Links: Wasting time, counterintuitive claims, technology won’t fix education, population problems, the modern laptop, and more

* “Why do people waste so much time at the office?

* From “The department of unintended consequences:” “It turns out that generous maternity leave and flexible rules on part-time work can make it harder for women to be promoted — or even hired at all.” Basic economics holds that making something more expensive means less of it is consumed.

* Why Technology Will Never Fix Education.”

* “The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education,’” which is news to me and fascinating throughout.

* An obvious point, but, a story about how people can’t be saved from themselves. In this post I wrote, “It is very hard, if not impossible, to fix most broken people.” Penelope Trunk tried, and failed.

* “Ashley Madison: Is infidelity a billion-dollar business?

* Tugg: A Kickstarter-like method for getting Indie movies in theaters. Brilliant.

* “Germany passes Japan to have world’s lowest birth rate;” the real problem in the developed world is underpopulation, not overpopulation.

* Tech billionaires aim for cheaper spaceflight.

* Someone found this blog by searching for “do musicians get laid alot.”

* The creation of the modern laptop:

Pick up your laptop. Actually, scratch that—read this paragraph first, then pick up your laptop. You are holding one of the most advanced machines ever built in the history of humanity. It is the result of trillions of hours of R&D over tens of thousands of years. It contains so many advanced components that there isn’t a single person on the planet who knows how to make the entire thing from scratch. It is perhaps surprising to think of your laptop as the pinnacle of human endeavour, but that doesn’t make it any less true: we are living in the information age, after all, and our tool for working with that information is the computer.

I use an iMac. Point stands, though, and the iMac’s screen is incredible.

* An interview with Tim Parks.

* On food culture, an interview in which Rachel Laudan points out that industrialized agriculture allows us to live the way we live now, and to romanticize inefficient processes.

Computer post follow-up: The relative reliability of laptops versus desktops

In a post on the merits of laptops versus desktops, I wrote that “the inflated notebook total [regarding units sold] is probably in part due to the disposable nature and limited longevity of notebooks.” Two e-mailers took issue with this assertion because I didn’t have any direct evidence backing it up aside from the obvious engineering constraints that impair notebooks.

Evidence isn’t easy to find. The best I’ve seen comes from a recent issue of Consumer Reports, which says:

Cons: Laptops cost more than comparably equipped desktops. Our reliability surveys show laptops are more repair-prone than desktops. Components are more expensive to repair.

Isn’t that obvious? The miniaturization necessary to cram components into a laptop case combined with inferior heat dissipation and the wear of constantly opening, closing, and moving a computer would reduce the reliability of comparable laptops versus desktops. People who need the mobility should obviously make that trade-off, but to me the benefits of a laptop are overrated, especially given the price premium most already command. This holds true across brands.

One issue bigger than price is hassle: the longer I can keep a computer without the hard drive, logic board, or other components breaking, the better off I am because I don’t have to undertake the tedious process of fixing the computer. By that standard, a long-lived desktop is a beautiful thing indeed—especially when one doesn’t need the portability.

A recent NPD survey on netbooks found that “60 percent of buyers said they never even took their netbooks out of the house.” If your laptop never travels, why bother having one?

Still, my desktop preference may  eventually change. AnandTech’s review of the new MacBook Pro batteries highlights the astonishingly long charge they hold and waxes euphorically in a way most unlike the normally staid tech site:

Ever since I first looked at the power consumption specs of Nehalem I thought it didn’t make any sense to buy a new, expensive notebook before Arrandale’s launch in Q4 2009/Q1 2010. While performance will definitely increase considerably with Arrandale, Apple just threw a huge wrench in my recommendation. The new MacBook Pro is near perfect today. If you need a new laptop now, thanks to its incredible battery life, I have no qualms recommending the new MBP.

But the power/performance of desktops today still beats laptops for those who don’t need the mobility. A MacBook Pro, 24″ monitor, and Intel X-25 SSD run well north of $2,000, compared to $1,500 for an iMac, which, according to Consumer Reports, should have greater longevity.

AnandTech has one other piece that sways me towards desktops, as this 2007 article shows: “Without even running any objective tests, most people could pretty easily tell you that the latest and greatest desktop LCDs are far superior to any of the laptop LCDs currently available.”

Gizmodo has also run a polemic announcing the justified end of the desktop. I’m not buying it.

EDIT: It’s 2016 and I’m using a Retina iMac. Laptops have, however, made impressive strides in screen quality.

Laptops, students, distraction: hardly a surprise

This post grew out of a comment responding to the question, “What Restrictions Should Student Laptops Have?” I’m a graduate student who teaches English 101/102 and takes classes at the University of Arizona. This post also dovetails nicely with “Desktops versus laptops.”

The short version: leave restrictions or lack thereof to the teachers or instructors.

For background, read “Why I ban laptops in my classroom,” “I Don’t Multitask,” “professor vs laptop,” Paul Graham’s “Disconnecting Distraction“and finally “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” This is not a new issue. If Paul Graham and other writers and hackers find the Internet ceaselessly distracting, what hope do freshmen have? I hear friends and other grad students say they feel like they can’t go more than a half hour without poking around the Internet, which hurts their writing time. Laptops in general and Internet connectivity in particular might cause greater problems than those they’re designed to solve.*

While I sympathize with some pro-laptop comments, I will point out that paternalism is not always bad; sometimes it’s a necessary component of developing discipline, fortitude, or tenacity. Banning laptops could help students develop the ability to focus for a sustained period of time and not get lost in class, particularly during discussions about complex material. In classrooms I’ve been in—including graduate classrooms—where virtually everyone had laptops, they were used for taking notes, yes. But they were also used for Facebook, and checking out happy hour, messaging, and messaging about the incompetence of the person speaking, checking the score, and a variety of other things that promote continuous partial attention.

The jokes are coming: you must’ve been a dumb student, gone to a bad school, had bad professors, be weak minded, etc. Maybe: but I think the bigger problem is that letting one’s attention temporarily wander is made so much easier by having a laptop and Internet connection is almost overwhelming. Sure, you can stay on a diet with a chocolate cake in your kitchen. Sure, you’d never lie on that mortgage application about your income—but, you know, you really want that McMansion, and no one is going to check it, and you just have to inflate it a little… The problem is that laptops made distraction so easy. They make it harder to separate the bad professor from the difficult material. And so on.

Students in universities succumb to the Beer and Circus mentality, and if they do, what luck will middle- and high-school students have? I teach freshmen English now at the University of Arizona and ban laptops. I’m aware of the counter-arguments and alluded to them above: if you’re not a compelling enough teacher to keep their attention, they deserve to use laptops to get around you. But what if you can’t get their attention in the first place? What if you’re trying to impart something important but that doesn’t have the immediacy of Perez Hilton? Then give them the Cs they deserve when they write bad papers. And then they whine to you about the grades they got. The Slashdot commenter would be such a strong writer or coder or mathematician that he could get by anyway: congratulations. But the other 24 people in the classroom probably can’t.

All this is to say that laptops can very easily and quickly become more a burden than benefit. For some classes they may be necessary or helpful, like programming classes. Still, not every lesson will call for them and not every teacher will want to use them.

“Here’s the dilemma — how much freedom do you give to students?” you ask. The answer depends too much on the instructor to give a firm answer, but I give the answer above in part because so many of the initial responses tend towards “let them do whatever they want.” Sure: and throw someone into an ocean a mile from shore and see what happens. If the teacher wants them to conduct a textual analysis of a Facebook profile, let them. If the teacher doesn’t want them to have Internet access, let the teacher have a kill switch for the room’s wireless router. That way, you’ll be allowing as much flexibility as the situation calls for.

Outside the school, students’ autonomy should be complete, and schools shouldn’t impinge on students’ rights to conduct themselves how they will. Many students will use computers in ways that seem wasteful, but a few will also hack them, use them for self-expression, and let the computers become assistants rather than crutches for thought.

Did you see what Randy Pausch calls the headfake in this essay? It’s partially about students, yes, but it’s really about how to create and learn. Computers can help those processes, but too often they seem to hinder. And when they hinder, they should be discarded. The real scarce resource in modern life is sustained attention.

EDIT 2015: Vox reports on a study that says “you should take notes by hand — not on a laptop.” The study claims that participants who wrote by hand had better recall, especially of complex concepts. Don’t take one study as definitive but in this case anecdote and research match.

In addition, Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World discusses similar topics. I think distraction and defeating it will be an ongoing saga for many decades.

* I haven’t gone as far as Paul Graham, who describes his solution:

I now leave wifi turned off on my main computer except when I need to transfer a file or edit a web page, and I have a separate laptop on the other side of the room that I use to check mail or browse the web. (Irony of ironies, it’s the computer Steve Huffman wrote Reddit on. When Steve and Alexis auctioned off their old laptops for charity, I bought them for the Y Combinator museum.)

My rule is that I can spend as much time online as I want, as long as I do it on that computer. And this turns out to be enough. When I have to sit on the other side of the room to check email or browse the web, I become much more aware of it. Sufficiently aware, in my case at least, that it’s hard to spend more than about an hour a day online.

And my main computer is now freed for work. If you try this trick, you’ll probably be struck by how different it feels when your computer is disconnected from the Internet. It was alarming to me how foreign it felt to sit in front of a computer that could only be used for work, because that showed how much time I must have been wasting.

Computer post: desktop or laptop/notebook?

Ars Technica reports that Global notebook shipments [have] finally overtake[n] desktops, making the issue all the more salient (Slashdot’s coverage is here). Of course, many of those notebooks are probably netbooks that supplement rather than supplant desktops, and the inflated notebook total is probably in part due to the disposable nature and limited longevity of notebooks. Still, the legitimate question remains, and my short answer for most people in most circumstances in “desktop.”

My work demands sustained concentration (see, for example, “Disconnecting Distraction”) and being in spot for a time helps that; I sold my PowerBook and used the proceeds for a 24″ aluminum iMac. It’s a vastly faster machine that’ll probably last longer than an equivalent laptop will and cost less. Those who want mobility pay for it, and I suspect most people overestimate their mobility and underestimate the benefits of a desktop.

But the question is one that an individual is better suited to answer, as it depends on that person’s needs, and I can only enumerate the trade-offs inherent in the laptop/desktop decision. The question becomes almost philosophical concerning the nature of the person you are: more peripatetic or less? Working for longer at a computer or not as long? Used to a large screen or not (becoming accustomed to space and then having it removed it difficult)? Annoyed by cable creep or not? To be sure, some groups of people are well-suited to notebooks: people who move often, have to travel frequently, and students scurrying between dorm and home all probably fit that category. I suspect there are fewer of them than the laptop numbers indicate and that many people don’t consider the detriments, especially ergonomically. I’ve heard the complaint too many times: my wrists hurt, or my back hurts, or my eyes are tired, and they almost always come from laptop users. I recently gave a friend an a Griffin iCurve for her laptop, which seemed to improve the problem. ICurves are no longer made, but the new version is called an Elevator.

An Elevator, external keyboard, monitor, and mouse improves the laptop, but they’re expensive. Comparing Mac equipment makes this delta particularly obvious—even if one buys third-party monitors—as various pricing specials and what not don’t obscure the underlying prices. One person in an Ars thread said, “I’ve found that if you don’t need mobility, paying for it is a bad idea.” Indeed: and the question becomes “need,” which I can’t answer. A Slashdot commenter said that “the lack of replaceable parts is one other reason why laptop sales are ‘higher’ than desktop sales.” Combined with a) the inherent jostling laptops experience and b) the compactness of the parts, raising the temperature inside the machine and increasing the likelihood that subtle manufacturing flaws will do things like pinch video cords or dislodge logic boards, this means laptops are likely to need to be replaced more often, in addition to their higher upfront costs.

I have an iMac, which has some of a laptop’s drawbacks, including no user-serviceable parts aside from RAM. But it’s also relatively easy to move and more likely to last than a ceaselessly mobile laptop. It remains in one place, making it easier to get in the zone, as described by Rands in Repose at the link. Books, mostly fiction but still a few technical ones too, surround my desk, and, like Malcolm Gladwell, I’m more likely to turn to them for quotes, inspiration, and sounding in many circumstances than to the much-scattered Internet:

[Gladwell ….] still prefers to do most of his research at the NYU library. Google is something of a personal hobbyhorse: “Google is the answer to the problem we didn’t have. It doesn’t tell you what’s interesting or what’s important. There’s still more in the library than there is on Google.”

He’s overstating his case but I take his point. Then again, the article also says that Gladwell likes to work in coffeeshops, which is anathema to me: I look every time someone walks by or the espresso machine goes off like a whistle, and at the end of three hours I’ve written as many sentences. There’s even a picture of him sitting at a laptop, perhaps contradicting some of my overall point.

Nonetheless, like most philosophy problems, this one has no perfect answer and is more an expression of underlying value than anything else. Granted, this decision has a greater economic aspect given the continued cost disparity between laptops and desktops, which seems unlikely to disappear in the immediate future. But I think that, if most people weigh what they value, the money and advantages of a desktop more often than not make them better machines. If you’re writing, or coding, or editing movies, or doing any number of other things for a sustained period of time on a somewhat regular basis, a desktop or laptop + external peripherals seems an improvement over a laptop. If you’re chiefly using a computer to read e-mail, check Facebook, and the like, the computer choice probably doesn’t matter. Either way, I’d rather the save money, although many others obviously prefer the mobility. To me, and presumably many others who like to write and to read, and the “deep thought” stage is, to my mind, more important than shallower activities that demand less cognitive attention. That’s not to say you can’t get in the zone or produce useful work on a laptop—millions of people obviously do—but I still think a desktop a more satisfying overall choice.

I can guarantee nothing, of course, and Lord of the Rings speaks to this issue, as it does to so many:

“… The choice is yours: to go or wait.” [Gildor said.]
“And it is also said,” answered Frodo, “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”
“Is it indeed?” laughed Gildor. “Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; how should I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship’s sake give it.”

EDIT: A recent NPD survey on netbooks found that “60 percent of buyers said they never even took their netbooks out of the house” (hat tip If your laptop never travels, why bother having one?

EDIT 2: I posted a follow-up regarding the relative reliability of desktops versus laptops. The former win according to the best data I’ve seen.

EDIT 3: Marco Arment has a post on why he’s now using a MacBook Pro instead of a Mac Pro. The reason: Solid State Drives (SSDs). The limiting factor on laptop performance for most people used to be the hard drive. With an SSD, it’s not. If you have enough money for a large-capacity SSD and are willing to put a conventional hard drive in the CD / DVD bay, you’re not giving up any substantial performance in day-to-day tasks. More than anything else, the growing power of SSDs make me think the days of desktop computers are limited.

%d bloggers like this: