The Radix Endeavor

The Radix Endeavor

The Radix Endeavor

There’s a new MMO in town – brought to us by the MIT Education Arcade, financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in collaboration with Filament Games. It’s the Radix Endeavor. This massively multiplayer online game (MMO) is designed for STEM learning in middle and high school. I just spent the last hour, on a quest with my avatar character in the Radix world, trying to get a feel for its possibilities.

My Radix character.

My Radix character.

The first thing to notice about the Radix Endeavor is that it’s browser-based. So no messy downloads, no firewall problems, and, from appearances, not a huge bandwidth requirement.  Check out the minimum hardware requirements here.

In order to play the game you create a (free) player account, click the “play game” link on their website and – poof! – you land on the island of Ysola. This is a fictionalized world with made up names for people, plants and animals. There are biological problems to be solved, quests to be taken – all in the service of solving the health problems that seem to have befallen the inhabitants of the island.

The developers offer teacher and student accounts.  I created a teacher account which gives me a dashboard to monitor my students progress in the game.

So let’s start with the good stuff:

  • Great that it’s browser-based in terms of access, but of course, that also means some serious disappointments (see below)
  • The game action is quest-based  (i.e. “use your measuring tool to find a feltspittle flower that is a least 3 tomes high” and “capture a jngspout so we can feed him the feltspittle flower and analyze his excrement”…what middle schooler doesn’t want to hear that?)
  • The world is persistent.  I collected feltspittle flowers, logged off, signed in again, and my inventory persisted and my dialog with the doctor picked up where we left off.
  • The game is designed to align with the Common Core standards in math and Next Generation Science Standards for high school.
  • The teacher portal will aggregate data on the students’ decisions, strategies, and progress so that they can tailor what goes on in the classroom to the students’ needs.

On the not-so-good side:

  • The look of the game feels very young to my eye.  Simple line-drawn structures and characters, not much dimension, shadow or nuance. It feels like a paper-doll-cut-out world and I worry about that in contrast to the rich and sophisticated look of the other MMOs students know.
  • No one else was in the world when I was there so I was only able to have “canned” conversations with bots.  Not very satisfying.
  • Extremely annoying and repetitive background music.  I muted that right away.  No need for that.
  • Navigation is clunky – places you can’t go but you only figure that out when your avatar just won’t move forward (like hitting an invisible wall).  Teleporting from region to region is verrrrry slow.
  • There is a map you can summon but I was longing for the ability to change my camera position and see the whole scene around me – to zoom out.
  • There doesn’t seem to be any way to take artifacts from your work in the world out of the world – that would be a nice touch for students creating blog posts or other artifacts of their learning.
  • Adding to my inventory.

    Adding to my inventory.

    Even though the quests are akin to real world problems (curing a mysterious lung ailment called “polyflux”, I worry about all the fictional names for animals, plants, and diseases.  Just seems a shame to introduce yet another vocabulary when our students already have so much trouble with the existing language of science.

  • There seems to be a system of badges/points you earn on your various quests (good!) but that function wasn’t yet in place in my tour of duty. Despite the fact that I correctly surrendered my feltspittle flower and my jingspout, my points did not go up (wah).
  • I didn’t get too far past my initial three quests, but in the first hour, I felt like I was mostly doing busy work. Going and getting things, placing them in my backpack, bringing them to someone else to “judge” (did I get the right thing?). Not sure how long it would take to get to something meatier, but I would guess that most teenagers would have given up before I did.
  • Teachers will need solid support materials to help them connect the quest structure of Radix to the rest of their plan in a biology course.  I’m sure the developers are planning that but I didn’t find any such materials yet on their site.
The map.

The map.

It’s great to see so much thought and creativity applied to the development of meaningful STEM games. Many of the negatives I point out above are tradeoffs that must (now at least) be surrendered  in exchange for a browser-based virtual world and its important to add that Radix is in beta. I could see tremendous potential for growth here but, right now, it feels a bit rough.

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Correlation: Tats and Twitter?

Where else can you find this kind of humor but at the NABT?

Where else can you find biology jokes like this, I ask ya?

Ten years attendance at the same annual conference gives one helpful perspective for measuring trends.  Last week I had just such an opportunity to measure the impact of social media on a conference community. The National Association of Biology Teachers conference (NABT) is an annual conference of high school and college biology teachers. It’s a smallish meeting – roughly 800 people – who gather to participate in posters, sessions, and workshops. “Teaching and Learning” is the mission and a fierce dedication to their students is the common bond. It’s a wonderful group and I always enjoy being in their company.

Although networking is a strongly stated goal of the assemblage, I’ve been struck by the lack of social media use amongst this community. There is a robust online community of AP Biology teachers (facilitated by the College Board) who regularly share updates, questions, and suggestions – but that’s just one small segment using just one (relatively blunt) tool. In past years, there have been attempts to inject a little social media sauce to the proceedings but they were tepid and never quite took.  A few hardy Twitterers, one or two ardent bloggers capturing the essence, but in past years it sounded like crickets out there to my lonely twittering posts.

This year, however, was different. A vibrantly hard working Twitter crowd seemed to emerge out of nowhere, documenting the scene and tweeting the sessions.  Hashtags abounded.  Blog posts were thoughtful. Someone started an open Google Doc for posting notes from the session.  An NABT tagboard surfaced to showcase the Twitter productivity.

NABT13 Tagboard

Not only did the Twitter stream bring me in contact with many new teachers, it was an extremely useful way to make sure I was covering the right sessions.  You know how that goes at these conferences – so many good sessions occupy the same time slots – how best to decide which is the best fit for you?  What I quickly learned to do was pick from the program description then, once there, monitor the twitter stream to hear what was happening in the other sessions.  If the reports showed a session with a better fit for my needs, I would politely shift locations. If there were multiple best-fit sessions at the same time, I could always go to the Google doc page to pick up the notes from a fellow traveler.  It was a handy ways to graze and make sure to capture the bounty.

So what made the difference this year?  How did we move from the social media desert to this rich harvest of interaction and sharing?  I definitely noticed a greater number of younger members in attendance….hmmm.  I hate to make the ageist mistake. Was it my imagination or were there more attendees sporting tattoos (thank, Ilona – @mikoartscience – for pointing this out. Even from a distance you are remarkably perceptive!)?  Is there a correlation between Twitter-use and Tattoo-display? Mostly, I suspect it was a classic Malcom-Gladwell-esque tipping point: enough experienced Twitter users to lead by example and provide sufficient value so that less experienced others found it worth the effort.

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Letter To Myself, 20 Years On

Letter to the future me.

Letter to the future me.

At 55, I am writing this post to my 75-year-old stuff.  If I make it to that age, I hope to remember that I wrote this and listen to me carefully.

Now that I’m edging into the far end of my life, I pay a lot more attention to the elderly. I listen carefully to my parents and elderly friends as they face difficult financial and medical decisions,  I attend to issues that sprout as they begin to stutter and fail, and I am keenly aware of the impact of decay on our everyday interactions and attitudes. While I’m still relatively spry and of sound mind, I want to lay down a marker for myself.  A reminder of the 40-50 year old perspective (the age of family members I’ll be most likely to interact with). I want to remember what makes it hard for them to be around the future me and what they most likely will want to hear.

Try not to talk so much about your health, ok? While it’s understandable – what with so many burgeoning conditions causing pain and so much of your days taken up with medical appointments – hearing about it really gets old. Unfortunately, there’s not much that your family and friends can do about your physical health, so don’t burden them with endless catalogues of what ails you, the medications you’re taking, the procedures you’ve undergone, or the symptoms that blossom. It’s not that you should lie about it – just try not to dwell on it.

Ask questions and be interested in the answers. Maybe it’s due to hearing loss or maybe it’s just that the elderly have more stories to tell but it seems to me that older people tend to tell long, rambling stories (most often based in the past) with few inlets for conversation or exchange. A little bit of that is ok, just don’t make a steady diet of it, future-me. Ask questions of the young people in your circle.  Find out what makes them tick, what are they reading, what music do they listen to, what are their hobbies, what’s hard about the work they do, what are their fears?

I hope you’ve nurtured your sense of humor, future self. Don’t take yourself or anyone else too seriously and have a laugh as often as you can.

Avoid revisionist history at all costs. There is nothing more tiresome than an older person explaining to a younger person why something was “so much better” when they were a kid. People weren’t more considerate, entertainment wasn’t more enriching, food didn’t taste better, and wars weren’t good. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that “new” is worse than anything that’s come before it. It’s fine for you to remember your past fondly, but don’t make the mistake of robbing the current generations’ pleasures by comparing them to an inaccurate vision of your past, colored by the rosy glasses of time.

But mostly, future me, give those younger people around you some reasons for hope.  Some positive perspective on their future. They’re all worried about what it’s like and what lies in store for them. Reassure them and tell them its going to be ok. Even if you have to lie a little.

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Standing Together

Yin_Yang_art

The recent uproar in the science blogging community has gripped my attention and held it there.  There is so much to reflect on here; so much for all of us to learn and apply. Let me begin this post with a brief recap.

Scientific American has an impressive blog network - scientists who regularly blog about their work, sharing ideas, lines of inquiry, and research with the larger science community. Bora Zivkovic is the Blogs Editor for Scientific American. I’ve never met him but have heard of him. A very charismatic guy, high energy, talented – someone who really captured and leveraged the power of online communities for doing good in science. In addition to the blogging community he built an extremely popular and successful conference, ScienceOnline, designed to …”cultivate the way science is conducted, shared, and communicated online.”

Well, the uproar started about two weeks ago with a post from a woman named Danielle Lee who writes a regular blog for Scientific American called “The Urban Scientist”. On October 11, she posted an entry about being asked to blog for a different organization called Biology-Online.org.  Lee asked the editor about the terms for the work. She opted to turn down the offer and the editor, assuming Lee declined because there would be no compensation for the work, asked her if she was “an urban scientist or an urban whore?”.  He actually asked her that. So Danielle created this pitch-perfect video response:

Scientific American took Danielle’s post down within an hour (!).  There was an outcry. Scientific American put it back up again three days later, tepidly claiming that they took it down in order to “verify the facts”.

Other women began blogging about similar treatment. Monica Byrne weighed in with an important update to an earlier blog entry about protracted sexual harassment that she’d originally posted without naming names. In the update she provided the name of the man who harassed her:  Bora Zivkovic. Zivkovic posted this apology, claiming that this was “not behavior that I have engaged with before or since.”  Really?

Then other women scientists started posting about their experiences with Zivkovic. Like this from Kathleen Raven. And this from Hannah Waters. And this summary article in Slate by Laura Helmuth. 1000′s of hits, Twitter came alive with it, science discussion groups on fire. And finally, weeks later, Zivkovic “resigned” his position at Scientific American. [10.23.13 update, the conversation has now made it to the New Yorker.]

I’ve been chewing on this all week, reading the commentary, trying to sort out my feelings and get some perspective.  While digesting, I’ve talked with many women friends and nearly all of them has a similar story to tell of harassment in their workplace or in school.  If you read the comments on the blog posts linked above, you’ll read similar stories of even more women. Each recounts some version of a power differential abused, a mentor relationship perverted, a predator zeroing in on his prey. And all of this happening on the heels of the excellent New York Times magazine piece, “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” dated October 6th.

I can’t help but think of Nancy Hopkins (a molecular biologist and cancer researcher at MIT) and her amazing work, advocating for women in science. After documenting a startling array of inequities and discrimination, Hopkins was appointed Chair of the Committee on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT in 1995.  The committee published a summary of their findings in 1999, which paved the way for much-needed reforms at MIT – and beyond [this video of a talk Nancy gave at University of Chicago on the subject is well worth watching]. Nancy acknowledges that women in STEM fields still encounter the same problems today, because (as she puts it) “you can not quickly change the thinking of every person who STILL undervalues women to men for equal work.” Still. So, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that these young women scientists are telling a story that sounds so much like MIT in 1995. And so much like mine from 30 years ago.

Reading their accounts, I quickly coughed up the memory from my undergraduate experience.  I had a work-study job in my male-dominated science department office where I was harassed for months by a senior faculty member in the department. There was no touching, no violence, no threats…but there was a constant stream of inappropriate storytelling.  How unhappy he was in his marriage, how sexually frustrated he was, how misunderstood he felt.  He recounted embarrassing details of sex with his wife and waxed on about how much more he wanted from a sexual partner. I felt powerless to diffuse his approaches and instead, channeled my efforts into avoiding him or making sure I was never alone with him. When the department secretary had to leave the office, I would lock the door. When an errand required a stop at his office, I would ask someone to come with me. Like the stories of these women scientists, I felt completely powerless to do anything about it. It was indeed the insidious power of “not-quite-harassment”, as Hannah Waters put it so well. Nothing he did to me was illegal, there was no touching or violence, but it was wrong, wrong, wrong.  And even though I knew that it was wrong, I didn’t tell him to stop and I didn’t march to an authority and call him out.

Why?  Just as with the women in these blogs, the reasons are deep and complex. Let’s start with the obvious one for me:  30 years ago there was no credible “authority” to march to. Where would I go? What person in authority at my university would have taken me seriously and considered this faculty member’s action anything more than a harmless flirtation? I was operating in a completely male-dominated culture. There were no female faculty members in my department and often I was the only woman in my classes. From there, let’s move to the more nuanced and timeless reason behind the silence – the men in these stories are powerful and the women are less so.  Tenured professors to undergraduates, blog editors to bloggers, managers to employees.  Typically there’s  an age differential ….he is usually older and experienced while she is young, gullible, and uncertain.  He is credible, she is not.

In my situation, I know that there was one more thing.  At root, I thought that I was somehow at fault.  Each time he cornered me in the office, got waaay too close to me, or told me some sexual dissatisfaction story, I became more and more complicit. I just knew that if I complained to someone they would look at me askance – what had I done to encourage him?  Why hadn’t I said anything earlier?  And the longer it went on, the fewer options I felt I had. Complicating my situation was the unlikely fact that I felt sorry for him.  Even though he had me caught in this intractable bind, I knew he was pathetic and stunted. And that made it all the worse. This ongoing harassment impacted my own self respect and vision of myself. I started to doubt my own judgment (just who was pathetic, him or me?). In the long run, I know that this experience caused me to suspect that whatever progress I’d made was not based on my work or my abilities but on my perceived value as a sexual object, an adornment. And it took me many years (and a change in profession) to clear that up.

The thing is that these things happen all the time and no one talks about them.  It’s a rare thing for people to speak up when they’ve been victimized. The perpetrators are not called on their behavior and, therefore, patterns can not emerge and action to fix what’s broken is not taken. Are you as struck as I am by the similar patterns in these stories of abuse?  So many of them involve men talking inappropriately and graphically about their sexual dissatisfaction, as if over-sharing their deepest frustrations will unlock the heart (or other body part) of their victim.  The cunning way the perpetrator lures in the victim – a light flirtation, a confession, the allure of pointing out that you’re the only one who understands and then, whammo, before you know it, you’re ensnared in the whole nasty business (and they’re counting on that). And how about the harasser’s refusal to own it – even after he’s been outed? Denial. Blame shifting. A misunderstanding. Discounting. Only this one aberration. I would venture to bet that, even now, Zivkovic thinks that this is all a tempest in a teapot or perhaps he’s even gone so far to conclude that he is the victim. Or maybe he is learning. One hopes.

I suspect that nearly all women have had similar experiences (and not just in science) and I encourage them to speak out.  The most horrible damage done is the blow to the victim’s confidence.  The fear that she will not be taken seriously. Do I have this job only because I’m perceived of as a sexual object? Do my contributions really matter? And the best way to combat that damage is to hear, to understand, and to recognize the pattern in the stories of others. Hearty kudos to these brave women for speaking up in such a balanced, constructive way.  It’s not easy to sort this out. How do we define behavior borders? What makes for harassment? And what do you do when you encounter it?  Danielle, Monica, Kathleen, and Hannah – I value your stories, respect your courage, and will pass along your wisdom to everyone I know. And while I’m being grateful, let me also thank the internet – for the blogs, for Twitter, for the networked communities that made it possible to share and amplify the conversation so effectively.

Onward. Can we arrive at a way of being where we respect and honor each other? Complimentarity. Where our interactions, regardless of a power divide, are additive. An indivisible whole.

10.28.14 Update:  Nature posts an editorial on the subject.

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Video Games and Learning: Week 2

Screen shot 2013-10-21 at 4.46.13 PM

Learning how to play

I’ve made it through the various videos and readings for week #2 of Video Games and Learning.  Really good stuff.  A few highlights for me:

Scot Osterwiel’s notion of “play”… searching for the fun in the concept at hand. That failure should be entertaining and provide feedback

David Gagnon’s piece on situated learning.  When designing video games for learning, think about the concept being taught as the killer strategy to beat the game.  So that means you have to get inside the concept sufficiently to think of it as actionable rather than a body of knowledge.  Got to get my head around that.

BB

BB

I was also thinking more about something that Kurt Squires said during week #1 when listening to two of the writers on the AMC series Breaking Bad talk about the process of creating their stories (in this Fresh Air podcast).  Squires talks about the way a well designed video game will pull you through the experience.  The Breaking Bad writers talked about pulling their audience along, rewarding them here, confusing them there, with each character or story insight being delivered at just the right time for maximum satisfaction. Nice.

There was yet another parallel when the BB writers talked about the process of writing. They jot down ideas, fragments of the story they want to tell, on index cards and post them up on a big cork board. Then, working together they refine, reorder, flesh out.  Often times, they explained, one index card will be fairly abstract…something like “Jesse confronts Walt.” and the details have to be worked out.  An ill-defined problem in a well-defined problem space?

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Video Games & Learning: Week 1

Kurt Squire and Constance

Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkueler

I am enrolled in the Video Games and Learning MOOC, taught by Constance Steinkueler and Kurt Squire (University of Wisconsin, Madison).  I signed up for this course when I first heard about it, a few months ago. I’ve been a long time fan of Steinkueler and Squire’s work and was eager to hear what these two vibrant thought leaders had to say about games and learning. No brainer.

This is the course’s first week (still time to sign up, if you’re interested) and they started us out at just the right pace.  The first assignment included six videos totaling about 40 minutes (each video, but one, was no longer than five minutes).  The first of the videos featured our two educational “hosts”, seated together, in a warm and welcoming dialogue about the course to come and how they got into the field.  Nice touch. All the videos are professionally produced, interesting, and snappy. Looks like they’re also going to pull in James Paul Gee for some of the video content, from his books in and around Learning by Design.

Screen shot 2013-10-04 at 3.45.36 PMThe level of material seems just about right – not to technical (with 32,000 enrolled, there’s going to be a huge range of backgrounds, not to mention native tongues) but meaningful enough to make it worthwhile. The course feels very plan-ful – the organizers have clearly thought it out carefully, applied best online teaching & learning practices, and seriously invested themselves.  Here’s an example of nice touch – they consistently use a playful drawing technique to unite elements of the course and remind us of the art & design underpinnings to games.

In addition to the video assignments, there was an infographic (for a lighter diet) and a wonderful, comic-style document, explaining the “theory of fun“, excerpted, no doubt, from the book by Ralph Koster by the same name.  I’ve looked through that treasure twice now. Some really good stuff in there –  asking (and answering) what drives us to seek out products and experiences that are truly fun and entertaining.  It’s storyboard look is so engagingly presented, you just slide right through it.

After the readings and videos, the first week’s assignment was to choose a video game (your choice) and play it for 30 minutes.  Then record a 1-minute video of yourself, reviewing your experience, with the principles you’ve just learned about in mind.  How did the game engage you?  How did you learn the game?  What auditory cues did the game use? What did you like/not like? How did it keep you coming back?

Temple Run screen shot

Temple Run screen shot

I chose the game Temple Run, which I could download for free on my iPhone.  Here’s the place where I confess that I am not a gamer.  I have dabbled here and there.  At one point, I could wangle a pretty mean game of Pac-Man (and Ms. Pac-Man).  What I know about videogames and the gaming culture I’ve gleaned from my two 20-something sons and from reading what smart people like Squires, Steinkueler, and Gee have to say.

I have to say that my 30 minutes with Temple Run went by in a flash. I will be playing it again, I’m sure. It was fun.  Easy. And mildly addictive (as in, “surely I can get better at this…”).  Temple Run is fueled with a simple concept: you are an Indiana-Jones-style treasure hunter, you’ve just stolen a golden idol, and you are dashing out of the Temple with a flanx of demonic-sounding monkeys close at your heels.  Your job is to run, jump, slide, turn grab coins and get out of there without being eaten by the monkeys. The game starts with a simple tutorial (I didn’t even know I was in a tutorial) that gives you screen prompts to learn when to swipe in order to make your hunter jump, slide, and turn. Once I’d had a few successful runs in the tutorial mode, the screen gave me an encouraging “You’re Ready!” and the game began for real.  The first few times those demonic monkeys got me in the first 15 seconds of play (are they actually eating me?).  Then, I quickly got the jumping move down and got better at anticipating the turns.  Soon I was running over 500 meters (maybe a minute) and gathering gold coins along the way.

Just about the time I was getting a wee bit bored with it, a screen popped up telling me that I have the option of going to the store with my coins for some upgrades.  Sure. I bought a multiplier of some kind so that my gathered coins were worth more(?) – I think, not too sure.  This game does not burden you with a lot of explanation – the emphasis is on try it again.  And again.

By the time I stopped I was successfully running 1000 meters and had some serious coinage.  Fun.  Here’s my video:

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Thoughts on the New Apple iOS 7

My home screen with the new iOS7

My home screen with the new iOS7

The new Apple iOS 7, the operating system for iPhone and iPad, has been on my devices now for about a week.  Time for some reflection.  Let’s shake this down in a short list of pluses and minuses, followed by a few suggestions.

PLUSES

Download. Starting from the get-go, the whole iOS download process was easy breezy with no hiccups (also liked that Apple didn’t force the update on you, you could do it when you were ready).  Here’s a helpful how-to on preparing for and downloading the new iOS (not the useful display of compatible devices). Remember though, once you’ve upgraded, you can’t go back.

Automatic updates.  Thank goodness!   All of your apps now update automatically and, another plus, by default your phone will wait until you’re on wireless to do this work to avoid chewing up your cellular data.

Switching or Closing Apps. When you double tap the home button, you get miniatures of all your open apps (which you can horizontally flick through). Flicking up on any one of them, closes the app. I really appreciate this feature as a way to easily switch between applications.  Say, for instance, you’re composing an email, and you want to include a link. You can now easily switch to your browser, grab the link, and come back to email. Much less monkey-pooping around.

Fat Folders. No limit to the number of apps you can put in a folder (used to be a limit of 16). Yay.

Search.  Easy to get to quickly.  Just swipe down in the middle, on any screen, and there it is. Much better.

Control Center

Control Center

Control Center. If you swipe up from the bottom of the screen, you get your control center which allows you to change all kinds of things (one stop shopping).  Wireless and blue tooth settings, airplane mode, orientation lock, contrast, volume, playback controls – all in one convenient panel.  In the Control Panel you can also get to those apps that you might need in a hurry:  your camera, calculator, timer or flashlight.  As much as I like this new Control Center, I sure wish I could customize it.  And it’s a little tricky to get to (takes some practice) – try swiping up from off the screen (like next to the home button)

iTunes Radio.  I’ve been playing around with it and, so far, I like it.  You can set up a radio station based on artist, genre or song and, like Pandora, hear new music that you’re likely to enjoy.  To teach it what you like, tap the star icon while a song is playing and tell it so. You can purchase music from directly inside iTunes radio from the iTunes store.  There are ads, but Pandora has ads too.

Camera.  Some terrific improvements here.  From the camera screen you can easily swipe to change from video to photo, to square (that’s new!) to pano (as in panorama) which is so much easier to do when you are holding up your phone, trying to take a picture. There are also filters available for you, right there on the screen (the little overlapping circles in the upper righthand corner which give you 9 tiny live-filter options) as well as the HDR option.  HDR = high dynamic range (odd that Apple doesn’t explain that…).  It takes three pictures in succession with varying exposures and combines them to get the best possible photo.  Be aware though that HDR photos take up a lot of space, so use sparingly.  Nice aside – just figured out that you can use the volume control buttons on the side of your phone as a shutter button (is that a new feature?). Here’s a handy how to on using your phone’s camera.

The Level.  Ok, I used to have an app for this, but now it’s just there.  You go to the compass, swipe to the left, and there’s the level! Handy-like.

AirDrop.  You can drop digital items (links, documents, photos, whatever) on your Mac or on other nearby iPhone folks (iPhone 5 or later, iPad 4th generation).  AirDrop uses bluetooth to create a peer-to-peer wifi network between devices.  That wifi connection makes this sort of transfer very fast. Here’s the way it works: you have to be on the item you want to share (it’s not a file management sort of thing, it’s designed to share the thing you’re looking at right now), you must be near to the person you’re sharing with (not sitting on their lap, but nearby) and they must have their compatible device turned on. But it does work.  Here’s a helpful how-to on using AirDrop.

Text Message Time Stamp.  Ok, this is handy.  If you swipe any of the texted speech bubbles to the left, you can see when it was sent.

Safari Improvements.  I had buried the old Safari app in a folder and put Chrome in the task bar as my preferred browser, but I’m rethinking that decision now that Safari’s been improved. First off, you can type your search item right into the URL bar now (just like you can do with Chrome) and you can easily dismiss open tabs by just swiping to the left when you’re in the spiffy 3D-looking pages view.  Also check out the “@” symbol under Safari book marks and you’ll find your Twitter timeline.

MINUSES

Hard to See. The look of the new iOS takes some getting used to.  It’s very white, flat, and the fonts are quite thin.  I’m guessing that people with vision problems might have difficulty and I certainly have had to strain to see, particularly in outdoor lighting.  But see below, in my suggestions, for a few things that can help take the strain off.

Podcasts.  Yikes, where did my podcasts go?  I used to be able to manage and listen to them right out of iTunes, but no longer.  Took me some sniffing around to figure out what to do.  You have two options – either download the (free) podcast app through which you can manage your podcasts or you can change your podcasts to “audiobooks” (using Get Info) in your iTunes library. Update from Terry Austin:  PocketCasts app works well.

Notification Center.  Swiping up from the bottom gives you the Control Center (see Pluses above) and swiping down from the top gives you Notification Center.  You get a today (calendar) view, which is nice and then an “All” category, that accumulates everything. This one feels less useful to me, mostly because it’s stuff that I would prefer to organize myself.  You can customize  it (sort of) in your settings (Notification Center), but not as much control here as I’d like to have.

iCloud.  Still not working for me.  Not clear how it all works, too little space and you have to pony up to buy more space.  This could be better.  I know it could.

Camera.  Yup I know I had this one under Pluses (above) but there is a minus – the camera doesn’t focus quickly enough.  You will end up taking  lots of blurry photos if you press your shutter with old camera-function expectations.

Apple Maps.  Still not as good as Google maps, not even close.  And now I’m finding that my you-are-here blue dot isn’t even as responsive as it was in iOS 6.  Wah.

Siri.  Supposed to be improved.  I dunno, I couldn’t pick up on any huge improvements and I still find that Siri misses (often comically) more than it hits. You get to Siri by holding the home button for 3-5 minutes and then speak to her.  I do like the new little sound wave at the bottom that lets you know she’s “listening”.  Oh, and one cool thing is that you can change Siri to a male voice now.

AND A FEW SUGGESTIONS…

The new interface is impacted by your choice of wallpaper.  You can choose dynamic wallpaper (that shifts around and looks fuzzy), which gives you a very different “feel” to the interface. If you choose a colored still (say, yellow), all of the interface items will take on a yellow-ish hue (see photos above).  This is nice because it allows the individual iPhone owner to really personalize the look of their phone, but it’s something you have to experiment with.  Tastes being personal, you’ll want to try a few different wallpapers to settle on the ones that work best for you and your vision.  I found the dynamic wallpapers got in my way, occasionally, and while I liked using my old photos as wallpaper in the old iOS, they don’t work as well here.

For those having problems seeing clearly with the new interface, you can make adjustments.  Go to Settings>General>Accessibility and you can make the type bold or larger, reduce the motion (if you don’t like the new parallax effect), invert color, and make hearing adjustments too.

Keep your expectations low.  Functionally, this iOS really is pretty close to its parent. Improvements, for sure, but it’s not a mind-blowing leap ahead.

What have I missed?

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