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Can virtual meeting spaces save us all from Zoom fatigue? | Technology

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I’m playing online Pictionary while chatting with five people I’ve never met. This is not at all how I usually spend my Thursdays. We’ve all dropped into a virtual meeting space on a site called gather.town, which provides free customisable spaces for anyone who wants to organise a get-together without using Zoom. Gather is a virtual world and you choose an avatar before entering it: imagine a mid-80s Super Mario game in which, instead of jumping over his enemies, Mario has to go to the office. There are pixelated potted palms dotted about my screen, a couple of banks of desks and a sofa area, all rendered in that very specific 2D map style common to early computer games. I’m represented by a tiny, blocky avatar: a collection of dots arranged to look a bit like a person. As I move it around with keyboard keys, I can enter and leave conversations – when I do so, a small live video of whoever I’m talking to appears above the main screen.

It might all sound mad, but Gather is 18 months old, has 4 million users, and recently raised $26m in investment. Universities use it to create virtual campuses; individuals use it to host games nights; groups of friends throw parties on it – and workers are collaborating on it. It is trying, like hundreds of other new platforms, sites and apps, to provide us all with a solution to a very 2021 problem: despite being ubiquitous since early 2020, video calls aren’t necessarily helping us work or stay connected effectively.

Recent research from Stanford University provided evidence that the “Zoom fatigue” many of us feel is real. The study showed that the cognitive load of video conferencing is far higher than phone calls or in-person conversation. Where normally we pick up and give out valuable non-verbal cues from body language, they’re missing from video’s flat, sometimes delayed and often blurry images. We find the sustained, but often off-kilter, eye contact inherent in video calls hard to tolerate. When do you ever stare at multiple looming faces, all at once, for an hour, in real life? We find seeing ourselves on screen stressful, too, and being tied to a screen cuts down our mobility (unlike a phone call, during which we can move).

James Bore, a cybersecurity expert who runs Bores Consultancy, hosts this open office for a couple of hours every week, inviting anyone working in his field via Twitter and LinkedIn to drop in to discuss issues or make new contacts (he also has a remote office for his own team, and hosts a “pub” night in a separate room for more informal networking, as well as helping other businesses organise events online through his company ReuniVous). Inviting people to play games such as Pictionary lightens the tone.

Screengrab from virtual meeting space Gather
Virtual meeting space Gather, whose 4 million users are represented by tiny, blocky avatars. Photograph: courtesy of gather.town

Why do Bore and his guests prefer Gather, given that it does also have a video component? “Almost every other video platform is very one way,” he says. “You’ve essentially got someone delivering stuff to a group of people, so you can’t have natural interactivity.”

Have you noticed that if two people try to talk at the same time on most video calls, one voice cuts out? Not on Gather. “People can talk at the same time,” Bore says. “If you move your avatar farther away from someone, their voice will get quieter but you can still catch a bit of the conversation. You can walk up to people, go sit at a table with people, jump into a private chat, play games. You can also walk out of a conversation. It’s more natural.”

Despite attending real-life industry events for years, Bore reckons he’s gained far more useful connections in this open office with its random attendees. While some remote workers mourn spontaneous chats and water-cooler moments, “serendipity actually happens here”, he says. “Almost all of the video-conferencing software requires a reason for the conversation. You can’t just pop in and say, ‘Let’s have a chat’ like you can here.” Gather’s other neat trick is keeping the video component low-key – the videos are ranged across the top of the screen, rather than dominating, which forces you to look at just one person at a time as they speak, rather than everyone at once, just as in face-to-face conversations.

There are hundreds of other sites, platforms and apps vying to become the next Zoom or Microsoft Teams, offering remote workers more than just a gallery of faces on a screen. Some are small, such as the micro-social network phone app Totem, developed to deepen connections within a business and used by companies such as John Lewis as a sort of private Facebook; staff are encouraged to share team successes alongside photos of pets (it also churns out data on engagement and morale). Others are larger, such as Wonder, which provides a simple webpage full of bubbles, each containing a photo of a guest, moving between white circles meant to represent tables on which people can video chat with each other; Wonder raised £11m in seed funding late last year, and counts Deloitte and Harvard as users.

Ninety-seven per cent of training now takes place online and, although 70% of it is done via Microsoft Teams, according to research by HR analysts Fosway, companies including insurers Hiscox and the restaurant chain Leon are using gamified training apps. These can allow staff to be put into situations that would be hard to replicate in real life (or on a video call), while also handing out dopamine-inducing micro-rewards, as stars or points.

But is more screen time what any of us need? It has increased by a third, to an average of 40% of our waking hours, during the pandemic. Rahaf Harfoush, a digital anthropologist, is director of Red Thread Institute of Digital Culture and an adjunct professor at Sciences Po in Paris. “The digitalisation of in-real-life [IRL] experiences is what a lot of companies rushed to do when the pandemic struck,” she says. “Their thinking was: ‘If we did it in person, let’s do it on Zoom.’ Many of these applications don’t make sense and can add to technological fatigue.”

Virtual meeting space Nottopia, set up on Mozilla Hubs by Professor Gary Burnett (in avatar form at front) for his students at Nottingham University
Nottopia, set up on Mozilla Hubs by Professor Gary Burnett (in avatar form at front) for his students at Nottingham University. Photograph: courtesy of Nottopia

Professor Gary Burnett, from Nottingham University, was keenly aware of this risk when he moved one of his engineering degree modules online last autumn. Rather than defaulting to the better-known platforms, he spent much of last summer trialling different fully virtual worlds to host his classes, before settling on Mozilla Hubs, a 3D-rendered meeting space used by Nasa. As I click a link into “Nottopia”, Burnett – or rather his cartoon-like avatar, a floating, hoodie-wearing, grey-haired head and torso – meets me in the “lobby”, a semi-open air vaulted space, next to a large digitised lake.

He leads me, still floating, into the virtual pavilion where he’s about to hold a product design lesson in creating a driverless taxi. My avatar is a small, red cartoon fox, but I could have chosen from thousands of options, or built my own. I’m also floating; I move by using the arrow keys on my keyboard, changing my gaze with the cursor so that I can look around the large room, which has a mixture of bare brick and white walls, and a pale grey floor. Sunlight seems to pour in through the glass roof, casting natural-looking shadows, and most spaces have a view towards blue sky and realistic clouds. Steps and doorways lead into other spaces – a smaller area with armchairs for more private meetings, and other larger rooms for exhibitions; one huge wall is taken up by a virtual fish tank. There’s no video here – we speak via our avatars, who wobble or move in a human-like way to show who is talking.

This is a virtual world where practically anything is possible, so Burnett can conjure up a 3D taxi that hovers in the centre of the group as they discuss its features. At one point, several students enable flying mode and hover high above the car. To examine another bit of tech, they all pile inside the taxi, laughing. (It’s all the funnier as one student’s avatar is an astronaut, another’s is a parrot, and a third’s seems to be a rainbow-coloured ghost. Burnett says the students often choose avatars that reflect their personalities – the person with the parrot avatar likes ornithology.)

There’s no live video involved, and no PowerPoint or slides, just genuine and playful interaction. When a chart appears on the wall, the students whip out virtual pens and start annotating it, and Burnett has placed 3D objects around the room for them to use as they experiment and discuss. Three-quarters of his students report that Mozilla Hubs has helped them with social isolation, Burnett says. “You can see that in the way I teach – it’s not a one-way flow of information.”

His students like Nottopia so much that they come here, via a link, outside lessons and show their friends around (occasionally leaving behind vast joke 3D models, or virtual replicas of Nottingham’s famous Canada geese). “Joining in as an avatar gives you a veil of anonymity that has made everyone less awkward about speaking up in class,” says Rebekah Kay, who is doing a master’s in mechanical engineering. “In some ways, I feel more present than if I was physically there.”

Hubs and Gather are genuinely fun to use (and currently free). But there is a more corporate side to virtual life, too. The UK’s in-person events and conferencing industry was worth £42.3bn in 2018 (£800bn, globally) and, one way or another, the industry wants to get back some of that revenue. “At the beginning of the pandemic, there were probably six platforms for virtual events, and now there are more than 100,” says Vanessa Lovatt, chief evangelist (her real job title) for Glisser, one such platform, which runs events for Facebook, Uber and the NHS. When we speak she is about to rehearse an online event for 47,000 people; they’ve tested the site with an audience of 170,000.

A screengrab of an event hosted by Virtulab
A virtual event hosted by the Virtulab. Photograph: courtesy of Virtulab

The question is, do virtual conferences work? And do we really need to replicate awkward IRL networking experiences while adding to our digital cognitive load? As with much of the so-called future of work, it’s still early days, both for the tech and, perhaps, for its users. This was painfully evident at the Tory party’s virtual conference last October, which was plagued by technical glitches, and criticised by everyone from attendees who couldn’t log on and speakers who had no audiences to thinktanks and exhibitors who paid for virtual pitches, at least one of whom reportedly requested a refund. At the time, MP Tim Loughton told PoliticsHome: “My first fringe meeting, we had to wait over 10 minutes for the panel to be let in; then we were all cut off and had to be sent a new link, meaning we started again almost half an hour later… [Then] it turned out in the first part we had just been talking to ourselves and there was no audience.”

A slicker attempt at recreating in-person networking has been made by the Virtulab, a British digital technology company that has developed an immersive virtual venue rather like a digitised version of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. It can be hired in exactly the same way, and already has been by TEDx events and the Institute of People Management. But as an avatar version of me strolls through the cavernous digital hall on my laptop screen, my non-gamer head is spinning. There are realistic-looking bot people on hand to help me if I get stuck, booths to walk into – just as at a real trade show – staffed by other avatar people who I can speak to in real time (with or without video). There are speed-networking zones and branded video screens on the walls. I can chat with the avatar people I pass and walk around the venue, or teleport between different areas. There are auditoriums where speakers can present to an avatar audience either as their avatar selves or via live video links.

The experience is pretty smooth, if disconcerting – it’s strange not knowing who any of the avatars around me might be (or if they have people attached to them at all – the auditorium auto-populates to fill all the seats, so no one has to give a talk to an empty room). But isn’t one of the great things about being forced to work from home that we no longer have to go to corporate spaces like this? Perhaps I’m a misanthrope, but I like no longer having to visit exhibition centres several times a year. (I write a lot about hospitality and, pre-Covid, often travelled to the ExCeL centre in London’s Docklands to attend expos about things like packaging, food technology or free-from foods.) I can see how this would be great for brands and event organisers, but I’m not totally sold that it’s good for the rest of us.

Dave Cummins, executive director at the Virtulab, disagrees. For him, this isn’t a temporary fix while we wait for the pandemic to blow over. “We see this from an eco perspective, via the reduction in travel – there is a cost in server burn, but it’s nowhere near what you get from an event.”

If a virtual reality conference sounds a bit out there, imagine logging into a virtual reality office every day, from home – another Virtulab offering. If you’re yearning to get back to the office – with its random conversations and predictable routines – this could be your answer. Although subscribers can build any office they want, the immersive version I visited, via my laptop screen, created for two clients, an events company and a petrochemical company, looked exactly like a normal, grey office building. It’s as if they got their best designers to perfectly recreate a business park in Reading.

Unlike conventional remote-work platforms, this one also uses lifelike avatars: mine arrives at the building and walks along a corridor, before opening a door, entering an office and choosing a desk. If I was working here for real, I’d be able to access things like my company’s storage drives, too. “The idea is that you come into the platform, open up your browser and start using it just like this is your office,” Cummins says. “If you’re not in a meeting, you can open the door so avatars can just walk in. We’re trying to empower that water-cooler moment. If you would come and see me at 10 o’clock in the morning in real life, then you would come and see me here.”

Women working in virtual and augmented reality network on Mozilla Hubs, a 3D-rendered space
Women working in virtual and augmented reality network on Mozilla Hubs, a 3D-rendered space also used by Nasa. Photograph: courtesy of Mozilla Hubs

Businesses such as Green Building Council SA, an association for green companies, and AI Laith Dubai, an events company, are early adopters of the Virtulab. (Other organisations are working on VR offices: Facebook is developing a remote office requiring a VR headset, slated to launch later this year.) For me, the best part is that it recreates access to colleagues: as long as they’re logged on and available, you can talk – as the avatar, and with your voice rather than video – whenever you fancy, with no need to create a link or calendar invite. There could be downsides, though. A virtual office can create the expectation that you will be digitally present for a traditional eight-hour day, robbing homeworkers of the flexibility they have enjoyed in recent months. Remote-work tools and platforms could easily shade into digitally surveilling employees, even if only in terms of tracking how long you are at your computer. (As well as raising multiple privacy issues, this can be detrimental to engagement and retention: a 2017 study showed that monitoring makes employees feel their organisation is unethical.) “One of the best ways for a business to create an insider threat – people who will attack your company from within, whether maliciously or through negligence – is failing to trust your staff,” Bore tells me. “When people feel constrained, they will find ways around it. When they feel trusted and accountable for what they’re doing, you prevent insider threats – not by saying you must be at your online desk from nine to five.”

As many as one in five businesses already use surveillance software to monitor staff as they work from home, including French company Teleperformance, which employs 380,000 people in 34 countries. In March, it launched a webcam security system called TP Observer, which uses an AI system with the ability to watch home-working call centre staff, or to track unauthorised phone usage or “unknown persons” appearing at the desk, and to send screenshots to supervisors. The company insists that webcams for UK staff would be voluntary, and would be used only for meetings and training, or pre-scheduled desk checks, and would not be used for random surveillance, but adds that levels of scrutiny will vary in other countries.

Of course, you don’t necessarily need new tech to watch your staff – Microsoft Teams, for instance, logs screen minutes, number of calls, chats or meetings, collating them into a handy graph for managers.

The Virtulab doesn’t expect its remote-office platform to be used to track staff attendance (although that’s up to the end user). But it does want to keep you in its virtual world. “We’re looking at gamification,” Cummins says. “During your lunch break, you grab a sandwich and come back to your desk, and race cars, or play golf, or do an escape room. It’s a chance to team-build, and get away from the monotony.” He says there are also art galleries and gardens to amble around, though I think I’d rather spend my lunch break in an actual park. Could this increase employees’ screen time? “We do our own health and safety assessments as a company – seating positions, desks, chairs and so on. For remote work, it’s an employer who would be taking this package, so it’s their responsibility to ensure screen time is being monitored and assessed.”

These platforms are meant to improve remote work, but is a virtual experience that fills the entire day better or worse than spending a couple of hours on video calls but being otherwise generally invisible? “Employers probably want to help people gel, but they risk trying to do too much,” says Dr Linda Kaye, who studies the psychology of gaming and online behaviour. “I’m not saying it’s not useful in a work context, but when you force it on people it becomes inauthentic.” Her research reflects the fact that valuable social connections can be forged online. But just because we can create virtual worlds to work in, should we?

A screengrab of an event hosted by Virtulab
‘We see this from an eco perspective, via the reduction in travel’: a Virtulab event. Photograph: courtesy of Virtulab

Ellie Gibson, a games journalist and host of the Extra Life gaming podcast, is enthusiastic about avatar games where she gets to create an alter ego. “I play as a 7ft tall Viking called Avril who is nothing like me. I wouldn’t want to be myself, a 43-year-old woman from Catford.” She worries about the implications of coming up with an avatar version of yourself in a working environment – where presumably the expectation is that you try to represent yourself realistically. “For people who have issues with body image, I can imagine this being anxiety-inducing. If you’re a larger person thinking: ‘I’m going to a meeting, and I’m supposed to create this avatar of myself. How am I supposed to do that?’ Would there be a temptation to make yourself look fatter, to be the first to make a joke of it?”

“That’s why the avatar isn’t a 360 capture of your body,” Cummins says. “It can look like you or someone else. If you’ve got a harsh workplace, it could be an issue.”

Much depends on the type of workplace you’re in – its culture and the sector in which it operates. While Hubs, the platform used by the engineers at the University of Nottingham, could work brilliantly for design, technology or architectural businesses, I’m not sure I can see social workers holding a case conference in a virtual world. Would it feel appropriate for a legal firm dealing with serious crimes to hold their meetings as avatar versions of themselves on Gather? Similarly, it’s hard to imagine holding a disciplinary session as a cartoon version of yourself. For some teams and clients, working in a virtual office could feel even more torturous than video calling already is.

Aspects of the online work boom will inevitably disappear as pandemic restrictions ease and we are able to pick and choose rather than being forced online. It could be that platforms with fewer frills prove more enduring. One online space that has exploded since launching in spring 2020 is the invite-only social audio app Clubhouse, which already claims to have 10 million users. Social audio is exactly the same as social media – you follow individuals and join groups – but with live speech rather than text or images. Clubhouse is a simple platform where users create “rooms”, to have real-time, audio-only conversations about anything they want; Twitter is close behind with its new creation, Spaces.

Michael Liskin is an LA-based virtual facilitation expert who has worked as a beta tester for social audio apps. “The next big thing isn’t as fancy as we might think,” he tells me. “There is potential for social audio to provide a kind of middle ground, one between fatiguing video conferencing and text-based interaction like Slack, which can be labour intensive and not as intimate.” Rather than using virtual-world platforms, he is helping teams connect using Clubhouse. “There will soon be a bunch of social audio apps optimised for happy hours, workshops, team-building, book clubs, mentorship and much more. Social audio fosters intimacy.” And, as Liskin points out, because it’s audio rather than video, “it can be in your pocket while you’re out on a bike”. There are even rooms on Clubhouse where people meet to work, mainly in silence, collectively but remotely.

Back on gather.town, we’ve moved on to the pub, much as you might at the end of a traditional working day, and a tiny snowman avatar is playing – really – the pub’s piano. Bore has no intention of calling time on his pub once the real ones reopen. “It has put me in contact with people in my field who I would never have been able to reach otherwise, people from all over the world,” he says. It’s still going to sound mad to most people though, isn’t it? “It’s almost impossible to explain unless you’re doing it,” he laughs. “The moment you’re in here, it immediately makes sense.”



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Amazon to let Prime users unsubscribe in two clicks to comply with EU rules

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There were complaints of ‘a large number of hurdles’ to unsubscribe from Amazon Prime such as complicated menus, skewed wording, confusing choices and warnings.

Amazon has committed to making it easier for users to cancel their Prime subscription to comply with EU rules.

The tech giant will now let consumers in the EU and EEA unsubscribe from Amazon Prime with just two clicks, using a prominent cancel button.

This came following a dialogue with the European Commission and national consumer protection authorities. Complaints had been issued to the Commission by the European Consumer Organisation, the Norwegian Consumer Council and the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue.

These consumer authorities noted “a large number of hurdles” to unsubscribe from Amazon’s service, such as complicated navigation menus, skewed wording, confusing choices and repeated nudging.

Amazon made initial changes last year, labelling the cancel button more clearly and shortening the explanatory text. This text will now been reduced further so consumers don’t get distracted by warnings and deterred from cancelling.

“Consumers must be able to exercise their rights without any pressure from platforms,” said EU commissioner for justice Didier Reynders.

“Opting for an online subscription can be very handy for consumers as it is often a very straightforward process, but the reverse action of unsubscribing should be just as easy. One thing is clear: manipulative design or ‘dark patterns’ must be banned.”

Amazon has committed to implementing the new changes on all its EU websites and for all devices. The tech giant will be monitored by the European Commission and national authorities to ensure it complies with EU consumer law.

“Customer transparency and trust are top priorities for us,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

“By design we make it clear and simple for customers to both sign up for or cancel their Prime membership. We continually listen to feedback and look for ways to improve the customer experience, as we are doing here following constructive dialogue with the European Commission.”

Amazon has had a number of dealing with the European Commission over the years regarding its business practices. The tech giant was hit with a Statement of Objections in 2020 based on its use of marketplace seller data.

In 2017, an EU case led by competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager also accused Amazon of cutting an illegal deal with the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg to drastically lower its tax bill.

The country was ordered to recoup €250m in back taxes. However, Amazon won its appeal against this ruling last year, as the EU’s general court said the European Commission didn’t provide the “requisite legal standard” to prove Amazon received favour from tax authorities.

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How to read: a guide to getting more out of the experience | Books

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Why read books, in this day and age? “Haven’t we all secretly sort of come to an agreement, in the last year or two or three, that novels belonged to the age of newspapers and are going the way of newspapers, only faster?” wrote Jonathan Franzen, tongue firmly in cheek, in a 2010 essay. The comment feels trenchant a decade later, in an era marked by a saturation of streaming platforms, short-form video, podcasts and screen adaptations of said podcasts.

The proportion of non-readers in Australia has grown in recent years: results of the 2021 National Reading Survey found that 25% of people reported not reading a single book in the previous year – up from 8% in a 2017 survey.

Any bibliophile can easily rattle off a list of reasons for reading. Books enlighten and challenge us, they transport us to different worlds, they reflect essential truths about the human condition.

“People who read well and read a lot learn more, pick up more general knowledge … and can then be better critical consumers of what they read,” says Prof Pamela Snow, co-director of the Science of Language and Reading lab at La Trobe University.

So, within our busy lives, how do we better find the time for books? How can we get more out of the reading experience?

Skim/deep

We commonly interact with texts in different modes. In skimming through an article, taking in a few lines – a headline and subheadings, for example – we might gain a general but shallow understanding of its meaning. We also scan texts for specific numbers, names, or ideas – a quantity in a recipe, say.

Then there’s deep reading, what the scholars Dr Maryanne Wolf and Dr Mirit Barzillai define as “the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight. The expert reader needs milliseconds to execute these processes; the young brain needs years to develop them.”

Reading on screens has turned us into adept text skimmers. An influential 2005 study that analysed how reading behaviour had changed over the previous decade – coinciding with the global rise of the internet – found that online reading was characterised by “more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, [and] one-time reading … while less time is spent on in-depth reading, and concentrated reading”.

Wolf has advocated for the need to cultivate a “bi-literate” reading brain, one capable of both deep reading processes and the skim reading more commonly associated with screens.

“Readers must engage in an active construction of meaning, in which they grapple with the text and apply their earlier knowledge as they question, analyse, and probe,” she and Barzillai have suggested. One technique for in-depth reading of narrative texts is RIDA: to Read, Imagine the scene, Describe it to yourself, and Add more mental detail by noting powerful imagery or salient passages.

Woman reading textbooks in library
Our brains should ideally be ‘capable of both deep reading processes and the skim reading more commonly associated with screens’. Photograph: Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd/Getty Images

Physical books, rather than devices like smartphones, tend to support more focused reading, says Baron, though she says the choice of medium is ultimately a matter of personal preference.

Screens themselves are not inherently detrimental to our ability to focus, says the head of the visual and cognitive neuroscience laboratory at the University of Melbourne, Prof Trichur Vidyasagar.

“People often have the belief, particularly concerned parents, that if you spend too much time on screen devices your concentration may get poorer. That’s not necessarily true,” he says. “If used correctly and not at the cost of other useful activities, they can greatly benefit learning.”

The key is the internet’s boundless potential for distraction. “When you use the screen, there are so many hyperlinks, so many sites, stories, and rabbit holes to go into,” Vidyasagar says. The temptation to multitask – “an illusory myth,” he says – can be hard to resist. “If you think you’re multitasking, what you’re actually doing is switching between two tasks at a rapid rate, and your performance in both goes down.”

“When you read a [physical] book it’s quite different – you can’t get distracted as easily.”

Research in university students has found that comprehension is generally higher for print reading. “There is something about reading digitally that seemingly increases the speed at which students move through the text and this processing time translates into reduced comprehension,” one study found. “The findings are especially true when you’re talking about longer materials,” Baron says, adding as a caveat that research tends to focus on academic rather than leisure reading.

Results seem to differ slightly for dedicated e-reader devices. One study, in which participants read a 28-page mystery story by Elizabeth George either in print or on a Kindle, found no differences in most standard comprehension measures. The print readers, however, were better at reconstructing the plot and chronological aspects of the story – potentially because “the physical substrate of paper provides material placeholders” for events within the story.

Rediscovering joy and meaning

Dr Judith Seaboyer, formerly a senior lecturer in literary studies at the University of Queensland, who retired last May, recently went through a fiction dry spell. “There’s so much good stuff to listen to [on the radio], so much good journalism out there to read, and I was finding that I wasn’t reading novels any more.”

“As somebody … who’s done a PhD in contemporary literary fiction, and taught it for over 20 years – you think I’d know [reading books] is worth doing.”

What broke Seaboyer out of her slump was reading new work by an author she loves – Ali Smith’s Companion Piece. Synthesising ideas and making comparisons across multiple texts is also a known strategy for deepening reading comprehension, so some might find it helpful to dig into multiple books by the same author.

Seaboyer’s advice is to read with curiosity and to carefully consider an author’s choices, which can lead to a deeper understanding of language, characters and plot. “Jot things down, annotate your book, write things in the margin,” she says. “Some publishers are putting out reading guides now – that’s often quite useful.”

Nabokov believed that “One cannot read a book: one can only reread it”. For him, revisiting books – like the process of regarding a painting – meant the mind first “takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details”.

“You [might] remember that you really loved reading Austen,” Seaboyer says. “It’s interesting to be thinking as you read … now that I’m older and wiser, am I seeing any of this any differently than I did when I was 18?”

“There are ways to be kind to yourself, to allow yourself the opportunity not to understand something the first time through, or to say … maybe there’s a different book I should read first,” Baron says. “It’s like reading James Joyce: if you want to start with Ulysses, good luck. If you start with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, you’ll have a better shot at working your way in.”

Copy of Ulysses by James Joyce
‘It’s like reading James Joyce: if you want to start with Ulysses, good luck.’ Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

If reading solely for pleasure, abandoning books that are not bringing enjoyment could, in fact, increase reading time. Of frequent readers surveyed in 2021 – those who consumed at least one book a month – 54% reported not finishing a book if they disliked it. As a result, they “move[d] on more quickly to the next book for greater enjoyment … and have fewer and shorter gaps between books”.

For those wanting to read more – for relaxation or self-improvement – Baron suggests committing to short but regular periods of reading, similar to time set aside for exercise or meditation.

The speed question

Some people are naturally fast readers – celebrated academic Harold Bloom claimed to be able to read 1,000 pages an hour in his prime. Most adults, according to 2019 analysis, read English nonfiction silently at a rate of between 175 and 300 words a minute, and fiction at a rate of 200 to 320.

While speed reading techniques or apps may seem alluring for the time poor, they’re unlikely to work without compromising understanding.

“Fast readers are not necessarily better at reading comprehension,” Vidyasagar says.

There are no shortcuts to reading faster. Becoming a better reader requires persistence and “dealing with the frustration at not seeing overnight results”, Snow says. “It’s like any skill – learning a musical instrument, learning to drive a car.”

A 2016 review of the science of reading found that reading can be improved in the same way all other skills are developed: through practice. “The way to maintain high comprehension and get through text faster is to practise reading and to become a more skilled language user.”

“If two goals of reading might be to learn for the long haul, and to think – that may be part of enjoyment, that may be part of learning – then what’s the hurry?” Baron says. “Why are we feeling like the White Rabbit?”

For Seaboyer, reading a good book is akin to a meditative experience . The “wonderful, immersive process that is deep reading” reliably brings her pleasure. “Something else is picking you up, and moving your mind and body and soul into a different space so you can think about the world differently.”

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Is a lack of standards holding immersion cooling back? • The Register

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Comment Liquid and immersion cooling have undergone something of a renaissance in the datacenter in recent years as components have grown ever hotter.

This trend has only accelerated over the past few months as we’ve seen a fervor of innovation and development around everything from liquid-cooled servers and components for vendors that believe the only way to cool these systems long term is to drench them in a vat of refrigerants.

Liquid and immersion cooling are by no means new technologies. They’ve had a storied history in the high-performance computing space, in systems like HPE’s Apollo, Cray, and Lenovo’s Neptune to name just a handful.

A major factor driving the adoption of this tech in traditional datacenters is a combination of more powerful chips and a general desire to cut operating costs by curbing energy consumption.

One of the challenges, however, is many of these systems employ radically different form factors than are typical in air-cooled datacenters. Some systems only require modest changes to the existing rack infrastructure, while others ditch that convention entirely in favor of massive tubs into which servers are vertically slotted.

The ways these technologies are being implemented is a mixed bag to say the least.

Immersion cooling meets rack mount

This challenge was on full display this week at HPE Discover, where the IT goliath announced a collaboration with Intel and Iceotope to bring immersion-cooling tech to HPE’s enterprise-focused Proliant server line.

The systems can now be provisioned with Iceotope’s Ku:l immersion and liquid-cooling technology, via HPE’s channel partners with support provided by distributor Avnet Integrated. Iceotope’s designs meld elements of immersion cooling and closed-loop liquid cooling to enable this technology to be deployed in rack environments with minimal changes to the existing infrastructure.

Ice’s chassis-level immersion-cooling platform effectively uses the server’s case as a reservoir and then pumps coolant throughout to hotspots like the CPU, GPU, or memory. The company also offers a 3U conversion kit for adapting air-cooled servers to liquid cooling.

Both designs utilize a liquid-to-liquid heat exchanger toward the back of the chassis, where deionized water is pumped in and heat is removed from the system using an external dry cooler.

This is a stark departure from the approach used by rival immersion-cooling vendors, such as LiquidStack or Submer, which favor submerging multiple systems in a tub full of coolant — commonly a two-phase refrigerant or specialized oil.

While this approach has shown promise, and has even been deployed in Microsoft’s Azure datacenters, the unique form factors may require special consideration from building operators. Weight distribution is among operators’ primary concerns, Dell’Oro analyst Lucas Beran told The Register in an earlier interview.

Standardized reference designs in the works

The lack of a standardized form factor for deploying and implementing these technologies is one of several challenges Intel hopes to address with its $700 million Oregon liquid and immersion cooling lab.

Announced in late May, the 200,000-square-foot facility, located about 20 miles west of Portland at its Hillsboro campus in the US, will qualify, test, and demo its expansive datacenter portfolio using a variety of cooling tech. The chipmaker is also said to be working on an open reference design for an immersion-cooling system that’s being developed by Intel Taiwan.

Intel plans to bring other Taiwanese manufacturers into the fold before rolling out the reference design globally. Whether the x86 giant will be able to bring any consistency to the way immersion cooling will be deployed in datacenters going forward remains to be seen, however.

Even if Intel’s reference design never pans out, there are still other initiatives pursuing similar goals, including the Open Compute Project’s advanced cooling solutions sub project, launched in 2018.

It aims to establish an ecosystem of servers, storage, and networking gear built around common standards for direct contact, immersion, and other cooling tech.

In the meantime, the industry will carry on chilling the best ways it can. ®

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