A Few More Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery

I’ve posted on this subject before and figured, now that we’re in “post-mortem” mode, I should mention a few thoughts at the completion of season 1.

  • I still think the acting was great.  Especially compared with previous outings like Enterprise and the first few seasons of Voyager, just about every actor in this season was top notch.
  • The writing…faltered a bit as the season went on.  Other posts from the internet illiterati harped on it to a degree that was a bit hyperbolic, in my opinion, but they do have a point in that the writing of this season dealt in a lot of fan service for the sake of fan service.  Case in point in the final shot in the season, pictured above: the USS Enterprise shows up with Captain Pike at the helm.  The series takes place 10 years prior to TOS, so yes, the Enterprise should be flying through the cosmos…but did we really need to see this?  Doesn’t this invite all kinds of other questions (because, you know, Spock is on that Enterprise…and his sister we didn’t know anything about is on Discovery…soooooo…how are they gonna play that off??).  At the same time, the geek in me says “ooooo, oooo, oooo, it’s the Enterprise!!!!!”  I guess I’m cautiously optimistic, but the writers did this all season, from the appearance(s) of Harry Mudd to visiting the Mirror Universe.  Revisiting old characters and environments rather than “braving new worlds, seeking new life and new civilizations”…  It’s a “two steps forward, one step back” sort of problem.
  • I liked the Mirror Universe arc.  Again, it wasn’t entirely new in the annals of Star Trek, but I think Discovery kinda fleshed out an interesting place that really brings our current times (i.e. Trump) into stark perspective of where we humans could go in a few generations if fascism were to take hold.
  • In the end, I think the writers did a decent job of “hanging a lantern” on the fact that this season has been pretty “dark,” as a whole. Burnham’s speech draws attention to this aspect and says “no, we’re better than that.”  If anything, it provides a platform for a “re-set” for season 2 that allows them to move in a more hopeful, “Star Trekky” direction.

Ultimately, I was happy with the season.  Would I prefer it be on network CBS or be on Netflix?  Sure?  But it was worth the extra money to pay for CBS All Access.  Could the writing have been tighter?  Yes, but they were serving quite a few masters this season, just to prove they could bring the audience (and by all accounts, CBS All Access gained viewership solely because of it).

If anything, I’m encouraged by the zeitgeist surrounding Discovery.  Most of the news outlets I follow had a plot synopsis after each episode.  Granted, the internet is a far different place from when Star Trek Enterprise left the air, but I just can’t see plot synopses being an important aspect of the internet just after airing back then.  I feel like the world cared far more about this than any previous property since TNG.  Even though fans wrung their hands at certain aspects of the season, the fact that they watched showed that people still care about Trek on television, rather than relegating it to the movie franchises.

I think that’s a “win,” all by itself.

We Bought A Boat!

Let’s be honest: we only bought it to make the Subaru look cooler…

Brooke doesn’t get to exercise all that often.  It isn’t for lack of trying: she just doesn’t usually have the time to devote to it.  She’s taken her bike down to Sedalia multiple times and she goes hiking at Bothwell with some frequency, but neither of these activities really “speaks” to her.  And she totally doesn’t like jogging.

However, she’s been interested in getting into kayaking for the last few years.  We see folks with boats on their trucks and we know people like going fishing at various places around here.  That, and we know that there are some creeks and lakes within driving distance.  And, we have a few Subarus, so they really have to have a kayak on top of one, right?

Really though, for some reason, Brooke’s always enjoyed rowing as an exercise.  This goes back to the rec center at Truman State, where she’d use the rowing machine more than anything else.  You’d have to ask her why, exactly, that is the one exercise she seems to prefer…maybe it goes back to her days on the Mississippi River or something…

Anyway, I checked out Craigslist and found a decent deal on a single-person, sit-in kayak that came with a cartop mount.  It wasn’t the type of mount we wanted, but at least we could get it home.  We went to Columbia and met up with the young woman who was selling it (didn’t have room for it, didn’t use it enough, yadda, yadda, yadda) and picked it up for less than she was asking for.

We got it home safe and sound, but with that type of roof mount, it was a hassle to get it up on the top of the car.  It took two people, plus it was far easier to get the straps hooked up when you had someone else to toss them to.  Thus, if it really takes two people to get on the car, Brooke would never use it.

The rooftop carrier we’ll actually use…

Therefore, we’re going to try the “J hook”-style mount.  We picked them up at Amazon for less than $20 and hopefully they work as advertised.  They seem pretty sturdy (though I had to Dremel out the plastic holes to make the screws fit properly), and in theory, the hooks allow ratchet straps to simply cross from the top down to the bottom without requiring one to tie the kayak to the hood or trunk of the vehicle.

Of course, the high this week is barely crossing the 50 F mark, so Brooke probably isn’t actually going to get to test this thing out for a few weeks months.  I need to find a way to mount it in our garage, too, as sitting on the garage floor isn’t exactly ideal.

Hopefully it works out!  We figure that resale on a kayak is probably high enough that we won’t lose much money on it, if any.  Brooke can lift it down off the car, but she’ll probably want to get a little more practice lifting it up above her head.  The J-hook mount should make this easy, as she just needs to get underneath it and “roll” it over onto the roof of the car.  Practice will speed up that process, I’m sure.

After she actually tries this thing out (March?  April?), I’ll have to post a few more pictures. She’s excited!  I’m just happy to have my second roof bike mount back…

No Rest For The Weary

Starting a podcast…

Clearly, as the rate of posts here indicates, I’ve been pretty busy this semester.  Both of my classes this semester were courses I’ve taught before, but I had two of each for a total of four courses, with a combined 115 students.  Don’t get me wrong, it went fine and all of my grades were turned in on time this past Tuesday, but it got pretty busy, especially after Spring Break.

Good thing I’m off for Summer Vacation now, right?  Wrong!  In all honesty, I’m kinda excited because I’ll be teaching two classes in the online setting for the first time.  It’s new territory for me, as I’ve never taught a class in this way before, let alone two, so the learning curve could get the best of me, but I’m hopeful I can push them across the finish line by the time the classes are over in July.

Basically, back in the Fall, some of my students asked if I could teach Pathophysiology over the Summer semester.  It’s a class I’d taught before, but this time, it would be out of a different department and with a different course number and a different textbook, so it isn’t exactly the same (but, effectively, it’s the same class).  I was interested in doing it anyway, but the rub was that I’d have to do it in the online setting.  In some ways, it was “win/win” because I could still be flexible with staying home over the Summer with Meg, but I’d also get to keep busy and try something new with my courses, some things I could potentially wrap back around into my lectures for the Fall.  As of today, I’ve got 17 people enrolled in that class.

Earlier this semester, I was having conversations with “The Powers That Be” on campus about how many people are in my A&P courses (hint: it’s a lot) and they mentioned how it would be nice to get a fully online version of A&P I built to help transition students from the career center setting in nearby counties over to our nursing program.  This online A&P course could be completed by interested students and, assuming it was completed along with other prerequisites, they could enroll in our nursing program without having set foot on our campus before.

This presented a different challenge, as there’s a laboratory component involved.  I think I’ve solved that issue with a distance learning laboratory kit that we’ve contracted out from a supplier, but it’ll be interesting to see how the lab side of things works out compared with what I normally do during the Fall and Spring semesters.

Right now, I’ve got 15 people enrolled in that class, as well.

The thing I’m working on right now (aside from posting this…) is recording all of my lectures and getting them hosted on YouTube.  There are multiple ways to handle an online class and it really depends on a). the strengths (or weaknesses) of the instructor and b). what kind of material is being discussed in said lecture.  In my case, I’m no stranger to technology, so I picked up a USB microphone for $20 and grabbed Brooke’s sewing lamp from home in order to create a make-shift recording studio.  I’m also using Screencastify,  software built in to Chrome that lets me insert my voice and video in one of the four corners of my lecture slides and records the tab in Chrome into a video format stored on Google Drive.  From there, I can download it and edit it (to a very limited degree…), and then post it to YouTube in a Private listing so I don’t have everyone on the planet viewing it (and getting lovely YouTube comments about how little hair I have).

I’ve got hours of this…hours, I tell you…

Thus far, the lecturing has been working pretty well, I think.  I’m recording each lecture in 30-40 minute chunks and I started with A&P I material, as that’s what I’ve most recently done and, consequently, can get more “comfortable with the camera” as I have more confidence with those lectures.  I’ll get started on recording my Pathophysiology lectures next week, but after I get done with those, I’ve still got quite a few lecture slides to write in order to finish out the semester.

Luckily, Meg still has another week of school…  I’ve got my work cut out for me…

And Then There Were Two…

Brooke's New Baby! ...but is it her favorite baby? You'd have to ask her...
Brooke’s New Baby! …but is it her favorite baby? You’d have to ask her…

Back in early November, 2014, I wrote

When we bought Brooke’s 2006 Scion xA new, the plan was (and is) to “drive it into the ground,” or at least as close as we can. We’ve got about 97,000 mi on it now and had almost zero issues with it. The one issue we did have was with the blower motor resistor, and I was able to fix that myself. We’ll probably end up replacing it eventually, but likely not until we’re done making payments on the Subaru.

Weeeeeeelllllll, we made it to 140,000 mi and Brooke’s 2006 Scion xA was starting to squeal a bit more.  Was it just a loose belt?  Probably.  But we’ve been talking about it for quite awhile and Brooke’s been getting a little more cognizant of the fact that she’s the director of an agency and is driving consumers around with a car that has seen some better days.

The original plan was to keep that car for 10 years and then start looking, and that’s what we did.  Brooke and I had been investigating some other options, like the Volkswagen Golf or the Ford Focus hatchback, but more and more, the Subaru Impreza seemed like the mix she was looking for.  Part of this was the fact that we already have a Subaru and love it.  The Forester is based on the same platform as the current model of the Impreza, so driving one is very similar to the other (though the Forester sits a few inches higher).

Back when I got the Forester in 2013, the main thing I wanted was a moonroof.  This time around, Brooke wanted leather seats.  When comparing the leather options on the Impreza versus the Golf or Focus, the Impreza just made more sense as, for the same amount of money, you got the bonus of all-wheel drive on the Impreza where you didn’t on the Golf or Focus.  Also, the resale value on the Impreza is second-to-none compared with the Golf and Focus, especially at the Limited trim level we ended up getting.

The big reason we went ahead and pulled the trigger is because we figured we could get a decent deal on one now, while waiting a few months would force us into the brand new 2017 model.  Don’t get me wrong, that new model looks pretty nice, but there hasn’t been a price announced, and with all the new features they are advertising, it would likely be more expensive than the current version is.  On a related note, because the new model is coming, you can’t easily choose options on a 2016 model anymore, so if we waited until July, we probably wouldn’t be able to find this specific car anymore, at least not without having it transported across the country.

So yeah, Brooke was in Columbia last Friday morning, went by Subaru to ask them some questions and ask a few questions.  She went on a test-drive of this car (that she already checked out online before going) and fell in love.  The process ended up taking 3 hours, but the dealership bought her some Fazoli’s to keep her in her seat so they could close the deal.  It’s the little things.


Regardless, it’s a sharp little car! It definitely feels smaller to me relative to the forester, but the back seats are just as roomy, so the kids can actually grow into this car, whereas in the Scion, they were just about as big as any person could be and still sit comfortably for long periods.  She also finally has cruise control again, so with all the traveling she’s been doing recently, she won’t be quite as insane.  This model also comes with the 7″ touchscreen option and some better Bluetooth connectivity than our Forester does, though we didn’t spring for their EyeSight adaptive cruise control option.

She loves it!  Hopefully Calvin ends up liking this car when he gets it in 12 years… 🙂

On Passing

Browsing podcasts via iTunes
Browsing podcasts via iTunes

I listen to a lot of podcasts.  A lot of podcasts.  I’m subscribed to over 20 different ones currently and am far, far behind on listening to many of them.  Though I tend to listen to NPR through this “time-shifted” mechanism, it’s also how I keep up on video games.  Incidentally, long before the concept of a “podcast” entered our collective consciousness, those involved in the tech industry saw these recordings as a great way to engage with their communities in a way that writing articles simply didn’t: put all of your authors in a room to talk about stuff that happened in that week, so if people want to listen to your content instead of read it, then they can.  As gamers tend to be technologically oriented, it makes sense that podcasts centered on video games sprung up like weeds long before any others did.

When I was first jumping back into video games, circa 2004-2005, Drunken Gamers Radio was one of the first ones I gravitated toward.  It was great listening to three best friends up in Minneapolis talking about games in a very “real” sense.  They weren’t people in the industry: they just had a hobby and wanted to record the stuff they talked about.  And it was hilarious.  Over the years as the three grew older, had families, and had less time to devote to gaming, the show branched out talking about cooking, brewing, movies, music, and more.  But it was always fun just listening to three friends talk about whatever they wanted to talk about.  You felt as if you had known them for years.  That you went to high school together and were just hanging out on their back patio.  They’ve been recording these podcasts for over 7 years now.

Another favorite is the Giant Bombcast, hosted by Giant Bomb.com.  This one is more of a “traditional video game podcast” in that 5 video game journalists talk about what they played that week, recent news items, and answer e-mails from fans.  Their cast of characters changed from time to time, but the core group has stayed the same for over 380 episodes.  Again, similarly to DGR, listening to them for weeks (and years) on end makes it seem like you know them.  They aren’t just “putting on a show” for people to listen to, or playing a role for the microphone: this is them talking about their favorite hobbies.  The listener feels like they could be friends with any member of the cast.

2013 brought profound loss to both institutions.  In July, about a week after his wedding, Giant Bomb’s Ryan Davis died.  Though the cause of death was never officially explained to the fans, it is thought he lost his long-term battle with sleep apnea.  He was 34.  Then, in last October, Aaron Hilden from DGR died after complications from diabetes.  He was also in his mid-30s.  Both of them died suddenly and it was a great shock to both communities.

In the intervening months, Giant Bomb bounced back.  Though Ryan was very much the “soul” of that podcast, the other members held strong and moved forward.  It took them a few weeks to find their footing, and it still isn’t the same as it used to be, but the podcast lives and is still great.  DGR, on the other hand, just recently posted its most recent (and likely final) podcast.  This was a trio that began in college.  It wasn’t a work relationship: these guys were best friends.  The podcast always worked best when firing on all three cylinders, and the loss of one is crippling.  This is further complicated by the fact that Hilden ran the show, including audio recording, production and editing.  The other two can only do so much to replicate what Hilden did for them.

Hearing their most recent podcast has reminded me of my feelings after hearing the news.  Sure, both of these guys were “just podcasters” for a hobby that many don’t partake in (though many do…).  But you can’t help but share in their loss.  I could compare it to when Cory Monteith from “Glee” died suddenly earlier this year and how millions took his loss, but I view it differently.  Monteith played a character on television and that character is all I knew of him.  That is to say, it’s easier to mourn “Finn Hudson” than it is Cory Monteith.  I’m personally just too separated from the real person.

But Ryan Davis and Aaron Hilden?  That was them.  They were real people.  And I “knew” their friends and colleagues.  I read the outpouring of e-mails, posts and tweets after they passed and it was clear just how much they affected the lives of those around them.  I may as well have been at the funeral of someone I actually knew.

These are two gentlemen I will (and already do) miss.  I never met them and likely never would have.  But they touched a lot of lives in a way that I don’t think either of them fully appreciated.

Rest in peace, guys.

My New Friend, The Chromecast

My new friend...
My new friend…

Last week, Google had a few announcements, mostly some hardware (Nexus 7) and software (Android 4.3) refreshes.  But the “…and one more thing…” from this particular session was a new device called the Google Chromecast.

In short, it is only slightly bigger than your typical USB memory stick, but instead of USB, it uses HDMI (the interface your cable box uses to connect to your television).  Instead of a memory stick, it’s a mini receiver that is capable of taking instruction from Android and iOS devices, along with the Google Chrome browser.  From your phone (or tablet), you can open up Netflix or YouTube, find the content you’re interested in, then click the “Cast” button to send that video feed to your television.  After that, the Chromecast maintains the connection and you can use your phone (or tablet) for whatever you want.  You can even leave the room, or the house, and the connection will be maintained.

To be fair, while this is a neat feature, it isn’t necessarily “revolutionary,” at least, so far as I’m concerned.  I mean, my PS3, my Wii and my toaster can play Netflix at this point.  Why’s this device so useful?


We use Hulu quite a bit to watch various shows, but it requires you watch it on a laptop or desktop.  Any web browser that’s built-in to a PS3 or Wii is blocked from displaying the content.  What’s worse is that Hulu actually has a TV-targeted solution in Hulu Plus, but for some crazy reason, the shows that you find on regular, web-based Hulu aren’t available on the paid Hulu Plus service.  They’ll tell you it’s because of content deals with producers who want to keep that content off televisions (unless you’re using cable to view it), but that’s increasingly becoming a ridiculous argument as more and more people cut the cord and focus on internet-only solutions.

Anyway, back to the Chromecast.  This thing allows you to take a Chrome browser tab and transfer it to the Chromecast.  This means that, so far as Hulu is concerned, you’re still using a bog-standard Chrome browser while you’re watching, and it doesn’t realize you’re using a television to do it.  Genius.

And it totally works.  You need a reasonably decent computer to do it (my Chromebook is capable, but needs to have video quality scaled down a bit), but it totally works.

Overall, the Chromecast has been reviewed quite positively, largely because it works pretty well (with a few quirks), but also because it’s cheaper than alternative solutions.  The device sells for $35, though I got in on a promotion (that lasted less than 24 hrs…) where each purchase got you 3 months of Netflix streaming, even for existing subscribers (a $24 value, bringing my cost down to $11).

Hopefully other Android apps will gain functionality (Google Music also works, but I don’t tend to listen to music through my TV very often…), but seriously, $11 (or even $35) is worth it to get Hulu onto my TV.  Brooke appreciates it as well, as we’ll have a newborn in a few months and watching our shows on my PC in the dining room isn’t the most comfortable of options.  Getting to sit on a couch in the living room is a much better solution.

It’s pretty cool and I’m glad it works.  I’m sure I’ll have more to report on later, but for now, if you have any interested in getting web-based content beamed to your television, this is arguably the most cost-effective option available).

Classic “Trek” vs New “Trek”

Who to choose, who to choose...
Who to choose, who to choose…

Prior to watching Star Trek Into Darkness last week (and loving it…), I checked out a few reviews and noted a common theme:

I couldn’t help feeling let down. Not because J.J. Abrams and his writers have ignored what “Star Trek” fans want. It’s that they’ve pandered to it to such a degree that it feels less like fan appreciation and more like base-covering pragmatism.  — Rob Thomas, Capital Times

Jettisoning the franchise’s optimistic, socially aware sci-fi, not to mention character development or a logical plot, Darkness turns out to be any Vulcan’s worst nightmare: Team America: World Police with Tribbles. — Graham Killeen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Granted, these folks are in the minority, compared with what generally every other critic thinks is a wonderful movie (that, and many of those making this claim aren’t exactly “big name” national critics…).  But they get at a question that’s been asked of the recent movies since their inception:

“Is J.J. Abrams‘ ‘Star Trek’ still ‘Star Trek?'”

There are a lot of people complaining on the internet that these last two movies aren’t “Star Trek” enough and miss what made the franchise great: great story-telling, a sense of exploration and wonder, attention to morality and social justice, and a sense of hope for the future.  A “Wagon Train To The Stars,” if you will.  Their contention is that these last two movies have very little of that, instead focusing on huge action set-pieces, snappy dialog, and a willful ignorance of the things that made “Star Trek” popular in the first place.

To these people, I’d simply like to ask what Star Trek movies they’ve been watching?

By my count, only three of the movies (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek: Insurrection) actually dealt with anything akin to social justice or political upheaval.  The other seven movies had a clear villain (or “thing,” in the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture) that the crew of the Enterprise was fighting against.  And why is that?  Because in order to make a spectacular science fiction movie in the 21st Century that brings in plenty of movie-goers and actually turns a meaningful profit, you have to make it an action movie.  The actors they recruited for these last two movies are wonderful and play their parts well, but they aren’t cheap.  Paramount would never make their money back on the actors and relatively minor effects needed to make a modern science fiction film if they did a traditional, “classic,” movie where Kirk and Spock are transported back to the 1930s and have to let a woman die so that the United States enters WWII as history dictates.

What these reviewers, and others on the internet, are complaining about is movie “Star Trek” versus television “Star Trek,” and these are two separate things.  Even the movies that feature some kind of social commentary (Undiscovered Country and Insurrection) still have more action than they’ve got “classic ‘Trek'” elements.  Voyage Home is probably the only movie in the franchise that’s even close to aping the core of the television franchise: the combination of a new life form, environmental justice, and character drama, along with a few small action scenes.

These movies, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, should be viewed in comparison with the other movies in the franchise, not the television show(s) that spawned their existence.  In the appropriate context, these movies are utterly spectacular, and among the best of the 12 films.

When J. J. Abrams starts making a Star Trek television series, then reviewers and The Internet can complain about the lack of Roddenberry-esque social commentary.  Unfortunately, the big budget blockbuster requires more “whiz bang” than the traditional Star Trek fan prefers.  Thus, that fan must wait for the next series to start, or should go back and watch the 5 series of TV shows over again to get their fix.

Science Fiction and Science Fact


Brooke picked up “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in e-format from the library a few weeks ago, and as it’s a book I’d heard of and had some interest in, I joined her in reading it. Overall, it was a fascinating tale of how a black woman named Henrietta Lacks in the American South of the early-1950s died of cervical cancer, but samples of her cancerous cells survived in a dish (now known as HeLa cells), paving the way for not only the modern technique of cell culture, but also the discoveries that would develop the polio vaccine, new cancer treatments, and unlock many secrets of genetics.

While the book covers the science in a comprehensive, yet very readable manner, it also tells the reader of what happened to Henrietta’s family in the aftermath of her death, and the fact that they not only had no knowledge of the fact that Henrietta’s cells were being used in research, but they also received no compensation whatsoever for the discoveries that came from it.  When the family eventually discovered what had been happening with HeLa cells over the previous 20 years (seriously…20 years after her death, the family found out…), they didn’t understand what was going on, partially because researchers didn’t take the time to explain it to them, but also because many of them never completed high school, let alone took a single biology class.

This passage jumped out at me:

Deborah realized these movies were fiction, but for her the line between sci-fi and reality had blurred years earlier, when her father got that first call saying Henrietta’s cells were still alive.  Deborah knew her mother’s cells had grown like the Blob until there were so many of them they could wrap around the Earth several times.  It sounded crazy, but it was true.

“You just never know,” Deborah said, fishing two more articles from the pile and handing them to me.  One was called HUMAN, PLANT CELLS FUSED: WALKING CARROTS NEXT?  The other was MAN-ANIMAL CELLS BRED IN LAB.  Both were about her mother’s cells, and neither was science fiction.

“I don’t know what they did,” Deborah said, “but it all sound like ‘Jurassic Park’ to me.”

This conversation took place in the early-2000s, though Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, had been reading articles like the ones mentioned for decades, especially in the early years before the media and society really could grasp the power and utility of cell culture.  Sure, researchers were making “hybrids,” but what exactly did that mean?  The articles were sensationalistic, rarely providing enough background information to explain the meaning behind what researchers were doing (i.e. not making “man-animals”…).

But a lot of it goes back to the lack of education.  The Lacks family simply could not understand what was happening with Henrietta’s cells because they barely had a concept of what a ‘cell’ was, let along the technologies and diseases HeLa cells could (or did) help cure.  Heck, I remember trying to explain my graduate work to my 90+ year old grandmother (who possibly never took a biology class, and even if she did, it was in the early-1930s…), and that was extremely difficult.  It’s not that she wasn’t intelligent: she just didn’t have the background knowledge to understand much of what I was telling her.

As scientists, I think many of us expect that society, as a whole, has a basic understanding of how the world around them functions, but I have to wonder if society understands less than we think.  We expect that people over the age of 50 have taken a biology class before, but forget that biology has come a long way since they took those classes in the 1970s (when cell culture was still in its infancy).  We further don’t recognize that many of our aging population (i.e. people older than 60) haven’t had a biology class since the 1960s or earlier, if they took a ‘biology class’ at all.  And these are the people that we’re marketing countless drugs to during the commercial breaks from the evening news.

We need to get better at recognizing that “science” moves faster than society’s understanding of it. Perhaps this is why researchers have a tough time getting the concepts of “global climate change,” “evolution” and “childhood vaccination” across to certain segments of the population.  If they had the scientific background (or the will to learn more on the subject from primary literature, rather than silly blogs like this one), perhaps our society could move forward on many fronts, whether environmental, sociological or spiritual.

Though it’s important for scientists to communicate more effectively, it’s also incumbent upon society to start listening.  Otherwise, we are all doomed to repeat the failures presented in the book.  It’s definitely worth a read.

Tech Update: Samsung Chromebook (2012)

Samsung Chromebook (2012)
Samsung Chromebook (2012)

So, I mentioned that Meg has something of a “fondness” for our Kindle Fire HD 8.9, mostly just for watching TV shows.  As a result, my tablet has been somewhat co-opted in favor of my toddler on most weekends, when I’d like to sit on the couch and catch up on my online reading from the previous few days.  Compound this with the fact that tablets don’t have keyboards, so when traveling, I don’t generally have anything I can type a lengthy e-mail with (unless I borrow a nearby computer, which is sometimes a viable option).

Now, I gave up laptops after my last one failed, mostly because I don’t really need one anymore (especially for gaming), and because they are made obsolete within a few short months, despite spending $1000 on a reasonably decent one that should comfortably last you a few years.  We’ve still got Brooke’s Dell Mini 10 netbook, but as it was somewhat underpowered the day we bought it nearly 4 years ago, it wasn’t my first choice of solutions.

Enter the Google Chromebook.  These are cheap, netbook-type laptops that don’t run Windows, but instead run a modified version of Gentoo Linux called “Chrome OS.”  Essentially, it’s an operating system that functions almost exclusively in a web browser.  Actually, the first iterations of the operating system were literally just the Google Chrome browser and nothing else: no file manager, no storage on the hard drive, no nothing.

The strategy behind Chrome OS and Chromebooks at large are to provide a low-cost solution to consumers to drive people closer and closer to “living in the cloud,” where they do their typing in Google Docs, they store their photos on Google+, they send their e-mail with Gmail, they use the Chrome browser, they play games in that browser, and they use Google Music to store and play their MP3s.

It’s the idea where just about everything they do is inside a web browser, and for many people, that’s just fine.  A lot of people buy a nice laptop and only use it to check Facebook and Pinterest, never needing to install heavy photo editing software, play graphics-intensive games, or run AutoCAD.  They may have the occasional document to write, but don’t need macros or anything more complicated than double-spacing and bold text.

And for these people, a Chromebook is just fine.  Best of all, as it’s a browser-running-on-Linux, it’s virtually virus immune and all updates come down automatically in the background.  As it runs Chrome, if you take advantage of its Cloud Sync functionality, everything gets synced between computers and browsers, so if you lose or break your Chromebook, you just log in to a new one and it’s set up identically to your old one.

The Samsung Chromebook that I picked up a few weeks ago has a 11.6″ screen, a full-size keyboard, a few USB ports, an SD card port, and HDMI out (if you wanted to have an external monitor or send it to your television).  The difference is that it runs an ARM-based processor (as opposed to an Intel or AMD processor like your PC or Mac has), which is similar to the processors running your cell phones.  This particular Chromebook has a 16 GB SSD, as well.  The combination of the SSD and ARM chip means there are zero fans in the device, allowing it to be crazy thin, crazy quiet, and crazy efficient (about 6.5 hrs of battery life).

And the price for this thing?  $250.  To be fair, I got it cheaper than that, but I think it’s worth the $250 asking price.

The big key is to think about what you need/want a laptop for.  This thing doesn’t run Windows, so if you want to use Microsoft Word, you’re out of luck.  If you want to install Adobe Photoshop, you’re out of luck.  If you want to install Steam and a copy of Age of Empires II, you’re out of luck.  But, if you live mostly in a browser for most things you do and you’re already tightly integrated with Google services (i.e. you use Android smartphones, like we do), then it makes perfect sense and serves as a great laptop.  I’m pretty happy with it thus far, and have had a good time finding alternatives to programs I use routinely that function within a web browser.  For example, Pixlr is a photo editing tool based on The Gimp that has many of the same functions of Photoshop.  Let that sink in: a Photoshop-capable alternative running in a web browser.  Nuts.

So, overall, I’m a big fan so far.  It isn’t perfect, but for the most part, it does all that I need it to and then some.  It’s well worth it if you don’t need anything “over-capable” and you do most things in a web browser.

Tech Update: Kindle Fire HD 8.9

Kindle Fire HD 8.9
Kindle Fire HD 8.9

As our first tablet, we picked up a first-gen Kindle Fire in the Fall of 2011, a 7″ color Android-based device that was tightly integrated into Amazon’s app ecosystem and Amazon’s world of content, including movies, music and books.  Generally speaking, we were pretty happy with the device, as it had a nice screen, had a more portable size than an iPad, and worked well with games, Netflix, and other stuff.  Oh, and it was incredibly cheap (the first “real” tablet for $200).

One thing the 7″ Kindle Fire didn’t do well, though, was web-browsing.  Granted, browsing websites on a 4″ phone screen isn’t very pleasant either, but a 7″ screen is even more awkward, as apps and web pages aren’t set up well for the 7″ form-factor.  There are “mobile” web pages that are designed for small screens (e.g. ~4″ phone screens), and then there’s the full-size pages that look good on regular computer screens.  But on a 7″ screen, it just looks silly.  The sizes of links and text are heavily distorted.

Well, Amazon heard my cries and updated their tablet by creating two new versions: the Kindle Fire HD (still 7″, but with a higher resolution screen) and the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 (a slightly faster tablet, but more importantly, with an 8.9″ screen).  The new device has a bigger hard drive, faster processor, a front-facing camera, better speakers, and the aforementioned larger screen.  And, believe you me, it’s gorgeous (1920×1200 resolution).  Web browsing still isn’t as good as using a mouse and keyboard, but it’s much improved now that regular web pages look properly (with a higher resolution than my PC’s 1080p monitor).

The other features of the tablet are pretty nice too, including the camera, the impressive speakers (for a device this size…), and an improved interface that Meg can navigate to find Dora and Blue’s Clues videos.  It still only has WiFi, though Amazon offers a 4G LTE version that offers 200 MB of data per month for $50 a year (which is a steal).

I mentioned earlier that the Kindle Fire HD uses Amazon’s proprietary appstore, which is generally useful and gives you free stuff, but doesn’t give you access to regular Google-specific Android apps like Gmail, Google Calendar and Google+.  You can use their alternative apps that link to the various Google services, but it isn’t the same and they aren’t as good.  I can live without them, but it’s a consideration when comparing this device and other Android tablets.

One other complaint is the use of Skype for video chat.  We tried this with my parents a few times, but for some reason, I can’t get the speakers to generate enough volume.  The speakers can get really loud if you’re listening to music, but for some strange reason, Skype doesn’t seem to amplify the volume like any other program on the device.  It’s usable, but not as good as on other devices.

Finally, it took me a bit to figure out charging with the thing.  The old Kindle Fire came with a charger and AC adapter, but the new HD versions only come with a USB cable and you have to buy the “faster charger” for $20 extra.  I tried charging it with USB and, left overnight, I think it only gained about 20%.  Even using our phone chargers plugged into the wall, it still wouldn’t work properly.  It turns out the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 requires a 1.8 A charger, rather than the typical 1 A chargers that come with cell phones.  Once I found one (from Amazon…), it charged quite quickly.  Considering they don’t really include an instruction manual in the box, it would have been nice to have them be a bit more explicit on this front, but oh well.

For the money, it was a good deal and I’ve been happy with the purchase.  I like reading on it (some people don’t like reading on larger tablets and prefer the 7″ size and, to some extent, I agree…but it’s alright for my purposes…), it plays some games and it is great to have around for when Meg wants to watch something that I don’t want to watch.  We take it upstairs every night so Meg can watch the last 5 min of one of her shows as she lays in bed.

That alone makes it worth it. 🙂