Thursday, May 27, 2010


A Nerdy Academic's Tech Wish List

All that discussion of 'unbundling' and new technology in yesterday's post got me thinking about some gadgetry I'd like to see. Since I know some of my readers are also pretty tech-savvy, I invite their suggestions too.

- An e-reader that isn't too heavy or expensive, and that makes citing pages easy. We academic types like to be able to annotate and cite page numbers when we quote.

- An internet plan that covers home, mobile, and a smartphone for one price. Failing that, could we at least get the smartphone to serve as a wifi router, and not get charged extra for it? Honestly. And I don't want to have to use WebOS to do it, since it's an afterthought in the app-development world. Also, a battery that doesn't die or catch on fire after two hours would be lovely.

- Something close to a la carte pricing for cable. Let me pay a dollar per channel per month and choose my own channels. Failing that, let's get the video streaming services to a level where I can drop cable altogether without losing the kids' programs or The Big Bang Theory. We nerds love Sheldon, and he's not on Hulu.

- A "gong" app to use for meetings that have just gone on too long. Carrying my own analog gong is unwieldy.

- An open-source ERP program that actually works.

- A day on which the academic world agrees, en masse, to switch from Word to OpenOffice and/or Google Docs. Kill Word Dead. I, for one, will dance on clippy's grave. ("It looks like you're doing a celebratory jig. Would you like some help?")

- Room scheduling software that is cheap, customizable, and easily updated. You would not believe what room scheduling software goes for these days.

- A podcast platform structured similarly to Google Docs. As it is, if I'm halfway through a podcast at the end of the day but I need to update the other podcasts for the next day, I have to return to the same computer or the ipod will lose the memory of where I was. But if the podcast manager were on the cloud somewhere, it wouldn't matter which computer I used.

- Choice in home broadband providers. Either break the monopoly or regulate the hell out of it. Unregulated monopolies -- my local one rhymes with "bomb blast" -- are not pretty. (What's their customer service like, you ask? Bend over and I'll show you!) For that matter, meaningful choice in mobile broadband would be lovely, too. That cartel-like 60 dollars a month uniform charge needs to go.

- How about cheaper monthly rates for unsubsidized (or paid off) phones? If the rates are what they are in part to pay for the equipment, but the equipment is already paid for, shouldn't the rates be lower?

- A program that allows administrators to do inquiry-driven Institutional Research data slicing ourselves.

- A search engine that would work on my actual desk.

- Some sort of voice identification software for the phone.

- Some sort of name-recollection software plugged directly into my brain. Maybe a really inconspicuous version of "google goggles" that could be nano-engineered directly into contact lenses.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you have the techies generate next?

I love this list! I especially like your digs at the mobile/broadband companies. It's like highway robbery. And now that we're up to 3 phones on a plan, jeez.

I would add to the list, a course management system that doesn't suck, that looks like a cool web site rather than a cold-war era data entry system. And one should have a choice of open or closed, so that if one chooses to share, it might look like any other web site to the outside world and have a reasonable url to boot.

The other thing I want is a way to tell exactly what's in my cabinets and refrigerator and spit out recipes of things I can make with said items. It would also alert me when I'm out of milk and spit out a grocery list.
Fine, I will bite:

1. eReader. iPad, using the Kindle Reader (for "real books) and iAnnotate for PDFs. Yup, highlight, add notes, and export the highlighted areas and the notes. We have talked about these aspects extensively at our podcast "Real Tech for Real People" over at

2. Can't help ya with the one price thing (but honestly, I like the "ala carte" pricing for phone service...) As for the wifi router...actually, if you get an Android, you can use it as a "hotspot in your pocket" (or purse, or backpack, or...) It will essentially function as a MyFi (the name brand for the stand alone hotspot in the pocket.) You can also achieve this by jailbreaking your iPhone and installing "MyWi"--this works well. (Again, talked about on the podcast, and I even made the MyWi my "Pick of the Week" a while back.

3. Ala Carte pricing for Cable? Why? Just switch to Hulu and other Web sites. And if you say "I don't want to watch shows on my computer" check your notebook. Almost all new ones do HDMI out--just plug it in to your TV. Here I would also recommend giving a hard look at Boxee. Still in beta, but a great way to get most of your TV needs aggregated into one player. So, bottom line: Ditch Cable.

4. The Gong? Back to the Apps--for Android, iPhone, OR iPad--the "SoundPad" app is the first one that comes to mind. Gives you the ability to play ANY sound at the push of a plunger button. Feel free to turn any meeting into a "Morning Zoo" radio show.

5. ERP? Perhaps the problem isn't that they aren't working, but that you are applying a production and manufacturing tool to a service industry. (Alright, I understand they have rebranded their ERP products to fit that, but honestly--it's still a manufacturing oriented too.... if it is a "real" ERP.)

6. Change this to read "A day in which the Academic World agrees, en masse." (FULL STOP) Heck, let's get them to agree on simply what to have for lunch!

7. Room scheduling isn't that hard to implement on Excel, honestly... Unless you are a Lib Arts/Humanities prof... (*wink*)

8. Back to the iPad/iPhone and Android platforms. Just go to the shows you want to update and "get more episodes." It's a good implementation on the Android (and so far an afterthought, show by show on the Apple products) but it lets you get them "untethered." As I understand it, we should see a more cloud-synced solution from Apple with v 4.0.

9. I agree we need choice in broadband, but I would like to get the 45% of America that doesn't have broadband (landline) to their doors wired. We have allowed the digital divide to widen to far too great an extent. Yes, I realize it's Rural America, and that are "red state" flyover territory (er, I mean too costly to wire) but isn't that why we pay that USF? (Again a topic on our podcast... about 10 episodes back)

10. Agreed. If I buy the Google Nexus One (at full price) why must I continue to pay the same high fees at AT&T as I did with the two year (subsidized) contract? (we talked about that in the podcast too!)

11. Excel.

12. Search on your desk? But... cleanliness is next to...

13. Voice ID? As in you say "Hi Phone" and it KNOWS to respond "Good morning, Dean Dad"? Why...?

14. Cool....

Okay, I hope I have given some ideas here. Quite frankly, DD, you just may well have helped write Episode 39 of "Real Tech for Real People!" Let me know if you want to be a guest... we would love to have you on!
I completely agree on switching to Open Office. Hell, I'd just like to have ONE office suite that's completely free-as-in-beer (or, at least, cheap) and works on ALL operating systems to become the standard. (Writing my MA thesis on OO.o at home and MS Word 2003/2007 at work does work, but screws up the footnotes something awful.)

I'd also like to see an online search platform for grant opportunities - but one that doesn't list grants where the deadlines have already passed, and one that lets you specify location by state as well as national/unspecified. Oh, and one that doesn't cost a fortune to subscribe to, as well.
Quick Addendum to point 3. Let me insert at the beginning" Get basic cable--then you can watch Sheldon. For the rest, go Hulu and Boxee." (I won't even mention the ease with which you can get BBT and others via Torrents...)
@The Professor: you clearly have never tried to do room scheduling for ten thousand classes over thousands of class rooms when not all the classes run for the same lengths of time, need to seat different numbers of students, and have different sorts of technology in place. Excel is not sufficient for room management.

And, as far as I can tell from my limited use, the Kindle reader does NOT allow for standard page numbers. That means it is almost useless in a literature classroom (for example). It'd be the same as if the student didn't bring a book to class.

And I think (correct me if I'm wrong) that when Dean Dad says he wants "voice identification" for a phone, he means that the phone would listen to the voice and then tell you who is speaking (in case they don't identify themselves). I can see massive benefits for phone conferences and phone interviews.
Hahaha, google goggles! I would buy a pair in a heartbeat.

We just dumped our cable and we've been able to find almost everything we want to watch on Hulu and ESPN360. There was a playoff game that wasn't on ESPN360, so my husband just googled it and we found a free site on which to watch. It has been great and we're saving around $90 per month!! Highly recommended!!

1. True, but it is still a "simple" linear programming optimization problem. It's the asinine constraints that become a problem "Professor X only will teach from 8-10 and 2-3:15 and only on T/W/Th"

2. The Kindle DOES give standardized position numbers. Those numbers at the bottom? They are the same regardless of the font/"page" size. It just requires a new way of looking at the document (as a long flowing unity rather than a collection of pieces of paper).

3. I understood... (read the dialog I attached) and that's why I was wondering why he wanted a phone to do that. My phone is my phone. But then again, I have made that shift to mobile phone only, and that phone is my phone. It seems like it would be rather annoying in a teleconference for my phone to keep telling me who is talking (visual identification? I must always look at my phone? Audio--it's talking over the person talking...)
to follow up on the last comment from The Professor: Some physics journals have eliminated page numbers completely. Physical Review Letters gives each article an identifying number within the volume and issue.

I'll also add that the use of LaTex by the physics community, particularly in its journals, shows the way to use open source "printing" technology that frees you to use any editor you want, even vi. There are no numbering problems with BibTeX, which makes thesis writing a lot easier. Sadly, it does require skills lacking on the liberal arts side of the campus divide, but there are some wysiwyg interfaces available.

PS - You must be in heaven at the way TBBT ended its season. "I'll have tepid water." Try ordering that the next time you are in *$ during the pre-evening.
- if you are wanting to schedule conference rooms and whatnot, use Google Calendar. It works perfect for that. If you need something for scheduling classes across a campus, free up $200k for your IT department, and they should be able to build you a great piece of software that you can sell to other campuses.

- I agree completely on the phone plan thing. If I buy it out right, why don't I pay less.

- You don't want a la cart pricing for TV. This will kill all of the smaller channels. The market would be immediately whittled down to 50 channels.

- Again, with a small amount of funding, your IT department could probably build you a customized ERP system. The problem is that, if your IT department is like every other college/university, 3/4 of them are morons. Get a million bucks in funding, go through and hand pick the top 5 programmers in IT, and you'll have an ERP system (or class scheduling system) in about a year and a half to 2 years. Roll the support into normal functions of IT, and boom, no more licensing. You own it.

My wishes and desires are:
- Phone Apps that record your conversations (to be used for legal purposes)
- External touchpads (i.e. take your Apple touch pad, and make it external, so anyone could use it)
- Reliable (cheap) KVMs
- An easy way to network your music library across multiple computers/users (as well as DVD library)
- A government push to fine ISPs $100k a day per customer who does not get the advertised speed for their broadband.
Don't be too quick to kill of MS - one of my officemates pointed out that early versions of Encarta automatically included citation information when copying data. In itself, that's not too difficult to accomplish, if the document is properly prepared with the necessary metadata.

E-readers will be a bit of a problem. For weight/battery life/portability, I really want one with a 5" screen (my 3.5" devices have sufficed for many tens of thousands of pages of reading). For detailed graphics and charts, however, something a bit larger would probably be necessary, which negatively impacts those same desired features. For ease of copying, a stylus would help quite a bit, but that goes against the touch-screen GUI paradigm that's emerging.

You'll never get the academic world away from Office. If you want your graduates to be employable in the modern certificate-driven workplace you have to teach Office. Few enough people are willing to really learn one application suite (at my school, that number doesn't so much "approach" zero as "never budges from") that getting them to learn two is not feasible. In that environment, you're stuck with the one that's required, not the one that's desired.

If you can get it, Google Voice is a great phone app for recording (incoming) calls. It even does the required notifications. They only record incoming calls because that is the "lowest common denominator" for legal call recording, but still--a great start.

Another option? Move to Skype and get "Pamela for Skype." Skype In/Out will run ya $60 a year.

Other solutions as well, but here are two that are no or low cost.
I'm all about the search function for the desk/room (in my case), as well as being continually frustrated, after months of thesis writing/general academia, that I can't CTRL+Z real life. Actually had my fingers make the movement when I was in shock after a minor car accident.

Okie Floyd, I highly recommend Dropbox for sharing files across computers - free for 2 gigs, something like $5/month for 50 gigs, $10/month for 100? Really inexpensive and GREAT software, never had a single blip with it. Also had all of my (aforementioned) thesis on it - basically it's a folder that syncs between as many computers as you want, easily and without fuss. YMMV. If you're interested, I'd get an extra 250 megs for inviting you, send me an email!
We don't have cable or an antenna that works very well. We get by using our roku from Net*flix (TONS of kids shows and no commercials) DVDs that we buy and sites like Hulu. You end up waiting for some things (Big Bang Theory) but I like watching commercial free at my convenience.
Bekka, I second DropBox - I used it for my thesis, as well!
"It looks like you're doing a celebratory jig. Would you like some help?"

I burst out laughing at that one. Awesome. I swore after my MS that I would never use word again. Two years of being Word-free, and very glad.
"A search engine that would work on my actual desk."

This one. I want this one.

Or my own archeology student.

By the way, I murdered Clippy years ago, but I forget the method.
Hmph. How about any of the above that don't suck your brains out of your eyes and leave you glued to the screen when there are REAL PEOPLE in the room?
...and a cell-phone blocker for those rude nerdy tech people. Please, oh-sky-god, please.
Judging by the number of market and money related wishes, you're starting to sound like an economist.

An internet plan that covers home, mobile, and a smartphone for one price. Failing that, could we at least get the smartphone to serve as a wifi router, and not get charged extra for it? Honestly. And I don't want to have to use WebOS to do it, since it's an afterthought in the app-development world.

You could do one price billing, but it will be expensive. As in employer paid communication device expensive. Anyone who actually cares how much gets spent will continue to unbundle such service.

Similarly, the lack of tethering (distributing data plans to other computers via wifi) and contractual tethering prohibition is a direct result of subsidized phones. Without that 200 dollar discount, I think all smartphone platforms would be "after thoughts in the app-development world". Since the networks decide which phones to subsidize, and that leads to massive sales, phone makers know who drives the market. And it isn't you. Theory: if tethering were a popularly demanded feature, people would buy webOS or Maemo, and app developers would flock to it.

How about cheaper monthly rates for unsubsidized (or paid off) phones? If the rates are what they are in part to pay for the equipment, but the equipment is already paid for, shouldn't the rates be lower?

Tmobile does this right now. Which is great. You pay 10 dollars less a month, so over the 2 year contract term you save 40 bucks. Plus they don't own your phone firmware, and you can change plans without penalty and so on and so on.

Basically, your wishes above would be fulfilled if people used credit cards to finance better deals instead of a substitute for cash.
"It looks like you're doing a celebratory jig. Would you like some help?"

Oh, H3LL yes! Although we Mac users buried clippy long ago, I'd gladly jettison all MS tomorrow. Is it really too much to ask that there be a word processing app that can truly handle footnotes?

Amen about the room scheduling software, too.

Like OkieFloyd (or so I suspect), I live in Flyover country and while I'd really really like to get rid of cable, my very expensive broadband only works about 70% of the time, and that's a generous estimate.

About recording meetings: the iPhone comes with this app, and I recently heard about a pen that acts like a digital recorder. These are apparently indispensable in some dean's offices. (I think this is the product:
How old is your copy of Word? Clippy's not in Word 2007, and has been off by default at least since Office XP.
I think I eliminated clippy via right clicking on it and then removing the check on "use office assistant". That was my first action in word, so I'm going on 10+ years of memory and may be missing a detail or two.

The NPR Wait Wait Don't Tell Me riff on clippy is excellent, if you can find a copy.

@DD and a gong - perhaps there's a way to add such a sound to a cell phone, and then set up a timer for that sound? Perhaps a physical gong could be permanently installed in each conference room? Perhaps the side of an overhead projector cart could suffice?

+1 on latex, bibtex, etc. See lilypond if you know latex and want to typeset music.
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I'd love to see an e-reader specifically made to replace textbooks. The kicker of my wish isn't the technology of the reader, but the participation of textbook publishers.
I teach math, and I find that having a paper book is invaluable for students (as opposed to an electronic version) because they're often already intimidated by math, and it's easier to deal with when it's separated into smaller chunks (pages). I taught math online, and the ebook was terrible. But I digress.

I want an electronic version of all of the textbooks I use, in their current form, that would be readable on an iPad. I also want a word processing app where you can easily type in an equation and show it as math (and with a touch screen, can't we have it so you just draw the equation and it mathifies it???). I want to be able to multitask to go back and forth between reading the textbook and my notes on it. And I want a way to print to a wifi printer so that if a student misplaces an assignment, I can run off a quick copy.

That way, the iPad could replace a significant portion of the crap I have to haul with me to campus. I would totally invest $500 into that (if I had a full-time job and a real salary...::sigh::).
Room Reservations:

Adobe has an Employee Directory app with room free/busy features; if only we could afford an advanced programmer/analyst, I'd put that person on developing this further.

Amen to the Course Management comments, too.
Not to sound like an advertisement, but have you tried metropcs for cell phones? They unbundle the phone from the service and there's no contract. You have to buy a metro phone but I got a basic model for $25 and they have a blackberry type thing with a qwerty keyboard for $80. Unliminited calling & texting for $45/month ($50/month if you buy the $80 phone that goes on the internet for unlimited internet service) but cheaper if you do family plans. Customer service SUCKS but as far as I can tell, no other plan comes close in price (plus, for college students, the lack of a contract is awesome. If a given month I don't have the $45, I just turn off service for the month without any sort of penalty. I've met way too many CC students trapped into 2-year expensive contracts they can't always pay the bills on)
My wish is that there were some way CCs could help students get high-speed internet at home, or some discount for full-time CC students. Dorms at 4-yr colleges give free wireless internet, but when I looked into getting it for my mom's house (where I live while going to a CC), it was $80 a month!!!! (yes, $80!!! Damn comcast). Plus another $50 or so to make it wireless. That's not even close to affordable for a CC student. The computer lab's hours aren't good enough to get all one's internet work done at school (closes at 9pm, closed on weekends & holidays, which is when people have the most time to do schoolwork).
Our professors all just seem to assume that we can all hop on the internet at any time. The students who can't often get screwed in a variety of ways.
Some of the internet stuff that's required for school takes 10x as long to do using dial-up.
I mean, the CC itself is wireless. When they signed that deal with comcast (or whoever), why couldn't they include in the deal some provision that the ISP would also provide reasonable-cost high-speed home internet service for full-time, low-income students? (or sliding-scale service based on household income). They could add a few bucks in student fees for it, like they do for bus passes.
That would be something technological CCs could do for students that would really make it easier for us to succeed at school.
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