Incarceration in Real Numbers

This is stunning, both in terms of content and in terms of its presentation.

The content is depressingly familiar – the fact that the US incarcerates (in real numbers and as a percentage of population) vastly more people than any other country in the world, the fact that it really likes to do so to visible minorities in particular, and the fact that the system is shockingly corrupt at every level – but the detail is deeply disturbing. I was particularly amazed to learn that around 2% of those vast numbers of incarcerated Americans have actually had a trial. It provides lots of effective comparisons (with other countries, with different demographics, between different demographics, etc) that provide a good sense of the scale of the problem.

What makes this so powerful, though, is the brilliant, JavaScript-powered, interactive presentation. This is one extraordinarily long web page that shows individual images (in symbol form) of all 2.3 million incarcerated Americans, including a count of where you are now to put this into context. To read it, you have to keep scrolling. Keep scrolling, even if you get tired: it’s worth it. It’s particularly effective on a tablet, and less likely to lead to RSI. Some ingenious (but not at all complicated) coding brings phrases, infographics, statistics, and the occasional interactive element into view along the way, hovering for a while whilst you scroll, or becoming part of what you see as you scroll. You control this – you can slow down, go back, pause, and interact with much of the content as it appears. Watch out for some brilliant ways of representing proportions of population, showing graphs at their true scale, and emphasizing agency by showing the likely effects of different interventions.

The experience is deeply visceral – it’s an engagement with the body, not just the eye and brain.  The physical act of scrolling repeatedly hammers home what the numbers actually mean, and the fact that you play such an active role in revealing the content makes it much more impactful than it would be were it simply presented as text and figures, or hyperlinks. I’ve not seen this narrative form used in such a polished, well-integrated way before. This is a true digitally native artwork. The general principle is not dissimilar to that of most conventional e-learning content of the simplest, most mundane next-previous-slide variety. In fact it’s simpler, in many ways. The experience, though, is startlingly different.

It’s quite inspiring. I want to explore this kind of approach in my own teaching, though I don’t know how often I could use it before the effect gets stale, there may be some accessibility issues, and, if it were used in a course context as a means of sharing knowledge, it could easily become as over-controlling as a lecture. That said, it’s a brilliant way to make a point, far more powerfully than a PowerPoint, and  more engagingly than text, images, or video alone. It could be very useful. At the very least, it might provide a little inspiration for my students seeking ideas for using JavaScript on their sites.

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Affordable Internet for Canada – Virtual Day of Action today (March 16)

This is a timely event, running today via Zoom, as Rogers unexpectedly announce an attempted takeover of Shaw, thereby not only acquiring Shaw’s extensive cable Internet and TV business, but also one of the last remaining serious competitors to the big mobile companies, Freedom Mobile (my cellular provider of choice). The takeover of Freedom by Shaw was in itself a serious matter for concern, especially as it allowed them to sneak in an anti-competitive way to undercut small Internet service providers like Teksavvy (my Internet provider of choice), who use its infrastructure to offer better value options, and who have already been royally screwed by Shaw in every way legal loopholes allow. This would be a disaster for consumers.

Thanks to the power of the big three (Telus, Bell, and Rogers) Canada is already among the most expensive places for mobile and Internet plans in the world. This is bad news in countless ways, not least of which being the extra tax it adds for online learners, nor the fact that those most in need (outside large, mostly Southern urban areas) are the least well served. Destroying the competition does not seem like the best way to deal with this already serious problem. Successive governments have failed to curb the power of big telcos to do pretty much what they like, at best achieving small temporary victories, eventually being out-manoeuvred every time. More serious legislative action is needed, especially to support those in outlying areas.

Add your voice to the protest!

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My keynote slides from Confluence 2021 – STEAM engines: on building and testing the machines in our students’ minds

STEAM Engines

These are my slides for my keynote talk at the IEEE 11th International Conference on Cloud Computing, Data Science & Engineering (Confluence-2021), hosted by Amity University, India, 28th January 2021. Technically it was 27th January here in Vancouver when I started, but 28th January when I finished. I hate timezones.

The talk winds up being about how to be a (mainly online) teacher in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) – not how to teach, as such – but it gets to the point circuitously through discussing some aspects of the nature of technology, using a subset of my coparticipation model. In (very brief) the idea behind that is that ‘technology’ means organizing stuff to do stuff (any stuff), and we are not just users but participants in that organization, either playing our roles correctly (hard technologies) or organizing stuff ourselves (soft technologies). Almost always, thanks to the fact that almost all technologies are assemblies of and with other technologies, it is a mix of the two. In the technologies of learning there are many coparticipants, all playing roles, soft or hard or both. The designated teacher is only one of these, of varying significance.

The talk dwelt on the technological nature of teaching itself, and on the technological nature of the results of teaching. Teaching (as a distributed process) can usefully be seen as a process of building technologies in learners’ minds, some hard (training), some soft (teaching). These technologies can, like all technologies, be assembled together or with others, so our minds are both enacted and extended through technologies with one another and with the constructed world around us.

In STEM subjects there is a tendency to focus a lot more on building hard technologies than on soft technologies, because there tends to be a lot of hard stuff to learn before you can do anything much at all. There are many other subjects like this, including one of the biggest, language learning. The same is actually true in softer disciplines but students tend to come equipped with a lot of the basic hard stuff – especially language, debating skills, etc – already, so a really big part of the machine already exists. However, as much as it is in the liberal arts (the ‘A’ in STEAM), it is actually the soft technologies – what we do with those hard machines in our minds, the soft technologies we assemble with them – that actually matters, personally, in the workplace, and in our social lives. Also, from a motivational perspective it is normally a really bad idea to force people to learn a lot of hard stuff without them actually having a personal need or desire to do so. Training people in the hard stuff without using it in a soft, personally/socially relevant and meaningful context is a recipe for failure, though the fact that hard skills and knowledge can be accurately measured means that assessments of it tend to create an illusion of success. ‘Success’, though, just means that the hard machine works as intended, not that it actually does anything useful.

Avoiding this chicken and egg problem – the need for hard skills before you can do anything, but the uselessness of them in isolation – is not difficult. In fact, it is how we learn to speak, and many other things. It means letting go of the notion that teachers control everything, embracing the distributed nature of teaching, and designing ways of learning that support autonomy, achievable challenge, and relatedness. To do this means making learning (not just its products) visible, creating a culture and tools for sharing, and designing in support processes to help learners overcome obstacles. Basically, from a designated teacher’s perspective, it’s about letting go and staying close. It’s much the same as how we bring up our kids, as it happens.

It was an odd session, a lecture with no direct interaction. In itself, this would not be a great learning experience for anyone. However – and this is one of my big points – it is the assembly that matters, not the individual components, and I was not the one doing that assembly. Seen as a component of learning, attended without coercion or extrinsic goals, my little lecture is something that can be assembled to make something quite useful.

EdTech Books

This is a great, well presented and nicely curated selection of open books on education and educational technology, ranging from classics (and compilations of chapters by classic authors) to modern guides, textbooks, and blog compilations, covering everything from learning theory to choice of LMS. Some are peer-reviewed, there’s a mix of licences from PD to restrictive CC , and there’s good guidance provided about the type and quality of content. There’s also support for collaboration and publication. All books are readable online, most can be downloaded as (at least) PDF. I think the main target audience is students of education/online learning, and practitioners – at least, there’s a strong practical focus.

Originally posted at: (where you can find some really interesting comments, including the one that my automated syndicator mistakenly turned into the main post the first time it ran)

How distance changes everything: slides from my keynote at the University of Ottawa

These are the slides from my keynote at the University of Ottawa’s “Scaffolding a Transformative Transition to Distance and Online Learning” symposium today. In the presentation I discussed why distance learning really is different from in-person learning, focusing primarily on the fact that they are the motivational inverse of one another. In-person teaching methods evolved in response to the particular constraints and boundaries imposed by physics, and consist of many inventions – pedagogical and otherwise – that are counter-technologies designed to cope with the consequences of teaching in a classroom, a lot of which are not altogether wise. Many of those constraints do not exist online, and yet we continue to do very similar things, especially those that control and dictate what students should do, as well as when, and how they should do it. This makes no sense, and is actually antagonistic to the natural flow of online learning. I provided a few simple ideas and prompts for thinking about how to go more with the flow.

The presentation was only 20 minutes of a lively and inspiring hour-long session, which was fantastic fun and provided me with many interesting questions and a chance to expand further on the ideas.


Course Content – London Interdisciplinary School

For those in other parts of the world, some translation may be needed here in order to understand what is novel about the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS): a course in the UK is equivalent to a program in North America, and a module is equivalent to a North American course (or unit, if you are Australian, or paper, if you are from NZ). The UK does also sometimes have programmes, though these are mostly administrative umbrellas to make course management easier, rather than things you can enrol on as a student. I will use the UK terms in this post.

The LIS is the first new ratified degree-awarding institution in the UK since the 60s, though more are coming soon. It has one and only one course. The modules for this course are problem-based, centred around real world issues, and they focus on connecting rather than separating subjects and disciplines, so students can take a very diverse range of paths through them, hooking them into workplace practice. There are plenty more conventional (mostly optional) modules that provide specific training, such as for research methods, web design, and so on, but they seem to be treated as optional supports for the journey, rather than the journey’s destination, in a similar way to that used on many PhDs, where students choose what they need from module offerings for their particular research program.

Strongly interdisciplinary and flexible courses are not new, even in the UK – Keele, for instance, has encouraged pretty much any mix of modules for more than half a century, and many institutions provide a modular structure that gives a fair bit of flexibility (though too rarely between, say, arts and sciences).  What differentiates the LIS approach is that it explicitly gets rid of subjects and disciplines altogether, rightly recognizing no distinct boundaries between them. I like this. The tribes and territories of academia are ridiculous inventions that emerge from place-based constraints, bureaucratic management concerns, and long, long path dependencies, not from any plausible rationale related to learning or intellectual coherence.

The college is partially funded by government but operates as a private institution. I look forward to seeing where they go next.

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Joyful assessment: beyond high-stakes testing

Here are my slides from my presentation at the Innovate Learning Summit yesterday. It’s not world-shattering stuff – just a brutal attack on proctored, unseen written exams (PUWEs, pronounced ‘pooies’), followed by a description of the rationale, process, benefits, and unwanted consequences behind the particular portfolio-based approach to assessment employed in most of my teaching. It includes a set of constraints that I think are important to consider in any assessment process, grouped into pedagogical, motivational, and housekeeping (mainly relating to credentials) clusters. I list 13 benefits of my approach relating to each of those clusters, which I think make a pretty resounding case for using it instead of traditional assignments and tests. However, I also discuss outstanding issues, most of which relate to the external context and expectations of students or the institution, but a couple of which are fairly fundamental flaws (notably the extreme importance of prompt, caring, helpful instructor/tutor engagement in making it all work, which can be highly problematic when it doesn’t happen) that I am still struggling with.

Echoes and polarization in Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter: it's not just about the algorithms

Faecesbook The authors of a recent paywalled article in MIS Quarterly here summarize their findings in another restrictive and normally paywalled site, the Washington Post. At least the latter gives some access – I was able to read it without forking out $15, and I hope you are too. Unfortunately I don’t have access to the original paper (yet) but I’d really like to read it.

The authors examined the web browsing history of nearly 200,000 US adults, and looked at differences in diversity and polarization related to use of Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook, correlating it with political leanings. What they found will surprise few who have been following such issues.  The headliner is that Facebook is over five times more polarizing for US conservatives than for liberals, driving them to far more partisan news sites, far more of the time. Interestingly, though, those using Reddit visited a far more diverse range of news sites than expected, and tended towards more moderate sites than usual: in fact, the sites were a claimed 50% more moderate than what they would typically read. Furthermore, and just as interesting to me, Twitter seemed to have little effect either way.

The authors blame this on the algorithms – that Facebook preferentially shows posts that drive engagement (so polarizing issues naturally bubble to the top), while Reddit relies on votes for its emphasis, so presenting a more balanced view. In the Washington Post article they have little to say about Twitter, apart from that it wants to be more transparent in its algorithms (though nothing like as transparent as Reddit). But it isn’t, and I think I know why that lack of effect was seen.

Algorithms vs structure

You could certainly look at it from an algorithmic perspective. There is no doubt that different algorithms do lead to different behaviours. Facebook and Twitter both make use of hidden algorithms to filter, sort, and alter the emphasis of posts. In Twitter’s case this is a relatively recent invention. It started using a simpler, time-based sort order, and it has become a much less worthwhile site since it began to emphasize posts it thinks individuals want to see. I don’t like it, and I am very glad to hear that it intends to revert to providing greater control to its users (what Judy Kay calls scrutable adaptation). Reddit’s algorithms, on the other hand, are entirely open and scrutable, as well as being intuitive and (relatively) simple. It is important to remember that none of these sites are entirely driven by computer algorithms, though: all have rules, conditions of use, and plentiful supplies of humans to enforce them. Reddit has human moderators but, unlike the armies of faceless paid moderators employed by Twitter and Facebook to implement their rules, you can see who the moderators are and, if you put in the effort and feel so inclined, you could become one yourself.

However, though algorithms do play a significant role, I think that the problem is far more structural, resulting from the social forms each system nurtures. These findings accord very neatly with the distinction that Terry Anderson and I have made between nets (social systems formed from connections between individuals) and sets (social systems that form around interests or shared attributes of their users). Facebook is the archetypal exemplar of the network social form; Reddit is classically set-oriented (as the authors put it ‘topic based’); Twitter is a balanced combination of the two, so the effects of one cancel out the effects of the other (on average). It’s all shades of grey, of course – none are fully one or the other (and all also support group social forms), and none exist in isolation, but these are the dominant forms in each system.

Networks – more specifically, scale-free networks – have a natural tendency towards the Matthew Effect: the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. You can see this in everything from academic paper citations to the spread of diseases, and it is the essence of any human social network. Their behaviours are enormously dependent on highly connected influencers, They are thus naturally inclined to polarize, and it would happen without the algorithms. The algorithms might magnify or diminish the effects but they are not going to stop them from happening. To make things worse, when they are taken online then it is not just current influence that matters, because posts are persistent, and continue to have an influence (potentially) indefinitely, whether the effect is good or bad (though seldom if it is somewhere in between).

There are plenty of sets that are also highly partisan. However, they are quite self-contained and are thus containable, either because you simply don’t bother to join them or because they can easily be eliminated: Reddit, for instance, recently removed r/the_donald, and extreme right wing subreddit for particularly rabid supporters of Trump, for its overwhelmingly violent and hateful content. Also, on a site such as Reddit, there are so many other interesting subreddits that even the hateful stuff can get a bit lost in the torrent of other news (have you seen the number of subreddits devoted to cats? Wow). And, to a large extent, a set-based system has a natural tendency to be more democratic, and to tend towards moderate views. Reddit’s collective tools – karma, votes, and various kinds of tagging – allow the majority (within a given subreddit) to have a say in shaping what bubbles to the top whereas, in a network, the clusters that form around influencers inevitably channel a more idiosyncratic, biased perspective. Sets are intentional, nets are emergent, regardless of algorithms, and there are patterns to that emergence that will occur whether or not they are further massaged by algorithms. Sets have their own intractible issues, of course: flaming, griefing, trolling, sock-puppeting and many more big concerns are far greater in set-based systems, where the relatively impersonal and often anonymous space tends to suck the worst of humanity out of the woodwork.

I would really like to see the researchers’ results for Twitter. I hypothesize that the reason for its apparent lack of effect is that the set-based features (that depolarize) counterbalance the net-based features (that polarize) so the overall effect is null, but that’s not to say that it has no effect: far from it. People are going to be seeing very different things than they would if they did not use Twitter – both more polarized and more moderate, but (presumably) a bit less in between the two. That’s potentially very interesting, especially as the nuances might be quite varied.

Are networks necessarily polarizing?

Are all online social networking systems evil? No. I think the problem emerges mainly when it is an undifferentiated large-scale general purpose social networking system, especially when it uses algorithmic means to massage what members see. There are not many of those (well, not any more). There are, however, very many vertical social networks, or niche networks that, though often displaying the same kinds of polarization problem on a smaller scale, are far less problematic because they start with a set of the people who share attributes or interests that draw them to the sites. People are on Facebook because other people are on Facebook (a simple example of Metcalfe’s Law). People are on (say) ResearchGate are there because they are academics and researchers – they go elsewhere to support the many other facets of their social lives. This means that, for the most part, niche networks are only part of a much larger environment that consists of many such sets, rather than trying to be everything to everyone. Some are even deliberately focused on kindness and mutual support

Could Facebook shift to a more set-oriented perspective, or at least develop more distinct and separate niches? I doubt it very much. The whole point of Facebook is and always has been to get more people spending more time on the site, and everything it does is focused on that one goal, regardless of consequences. It sucks, in every way, pulling people and content from other systems, giving nothing back, and it thrives on bias. In fact, it is not impossible that it deliberately nurtures the right-wing bias it naturally promotes, because it wishes to avoid being regulated. Without the polarization that drives engagement, it would lose money and users hand over fist, and there are bigger, more established incumbents than Facebook in the set space (YouTube, at least). Could it adjust its algorithms to reduce the bias? Yes, but it would be commercial suicide.  Facebook is evil and will remain so because its business model is evil. For more reasons than I can count, I hope it dies.

It could have been – and still could be – different. Facebook more or less single-handedly and very intentionally maimed the Open Social project, to which virtually all other interested organizations had signed up, and that would have allowed federation of such systems in many flexible ways. However, the dream is not dead.  A combination of initiatives like Solid, perhaps a browser-based approach to payments, certainly connecting protocols like Webmention, and even the not-quite-dormant OpenSocial might yet enable this to happen. Open source social networking software, like Diaspora or Mastodon  or Elgg or Minds (with some provisos), support something like a distributed model, or at least one that can be owned by individuals rather than corporations. WordPress dwarfs every other social system in terms of users and websites, and is inherently set-based and distributed: there are also plentiful plugins that support those other open protocols to provide deeper connections. This kind of distributed, open, standards-based initiative could radically alter the dynamic, giving far more control to end users to pick the sets and networks that matter to them, to wrest control of the algorithms from one big behemoth, and to help build a richer, more tolerant society. I am delighted to see that Facebook has lost a couple of million of its US and Canadian users as well as being boycotted by lots of advertisers, and I hope that the void isn’t being filled by Instagram (also Facebook). It could be the start of something big, because Metcalfe’s Law works the same in reverse: what goes up fast can come down just as quickly.  Get in on the trend while it’s hot, and join the exodus!

Originally posted at:

Asus Flip C234 Chromebook review

I’ve been thinking for some time that I need to investigate Chromebooks – at least, ever since Chrome OS added the means to run Android and Linux apps alongside Chrome web apps. I decided to get one recently because I was going on a camping trip during which I’d be required to do some work, and the (ridiculously many) machines I already had were all some combination of too limited, too unreliable, too fragile, too heavy, too power-hungry, too buggy, or too expensive to risk in a muddy campsite. A Chromebook seemed like a good compromise. I wanted one that was fairly cheap, had a good battery life, was tough, could be used as a tablet, and that was not too storage-limited, but otherwise I wasn’t too fussy. One of the nice things about Chromebooks is that, notwithstanding differences in hardware, they are all pretty much the same. 

After a bit of investigation, I noticed that an Asus C234 Flip with an 11.6″ screen was available at BestBuy for about $400, which seemed reasonable enough, based on the advertised specs, and even more reasonable when they lopped $60 off the price for Labour Day. Very unusually, though, the specs on the site were literally all that I had to go on. Though there are lots of Flip models, the C234 is completely unknown, apparently even to Asus (at least on its websites), let alone to reviewers on the web, which is why I am writing this! There’s no manual with it, not even on the machine itself, just a generic leaflet. Following the QR code on the base of the machine leads to a generic not-found page on the Asus site. Because it looked identical to the better-known Flip C214 I thought BestBuy must have made a labelling mistake but the model number is clearly printed in two places on the base. Despite the label it is, in fact, as I had guessed and eventually confirmed by circuitous means, identified by Asus themselves as a Flip C214MA, albeit with 64GB of storage rather than the more common 32GB and a very slightly upgrade Intel Celeron N4020 CPU instead of an N4000. This model lacks the option of a stylus that is available for many C214 models (pity – that seemed very nice). It was not quite the cheapest Chromebook to fit the bill, but I trust Asus a lot and have never regretted buying one of their machines over about 20 years or more of doing so quite frequently. They really know how to design and build a great computer, and they don’t make stupid compromises even on their cheapest machines, be they PCs, tablets, phones, or netbooks. Great company in a sea of dross.

Hardware overview

The C234 comes with only 4GB RAM, which means it can get decidedly sluggish when running more than a handful of small apps, especially when some of them are running under Linux, but it is adequate for simple requirements like word processing, light photo editing, audio recording, web browsing, email, webinars, etc: just the use cases I had in mind, in fact. The 64GB of storage is far less than I’d prefer but, I calculated, should be fine for storing apps. I assumed (wrongly) that any data I’d need locally could be kept on the 256GB SDXC card that I bought to go with it so I was – foolishly – not too concerned. It turns out that Android apps running under ChromeOS that can save data to the SD card are few and far between, and ChromeOS itself is barely aware of the possibility although, of course, most apps can read files from just about anywhere so it is not useless. Unfortunately, the apps that do not support it include most video streaming services and Scribd (which is my main source of ebooks, magazines, and audiobooks) – in other words, the ones that actually eat up most space. The physical SD slot is neat – very easy to insert and difficult (but not too difficult) to remove, so it is not going to pop out unexpectedly.

The computer has two full-spec USB-C ports that can be used for charging the device (45W PD, and not a drop less), as well as for video, external storage, and all the usual USB goodness. It has one USB-A 3.0 socket, and a 1/8″ combo mic/headphone socket that can take cellphone headsets or dedicated speakers/microphones. The wifi and bluetooth are both pretty modernish mainstream, adequate for all I currently have but maybe not everything I might buy next year. There is a plastic tab where a stylus is normally stored but, buyer beware, if the detailed model number doesn’t end in ‘S’ then it does not and cannot support a stylus: no upgrade path is available, as far as I can tell. Wifi reception is very good (better than my Macbook Pro), but there is no WiFi6. There’s no cellular modem, which is a pity, but I have a separate device to handle that. It does have a Kensington lock slot, which I guess reflects how it might be used in some schools where students have to share machines. Going back to the days when I used to manage university computer labs, I would have really liked these machines: they are very manageable. A Kensington lock isn’t going to stop a skilled thief for more than a couple of seconds but, as part of a security management strategy, they fit well.

The battery life is very good. It can easily manage 11-12 hours between charges from its 50WH battery, and could almost certainly do at least a couple more hours if you were not stretching its capabilities or using the screen on full brightness (I’m lazy and my eyesight is getting worse, so I tend to do both). It charges pretty quickly – I seldom run it down completely so the longest I’ve needed to plug it in it dropped below 20%, has been a couple of hours. It uncomplainingly charges from any sufficiently powerful USB-C charger.

As a laptop the Flip feels light in the hand (it weighs in at a little over a kilogram) but, as a tablet, it is pretty heavy and unwieldy and the keyboard cannot be detached. This is a fair compromise. Most of the time I use it as a laptop so I’d rather have a decent keyboard and a battery that lasts, but it is not something you’d want to hold for too long in the kind of orientations you might with an iPad or e-reader. Its 360 degree screen can fold to any intermediate angle so it doesn’t need a separate stand if you want to perch it on something, which is handy in a tent: while camping, I used it in both (appropriately) tented orientation and wrapped over a big tent pocket so that it was held in place by its own keyboard.

Video and audio

The touch screen is OK. At 1366×768 resolution and with a meagre 162 pixels per inch it is not even HD, let alone a retina display. It is perfectly adequate for my poor eyesight, though: fairly bright, acceptable but not great viewing angles, very sharp, and not glossy (I hate glossy screens). I’d much rather have longer battery life than a stunning display so this is fine for me. Viewing straight-on, I can still read what’s on the screen in bright sunshine and, though it lacks a sensor to auto-adjust the brightness, it does have an automatic night-time mode (that reddens and dims the display) that can be configured to kick in at sunset, and there are keyboard keys to adjust brightness. The generic Intel integrated GPU chip works, but that’s all I can say of it. I’d certainly not recommend it for playing graphics intensive games or using photoshop, and don’t even think about VR or compiling big programs because it ain’t going to happen.

The speakers, though, are ridiculously quiet: even when pumped up to full volume a little rain on the tent made it inaudible, and they are quite tinny. I’m guessing that this may have a bit to do with its target audience of schoolkids – a lack of volume might be a good thing in a classroom. The speakers are down-facing so it does benefit from sitting on a table or desk, but not a lot. The headphone volume is fine and it plays nicely with bluetooth speakers. It has a surprisingly large array of 5 microphones scattered quite widely that do a pretty good job of echo cancellation and noise reduction, providing surprisingly good sound quality (though not exactly a Blue Yeti).

It has two cameras, one 5K device conventionally placed above the screen when used in laptop mode, the other on the same surface as the keyboard, in the bottom right corner when typing, which is weird until you remember it can be used in tablet mode, when it becomes a rear-facing camera. Both cameras are very poor and the rear facing one is appalling (not even 1K resolution). They do the job for video conferencing, but not much else. That’s fine by me: I seldom need to take photos with my notebook/tablet and, if I want better quality, it handles a Logitech webcam very happily.

Input devices

The keyboard is a touch smaller than average, so it takes a bit of getting used to if you have been mostly using a full-sized keyboard, but it is quite usable, with plenty of travel and the keys and, though each keypress is quite tactile so you know you have pressed it, it is not clicky. It is even resistant to spilt drinks or a spot or two of rain. Having killed a couple of machines this way over the past thirty years or so (once by sneezing), I wish all keyboards had this feature. The only things I dislike about it are that it is not backlit (I really miss that) and that the Return key is far too small, bunched up with a load of symbol keys and easily missed. Apart from that, it is easy to touch type and I’d say it is marginally better than the keyboard on my Macbook Pro (2019 model). The keys are marked for ChromeOS, so they are a bit fussy and it can be hard to identify which of the many quote marks are the ones you want, because they are slightly differently mapped in ChromeOS, Android, and Linux. On the other hand I’m not at all fond of Chrome OS’s slightly unusual keyboard shortcuts so it’s nice that the keys tell you what they can do, even though it can be misleading at times.

The multi-touch screen works well with fingers, though could be far more responsive when using a capacitive stylus: the slow speed of the machine really shows here. Unless you draw or write really slowly, you are going to get broken lines, whether using native Chrome apps, Android, or Linux. I find it virtually unusable when used this way.

The touchpad is buttonless and fine – it just works as you would expect, and its conservative size makes it far less likely to be accidentally pressed than the gigantic glass monstrosity on my Macbook Pro. I really don’t get the point of large touchpads positioned exactly where you are going to touch them with your hand when typing.

There is no fingerprint reader or face recognition, though it mostly does unlock seamlessly when it recognizes my phone. It feels quite archaic to have to enter a password nowadays. You can get dongles that add fingerprint recognition and that work with Chromebooks, but that is not really very convenient.


The machine is made to be used by schoolkids, so it is built to suffer. The shell of the Flip is mostly made of very sturdy plastic. And I do mean sturdy. The edges are rubberised, which feels nice and offers quite a bit of protection. Asus claim it can be dropped onto a hard floor from desk height, and that the pleasingly textured covering hides and prevents scratches and dents. It certainly feels very sturdy, and the texture feels reassuring in the hand, with a good grip so that you are not so likely to drop it. It doesn’t pick up fingerprints as badly as my metal-bodied or conventional plastic machines. Asus say that the 360 degree hinges should survive 50,000 openings and closings, and that the ports can suffer insertion of plugs at least 5,000 times. I believe them: everything about it feels well made and substantial. You can stack 30kg on top of it without it flinching. For the most part it doesn’t need its own case. I felt no serious worries throwing this into a rucksack, albeit that it is neither dust nor water resistant (except under the keyboard). Asus build it to the American military’s MIL-STD 810G spec, which sounds impressive though it should be noted that this is not a particular measure of toughness so much as a quality control standard to ensure that it will survive the normal uses it is designed for. It’s not made for battlefields, boating, or mountaineering, but it is made to survive 11-year-olds, and that’s not bad.

It’s not unattractive but nor is it going to be a design classic. It is just a typical old fashioned fairly non-descript and innocuous small laptop, that is unlikely to attract thieves to the same extent as, say, a Microsoft Surface or Macbook Pro. It has good old fashioned wide bezels. I realize this is seldom considered a feature nowadays, but it is really good for holding it in tablet mode and helps to distinguish the screen from the background. It feels comfortable and familiar. In appearance, it is in fact highly reminiscent of my ancient Asus M5N laptop from 2004, that still runs Linux just fine, albeit without a working battery, with only 768KB of RAM and with, since only recently, a slightly unreliable DVD drive – Asus really does make machines that last.

The machine is fanless so it is quite silent: I love that. Anything that moves inside a computer will break, eventually, and fans can be incredibly annoying even when they do work, especially after a while when dust builds up and operating system updates put more stress on the processor. If things do break, then the device has a removable panel on the base, which you can detach using a single standard Philips screwdriver, and Asus even thoughtfully provide a little thumbnail slot to prise it up. Through this you can access important stuff like storage and RAM, and the whole machine has a modular design that makes every major component easily replaceable – so refreshing after the nightmares of trying to do any maintenance on an Apple device. Inside, it has a dual core Celeron of some kind that can be pushed up to 2800 MHz – an old and well-tried CPU design that is not going to win any performance prizes but that does the job pretty well. From my tech support days I would be a bit bothered leaving this with young and inquisitive kids – they really like to see how things work by doing things that would make them not work. I lost a couple of lab machines to a class of kids who discovered the 240/110v switch on the back of old PCs.

It does feel very sluggish at the best of times after using a Macbook Pro – apps can take ages to load, and there can be quite a long pause before it even registers a touch or a keypress when it is running an app or two already – but it is less than a tenth of the price, so I can’t complain too much about that. It happily runs a full-blown DBMS and web server, which addresses most of my development needs, though I’d not be keen on running a full VM on the device, or compiling a big program.

Included software

There are no Asus apps, docs, or customizations included. It is pure, bare-bones, unadulterated Chrome OS, without even a default Asus page to encourage registration. This is really surprising. Eventually I found the MyAsus (phone) app for Android on Google’s Play store, which is awful but at last – when I entered the serial number to register the machine – it told me what it actually was, so I could go and find a manual for it. The manual contains no surprises and little information I couldn’t figure out for myself, but it is reassuring to have one, and very peculiar that it was not included with the machine. This makes me suspect that BestBuy might have bought up a batch of machines that were originally intended for a (large) organization that had laid down requirements for a bare-bones machine. This might explain why it is not listed on the Asus site.


I may write more about ChromeOS at some later date – the main reason I got this device was to find out more about it – but I’ll give a very brief overview of my first impressions now. ChromeOS is very clever, though typical of Google’s software in being a little clunky and making the computer itself a little bit too visible: Android suffered such issues in a big way until quite recently, and Android phones still feel more like old fashioned desktop computers than iPhones or even Tizen devices.

Given that it is primarily built to run Chrome apps, It is surprisingly good at running Android apps – even VPNs – though integration is not 100% perfect: you can occasionally run into trouble passing parameters from a Chrome app to Android, for instance, some Android apps are unhappy about running on a laptop screen, and not all understand the SD card very well. Chrome apps run happily without a network, so you are not tied to the network as much as with other thin-client alternatives like WebOS.

It also does a really good job of running and integrating Linux apps. They all run in a Debian Linux container, so a few aspects of the underlying machine are unavailable and it can be a little complex when you want to use files from other apps or peripherals, but it is otherwise fully featured and utilizes much of the underlying Debian system that runs ChromeOS itself, so it is close to native Linux in performance. The icons for Linux apps appear in the standard launcher like any other app and, though there is a little delay when launching the first Linux app when it starts the container, once you have launched one then the rest load quickly. You do need a bit of Linux skill to use it well – command line use of apt is non-negotiable, at least, to install any apps, and integrating both Android and ChromeOS file systems can be a little clunky. Linux is still a geek option, but it makes the machine many times more useful than it would otherwise be. There’s virtually nothing I’d want to do with the machine that is constrained by software, though the hardware creates a few brick walls.

Integration between the three operating systems is remarkably good altogether but the seams show now and then, such as in requiring at least two apps for basic settings (ChromeOS and Android), with a handful of settings only being available via the Chrome browser, or in not passing clipboard contents to the Linux terminal command line (though you can install an x-terminal that works fine). I’ve hit quite a few small problems with the occasional app, and a few Android apps don’t run properly at all (most likely due to screen size issues rather than integration issues) but overall it works really well. In fact, almost too well – I have a few of the same apps in both ChromeOS and Android versions so sometimes I fail to notice that I am using the glitchier one until it is too late.

Despite the underlying Debian foundations, it is not super-stable and crashes in odd ways when you stretch it a little, especially when reconnecting on a different network, but it is stable enough for most standard uses that most people would run into, and it reboots really quickly. Even in the few weeks I’ve had it, it seems more stable, so this is a moving target.

Updates come thick and fast, but it is a little worrying that Google’s long term commitment to ChromeOS seems (like most of their offerings) shaky: the Web app store is due to close at some point soon and there are some doubts about whether it will continue to offer long term support for web apps in general, though Android and Linux support makes that a lot less worrying than it might be. Worst case would be to wipe most traces of ChromeOS and simply partition the machine for Linux, which would not be a bad end-of-life option at all. 

The biggest caveat, though, is that you really need to sell your soul (or at least more of your data than is healthy) to Google to use this. Without a Google account I don’t think it would work at all, but at the very least it would be crippled. I trust Google more than I trust most other big conglomerates – not because they are nice but because their business model doesn’t depend on directly selling my data to others –  but I do not love their fondness for knowing everything about me, nor that they insist on keeping my data in a banana republic run by a reality TV show host. As much as possible the apps I use are Google-free, but it is virtually impossible to avoid using the Chrome browser that runs many apps, even when you have a friendlier alternative like Vivaldi that would work just as well, if Google allowed it. In fairness, it is less privacy-abusive than Windows, and more open about it. MacOS is not great either, but Apple are fiercely aggressive in protecting your data and don’t use it for anything more than selling you more Apple goodies. Linux or BSD are really the only viable options if you really want to control your data or genuinely own your software nowadays.


This was a great little machine for camping. Though water and dust were a concern, especially given the low price I wasn’t too worried about treating it roughly. It was small and light, and it performed well enough on every task that I threw at it. It’s neither a great laptop nor a great tablet, but the fact that it performs both tasks sufficiently well without the ugliness and hassles of Windows or the limitations of single OS machines is very impressive.

Since returning from camping I have found myself using the machine a lot more than I thought I might. My Macbook Pro is pretty portable and its battery life is not too bad, but it is normally plugged in to a big monitor and a whole bunch of disk drives, so I can’t just pick it up to move around the house or down to the boat without a lot of unplugging and, above all, disk ejection (which, thanks to Apple’s increasingly awful implementation of background indexing that has got significantly worse with every recent release of OSX, can often be an exercise in deep frustration), so I rarely do so unless I know I will be away from the desk for a while. I love that I can just pick the Flip up and use it almost instantly, and I only need to charge it once every couple of days, even when I use it a lot. I still far prefer to use my Macbook Pro for anything serious or demanding, my iPad or phone for reading news, messaging, drawing, etc, and a dedicated ebook reader for reading books, but the fact that this can perform all of those tasks reasonably well is useful enough that it is fast becoming my default mobile device for anything a cellphone doesn’t handle well, such as writing anything of any length, like this (which is all written using the Flip).

In summary, the whole thing is a bit of a weird hybrid that shows its seams a bit too often but that can do most things any tablet or PC can do, and then some. It does a much better job than Windows of combining a ‘real’ PC with a tablet-style device, mainly because (thanks to Android) it does the tablet far better than any Windows PC and, thanks to Linux, it is almost as flexible as a PC (though, bearing in mind that Windows now does Linux reasonably well, it is not quite in the same league). The low spec of the machine does create a few brick walls: I am not going to be running any VMs on it, nor running any graphics-intensive, memory-intensive, or CPU-intensive tasks but, for well over 90% of my day to day computing needs, it works just fine.

I’m now left wondering whether it might be worthwhile to invest in one of the top-of-the-line Google Chromebooks to cater for my more advanced requirements. They are beautiful devices that address nearly all the hardware limitations of the C234 very well, and that are at least a match for mid-to-high end Windows and Mac machines in performance and flexibility, and they come at a price to match: really not cheap. But I don’t think either I or ChromeOS are quite ready for that yet.  MacOS beats it hands down in terms of usability, speed, reliability, consistency, and flexibility, despite Apple’s deeply tedious efforts to lock MacOS down in recent years (trying to triple boot to MacOS, Windows, and Linux is an exercise in frustration nowadays) and despite not offering a touch screen option. If Apple goes further down the path of assuming all users are idiots then I might change my mind but, for now, its own operating system is still the best available, and a Mac  runs Windows and Linux better than almost any equivalently priced generic PC. I would very seriously consider a high-end Chromebook, though, as an alternative to a Windows PC. It is inherently more secure, far less hassle to maintain, and lets you get to doing what you want to do much faster than any Windows machine. Unless you really need a bit of hardware of software that only runs under Windows – and there are very few of those nowadays – then I can think of few reasons to prefer it.  

Where to buy (current advertised price $CAD409):

Strange affair of man with the machine

This stunningly brilliant and passionate essay by my friend, mentor and inspiration, Karamjit Singh Gill (far too formal – he is Ranjit to me) is, sadly, occasioned by the death of his old friend, one of the most insightful, compassionate, humane commentators on technology of the past century, Mike Cooley.  I knew Mike only slightly, as a result of the occasional dinner conversation or guest appearance at a conference some 20 years or so ago, but he made a big impression on me, not least because Ranjit – my guru – introduced him to me as his own guru and inspiration.  Mike was one of those people who could talk off the cuff with the greater eloquence, sharpness, and persuasiveness than most people can write after multiple revisions. He was funny, he was wise, he was charming. His book, Architect or Bee, has been an inspiration to generations, including to me – mundanely, his distinction between auto-mation and infor-mation is an incredibly useful one but, much more significantly, it is his resolute valorization and glorification of the human and the humane that most persists and that continues to shape my own understanding of the world. These are qualities that Ranjit shares in spades, and it is mainly through Ranjit that his attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs have rubbed off a little on me.

Characteristically, Ranjit does not take the obvious or easy path of providing a conventional obituary or summary of achievements, but instead offers his own profound and far-reaching insights, in a moving tribute to the impact Mike had on his own understanding. It’s a beautiful piece, interweaving poetry and analysis into a seamless whole that offers both a cutting and urgent critique of the inhumane, debasing patterns of the machine, and a path towards hope and redemption that, far from rejecting technology, embraces it as something that can help us to become more human, more filled with wisdom and wonder, more connected. There are, however, huge risks of sliding down “the slippery slope of calculation to judgment”, that Ranjit analyzes in depth. Mike’s poem, with which Ranjit begins the essay, summarizes the gist of it well:

We create devices and then they create us

Narcissus-like, we gaze into a pool of technology and see ourselves

We acquiesce in our own demise, setting out as participants

and metamorphosing into victims

(Cooley  2013 )

This is not a piece to be skip-read – it is full of subtlety and grace, and there is something to savour in almost every sentence.

Originally posted at: