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Academics and technology - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Academics and technology [Jun. 11th, 2007|05:13 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
[Current Mood |working]

Often I get the reverse of future shock -- I can't believe how backward our current technology is. For instance, it's extremely inconvenient not to be able to print the content of whiteboards. About a year ago, when I learned that a product that does just this has existed for quite a while, I had a hard time imagining why it's not installed in every academic institution and research lab in the country.

Now I'm finally in a place where they have these printable whiteboards, although I'm only here for the summer. I can't even function without a whiteboard, and in the absence of being able to print them I had to resort to photographing them with my cellphone camera if I wanted to save the information. So I'm happy for the moment.

My coworker and I were talking about why they don't have these in other places. He's from Yale, and he said the faculty there are still arguing about blackboards vs. whiteboards. Any other technology isn't even in the picture.

That made me realize what the problem is. Because of the tenure concept, academics have very long professional lifetimes unlike industry where you hop from job to job every few years. So while academics might be good at keeping up with the literature in their field, the technology that's peripheral to their work (like whiteboards) changes all the time but they don't keep up with it. They still use what they were using 30 years ago.

While I'm at it, let me point out the absurdity of using a system meant for dead trees (Latex) for sharing research papers. Even though we mostly distribute papers electronically, we ignore the humongous advantages of dynamic text in conveying complicated concepts and instead force ourselves to use static presentation technologies that look especially shitty when viewed on screens. Inexplicable.

[User Picture]From: theswede
2007-06-12 06:04 am (UTC)
I agree, apart from the latex comment; if you get the tex file, and it's not shock full of borked code, you can turn it into highly readable, flowing html. That's why I like latex and use it for document generation from our code; we get marvellous printouts, indexed and well laid out pdf's, as well as structured text in various well flowed forms (chm and html).

Of course, I would suspect that most academical templates contain a fair chunk of tex code which will not lend itself too well to this, but I don't know this - and I'm not really about to test it, I've little contact with academia when working in the industrial sector, at least at present.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2007-06-12 06:08 am (UTC)
You're right about tex. But I realize I didn't type quite what I meant -- my complaint was about postscript rather than latex. When people share papers, it's always the former format.
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[User Picture]From: theswede
2007-06-12 06:19 am (UTC)
I most certainly agree on that; postscript, while very good in the few cases where layout actually is part of the presentation, is normally lousy for viewing on screens of various forms.

Hopefully my letter/A4 sized electronic ink document viewer will be arriving soon though, and that will no longer be a problem. If someone would just start making them at affordable prices.
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[User Picture]From: theswede
2007-06-12 06:21 am (UTC)
And instead of "presentation" it should say "subject matter" or somesuch. You knew what I meant!
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[User Picture]From: skthewimp
2007-06-12 04:50 pm (UTC)
i don't know whether they finally bought it but the CS Dept at IITM was planning to buy one such - a printable whiteboard. sometime in my 4th year, I had stumbled into Raman's room for some random work and there was a presentation on by the vendor, and he seemed quite enthusiastic about it.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2007-06-13 03:20 pm (UTC)
Ha ha.. it'd be funny if IITM has better technology than most univs in the US.
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