Saturday, November 25, 2006

The GRE, the Postal Service, and Internet Study Guides

So I came home the other day and there in my real live mailbox (not the virtual one) there was an envelope from ETS, the organization that manages the GREs. Now, seeing as how I didn't need to take the GRE to get into this MA program, I just took the GRE Subject Test in Literature on November 4. So when I saw the return address, I thought, "Wow! I thought the scores were supposed to take four to six weeks! That's really quick!" (I really was thinking in exclamation points.)

But then--alas--I looked down further on the envelope, and saw the label, which included the words "Practice Test." And I harrumphed. (I'm not sure when the last time is that I actually harrumphed, but I did. Honest.) You see, this was neither my scores nor my practice test for my upcoming General Test--the packaging made it clear that it was the practice test that was supposed to arrive before I took the Subject Test on November 4.

So I'm now expecting my Subject Test scores to arrive by mail sometime after I hear back from most of the programs I'm applying to. The expectations have officially been lowered. Silly paper-based tests. Silly Canadian-American postal service seeming-lack-of-cooperation.

Of course, other than it being a predictor of future mailings, getting the practice tests late wasn't actually that big a deal, thanks to the Internet. I had downloaded and printed a practice test months ago (not that I actually looked at it until a week before). And I found all sorts of helpful study guides online (especially Vade Mecum and Hapax Legomena). And I raided the Cole's Notes- and Cliff's Notes-like sites for lots of superficial information about a lot of authors and works (I find it ironic that all those sites I've been warning undergraduates away from for the last two years were perfect helps for studying for this test). And I had a book to study from (I looked at that all of two weeks before the test).

So getting the practice test two and a half weeks after the actual test date wasn't a big deal, thanks, in large part, to the Internet. It may not be a "wonder of the world," but it is quite handy at times. Otherwise, I would have been quite annoyed at ETS and/or the postal service.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Internet: A Wonder of the World?

The Web Redefines Reality: I don't know what it is--I'm a big fan of the Web--but whenever I read an article like this one, which proclaims the Internet as one of the wonders of the world, I find myself getting skeptical. It's not that I don't think the Internet hasn't changed our society, our culture, and our sense of the world.

But I suppose I've been behind the scenes too long to be amazed at "the man behind the curtain." Take part in the creation, usability testing, and maintenance of enough websites, it's hard to be in awe of "hyperlinks, routers and fiber-optic cables" that are in constant need of updating and may crash at any time.

And as an academic, it's hard to read a phrase like "It has taken giant steps toward accomplishing one of the goals of the ancients: gathering all the knowledge in the world in one place" without thinking about the huge amount of critical thinking that must be done to discriminate which parts of it are trustworthy.

Yes, the Internet is changing our lives in profound ways. But for one thing, only some of these ways are good. And for another, some of the changes are only faux-changes. Sure the Internet might show us "the interconnectivity of things," but people have been connecting things for a long time. Perhaps, looking at history, I'm not convinced that "the enlightenment of the modern world" will stand up to the test of time. And there are down sides to too much explicit "interconnectivity of things" as well: Information overload. The possibility of increased dependence on connections being made for us instead of finding them for ourselves.

So yeah, I see the point: the Internet is pretty cool. But all earthbound "wonders" have their limitations. As does the rhetoric praising the things deemed to be wonders.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"What Is the Technology For?"

"Researchers have...found that a distraction such as your cell phone ringing, has a greater impact on your concentration than smoking some marijuana.

"'Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them,' philosopher North Whitehead noted in 1911. Technology should automate the mundane--the trivial truths--so that we have more time to think about great truths.

"If technology is not making our lives more convenient, and giving us more time to think, then we need to question: What is the technology for?

--Gerry McGovern, "Managing in a Technology-Driven World"

Thought this quote was an interesting one, though my thoughts aren't wholly developed about it.

I'm not sure what I think about the statement about cell phones and marijuana... After all, cell phones can build community, and I'm not sure the idea of an attention span should be utterly sancrosanct--it is often some of the "distractions" from what we think of as our "real work" that enrich and deepen our lives the most, even if they make it difficult to concentrate at times.

Then again, there are limits to the stretching of our attention spans, and McGovern makes a good point about taking time to think about what we're using the technology for. I've often thought that our society has made an awful waste of the time we save by technology--all we've done is crammed more productivity into that extra time instead of using it to do things better (and also to do better things) during that time.