Einstein’s chalkboard or why you don’t need to buy a Kindle.

6 08 2011

That photograph comes from Keith Erekson of the University of Texas – El Paso. He took it at a museum in Oxford, UK. Apparently, Einstein was visiting at some point during the Thirties. He worked a bunch of equations out on a chalkboard and they immediately whisked the chalkboard away to a museum, hanging it high enough so that nobody would ever accidentally erase the great man’s handiwork.

Keith uses this to illustrate the importance of ideas relative to the technology by which they are conveyed. After all, if Einstein could convey such complicated ideas on a mere chalkboard, his choice of technology did not stifle his genius. [Did I mention that Keith was serving as the technology specialist during our teacher colloquium last week?]

While I may seem obsessed with online education these days, the first thing that I thought of after seeing Keith’s picture and hearing his interpretation of it was the Kindle. I still think Kindles are for suckers, but besides the reasons I gave in that post I also think they are also a very complex technology where a simple one will do just fine.

I have come to this conclusion despite knowing that the future seems to be entirely against me. This was in the Telegraph under the headline, “The printed book is doomed”:

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to a senior executive from a big Silicon Valley company. We talked about digital media and in passing he mentioned digital books. “I doubt that my daughter will ever buy a physical book,” he said. His daughter is nine.

Why exactly is the printed book doomed? Apparently because Silicon Valley executives say so and because Telegraph reporters don’t read very well:

I’ve noticed that I’m increasingly frustrated when reading printed books because they don’t have a search function. With an ebook I can quickly search the text to remind myself who a character is or to re-read a particular passage.

Ever heard of reading slowly or (God forbid) an index? With reading skills like that he’ll never make it in the All-England Summarize Proust Competition? [Come to think of it, reading Remembrance of Things Past on a Kindle might explain why all the participants at the All-England Summarize Proust competition did so badly at it.]

I also hear that Kindles are much better than iPads in direct sunlight. Well I’ll bet good money that neither one of them is better than an actual book (unless, perhaps, the words are written in invisible ink). Seriously, can’t Amazon come up with a better marketing hook than that?

If there’s anything good about all this e-book stuff, it would have to be that it’s focused attention on the fact that books are really the physical manifestations of ideas rather than objects for people to simply buy and covet. Unfortunately, if you let one company gather a monopoly on distributing all those ideas, it’s not exactly going to serve the cause of universal enlightenment. This is from the Guardian:

It’s still early days in the ebook story, and no doubt there’ll be many disputes and disruptions along these lines in the future. But here’s a final thought for now. Was it wise to allow a situation in which a single company – Amazon – became market leader in terms of both a digital product (the ebook) and the hardware through which it’s delivered?

Luckily, we can still turn to physical books to read the same content that Amazon wants to monopolize. While it may difficult to impress your friends with a paperback in your lap, an awful lot of ingenius ideas have been conveyed that way over the last five or six hundred years. I’m guessing, against all odds, the book will survive five or six hundred more. Despite competition from those dry-erase monstrosities, I bet even the chalkboard has a few more decades in it.

After all, aren’t the simplest solutions to complex problems often the best?




9 responses

6 08 2011
Middle Seaman

There are alternatives to the Kindle (e.g. Nook). The Kindle is badly designed for today and will look like riding a donkey in a couple of years. One doesn’t have to view the e-book as a substitute for paper books but rather is an extension of the concept. I spend about two months in Europe every summer. Carrying 10 books with me is not feasible, but taking the Kindle with me does the trick. I can also buy new books if I run out of material.

The future e-books will look as: http://www.ted.com/talks/mike_matas.html
Such e-book will help us teachers a lot.

6 08 2011
Dan Allosso

Dude, really? You’re beginning to stretch the credibility of your “I’m not a Luddite, but…” stance. I don’t have a Kindle, but my parents do. They’re a lot easier to carry around.

6 08 2011
Jonathan Rees


The problem with your entirely reasonable point is that people who travel to Europe for two months every summer are not enough of a market to keep floating Amazon’s stock price.


How often do they carry around enough books to seriously weigh them down?

This whole line of argument reminds me of my late mother, who bought a station wagon despite the fact that she lived alone and never carried anything around town. “I need it to take plants to Vermont,” she told us. She went to Vermont about once every six months. The rest of the time the trunk was nothing but excess weight.

10 08 2011
Dan Allosso

Actually, I talked to my Dad today. He got Nietzsche’s complete works for $1.99. Read a little of that today, then compared it to Emerson’s essays (which he thinks are tougher than N, in some places). Then he read a little Italian, to keep his hand in, and then a novel about WWII. So, yeah, I think he’s saving his back and his checkbook.

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