Just in Time for Back to School: Free Ebook Take Control of Zoom Essentials

The publishers at Take Control Books have just published a free ebook, Take Control of Zoom Essentials by Glenn Fleishman. You can register to download a free copy as a PDF, EPUB, or version for Kindle. Registering gives you access to updated content as it is released.

This books follows the release of another ebook, Working from Home Temporarily, released for free earlier this spring just as millions of us were dispatched to establish our homes as our workplaces.

The new academic year is upon us, and I suspect that many of us are using Zoom a lot more than we were a year ago: for courses, for meetings, and for webinars. One thing I don’t think we’re using it anymore for is those bothersome “Zoom Happy Hours.” I think that trend died off about a month after the pandemic, or as soon as it was deemed safe for us to gather outside to engage in moderately low-risk distance socializing. It got old really fast.

If you’re new to Zoom or, if you’re like me, and took the summer off from any and all videoconferencing software, this seems like a good introduction or refresher.

Here’s a few “tidbits” of trivia related to the book. Take Control Books was started by the folks who founded and have been publishing the Apple news website and newsletter TidBITs for over thirty years. However, they have since sold the imprint to another company since then. And although I don’t know Glenn Fleishman personally, he’s a respected figure in tech and nerdy circles for, among other things, winning on Jeopardy!… twice.

Pour One Out for the TV Listings in the New York Times

This is the final TV listings ever printed in the New York Times.

Over the summer, I swapped my subscription to The New York Times from a digital-only to an old-fashioned home-delivery print subscription. One day, my neighbor picked up a copy and was amazed that the TV listings were still printed every day.

In yesterday’s print edition, the Times announced that it would stop printing TV listings, something the paper has printed since 1939. The reasons for discontinuing the listings are obvious to anyone today: most everyone I know watches TV asynchronously. We don’t need to know what’s on TV tonight any more than we need the paper to find a job, a used car, or a secondhand couch. Also, this gives the Times more space to write about—not simply list—television programming, of which there is more than ever.

Today, in the Sunday, August 30, edition of the Times, we see the final run for tonight’s TV listings. Curiously, today’s listings were printed in the Metropolitan section, which home subscribers like me received yesterday, as part of the Saturday delivery. It is perhaps one of the most succinct—albeit unintentional—messages that speaks to the anachronous nature of timely news still being delivered in print in 2020.

It’s 2020, and I Again Started Getting the Newspaper Delivered at Home

IMG 1936

Earlier this month, I did something rather unusual for 2020: I switched my subscription to the New York Times from a digital subscription to an old-fashioned home-delivery print edition.

I have had a subscription to the New York Times, in some one form or another, for as long as I can remember, even before I moved to city in 2001. While still living in Santa Barbara in the late 1990s and at the urging of one of my college professors, I subscribed to the New York Times at the same time I was receiving home delivery of the Los Angeles Times. Let’s just say that my recycling bins were never so full as they were during that era. I continued the subscription when I moved to New York, and it followed me from one apartment to another. Finally, in 2010, while living in Long Island City, I frustratingly gazed at my overflowing paper-recycling bin and decided that my print-news era was over. I switched to a digital subscription.

Yet in 2020, when almost every aspect of my life exists in “cyberspace,” I decided to restart home delivery of the print edition. Let this sink in: I am now paying someone to bring over many sheets of paper to my home just so I can get the news, as if there was no other way to get it.

Here are some reasons why I switched to home delivery of the print edition:

  • Over the summer, I often go to the beach and prefer to read the news in print. I can’t read my phone or tablet under the bright, hot sun.
  • No stores in my East Williamsburg–Bushwick neighborhood carry the New York Times anymore. Only a handful of bodegas even sell newspapers, but those few only carry the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and/or a Spanish-language daily.
  • I have access to a 50%-off academic rate, otherwise this would be completely unaffordable.
  • It comes with two bonus digital subscriptions. I gave one to my dad and another to a bartender in the neighborhood who used to do the crossword everyday until “all this happened.”
  • It’s a much more pleasant and focused experience to read the news in print than it is to drink from the proverbial firehose that is getting news online, especially on social media and especially in “these times.”
  • I had money in my Subscriptions budget after cancelling my AT&T TV Now “skinny bundle.” I soured on the package once it had swelled from an affordable $10/month package in 2016 to a bloated $35/month, including subsidies for the right-wing news outlets as One American News Network and Fox News.

Earlier today, after a month of receiving the paper on Saturdays and Sundays, I upgraded the subscription from weekends-only to seven-day delivery because I have enjoyed reading news in print so much. Also, in the age of the virus, where I don’t have to leave my apartment for work anymore, going downstairs to fetch the paper every morning seems like a nice healthy ritual.

All I need now is just a bigger recycling bin.

The Central Park Game

The last time I played softball in Central Park was on August 21, 2016. My team, the Ball Busters, had just won the league championship.

Four years ago today, I played my last softball game at Central Park.

My friends and readers of this site know that playing softball each summer has been a big part of my life for almost as long as I have lived in New York. This summer, however, I haven’t played a single game—partly due to the pandemic cancelling my leagues, but also mostly due to other emotional traumas that I’d rather not discuss here. Not playing softball feels weird, but only in moments like this when I reflect on how it is gone.


Starting in 2005, I started playing on Sunday afternoons in Central Park with The Bandits. We had moved to a Central Park league after playing a year in a league run by EMTs that played weeknights in Harlem. The league was a terrible experience, not least of which because of the sound of gun fire that I would occasionally hear during our games.

Playing softball in Central Park has a unique magnificence to it. Photo by me, June 5, 2005.

Playing in Central Park each Sunday in the summer was a singular experience. I loved having throngs of tourists watching us play, especially Europeans who posed many questions about our peculiar game. However, being on the Bandits was a tough experience. We were not a very good team, consistently finishing at the bottom of the standings. The only exception was in 2009, when we recruited a few players from my Brooklyn league and finished in second place and lost in the finals to the top-ranked team in a three-game series.

Despite the great finish, I was disappointed that we lost in the finals to a team I felt we could have beaten so bailed on the Bandits. I switched to a different team—the Ball Busters—run by my friend Johnny in the offseason. The Ball Busters finished 7th on 2009, but, as I looked at their schedule, I saw that they had lost a lot of one-run games. Three factors aided my decision: I had been pitching in McCarren Park for a couple of years and wanted to pitch more, the Bandits didn’t let me pitch, and the Ball Busters didn’t have a full-time pitcher. I figured that if I could pitch, I could help turn a few of those loses into wins. Indeed we did. In 2010, we finished in first place but lost in the first-round to the Bandits partly because I missed the game to attend my friend’s wedding in Connecticut.

The Ball Busters posted a winning record for several years, never finished lower than the second seed. We even won two titles: once in 2012 and again in 2013. I pitched almost all of our games, including the playoffs. I loved the pressure of pitching in big games, especially when I had pitched every inning of a triple-header. It took a while to learn to pace myself, but once I did, I relished the exhilarating combination of exhaustion and pressure. : why can’t I do this in the parts of my life where it matters.

The Ball Busters after our second championship. Photo by me, August 18, 2013.

After the 2015 season, my friend Johnny announced that he was moving to Florida and that the team would be run by Hermes, an affable teammate who quickly passed on the management to someone else, a guy everyone calls Cano.

The 2016 season was very different than the others for the Ball Busters. First, many of our teammates left for various reasons. Some went on extended vacations, some moved away, and others cut down to playing on Saturdays in a different league. Second, we had many new players that the new manager brought to the team. The biggest difference for me was that, after pitching in nearly every Ball Busters game since 2020, I didn’t pitch a single inning in 2016. I played a bit in the outfield and was the “extra hitter,” a unique softball position created to allow someone to play but not really play.

Our new manager took our team in a very different direction, including the new pink team shirts. Photo by me, April 10, 2016.

The 2016 Ball Busters were a force. We lost only three games in a twenty-four game season, but I didn’t factor in many of those wins (or those losses). We swept our opponents in the quarterfinals and in the semifinals, and if I played in those games, I don’t remember. I certainly didn’t pitch a single inning of these postseason games.


The finals were scheduled for August 21. The day before I had bought some oysters from the fishmonger at the local farmers market. In those days, I ate raw oysters all the time, and I even fancied myself a capable shucker. But this weekend, I think I failed to keep the oysters sufficiently cold. The next morning on the day of the 2016 finals, I woke up feeling sick, lying next to a puddle of vomit on my pillow. At first I thought I was hungover. I did drink quite a bit the night before, but after a while, it was clear that the oysters made me sick.

I told Megan that I was going to skip the finals games in Central Park that morning. I felt sick and didn’t have the energy to leave bed, much less take a five-mile bike ride to a game in Central Park. She tried to coax me to the game noting the magnitude of the game: “but it’s the finals!” But more important, as I remember telling her, it’s not as if I would play anyway. After a while I mustered enough energy to get out of bed and bike to Central Park. This was I could at least cheer on my teammates and sneak in to the team photo if we won.

The finals were to start at 10:00 am that morning, and I arrived on the field at about 11:15 or so. I figured that I had missed the first game and arrived in time for the second. I asked someone on my team for the score. “We’re up by a couple,” he responded. When I asked for the inning, he informed me that it was fifth inning of the first game.

“Wait, didn’t we start at 10 o’clock?”

“No, the fields were closed because it rained. We started really late. This is the first game”

The Ball Busters held on to win the first game. We lost the second game, meaning we were tied in the series and had to play a third game. Hermes pitched the first two games. He was drenched in sweat and looked wiped out, and I told our manager, Cano, that he was “done.” Cano looked around to see who could pitch the third and deciding game. He asked his wife, who is a really solid pitcher. “Nope,” she declined. Again, our manager continued to scan our bench and looked at me. Holding the ball, he twists his wrist, now palm-side up, and shows me the ball. “You ready?,” he asks me. Without saying anything, I take the ball and walk to the field.

As I watched the first two games, a guy named Tommy came to watch our games. He said hi to me, and asked if I wanted a steak taco. He had cooked the steak at home, packed hot tortillas into a styrofoam warmer, and even made a “cilantro pesto” for the tacos. The tacos settled my stomach, which had been wrenched the day before by rotten oysters and too many whiskey shots. Tommy was like the mythical Saint Bernard that nurses lost explorers in the unforgiving arctic conditions. Except here, he nursed me back into playing shape.

As I walked to the pitching plate, I realized that this was the first time I had pitched all year in Central Park. The Central Park fields are a bit different than others in the city. They are in much better shape and they also have a real pitching rubber that’s dug into the ground. But also, the infield dimensions are different than the infield at, say, McCarren Park: I think the distance from the pitching plate to home plate is about fifty feet, about five feet further than it is at McCarren Park and most other NYC softball fields.

It took me about a dozen warmup pitches to get the ball to reach the plate, and then several more to find my location. This league is a modified, fast-pitch league, meaning I can throw the ball hard, as long as my hand doesn’t go above my shoulder in the wind-up: no slinging or side-winding is allowed. As the game started, I was still struggling to throw strikes and to locate the ball. But I knew that this was a big game and that the batters would be as nervous to face me as I was to face them. I decided that instead of throwing hard, I would throw the ball as slow as I could.

Except for a sneaking in a few fastballs, I pitched as slowly as I could, and it worked. The batters all seemed very anxious and for the most part, didn’t hit the ball square. There was however one home run. Our team managed to scratch across three runs, but our batters didn’t produce much. The previous two games apparently wiped them out, too.

The game ended with a weak flyout to the outfield. As the ball was caught, I pounded my fist against my mitt and met all my teammates in the middle of infield for the obligatory celebration “on the mound.” We had just won the league championship.

It took three games, but we won the best-of-three final series to take the 2016 Heckscher Cup. August 21, 2016.

We celebrated for a bit on the field, drank a few beers and, yes, I ate another steak taco or two. Afterward, I biked Williamsburg to meet Megan and share my news with my Brooklyn softball friends. I remembering getting stares from everyone from looking soaking wet from sweat, drizzle, and who knows how many beers.

As I told the story, I began to realize that this might be the best softball outcome I could imagine. I had spent over a decade playing in Central Park—underneath the magnificent Manhattan skyline—and capped it off with pitching my team to a 3-1 title-clinching game. It was my third title with the Ball Busters, and I had pitched in each of those deciding games.

In the offseason, I told Hermes and Cano that I was not returning. I mumbled something about not wanting to play games so close to Trump Tower, but actually it was because I didn’t want to start all over—at the square one—to recreate this feeling of joy and accomplishment. Experiencing that was truly special, and it would be foolish to attempt to find it again.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is to appreciate those special experiences—be it a warm summer day, a well-made meal, a firm hug from a friend or relative, a smile from your true love—because just as sure as you found it, it will be gone. And you’ll be wasting your time trying to find it again.

How I Spent My Summer…

I made a makeshift recording studio in my bedroom, including a cylinder box of rolled oats as a microphone stand.

Pardon the dust around here… it’s been a very busy time for me as the COVID-19 pandemic put a whole lot of extra work on me in terms of class preparation. It robbed me of any desire to sit in front of a computer to post to this site.

I’m sorry. I hope you’ll take me back,

When we went to remote instruction, the administration at Pratt and at CUNY recommended that we turn our courses from live, in-person classes to asynchronous, remote classes—with a short, synchronous weekly session via Zoom or Google Meet.

The spring semester ended about two months ago, but since then I have been teaching two online classes for Queens College in their two summer sessions—Summer 1 in June, and Summer 2 in July.

This is not my first time teaching online, remote classes. Indeed, I have been teaching online sections of Media Technologies and Contemporary Media for a few years now, both in summer and winter sessions. But given what I learned over the last few months, during our emergency switch to remote learning, I thought it best to revise my courses given what I learned in the spring term.

My goals for the summer courses were basically to…

  1. revise the structure of my syllabi to make it easier to find information
  2. break up the recorded video lectures into shorter segments,
  3. in the case of Contemporary Media, assign an open educational resource textbook to save my students—some of whom are food insecure—some money.

For these courses, I have spent an average of six to eight hours working on each module. Since each course has twelve modules, I spent the equivalent of a full-time job working on these courses since early June.

Revising the syllabus was pretty easy. I moved away from the traditional calendar-based schedule to one structured along learning modules. Each module had the same three elements as my previous courses: a textbook reading, a narrated-slideshow lecture recording, and a quiz. But this time I listed each task under each module as “assignments.” You can see an example of this on my Media Technologies syllabus. I hope it was easier for students to figure out their assignments.

There are many celebrants of Open Educational Resources for textbooks, but I am not convinced that this model of textbooks is ready for wide deployment, particularly in the specific courses I teach.

The one textbook that seemed useful for either of this summer’s courses was Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication. You can get a copy from the Open Textbook Library. I really liked that it was available in many different formats, including PDF and EPUB, and that you could read it on the web using nothing more than a browser. However, what really made this textbook difficult to use was that it was last updated in 2009.

Since the textbook was woefully out of date, I had to use the lectures to update the outdated information from the book. For example, there are no longer is a Big Four recording music conglomerates nor is there a Big Six movie conglomerates. In the case of music, EMI was absorbed by Universal Music Group and Warner Music with Sony Music as the third conglomerate standing. And in the case of the movie industry, Disney acquired Fox in 2019 for $71 billion, leaving only five major conglomerates.

And then there were five…

Because I was using a textbook I hadn’t used before, I had write new reading quizzes from scratch. This took about an hour per module, but outlining each lecture, preparing each slideshow, and then recording each module’s screencast took an additional six to seven hours a day.

Today, I posted the videos for the last module of the two summer sessions. As a “victory lap” of sorts, I compiled a few numbers from the two classes I taught this summer.

Media Technologies Contemporary Media Total
Modules 12 12 24
Slides 608 593 1201
Videos 46 51 97
TRT 6h 31m 46s 6h 35m 15s 13h 7m 1s
Average Slides per Module 50.67 49.42 50.04
Average Slides per Video 13.22 11.63 12.38
Average TRT per Module 32m 39s 32m 56s 32m 48s
Average TRT Per Video 8m 31s 7m 45s 8m 7s

The biggest reason I wanted to break up the lecture into shorter segments was to make the videos about six minutes each. Previously, each module’s lecture was about 20 minutes long. Based on the numbers, it looks like I failed. Each video for Media Technologies averaged about 8 ½ minutes, and each video for Contemporary Media averaged about 7 ¾ minutes.

However, I have to give myself credit for consistency. The total running time of all the recorded videos for each class were surprising close: 6 hours 31 minutes for Media Technologies versus 6 hours 35 minutes and Contemporary Media. And I also used a very similar number of slides: 608 in the case of Media Technologies and 593 in the case of Contemporary Media.

All My Microphones, Compared

This post contains affiliate links to Amazon. I could receive a referral commission if you buy something through those links.

In the Age of the Virus, I’ve been teaching remotely. This has given me two new tasks that require decent audio: video conferencing and recording classes at home. I would never call myself an audiophile, but for whatever reason, bad low-fidelity audio bothers me. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I want to do better.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a bunch of different ways of recording sound on my computer, and I thought it would be fun to test each of them to see how they preformed.

I used the following six microphones for this test:

  1. The internal microphone of my MacBook Pro,
  2. AirPods connected wireless via Bluetooth,
  3. EarPods connecting deprecated mini-plug via the headphone jack in my MacBook Pro,
  4. The microphone that dangles from a pair of AKG K545 headphones,
  5. Blue Snowball condenser microphone, discontinued by the manufacturer, that I set on my desk,
  6. the very popular Blue Yeti USB condenser microphone with an attached pop filter.

I couldn’t try one of my oldest microphones—a Blue Snowball. I left that at my office at NYU, inside Bobst Library, and the entire building is inaccessible to non-essential employees like myself.

For each recording, I used Sound Studio for Mac and recording using an early 2015 13-inch MacBook Pro. (Yes, the one that many considered to be the last great MacBook Pro until Apple came out with last year’s 16-inch model.) I did some slight editing on each recording: I trimmed my reading of each sentence, inserted a half-second of silence between each sentence, and normalized the sound. I did the latter to control for loudness; most of us are biased to think that louder sound is a better sound.

Harvard Sentences

I read aloud the following ten Harvard Sentences into each microphone. I used “List 5” from this list of Harvard Sentences for those who want to reproduce this test at home. For the most part, I read the phrases as written, although I did flub a couple of them. The sentences are…

  1. A king ruled the state in the early days.
  2. The ship was torn apart on the sharp reef.
  3. Sickness kept him home the third week.
  4. The wide road shimmered in the hot sun.
  5. The lazy cow lay in the cool grass.
  6. Lift the square stone over the fence.
  7. The rope will bind the seven books at once.
  8. Hop over the fence and plunge in.
  9. The friendly gang left the drug store.
  10. Mesh wire keeps chicks inside.

Here are the results of testing each microphone.

MacBook Pro early-2015, Internal Microphone

The internal microphone of most MacBook Pro notebooks near the keyboard.

This is the most convenient way of recording sound on a Mac. It requires nothing more than the Mac itself. The result is pretty solid.

I have my MacBook Pro slightly elevated at tilted towards me since it is perched on a laptop stand. Remember that sound, especially the human voice, is very directional. Perhaps titling it towards me helped get good sound. If memory serves, the internal microphone on a MacBook Pro is located near the top of the keyboard.

One thing to consider is that I wasn’t using my speaker. I always find it annoying to hear feedback on conference calls that noticeably degrade the sound quality.

AirPods, Handsfree via Bluetooth

My trusty and dusty AirPods can record audio.

Apple’s AirPods is one of my favorite devices. Before All This Happened, I used my AirPods on a daily basis, listening to music and podcasts as I walked around town. But as we are all staying home as much as possible, I’ve been using them a lot less.

Using AirPods for phone calls—over the cellular network or VOIP—is unmatched in terms of its convenience. It doesn’t require your hands and don’t have a wire to get in the way. You don’t even have to have your device on your person—as long as it’s not too far for the Bluetooth radio. This is probably why you see late night TV hosts and some newscasters use AirPods to record themselves.

However, in terms of sound fidelity, they fared the worst.

It sounds like I’m talking through a machine—as it doesn’t sample enough of my sound—or if it used a lossy compression algorithm at a very low bitrate.

I was surprised that it was actually worse than recording through using the MacBook Pro’s internal microphone. I learned back in college that even the worst external microphone was still better than using the on-board microphone in my field recorder because the recorder makes some noise that will be on the recording.

To be fair, I think the poor sound has to do with my Mac. Listening to music on my AirPods doesn’t sound as good playing from my Mac as it does playing from an iOS device, such as an iPhone or a iPad.

Wired EarPods with a Mini-Plug

These EarPods are at least five and a half years old.

I actually have a couple of pairs of these EarPods lying around. They might be from my iPhone 6 (2014) and maybe even my iPhone 5 (2012). I used these instead of the newer ones that came with my iPhone 11 Pro because I can connect these to my MacBook Pro.

The sounds was also pretty solid—good depth and warmth—and it didn’t sound compressed like the AirPods. It also sounds marginally better than “going bareback” on my MacBook Pro.

AKG K545 Headphones, Handsfree Wired

Testing 1, 2, 3… checking levels on the cable microphone on my AKG K545.

In late-2014, I was engaging in some retail therapy and listening to a lot of sad music, and these headphones were the result of that.

I expected these would fare better than the EarPods simply because they’re more expensive than EarPods. But they capture more of the room echo than the EarPods.

Again, to be fair, these are primarily headphones for listening—not microphones for recording. As far as headphones sound, they’re pretty good, but are heavy. And because they have a closed-back design, they isolate ambient noise. A lot of people prefer these kinds of headphones, but I don’t. I get fatigued wearing them for any substantial period of time.

Blue Snowflake on My Desk

I bought this Blue Snowflake microphone over ten years ago to record my lectures, a practice that didn’t last long.

The Blue Snowflake is a portable USB microphone. Despite its small size, it’s a great little microphone that I picked up at the end of 2009. It is meant to sit on a desk or clipped to a computer monitor to provide better sound during voice conference calls and for field recording. It is an omnidirectional microphone so it captures a lot of other sounds. This is good if you are in the audience and want to record a lecture or a band playing live.

I really like how it sounds. It doesn’t seem to get too much of the room echo while still clearly recording my voice.

Again, recording voice from a person speaking nearby is exactly what the Snowflake was designed to do. It performed great.

Blue Yeti with Pop Filter

I couldn’t resist to buy a Blue Yeti in midnight blue because why not…?

I expected this to make the best recording, and it did. The Blue Yeti is a very popular USB microphone. It is marketed to podcasters who don’t want to mess around with a XLR cables and a USB preamp. It’s been a while since I bought this microphone, but I think I bought the Yeti because I like the design of Blue microphones. They just look cool.

I also added a basic pop filter to this microphone to cut down on the popping Ps and other noises when you make when speaking close to the microphone.

The sound here is terrific. There is no room echo, largely because I’m speaking into the microphone. The recording has high fidelity: my voice sounds like it should if I were in the room with you.

Conclusions

Of course, the Blue Yeti performed best of all the microphones I have on hand. It is meant to record podcasters and other spoken word, and it does this really well.

The other microphones were more interesting. Honestly, I was surprised how well the built-in microphone in my MacBook Pro worked. For this you don’t need anything, and it records quite well. I think that if I were using the built-in MacBook Pro microphone for videoconferencing or VOIP, I would I use a set of headphones to prevent the feedback.

In fact, I think it would be useful to use the configure AirPods for sound output but use the internal microphone for sounds recording. This way you can have the convenience of wireless earphones and a decent microphone.

But, of course, in the Age of the Virus, no one expect studio-quality sound.

The Three COVID-19–Era Phrases I Want to Trademark

It looks like my attempt to get the phrase “In the Age of the Virus” to catch on isn’t working. It looks like the Internet prefers “In the Time of Corona” because it sounds more like the title of Gabriel García Márquez’s book In the Time of Cholera. It’s okay. I got over the term “Internaut” not catching on… I’ll get over this.

But there are three other phrases I often hear people say and or write when we refer to pre–COVID-19 life, life during COVID-19, and what we hope will some day come—life after COVID-19.

  1. Before All This Happened. Apparently, the Russians have a proverb that goes something like this: “Want to hear God laugh? Tell him your plans.” Did you have plans for stuff in April, in May, for 2021? God is laughing really hard now.
  2. Since All This Happened. Our now lives now that everything is impacted by this pandemic: from small inconveniences to catastrophic life events.
  3. When This is All Over. A hopeful phrase that  someday things will go back to normal—or what they were like Before This All Happened. I think this is foolish because things will never be like they were. Either we’ll have sunshine and rainbows… or it will be hell on earth. We’ll either come to realize that global unity and democracy will solve our problems—or we’ll go tribal and start world wars against other countries as we embrace fascists and autocrats. Take a guess where I put my money.

I’m not a linguist or semiotician, but it looks like “THIS” is the metonym for life during COVID-19. It refers to a lot of different things:

  1. the social distancing and our missing personal contact
  2. mass unemployment
  3. the global economic collapse
  4. cancelling everything
  5. spending all your time at home
  6. sanitizing everything
  7. being scared to go outside
  8. feeling guilty about going outside
  9. the pandemic and the toll it’s taken on our health care system
  10. everyone’s lives being transformed— rapidly and in unexpected ways

Hopefully, you’re reading this in a future where my site still exists and when This ended. And there were sunshine and rainbows.

Rain Design’s iLevel Laptop Stand, Reviewed

IMG 3369

When All This Happened and I realized that I would be toiling from home for the foreseeable future, I received an email newsletter from The Wirecutter recommending gear that would be useful for working from home. Talk about great timing!

Within a few days of working in this new always toiling-from-home environment, I recognized that looking down at my laptop for hours on end would be an ergonomic disaster waiting to happen. I should probably get a laptop stand to raise the display.

The Wirecutter’s top pick was the Rain Design iLevel 2 laptop stand. There were other, cheaper options, but I figured spending an extra $20 would be worth it considering the hundreds of hours I would spend working on my laptop at home. In the Age of the Virus, I wouldn’t be working at coffee shops and brewery taprooms any time soon.

Let’s get it from Amazon!

As we know, The Wirecutter makes money from referring customers to Amazon and other online retailers. (By the way, I do the same thing with this website. So please shop liberally!) Their recommendation for the iLevel 2 refers you to buy it from Amazon. Of course, the Wirecutter’s commission is fair for all the testing they did. “Fine. Let’s get it from Amazon,” I thought.

Apparently, everyone else had the same idea: “order everything from Amazon!” As has been well-documented, Amazon deliveries are taking a long time. The iLevel wouldn’t arrive until late April.

And as of this post’s publication, it doesn’t even show up on Amazon. Eeek! Maybe you can find it, and if you do, I might get a commission if you buy through this link.

However, I was able to find the iLevel from Rain Design’s website. It would arrive in a week from their East Bay headquarters via free–UPS Ground shipping.

Portable Desktop

After receiving the package, I disinfected the contents because that’s the age we live in now. I installed the sanitized laptop stand, and started working. Almost immediately, I noticed that my MacBook Pro would bounce with each keystroke. It would spring up-and-down when I typed a number or anything in the home row. This wasn’t going to work.

I looked at the Feature photo on Rain Design’s website and noticed that the iLevel is pictured with a keyboard and a mouse.

Rain Design's ILevel laptop stand photo features

Fortunately, I usually use a mouse with my MacBook Pro when I’m at home, so I had one handy. I also had a Bluetooth keyboard that came with an iMac I bought in 2009. At some point, I upgraded the keyboard to one with a numeric keypad for the iMac—and I kept the wireless keyboard to use with my pre-Pro iPads.

My MacBook Pro was now effectively a portable desktop computer. It’s also cool that the iLevel’s aluminum body perfectly matches my MacBook Pro. [Chef’s Kiss!]

The New Normal

I’ve used this setup for two full weeks, and it’s been great. I don’t have any physical discomfort from working hours on end at the same desk, although I do take frequent bathroom breaks because I drink a lot of water—both flat and fizzy. That was the primary reason for getting the laptop stand in the first place.

The other cool benefit is that the stand’s height is adjustable. In the Age of the Virus and all the videoconferences—Zoom, Meet, Teams, you name it—it really helps for me to raise and lower the laptop’s front-facing camera to find a flattering angle for my mug.

One thing I am considering replacing is my keyboard. It feels a little stiff, as if I have to tap extra hard for each keystroke. Part of this might be because I just had the top case replaced on my 2015 MacBook Pro, and the built-in keyboard is new and feels pleasantly responsive.

But as far as the laptop stand, it’s been great. I’m just not sure if my iLevel is the same as the iLevel 2 that The Wirecutter tested.

Rain Design’s iLevel 2 Laptop Stand

A sturdy adjustable laptop stand that is a perfect match for a MacBook Pro in the age of toiling from home. Also, much cheaper than buying an iMac.

As if Devo Covered The Doors “Light My Fire”

Months ago, back when we could go out of our homes and be among other humans, I was spent the better part of a whole Friday toiling at Evil Twin’s taproom in Ridgewood.

You might wonder how I could be productive sitting almost an entire day at a brewery. Yes, Evil Twin is a brewery but their taproom opened early to offer a coffee service by Bushwick’s Sey Coffee. I got there early, had coffee, worked on a couple of syllabi.

By the time I finished working, I was ready for beer.

At some point that evening, a DJ showed up and started spinning. One of the songs they played was a cover of The Doors’s “Light My Fire.” I wasn’t familiar with this cover, but I thought it would be easy to find.

It turns out… it was very hard to find.

The next day I told a couple of friends about it. I described it “as if Devo covered ‘Light My Fire.'” But it’s not Devo!

In the Age of the Virus, with more time spent at home and feeling nostalgic for that Friday at Evil Twin, I started searching for the song on Second Hand Songs. I remember this song being having percussive rhythm and some synthesizers—hence why I thought it might have been performed by Devo—so I figured it was from the late 1970s or early 1980s. As I skimmed through that list, I saw that Moebius had released a version in 1979. There was a link to the song on YouTube.

Yes, that was it!

The funny thing is that a curator of “Light My Fire” covers also thought it sounded like Devo.

My Thoughts on CUNY’s “Recalibration Period for Educational Equity”

CUNY surprised a lot of people—myself included—when I received an SMS alert indicating that CUNY would be observing a “Recalibration Period.” The message, delivered by the same system is used for statewide emergencies and for Notify NYC, reads as follows:

S: CUNYAlert – CUNY has instituted a Recalibration Period for Educational Equity
CUNY has instituted a Recalibration Period for Educational Equity, beginning this Friday, March 27, through Wednesday April 1. Distance learning will resume on Thursday, April 2. The University’s previously scheduled Spring Recess will run from April 8-10. There are numerous exceptions, visit CUNY’s coronavirus page for details, and your college’s website for campus-specific information.

The Recalibration Period for Educational Equity is to allow CUNY colleges to identify and provide computing devices to students who do not have access to computers at home to continue with remote instruction. Many CUNY students live below the poverty line—some are even “food insecure”—and it is important that we ensure every student has access to the necessary technology for continuing their studies.

The “recalibration” period will run from Friday, March 27 through Wednesday, April 1; remote instruction will resume on Thursday, April 2. To make up for the lost instruction days, CUNY cut Spring Break from over a week—April 8–16—to three days—April 8 to 10.

In addition to emergency alert, I also received emails about the “recalibration period” from the following College officers:

When I learned about the recalibration period, I was peeved having to redo the schedule for my courses…again! I was also concerned that my students would confuse my students who are already disillusioned with continuing their students in this stressful time.

A few hours later, I received a message from my department chair regarding the recalibration period. She explained that she had consulted with the Dean of Faculty and decided that we faculty should “ignore” the directives about the recalibration period. This message specifically referenced the chancellor’s and provost’s messages.

The latter message from the Provost is clear about observing this recalibration period: “This recalibration period is not optional. No instruction is to take place during this period: please don’t schedule tests or due-dates for assignments.”

This is conflicting information. What would you do?

After giving it some thought and sleeping on it, I have decided today to observe the recalibration period. Here’s why.

  1. Rank. While I was never in the military, or anything of the sort, I am aware of the pecking order of university and college officials: Chancellor > College President > Provost > Dean > Department Chair. With all due respect, rank dictates that I observe the directives of the higher officials than those of the dean or my department chair.
  2. Equity. A week ago, at the beginning of the remote instructional period, I circulated surveys to my students, asking whether they received my messages about my plans for remote instruction. The survey had another purpose: to test whether students could access course materials remotely. If a student could access the survey, they could access the course materials on Google Classroom. In my Media Criticism class of twenty students, seven have not completed the survey. And in my History of Cinema class of fifty-nine (59) credit-earning (non-auditing) students, eighteen (18) have not completed the survey. In all, almost a third of my students (32%) have not completed the simple task of completing a one-question, online survey in the course of a week. This doesn’t bode well for them to complete other more complex, online assignments. I really hope CUNY and Queens College doesn’t squander this period to identify students who don’t have access to the requisite technology—and to provide them with the necessary tools.
  3. Spring Break. I suspect that a lot of resistance to the recalibration period comes from the shortened spring break. Believe me, I have strong opinions about spring break, including my objection to CUNY’s spring break acting like a moveable feast. But, look, in the Age of the Virus, spring break is over. No one in the New York area should be traveling or getting together during the Easter–Passover breaks… no matter how badly some dimwits would be “raring to go” by then.
  4. “Asynchronicity”. As I described in my earlier post about remote instruction, I mentioned that most of my course activities would be asynchronous. I plan to keep that mode because it allows students more flexibility to participate in the course and to complete assignments.

Even with these reasons, I am conflicted about this recalibration period. I don’t like the idea of interrupting the semester—a second time after last week’s instructional recess—because it is disruptive to teaching and learning. I’m also concerned that the university and the college have not communicated their plans for identifying students-in-need and providing them with the necessary tools for remote learning. The administration could very well squander this recalibration period without addressing the needs of our neediest students.

At the risk of minor insubordination, I’ve updated the syllabi for my Media Criticism and my History of Cinema 2 courses to reflect the revised schedule in the age of recalibration.