Back on the shelf: The Back of the Napkin

A fun and quick course in expressing ideas in pictures, Roam helps anyone – even those who are self-professed non-artists – learn how to use the most basic shapes and symbols to create a visual depiction of a complex proposal.

From amazon.com:

“There is no more powerful way to prove that we know something well than to draw a simple picture of it. And there is no more powerful way to see hidden solutions than to pick up a pen and draw out the pieces of our problem.”

So writes Dan Roam in The Back of the Napkin, the international bestseller that proves that a simple drawing on a humble napkin can be more powerful than the slickest PowerPoint presentation. Drawing on twenty years of experience and the latest discoveries in vision science, Roam teaches readers how to clarify any problem or sell any idea using a simple set of tools.

He reveals that everyone is born with a talent for visual thinking, even those who swear they can’t draw. And he shows how thinking with pictures can help you discover and develop new ideas, solve problems in unexpected ways, and dramatically improve your ability to share your insights.

See other books in the Curious Library.

Back on the shelf: Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm

The following is an essay I wrote as part of the online Coursera course “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.”

The fifty-two fairy tales collected in “Household Stories” by the Brothers Grimm are an original retelling of classic stories, untainted by Western influences on palatability or sensibility. They alternate between heartwarming, horrifying, and ridiculous and reflect three aspects of our culture: fears, desires, and principles.

The fear of persecution is reflected in stories where family members, thieves, or those in power abuse an unwitting or undeserving individual without cause and with seemingly no way out. Another fear, that of inescapable “bad luck,” is seen in characters that create capricious obstacles that require inconvenient solutions required for the hero’s rescue.

Desires for food and companionship are met through items like a magic tablecloth or a golden goose that provide unlimited wealth and provision and through the promise of a maiden’s hand or birth of a child.

Warnings, typically passed from parents to children, are documented in stories where obedience, selflessness, ambition, and tenacity lead to the success of the story’s hero.

A surprising theme that permeates the tales is a demeaning depiction of women, reflecting the male-dominated culture that distrusted and demeaned women. Women are often demonized as mothers, stepmothers, stepsisters, and others take pleasure in persecuting others. Women are also made out to be simpletons, who require a man – e.g., husband or prince – to rescue them. Men, on the other hand, are almost universally the rescuers and protectors. 

Similarly, those of low social class that surreptitiously come into wealth foolishly squander it or worse, use it to manufacture their own demise. In contrast, those of noble birth (and therefore wealthy) use their wealth for some great purpose – typically benevolent but sometimes evil.

Contemporary adaptations of ancient tales attempt to undo these stereotypes. To wit, the strong(er) Rapunzel character in the movie “Tangled” and the title character in “Aladdin” both demonstrate strong character and intelligence.

See what else is on my bookshelf…

Review: Google Nexus 7 – the tablet to rule them all

Technology-wise, yesterday was a great day. First, my Samsung Galaxy SII finally got the Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade Sprint had teased for weeks. But, and possibly more importantly, my Nexus 7 arrived.

The Hardware

The Nexus 7, the latest Android tablet from Google and Asus, is a 7″ tablet with a quad-core processor, the newest Jelly Bean version of Android, and a slick design. The form factor is wonderfully solid and polished. Amazingly, there are only three buttons and one port on the device. I love the micro USB port for charging and connecting since it’s the new standard (so I have a dozen such cables). The power button and two volume control buttons are the only interruptions in the sleek exterior.
The tablet has a nice heft; it almost seems a bit heavy for its size. The textured and rubberized back and rounded edges make it easy to hold in one hand for long periods, something I’m likely to do as I plan to use this in place of my current e-readers (Nook Color and Kindle 3). However, while the left/right bezel is a great width for holding the device (without pressing the screen), the top/bottom bezels are bigger than I’d prefer. A recent teardown seems to indicate that the extra space is used to house the camera and speaker components, but I wonder if they plan to shave off some millimeters in height for the 2nd gen.

The 7″ screen is simply gorgeous, with rich colors and textures coming through on both photos and videos. The video playback improvements touted by “Project Butter” are evident in the first ten minutes of the free Transformers preloaded on the device. I’m a bit concerned that I can’t find any confirmation (or denial) that Asus used Gorilla Glass on this. I hope the answer is yes, since the only available cover (from Google) wasn’t to my liking, so my tablet is currently unprotected.
I’m still torn whether a 7″ or 10″ screen is better for productivity. The 7″ is perfect for consumption of many types of media: ebooks, videos, and web sites. I still contend that the 10″ screens are better for content creation (blogging/writing, video/photo editing) and viewing large color documents (like graphic novels). But if any device could change my mind, it’s this one.

Jelly Bean

But I practically ignored the physical aspects of the tablet once I turned it on. The speed and fluidity that I’m able to navigate the Nexus 7 is nothing less than stunning. Seriously, this thing is wicked fast.

I’m a previous owner of Google’s former “reference” tablet model, the Motorola Xoom Wi-fi (which was so heavy I hardly ever used it) and the current owner of a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (still running Honeycomb), a Nook Color (rooted and running CM7 Gingerbread). With ICS now on my phone, I’ve experienced nearly every version of Android (my previous phone came with Donut, upgraded to Eclair, then I rooted it with Froyo).

With Jelly Bean, Android has finally reached the pinnacle of user experience. Between the hardware and the OS improvements, the Nexus 7 offers an unmatched user experience.

One of my favorite features of the Nexus 7 is the fact that it’s a Nexus device, which means no waiting for a manufacturer to release OS updates. In less than a day, a system update was already pushed to my device. Having a direct connection to Google for updates is going to spoil me for all devices (mostly Samsung) I own.

Early Observations and Tips

After linking my Google account and syncing, I delved into some of the preloaded apps. Launching Gmail, I was dismayed to find that I couldn’t rotate the tablet to landscape mode. I then realized I couldn’t rotate the home screen, either. Thankfully, a quick Google search turned up the solution:

“If you notice that the device isn’t rotating, feel free to pull the notification bar down and hit the rectangular icon with the two arrows around it. Actually, if it’s not rotating, it’s probably showing up as a lock with two arrows around it. In order to get your device to rotate, it needs to have the box with arrows”

Once turned on, any app that I previously used in landscape mode worked perfectly. I think it’s a mistake that Google decided to disable that by default.

Interestingly, all Google apps (Gmail, Chrome, etc.) are “pre foldered” and the folder is located in the Favorites tray, a quick-launch bar of icons at the bottom of the screen. Placing additional app icons on the home screen is the same as in previous versions of Android, but I found that my longstanding habit of long-pressing the home screen to add a widget no longer works. Since there was no menu option or “more” button, another Google search provided the answer: turns out there’s a “widget” screen on the app drawer. I’ll get used to this – and I already prefer it – but as I now have a phone on Ice Cream Sandwich and a tablet on Honeycomb, going between UI differences will be a challenge.

Had I taken a moment to step back from my excitement, I might have even found Google’s helpful (and free) Nexus 7 User Guide in the Play store. Already, I’ve found the answers to my previous questions as well as a wealth of knowledge about the device and OS which would have required serendipitous discovery.

Essential Apps and Features

While Jelly Bean’s stock keyboard is usable (and fast on the Nexus 7!), I still prefer the alternate Swype keyboard, so I downloaded that from the site. Thankfully, it works flawlessly with the new OS.

The built-in Google voice search is, quite simply, amazing. It’s like being on Star Trek. Merely saying “Google” triggers the search to wait for your voice input.

I’ve only briefly explored new Jelly Bean features like Face Unlock and Google Now (which offers real-time information based on your geolocation), but I plan to dig into it more in the coming days.

For now, I heartily recommend this tablet to anyone looking for a small form-factor Android tablet at an amazing price point.