Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Three Macs in a Sea of Windows Muck

This past weekend, I had to attend an academic conference for science instructors at my university. It was one of those things I didn't really want to do, because it forced me to double up my teaching schedule and ended up nailing me with a freaking head cold. However, I did walk away with some interesting impressions about how we used computers both at the conferences and in our jobs.

Our school is transitioning to an online system for grading, which uses the same web system (WebTycho) that we teach DE (online) courses. I don't teach online, and want nothing to do with it, but I'm forced to use the grading system. WebTycho doesn't work well with Safari, but seems to work with FireFox - mostly. Sort of. I need to download some software via a university link in Tycho, but I couldn't get it, because I could only access it from a page I couldn't actually see - because I don't teach any DE classes. (>_<)


Much of the conference time was devoted to revising guidelines for lab courses, and even a lab manual for one course to replace a textboot. So, we had people distributed about the room at different tables with school-provided laptops, and our personal machines. There was a wireless LAN we could access with Airport, but it was quite slow at times.

There were two other Mac users there - "Y " (who I've known since I started teaching here, and currently uses a 12"PB like me on the road) and "G" (who is around 50 and just bought a new MacBookPro to replace her hingeless Titanium). Y is an experienced user, and recently sold off his older 17" and 15" PBs, and replaced them with a 12" and a new intel Mini. He and I swapped some files, but we had difficulty because of my lack of HD space. We moved a few by USB thumb drive, and copied the rest to CDRs. We found burning CDs to be a big time drain too. It was interesting that he used a firewall, and I didn't. This was a bit problematic when we were checking out each others' music catalog via iTunes sharing. Y worked with a different work group, but we shared the same table. I also contributed some stuff to their group. But rather than sharing our Macs' folders, we used my thumbdrive. This surprised me in hindsight, as sharing via network is easy to me. However, maybe he had reasons to protect access to his Mac.

G and I worked together on guidelines for Marine Bio Lab, so it was fortunate that we both had Macs. G has used Macs for several years, but wasn't very computer savvy. She had just purchased her MacBook two days prior, and was having some transition issues. She couldn't figure out why the trial version of MS Office kept opening when she double-clicked on any Word doc. It turned out that someone had moved her apps from her old TiBook to her new MacBook with Migration Assistant, and that she had been running Office X. She didn't realize Office had been updated, and balked when I suggest she buy a copy. But she kept working with the trial version, even though the notice to have her buy Office 2004 kept popping up. Finally, on the second day, she asked me to "make that annoying notice go away". I could have used the finder to change application prefs for .doc files, but I thought it would be better to delete the trial version. When I tried to explain what I wanted to do, she wasn't interested in the details. So I did it.

Ironically, I showed my inability to use the MacBook's trackpad whenever I tried to use her machine. I'm not sure if it was the settings, or this new version of the trackpad - but I couldn't drag anything properly, and everytime I touched it - it "double-clicked" whatever was under the pointer. I did share my Mac's user files with Y, and moved a Word doc to her Mac from of my docs folder. However, she was clueless how to do this herself, and rather than spend time to do it a second time when we need to, I handed her a USB thumb drive to move the file back to my machine for the final edit. I also tried to install 'Drop Copy' on her machine from my machine, but when I tried to drag a copy of the app to my thumb drive - the app wouldn't move there. Perhaps this is a safety feature in the Mac OS? Regardless, it surprised me.

So, it was striking that though both these folks had very different levels of Mac expertise, I ended up moving files the same way - by USB thumb drive and burning copies to CD.

Integrating with the Windows stuff was not simple. Many of the laptops showed up on the network list, but the networked printer (a Richoh) did not. In fact, I tried to find the printer via IP and AppleTalk, but couldn't see it listed. Many of the Windows users, however, also could not find the printer. This surprised me, as adding networked printers via the Printing Prefs usually works for me. I suppose this Ricoh model was not compatible with Macs or via a network.

We had to quickly present our guidelines via a LCD projector towards the end of the second day. The projector looked old, so I figured it might not work with my PB. So, I put the file we needed to show on the thumbdrive and inserted it into the USB slot. First, it took forever to find it, then started cataloging all the MP3 files on it without asking!! I cancelled it, but struggled, as this laptop's buttons and nipple pointer did not work properly. This happened 3 times, before I could open my Word file. I even started to get jeers from the Windows group, until someone explained that everyone had the same problem with it. After finally getting my file up, I started to regret not plugging my laptop into the projector.

Windows users were also pretty ignorant about some of the things their own OS and machines could do - like recording sounds in PowerPoint. When we discussed student papers and I mentioned I require all to be in PDF format - one of the IT guys complained that would necessitate all students to purchase Acrobat. This pissed me off, as these guys should have known about the free apps (e.g., PDFCreator) you can use with Windows for this purpose. I also mentioned that we could do this with any program in the Mac OS.

I guess I felt kind of smug about the whole experience - that our Macs really gave us an edge. But then I wondered why I didn't get the Mac people better coordinated in setting up file-sharing, and printing (if it was possible). I found that when our time was limited, and there was pressure to complete the task, I often ended up doing things the old fashioned way. About the only thing Mac-like we did, was share our iTunes folders.

Go figure.

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