October 2017

Whither Now, Microsoft?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has been circulating among the media recently, talking about his book, Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft's Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone. My advice to Mr. Nadella is this: aim lower.


In the excerpts I've read and in interviews, Nadella talks a lot about empathy and empowering people to better their own lives, and almost cosmic questions such as how to balance technological innovation against concerns for the workers that innovation may displace. Nadella sounds like a genuinely nice guy, and these are worthy considerations for anyone. But here's the thing: I just want Windows to work.

This past week, I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what was pinning all the performance meters on my Windows 10 laptop, reducing it to a crawl. I won't go into the details, but then I don't have to. Everyone who has used computers has had experiences where things don't work at intended, or when a capability that a program could have is missing, or the interface is too confusing, or any number of other issues.

When I read that Nadella has all these big-picture issues in his head, I worry that he and others may be forgetting why most of us use technology to begin with: to get things done. Technology is largely a means to an end. Asking Siri or Cortana a plain-language question that automates into a search through the vast Web to find a particular page is gee-whiz technology, but in the end it's all just a warm-up for the main act, an act millennia old: reading text.

Microsoft has clearly been suffering from Apple envy, and with little wonder. Apple is making piles of money. Many Apple users are hard-core fans who are willing to pay a stiff premium for Apple products. And certainly, their CEO Tim Cook seems to be a nice guy who cares a lot about other people.

In the end, though, I think the reason so many people gravitate towards Apple is that their products work. They are elegantly designed, both in hardware and software, are easy to understand and use, and tend to give users less fuss than competing products. And if they do cause trouble, Apple will take care of you at an Apple store.

If Microsoft has dreams of being another Apple, I hope these dreams don't last long. The world already has an Apple and doesn't need Microsoft to become its pale imitator.

Microsoft, please: make great products. Give users back their choices. Stop introducing products and technologies and then abandoning them. Avoiding a Windows 10 update that creates havoc for multitudes of your users is a worthy goal, and unlike vague notions of empathy and human empowerment, it's a goal you can achieve and measure. 

Share this

Timeless Thoughts About Children's Literature

On a shelf in my office sits Collier's Junior Classics, a ten-volume collection of children's stories from authors both famous and forgotten, from all places and all times. My parents bought this collection when my sister was born, and now I read from this collection to my daughter, and maybe one day she'll read from one of these books to her child. Even just glancing at the spines recalls to mind the wonderment of youth:


The introduction printed at the beginning of each volume by series editor Margaret Martignoni is timeless. It is, firstly, as magnificent a defense of the value of children's literature--or literature in general--as I've ever read. But then it lays out, in unshakable language, the qualities that great children's literature must possess. Martignoni had been, among other things, a public librarian in Brooklyn, and her work on this series is a reminder of a time when the importance of libraries and librarians were still widely understood (I may be biased here, since I am married to a wonderful librarian.)

Martignoni begins her introduction by explaining the importance of literature for children:

We are children only once, and then only for a few brief years. But these are the most impressionable years of a lifetime. Never again will the world and everything in it be so eternally new, so filled with wonder. Never again will physical, mental, spiritual growth be so natural and unavoidable. During these years, habits become ingrained, tastes are developed, personality takes form. The child's whole being is geared towards learning. He instinctively reaches out for truth and, having no prejudices, seizes upon that which is good, just, beautiful. For these reasons, a child deserves what Walter de la Mare has called "only the rarest kind of best."

And then she lays out her criteria for great children's literature:

What do we mean by "best" in a book for children? Best books reflect universal truths with clarity and artistry. Such books reveal that man is essentially good and that life is infinitely worth living. They do not deny the existence of evil, but rather emphasize man's thrilling struggle against evil through faith, courage, and perseverance. They awaken the young reader's imagination, call forth his laughter as well as his tears, help him to understand and to love his fellow man. The reading of such books constitutes a rich heritage of experience which is every child's birthright.

As I've often said in my reviews of children's movies, it's easy to fall into the trap of rating films and books for children on the basis of what they lack--do they avoid bloodshed, vulgarity, and uncomfortable sexual innuendo? But we should start by asking what these stories have to offer: not what bad things they avoid, but what good things they do. A great book can do more than improve a child's vocabulary and reading comprehension. A great book can make its reader a better person. Great stories connect people with each other and with their inner selves. They explain the history and necessity of civilization better than any textbook could, and help children take their places within that civilization.

If you are a parent, teacher, or other adult with children under your care, what book have you given those children that could meet Martignoni's definition of "best"?

Share this

The Missing Piece of Information

Do you know anything about music--or specifically, music notation? Even if you don't, you may be able to answer this question. Here's a note on a musical staff. Do you know what note this is?


Wait, don't answer yet! Here's a illustration of which note goes where on a staff with a treble clef, as we have here:


Okay, so what note is in that first picture? It's a D, right? I mean, it says it's a D right there on the picture, and then the chart on the bottom confirms that the second line from the top is, indeed, a D on the treble clef.

But I have recently discovered that this note, in a certain context, is not actually a D at all. Let me expand that original picture to give you that context:


Some of you may be nodding your head in comprehension now, but for everyone else, let me lay it out. Those open and filled-in circles at the bottom, along with the small T, are indicating which valves to press on the French horn to play this note. So what difference does that make? Well, it turns out that French horn music is notated a perfect fifth above the actual note. That means that when the music indicates you play this "D," the actual note is this G, a fifth lower:


I discovered this fact in the course of helping my daughter, who has taken up the French horn in middle-school band. But I only just discovered this fact this week, at the end of the first term, after weeks of trying to help my daughter hit notes well above her expected range.

It turns out that most brass instruments are notated differently than the actual "concert" pitch, and of course this is common knowledge to brass players--but not to beginning brass players, or their parents. But my daughter's French horn exercise book didn't tell me about this transposed notation, nor did her instructor tell her anything. The instrument itself is no help, because you can usually sound a note and the higher fifth using the same fingering.

So here's my point. I know a lot about music in general--notes, scales, keys, chords, and so on--but I know little to nothing about the French horn. My daughter has learned a good bit about how to play the French horn, but she knows very little about music in general. I tried to apply what I knew about music to help her, but I was missing one key piece of information. Without that information, everything I was telling her was off-kilter. I even bought her a contact tuner so we would know exactly what note she was playing, but that only works if you understand the transposition.

I think a lot of communication gets fouled up this way. We all have accumulated experience and wisdom to share with others, but sometimes we're missing the key that will allow us to translate that in way other people can use. And there's no way to know what you don't know, so it's hard to be on guard for this kind of mistake when you are the one trying to impart knowledge to someone else. Instead, I think we should be watchful for potential problems on incoming knowledge. Ask yourself: How might someone working in an area related to mine get confused? If you're a math teacher, for example, consider including "translations" for current math terminology to those of previous generations, so parents can usefully be involved with their children's math work. The world depends upon knowledge journeying from one mind to another, and we have to ensure that it survives the trip.

Share this

Is Technology Fragmenting Society?

When I was young, there were four channels I could view on the television--the three local network affiliates and our PBS station. Our family was an early adopter of cable television, for which I was immensely grateful. The brief period after I acquired access to MTV and before the rest of the world did marked the only time that I was more plugged-in to popular culture than my peers. But as the channels have proliferated on cable and the number of radio stations has increased and been augmented by endless numbers of satellite radio stations, and with the advent of streaming media, we've started to lost the shared experiences that bind us together as people.

Back in 1980, for example, a character named J. R. Ewing was unexpectedly shot, and possibly killed, as a season-ending cliffhanger on the CBS show, Dallas. Now, it wasn't as though everyone in America was watching Dallas, but the number of viewers was high enough that everyone in America knew about it. The fictional shooting was a shared cultural event.

And because there were fewer media outlets, those outlets tended to cast wider nets. That probably accounts for the blandness of much of the television from that era. Producers tried to make shows that appealed to everyone, and they often made shows that lots of people kinda liked but no one really loved. But the wide net also meant you could get exposed to things you weren't specifically looking for.

For example, consider The Midnight Special, which came on Fridays on NBC, after Johnny Carson. This show featured live music (or nearly live--there's the occassional cheating), and the variety of acts was amazing. One week you might see The Cars, just on the cusp of fame:

Another week you might see The Sylvers--if you've forgotten or never seen this act, imagine the Jackson Five, but with the other brothers and sisters cramming the stage. Or just watch:

Another week, the show would head into another direction entirely, with The New York Dolls:

Rock, soul, country, pop, you could find it all on the Midnight Special. Now, if you want music, you can bring up an app that will play you just the music that you already know and like, which is cool, but it means we're all starting to live in the cultural equivalent of a walled garden. I can't imagine a show like the Midnight Special happening now, or a television character so well-known that everyone in America would ponder his fate. Will we ever see variety programs like The Carol Burnett Show again? Probably not.

Communication technology, from the telegraph to the Internet, has always held out the promise of bringing people together, but if we're not careful, it can do the opposite. Our technology can segment and divide us, so that while we develop close ties to the people and things we already know and like, we may miss the chance to interact with what's new and different. 

Share this

Aiming in World of Warships: A Success Story

I don't play as many computer/video games as I did in my youth, but I still play. While I am a competent gamer, achieving a high skill level in some games simply requires more practice than I am willing to invest. For example, I thought I would never find much success in the team-based naval combat game World of Warships--even though I'm pretty good at its older sibling, World of Tanks. My main problem was landing shots on mid to long-range targets without taking too much time. I almost gave up, but I decided to treat this as a puzzle to be solved. I spent a little time gathering test footage and data, and I cracked the code. I may never be an especially fearsome captain, but I can aim now. Here's a video I made explaining the aiming method I developed, which I call Ghost Ship Targeting:


Share this