Giving an overview improves your presentation

My housemate Jackie writes the blog Agent Plus Environment about her life as a Cognitive Science student. She and I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women In Computing this October, and she recently posted some presentation tips based on her impressions at the conference. Full details can be found on her entry, but the highlights are:
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Diversity of perspective and interview breakfasts

I had the pleasure of attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Atlanta a couple weeks ago, and I left excited for job-searching for the coming year. I submitted my resume to the conference’s resume database and received quite a few responses, several of which resulted in interviews at the conference. One company in particular invited me not only to interview with them, but also to attend their company breakfast for candidates to learn more about the company. I joined them for breakfast, and as expected I enjoyed myself thoroughly and learned more about the company.

As I left the breakfast with another candidate, I asked her what she thought of the event. She said that she enjoyed the food and conversation, but was worried that the hiring department was biased because all the people we’d spoken to had been “strong women.” When I asked her what she meant by that and why she would worry, she explained that because all the company representatives we met were charismatic, forceful women, it implied that meeker women did not make it through the hiring process, so that due to biased hiring a women had to be “strong” in order to be hired. Continue reading

How to predict a successful Google product (Hint: it’s the name)

Google announced last week that it will discontinue support for Wave, and I’m not surprised. At launch, the hype was huge and everyone was excited to bother their friends for Wave invites. But when I finally got mine, I opened Wave and thought, “What’s this? What am I supposed to do with this?”

The Wave interface is not as intuitive as what I had hoped for in a Google product. When I’m conversing in a wave, I’m never sure where I’m supposed to click or what I’m supposed to select. Judging by popularity, I don’t think I was the only one who thought so.
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Found key item: ShiftIt

I’ve been using a Mac for the past three years, so when the slick Windows 7 Snap feature came out, I admit, I was a little sad I wasn’t in the market for a new Windows OS. Enter ShiftIt, a utility for Mac which replicates the behavior of Snap. The Shiftit dropdown menu sits in my menu bar, and I can resize windows using either the dropdown menu or shortcuts. I use it primarily when I’m writing outlines for papers, so I can have my outline, notes, and research windows sized well together.

Admittedly, you don’t need this app to resize windows such that you can see more than one at once, but it makes the process much more zippy, accurate, and convenient.

(ShiftIt works with Mac OS 10.5 and 10.6.)

My PowerPoint rule of thumb

It’s the age of criticizing PowerPoint, and everybody’s doing it. Last November I wrote a wildly popular post on why I have trouble learning from Powerpoint presentations in college classes. This week, the New York Times published an article dramatizing the problem, writing how Powerpoint is hurting the United States’ war in Iraq. Officers’ time is too tied up in making bullet-pointed storyboards, to the extent that some of them spend more time on Powerpoint than anything else. I think the NYT chose the example of armed forces to make this story especially dramatic, and it goes a little over the top. The article even mentions that Obama was briefed with PowerPoint slides in last fall’s Afghan Strategy Review, as if to say that because the President sees it, PowerPoint is a scourge that has penetrated our deepest levels of government. Still, the article says out loud what many of us are afraid to: everyone is bored by Powerpoint presentations, and yet everyone expects them to be used.

I try to avoid the cursed Office product as much as possible. Sadly, a few of my professors actually require Powerpoint decks for class presentations. Having pity on my classmates, I try to make my presentations as interesting as possible. I have a rule of thumb, and it goes like this: when I consider what I need to include in each slide, I ask myself, if I were making this presentation without the aid of a projector, which visuals would I print out in hard copy because they’re that necessary to understanding the topic? These images, along with a caption or two, are the only things I’ll allow in my slide decks. If it’s not worth spending money to print out, it’s not worth wasting my audience’s time on. If there is something important to say, I think the best thing to do is just say it, and reserve the projector for images that aid understanding.

I think most people do not understand that their slide decks do not have to stand on their own. Instead, they copy half their speech into their slide deck, as though hearing it and reading it at the same time will increase the audience’s attention. This not only takes up more of the audience’s time, but the speaker also wastes more time making the presentation, as the officers quoted in the NYT article did. I think we’d save a lot of time in meetings if people would learn to just say what they wanted to say, instead of writing a storyboard about it.

“I don’t know anything about computers.”

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One of my biggest pet peeves is when friends say, “I don’t know anything about computers.”

This sentence irks me for a couple reasons. The first is that it is blatantly not true. I’ve met folks who have never touched anything more complicated than a solar-powered calculator. Compared to them, my friends — who use their computers constantly for schoolwork and practically live on Facebook — have considerable technical experience. It is disheartening to hear how little they value their knowledge.

Moreover, the context in which I typically hear friends say, “I don’t know anything about computers,” is as an excuse when their computer does something unexpected, they don’t know what to do, and they would rather back off and let someone else fix it than try to solve the problem on their own. My friends are afraid of their own machines. I think this sentiment is a symptom of ongoing trends in the industry towards a closed-box style of consumer computer design.

Cory Doctorow explains it better than I can in his iPad rant on BoingBoing:

The original Apple ][+ came with schematics for the circuit boards, and birthed a generation of hardware and software hackers who upended the world for the better. If you wanted your kid to grow up to be a confident, entrepreneurial, and firmly in the camp that believes that you should forever be rearranging the world to make it better, you bought her an Apple ][+.

[...] Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

While Apple’s closed-box style contributes to the ease of use which is the hallmark of Apple’s products, I’m afraid that it is changing consumer attitudes in a negative way. Apple wants to keep the inner workings of their products a secret to the point that they want to make it illegal for consumers to alter the software running on their own property. Preventing users from controlling the software on their own devices is dangerous for several reasons, but it scares me most because it discourages users from learning about their devices. In effect, Apple is profiting from its customers’ ignorance, and the consequence is that more of my friends profess, “I don’t know anything about computers.”

Apple’s products are a timely example, but other manufacturers are guilty too, and I think it’s the generation just now learning about technology that will suffer most for it. Curious kids will never be able to tinker with the insides of their iPads as they could with the Apple][+. I think we as technophiles have a responsibility to kids to pick up the slack. Get your kids a garage sale computer to take apart together. Find out if your teenager’s high school offers programming classes. Donate to or volunteer with groups such as TechBridge, which offers after-school programs in technology and engineering for underprivileged girls in Oakland, CA. But most importantly, make sure kids are not afraid of tinkering with technology. How else can they hope to make it better?

Cage puzzle animation

Here’s my latest computer animation project: Cage Puzzle. The assignment was to “create a unique world with its own rules: A world where what is possible, though seemingly impossible, is possible.” I chose the world of a little caged creature, with props in his cage with new rules he has to learn in order to get an award. This was animated in Autodesk Maya.

Should kids be building their brand already?

My first homepage - names and images blurred to protect the innocent and embarrassed.

Last month, Fred Wilson wrote an article on the importance of online branding for young people, especially those of us prying our way into the job market. He agrees with David Karp that the best way to secure a positive online presence is to sell yourself well and market yourself frequently. Examples include posting copious flattering pictures on Facebook to overwhelm the unflattering shots and spreading links to your LinkedIn profile so that unrelated flotsam doesn’t get a higher search ranking than your professional profile does.

I completely agree that pains should be taken such that when the prospective employers google your name, they never find unmentionable content before they find your homepage. When I google my own name, at least the top four results and two more of the top ten are actually about me, and moreover are pages I’d be comfortable letting a recruiter see. While I haven’t secured the domain for my full name, I do have a versatile domain that I like and that I’ll be able to use for my future portfolio.

I didn’t go about domain shopping until halfway through college. Wilson, on the other hand, brags that he bought the domains for his children’s full names a few years ago, and his daughters maintain photo blogs under theirs. He doesn’t mention how old his children are, and while a quick scan of the girls’ blogs shows that they’re probably college students, one might get the impression from Wilson’s article that he advocates kids begin to build their brand as soon as their early teens.

I’m all for building positive content, but I remember the kind of content I created when I was a teenager. No, I wasn’t a wild party girl, but in high school I did have a website dedicated to obscure and decidedly dorky interests. Sure it helped me learn HTML and CSS, but it’s far too embarrassing to showcase to potential employers. While I was proud of it at the time, I’m very glad I never promoted that website under my real name. Kids who start branding in their teens will be stuck with cached content that they probably won’t want associated with their names when they want to impress someone with their online presence. For this reason, I disagree with Wilson that kids need to start their branding early. I don’t think kids need to worry about self-branding until they know what they want to showcase. Until then, anonymity is a kid’s best Facebook friend.

Found key item: Readability

In response to cluttered news sites that contain far more flotsam than actual news, Arc90 Laboratory has created a browser tool called Readability which restyles articles from busy pages into something a little easier on the eyes. After you choose how you want your articles to look, Readability installs as a bookmarklet in your browser toolbar. As you come across an illegible article, click the bookmark; Readability pulls only the text of the article and relevant pictures into one clean, neat page, styled as you chose in setup.

For my bookmarklet, I chose Newspaper style with medium size font and medium margins, and I’m very impressed so far. I would strongly recommend Readability to anyone who peruses any amount of articles.

Readability transforms articles from this,

Into this,

I’ve only had a couple problems so far. Readability identifies the longest chunk of text on the page as the article, so if the article is very short, Readability either might not find it, or may substitute something else (I once ended up with a very readable set of Google text ads). Still, I anticipate that the demand for this sort of service is strong, and will continue to grow especially as screens become smaller and more cluttered.

My classmates are taking their notes digitally, but I can’t fathom how they keep up

I noticed today that as I frantically scribbled to keep up with my philosophy professor’s lecture, there was an audible hum of typing in the classroom. It was the first time I noticed that I could count more students using netbooks than notebooks to take notes in class.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like to take notes with a pen and paper. As I’ve discussed previously, the act of writing helps cement the lecture material in my mind better than passive listening does, and studies have shown that it’s not just me [pdf]. Still, I know that my old-fashioned ways are quickly going out of style.

I don’t know if typing notes aids memory as well as taking notes on paper does, but I do know that it does not work for me. I decided at the beginning of last year that it would be nice to bring my laptop to class so that my notes would be neatly organized (and actually legible for once), and changed my mind after only one or two classes. I could never type fast enough to keep up with the professor, and every five minutes I found myself cursing at not being able to copy the diagram on the board. It was a relief to have my Five Stars and Pentel R.S.V.P.s back at the end of that little experiment. Considering my negative experience, I wonder how my classmates can keep up. I know that not everyone learns the same way I do; maybe my peers don’t need notes as copious as mine in order to do well.

If notes are going digital soon anyway, maybe there is a technology that will make up for my ineptitude with typed notes. Tablet computers have been around for years, but I know only one person who uses one in class, and even then she types rather than using the stylus to take written notes. (Maybe Apple’s soon-to-be-announced tablet will bring tablet computers into more common use, the same way the iPhone has with smartphones.) There are also electronic pens which record your written notes for later uploading. I was able to test-write one such pen at MacWorld Expo last year, and it was all right. It would probably mesh well with my way of learning, but I don’t trust myself either to bring one pen to every class or to keep it charged. I’m also not sure if my busy schedule can accommodate the extra step of uploading the notes from the pen to my computer.

Of course, I’m making the assumption that my classmates are actually using their computers to take notes rather than goof off online, which is a huge leap of faith and a different rant entirely. But even though I’m not keeping up with the latest tech trends in note-taking, I’m doing what works best for my learning style, and I’m okay with that.