Science and Technology

On Becoming a Fearless Computer User

On Becoming a Fearless Computer User

From 2000-2003 I was a creative writing major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a university most well-known for its schools of engineering and computer science.  Guess I could have thought that decision through a little better, but I’m glad I didn’t.  I even lived in a private dorm adjacent to the engineering campus, Hendrick House, surrounded by some of the strangest, most intelligent and most wonderful people I’ve ever known, almost all of them engineers.  When I arrived at UIUC, I knew the bare bones of computering—how to type, how to use a Web browser, how to use a word processor, and play a few games, but not much else.  However, over the course of three years living with these technological elite, I picked up more than a few tricks not only about using computers, but about how to fearlessly teach myself more.  And now I pass that on to you.  

Attaining fearlessness in the face of learning more about the computer lies in the art of reversibility.  The most common fear my students express is that they will press the wrong keys or click the wrong thingies and destroy their computers.  I try to assure them this is highly unlikely, but that discomfort still remains. Certainly I felt that way 10 years ago.  I discovered over time that there are particular steps you need to take to ensure that, if the worst happens and your computer stops working, you can back out of your mistake or recover your computer.  With the following steps accomplished, you’ll find that you feel much less hesitant about stepping outside your comfort zone.

On the Horizon in Mobile Computing

Ubuntu Linux and Firefox Company Logos

Tech is moving faster than ever and what we might still consider novel is, in fact, quite dated.  Do you realize that the iPhone and iPad mobile iOS operating system is close to six years old?  And Google’s Android is not much younger than that.  While both companies continue to innovate marginally, it’s safe to say we know roughly what to expect from both platforms, being as entrenched as they are.  Is the mobile market then ready for fresh competition or are newcomers (and a couple of “oldcomers”) just a flash in the pan against Apple and Google?

Sideloading Android Apps to Your Kindle Fire

Kindle Fire H D

The Kindle Fire HD really is a fine piece of mobile computing hardware.  Everything from the high-definition screen to the staggering Dolby audio fidelity to the grip of the device has been well thought-out.  It’s designed with media consumption in mind, with access not only to Amazon’s vast library of ebooks, music, movies, and TV, but also to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, and more.  And it’s cheap too, starting at $200 for a 16GB wifi variety.  It's a shame then that such a great device is paired with Amazon’s App Store, whose offerings are laughably, pitifully lacking when compared to the Google Play store.  What’s worse, you can’t put the Google Play store on the device without some serious Android hacking chops and voiding the warranty in the process.  But, if you or a friend own another Android device with access to the Google Play store, like an Android smartphone, there is a way around this!

Your Own Little World: Create a Terrarium

Whether it's filled with mossy rocks and ferns or sands and cactus, a terrarium is an amazingly fun way to learn more about nature. With a terrarium in your room, something of the outdoors can always be inside.

Terrariums that feature plants (not animals!) lock water inside to keep the soil moist. When the plants transpire, they let out water vapor. When the soil gets warm, it lets out water vapor. All this vapor collects against the top and falls back as rain.

The Earth, the Moon, and the Sun

How do the Sun and the Moon affect the Earth? Without the Sun, the Earth would be a big ball of frozen mud, just another asteroid, drifting in space with no gravity to anchor it here and nothing to give us heat and light. We could not be here without the Sun.

There's Nothing Hard About Rocks!

Rocks come in all shapes and sizes, but what kind are they? You can’t ask them, but sometimes, if you know how to listen, they’ll tell you anyway.

The shape and size of a rock doesn’t tell you much about what it’s made of.
Big rocks break into smaller rocks all the time. But there are other things to look for that can give you their I.D.

Water Pollution

Our rivers, lakes, and beaches are beautiful, but are they safe? Every day, the toxic runoff from parking lots, busy roads and quiet subdivisions makes its way into our streams and oceans. Even the oil burning off from cars on the roads gets washed into the groundwater and streams by way of the storm drain every time it rains.

The more houses we build, the more pollution we will add to our environment. Every time we lay down a new parking lot or piece of roadway, there is an impact on our environment.

Happy Hibernations!

Slow, sleepy winter days find many animals curled up in their dens. They sleep warmly through winter, awakening in spring ready to enjoy the renewed Earth. This unusual, deep sleep is called hibernation.

What Is Hibernation?

True hibernation is a very deep sleep. The animal's body temperature drops, its breathing slows, and it is very difficult to awaken. But some animals, such as most bears, do not really hibernate.

Citizen Science -- No Degree Required

Citizen Science -- No Degree Required

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to help astronomers learn about the Universe. You don't need a degree in biology to help track bird populations.  Interested in what whale songs mean? You guessed it—you don't need to be an oceanographer to help scientists figure it out. All it takes is an interest and computer access and you can join the growing ranks of Citizen Scientists. Most projects provide tutorials or clear instructions on their websites. You don't even have to be an adult!

Watch out for Cheap Tablets!

curtis klu tablet computer

Serial readers of the Tech Answers blog probably know that I would recommend either an iPad Mini or a Google Nexus 7 for an eReader tablet and that, though they are very pretty (the devices, not the blog readers, who could be pretty, but I wouldn’t know), I would guide most away from retailer-specific hardware like the Kindle Fire or the Barnes & Noble Nook.  But that overlooks one very important buying category: Cheap Tablets.  These are sub-$150 and often sub-$100 devices that you’ll find at convenience and drug stores.