities of it. Life is mostly dull, painful spacers between “up” moments.

Every so often, someone says “hey, I’d like to create more of those moments, just for fun!“ Those people, for the record, are heroes.

The natural cycle of such things, though, means that sooner or later, some marketing dweeb somewhere says “hey, this is an excellent opportunity to capitalize on people’s inherent desire to be a part of something that is hip and edgy.” This is generally a pretty good sign that an idea is over; corporate sponsorship does not lend itself well to doing things altruistically (which isn’t to say it can’t be done…but it’s a good rule of thumb).

Once they are making television shows about it…well, usually the idea is well into its twilight. If FOX is making a show about it, it’s probably going to end in pepper spray food derivatives, but it’s definitely over…

Tablets, Laptops, Oranges, and Apples

The generally argumentative Internet has, of late, turned its bickering sights from name-calling about PCs vs Macs (my least favorite argument, since Macs ARE PCs, but I digress) or iPhone vs Android (how is this even a fight? I love Android, but for an end-user, it’s a ridiculous choice still) to an even more apples and oranges comparison. We are currently arguing about whether tablets or laptops are better.

(Spoiler alert: the answer is “if you’re asking this question, you don’t understand computing enough to participate in the discussion that follows,” but it’s plausible I’ve just become cynical in my old age.)

Let me being by saying, I used to carry a laptop, and it was annoying.

If I was going anywhere outside of my home, before I walked out the door I had a decision to make: do I take the laptop or do I leave it behind. This was a non-trivial decision with a lot behind it: do I spend 5 minutes breaking down my system wherever it is set up and throw it into the laptop bag? Am I going to have a place to keep it where I’m going, or is its not-inconsiderable bulk going to be hanging from my shoulder all day? Is it going to sit in my car waiting for a break-in? Am I even liable to use it? Am I going to have time? Is it worth bringing the laptop at all?

In the face of these questions I often chose not to bring it. A flash drive with important programs and a Dropbox full of important files often served as a replacement for lugging 5 to 15 pounds of laptop, bag, peripherals, and accoutrements.

When I did bother to even bring it, I just didn’t bother to use it in most cases. Oftener than not if I wasn’t leaving to go to work, the time and space required was greater than I was willing to invest. After setting up camp, I needed to extract my laptop from my bag (and depending on the state of my power and my plans, my power brick and mouse), power it up (and hope that it suspended reliably last time…a crap-shoot on Windows and Ubuntu), open the files that I am planning to work on, and get to work. If everything went optimally (a rarity that involved a confluence of events including a full battery, a reliably suspended operating system, work spaces already configured for how I was planning on working at the moment, files already opened, the Internet already configured, the sacrifice of a lamb to our dark lord, three cups of coffee, and a partridge in a pear tree), I was out 5 minutes of setup. In the mundane version of events referred to as ‘reality’ I was generally out closer to 10 or 15 minutes and a few ounces of frustration and annoyance.

Compare that to my new work flow. I have doubled the size of my laptop with a ruggedized case and it still fits comfortably in a small bag that I carry with me always1 roughly the size of a smallish purse. No decision needs be made; it is just going with me. If I am going to work, I’ll grab my briefcase too which—even with keyboard, peripherals for presentations, a mouse, and all of the paperwork I might need—is still lighter than my laptop was alone.

If I decide to do some work, I can pull out my tablet and work without even setting down my murse2. If I need to type a LOT, I can do so by pulling out the keyboard too, which still all requires approximately the same amount of space as my laptop. Getting to work is nearly instantaneous. I can go from thinking about what I’d like to work on to actually working on it in under a minute. In a WORST case situations (wherein the things with which I want to work are on the cloud but haven’t been synced to my system, I’m not connected to the Internet, I need both keyboard and mouse, my battery is low, and I have to reboot my tablet), I still am working in under 5 minutes. That is pretty damned handy; so handy, in fact, that I find myself working to fill small breaks in my day far more routinely than ever before with a laptop.

“But Jer,” I hear you saying, “I am a(n) $x!” where $x is some nominal job description that conveys an inherent inability to use tablets. “Tablets are useless to me for my job!” To that I respond with the following:

  1. Depending on what your value of $x was, you might be right. It is also not an airplane, so if your $x was ‘pilot,’ you will find that the tablet will certainly fail to fly us to far away lands. It is also not a large truck, so it will not transport merchandise from warehouse to store. It is not even (despite obvious similarities) a spatula, so it will not help you flip burgers at the place of employment wherein you first learned your rhetorical and debate skills. It happens to be a tablet. It is best used for tablety things.

  2. You also might be surprised about what a tablet can actually help you do. If your concern is that it won’t run the software you need, that is often easily worked around. For example, I am a software developer: it has taken me a trivial amount of time to push my C, C++, or Python development to remote systems that I connect to through SSH and VIM.

    When developing in PHP, Perl, Javascript, or other web languages, I SFTP files to and fro. When developing in .Net or Java, I VNC to my desktop. True, if I were principally a Java or .Net developer, I would probably carry my laptop far more often…VNS is a stopgap, not a real solution. If you are a developer that requires a specific, GUI development environment, you might need to read response #1.

  3. If your big problem is input speed, I have found that with or without a keyboard, inputting isn’t a considerable problem for me. Using Swift Key or Swype, I can generally program at pretty close to my standard speed—most of the time I spend coding is burst typing while thinking…even an on-screen keyboard handles that well. When I am grading papers or corresponding, the on screen keyboard or voice recognition tends to work very well for me.

    When writing long-form (as in blog entries, term papers, etc), the external keyboard becomes necessary. It, unfortunately, slows my 110+ word per minute typing speed considerably: I type at a mere 60-80 WPM on my external keyboard. Amusingly, 60-80 WPM is closer to my long-term sustainable typing rate anyway.

    Often, I have to do finish work on a desktop; this is true whether I began the coding/writing/correspondence/grading on a tablet or a full system. I need editing, that is a given. If you have read this far, you already know that.

    If your needs cannot be served by any of the above, you might need to re-read point number 1

Regardless of how well it works for me, the tablet doesn’t fix everything. It is not a gaming rig…my occasional forays into gaming will not be satisfied without my laptop. It’s also not a power house; if I’m going to really dive into work, I want multiple monitors—each with more real estate than my paltry mobile screen provides. In either of those cases, desktops are ubiquitous enough at this point, though, that I can almost always find one where I’m going to be working if I need to…and I rarely need to.

Are tablets for everybody? No, don’t be stupid. Neither are shoes, cars, glasses, or pine nuts. Are they sufficient for most people? I’ve found that to be true (of tablets…but also of shoes, cars, glasses, and pine nuts). Most people’s needs can be boiled down to consumption, correspondence, and creation—in descending order…on a STEEP curve. A tablet works well if your needs fall into that pattern; hell, it could work if your needs do not, but can be made to emulate that pattern. If your creation, however, is of a sort that does not lend itself well to low-power, low-end devices (media creation, .Net programming, etc), then you might want to give tablets a miss for a while.

All I know is that the power supply on my laptop fried half a year ago, and I still haven’t bothered to get it repaired. I’ve missed having the laptop about twice since the beginning of the summer. I should probably get on that. Your mileage, as they say, may vary (but what they don’t tell you is…that’s because you’re doing it wrong!)

1 A side benefit of carrying a tablet, I now carry a purse…women have this SO DAMNED RIGHT. I don’t know how I survived without it in the past. I now have pens, sharpies, membership cards, headphones, etc with me at all times

2 M(an) (p)urse. Also referred to as “manbag”, “why I’m not masculine”, and “chuck”

Dearly Beloved…

This weekend I served as last-minute officiant for the wedding of a friend. On Wednesday, I was asked if I could fill in for a wedding to take place on Saturday. I had availability, I wanted to help out, I said yes!

In all, it was an awesome experience. I am really glad that I could help out…and Krista and Trevor are clearly fantastic together. I was a bit nervous that the short notice was going to be a problem, but cramming a lecture into my head on short notice has become par for the course for me; by Friday, I was golden.

By Saturday morning, I was less golden. For nearly two weeks, I have been having what felt like a constant, low-grade asthma attack—like someone was applying uneven, firm pressure on my chest. Uneven, firm, completely-unaffected-by-Albuterol pressure. By Friday night and early Saturday morning, my “asthma” had become a phlegmy mess replete with a slightly wet cough, extreme shortness of breath, and a deeper, more rumbly, more difficult to hear speaking voice. Pneumonia was sounding more and more like a possibility.

Because—and this is the important bit—what every public speaker needs immediately before speaking is to lose the ability to talk for any length of time without becoming dizzy from lack of oxygen while at the same time losing any ability to make audible sounds with his or her voice.

I spent the last hours before the ceremony trying to change my natural pattern of speech to allow for breathing breaks, lest I lose consciousness mid-word. Ger even admonished me, at one point, not to pass out during Krista’s wedding. That, as Carl[1] is fond of saying, is my least favorite thing to do.

Ultimately, I made it through without passing out. I was quiet (Ger says that at the back of the room, she could hear that I was speaking, but could not hear the precise words mostly, which is precisely the effect that having a sick-induced low, rumbly voice generates), and I had difficulty remembering what to say while at the same time remembering to change my cadence and take breathing breaks, but it came off well and both the bride and groom seemed happy.

There was an awkward moment, however, early on where things got dicey: I forgot to take a breathing break, so midway into the next clause I suddenly got slightly dizzy. Concerned about losing consciousness, I paused as soon as I could, which was not at a very natural breaking point. It wasn’t at a natural breaking point, but it was just before I was going to have to use the names of the bride and groom.

JUST before. Like, two words before.

I blanked for what felt like a half hour but was instead exactly long enough for all gathered to notice, before I pulled it back together, remembered where I was in my spiel, and soldiered onward.

Not, as it turns out, my favorite way to speak in front of people.

As I said though, I consider it an entirely positive experience and I hope that they were genuinely as happy with their wedding as they appeared to be.

Because I’ll want to find it later, here is the text of the ceremony that I wrote. I’m not a super sappy sort of guy, but I feel like it said the things I wanted it to say and didn’t come off either too cliche or too casual: both concerns I had going into this.

(For the record, I did not, in fact, forget to get the last name!)