Saturday, March 25, 2017

Talking To Technology

Until about the mid 1980s, almost everybody interacted with a computer using only a keyboard and a command line interface or “CLI.” No mouse, no point and click interface, and certainly no touch screen.

When the mouse and the point-and-click interface came along as part of modern computers and operating systems of the mid-1980s, it drastically changed the way we interacted with technology. Though the CLI still has its place, today we rely heavily upon the mouse and the point-and-click interface as we have for the last 30+ years. Over time, the mouse became wireless (making it look a lot less like a “mouse”) and the window systems became more sophisticated. Faster computers and networks made video possible, and cheap, fast mass-storage devices allowed us to hold all our photos, songs and movies. The point-and-click interface, though, has remained largely the same.

About a decade ago, a new interface became available and caught on quickly. The capacitive touch interface, first on smartphones, later on tablets, and now on some laptop computers, has become the dominant interface for those with mobile devices.

Will speech and natural language interaction be the next game-changer, as the mouse was in the 1980s, and touch was 20 years later? Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft all seem to think so. All have introduced products and capabilities that allow speech as input and audio as output, meaning you can talk to your technology and it talks back.

The first major system on the scene was Apple’s Siri, released in the fall of 2011 for use on iPhones. Google Assistant, Amazon Echo and Microsoft Cortana followed soon after. While Apple’s Siri was first among the big players, the others each introduced interesting new capabilities. Google could leverage what it knew from your calendar and other tools to bring more value as an assistant. Amazon introduced standalone, stationary devices which could be extended to deliver “smart home” capabilities through “skills” or capabilities accessible via voice. Most of all, each new voice interaction system showed advancements and improvements in language interaction to the point where the earliest systems like Siri soon seemed far less impressive.

The Good, the bad, the ugly

Now that we can talk to technology, a reasonable question to consider is whether and when speaking and listening is a preferred interface. A clear advantage is that speaking and listening are part of a more natural user interface, close to the way we interact with each other. For most of us, conversation is the communication tool we learn first! Also, there are times when the point-and-click interface just doesn’t make good sense, such as when driving. A conversational interface with our technology seems far safer in that setting.

There are pretty clearly some disadvantages to consider, too. First, talking to technology still looks and feels a little strange. When I pass people on the street carrying on a phone conversation via a Bluetooth earpiece or some in-ear headphones, a small part of me can’t help noticing how they look like they are talking to themselves (and how can I be really sure that they aren’t!). And some people have noticed that kids growing up with Alexa in their house or Siri on their devices talk a little loudly and abruptly, even when talking to people. Second, an office full of people interacting with their technology may be noisy and disruptive and may even error prone for obvious reasons. Third, there are some tasks that probably just work better in a point and click interface. The voice interface makes it more difficult to leverage visual information (like a map) and to select specifics from that information (like a street or address). Finally, as a practical matter, the technology is still far from perfect. Voice assistants seem to still misunderstand us a little too often to be a primary interface.

What now?

It’s probably fair to guess that that last point won’t be true for very long. Improvements will come to voice assistants as they come to so much of the technology around us. Apple, once the leader and now lagging, is quite likely to make up lost ground in a future release of Siri. Some are speculating a major revision from Apple in 2017. The other major vendors will respond and introduce improvements as well.

Maybe a next leap forward in user interfaces will leverage Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality as the next logical step. A number of niche vendors are producing interesting AR and VR products, and the big vendors will surely respond with some of their own. Another interesting blog topic for another day.

What do you think about user interfaces? And what will be the dominant interface of the next 5 years? Please post a comment and let us know what you think.

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

25 Pieces of Advice I Give Myself

...and I'd give you, too, if you asked me.

In the early days of Facebook, people often posted lists. It was a trend at some point to post 25 things about yourself. This post is inspired by that, but rather than 25 things about me this is a list of 25 pieces of advice I give myself and that I'd give you, too, if you asked me. I'd be glad to hear which of these you agree with and which are very different from advice you give yourself!

  1. Say “thank you” often. There are plenty of opportunities.
  2. Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. (credit, Max Ehrmann, Desiderata)
  3. Spend time outdoors. My favorite ways involve the beach and boats and fishing. Appreciate warm, sunny days. Warm clear nights are pretty great, too. Look up. Take in the stars.
  4. The ocean is huge and full of life and never fails to make me feel very small in a very large world. In a good way. Watch quietly, look all around you, and take it in.
  5. When in doubt, re-apply sunscreen.
  6. Read something.
  7. Speaking of reading, while I love the feel of a book and its pages and its cover, read on a tablet. It's great to have a big collection of books with you at all times.
  8. A little skepticism is healthy.
  9. If you are in a hurry, don’t drive behind a Prius.
  10. Red wine goes with everything. (credit, Greg Jackson)
  11. Some food just tastes better when you cook it outdoors.
  12. Cashews > Pecans > Pistachios > Macadamias > Almonds > Walnuts > Peanuts
  13. If you have a choice between a mediocre steak and mediocre seafood, take the steak. If you have a choice between a great steak and great seafood, pick the seafood.
  14. Despite not being a religious person myself, I believe that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is pretty great advice.
  15. Recognize and embrace opportunities to agree with your allies and your adversaries. Common ground can be built upon.
  16. It doesn’t matter who gets credit if you love the idea.
  17. I’d rather spend my money going to a concert than on buying stuff. Stuff clutters your life, while experiences can make you smile for years after.
  18. Speaking of experiences, travel when you can. Eat what the locals eat, listen to their music, enjoy their art. And while you are there, remember advice #1.
  19. Laughing and smiling feels better than not doing those things.
  20. Crying is also important, in small doses. Let yourself cry from time to time.
  21. Be open to new music, but allow yourself to love the music you grew up on. That music carries built in memories.
  22. Speaking of music, close your eyes and soak it in when the circumstances allow for it. Really listen. Every instrumentalist and every singer contributes to that performance. Appreciate them each individually and appreciate the totality.
  23. We make friends all through life. Stay in touch with those who really matter to you. Social networks made this a lot easier. Good friends appreciate you for who you are, call you on your crap when necessary, and love you anyway. Especially keep those.
  24. Tell the people you love that you love them. They probably know, but they still like to hear it. And remember advice #14.
  25. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. (credit, Max Ehrmann, Desiderata)


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Sunday, January 8, 2017

This Year, Resolve to Protect Your Identity

(In higher ed IT we often give advice on protecting identity through careful practices.  This is a simplified version of some of that advice.)

The start of a year is a great time to take stock and to commit (or re-commit) to the things that matter to us. That’s probably why so many of us write New Year’s Resolutions. Whether we write them down, share them with friends, post them on social media, or just silently commit to them without sharing, New Year’s Resolutions can be a way to identify what’s important to us and how we can improve and be the person we want to be.

I almost always resolve to diet and exercise hoping to lose weight. It often works, too, at least for a few months. I usually write a few other self-improvement resolutions such as reading some of the books that have been on my list for a while, or to devote more time to playing the piano. I have friends who have resolved to learn or brush-up on a foreign language, spend more time with family members, or to take on a specific physical challenge such as to run a marathon or hike part of the Appalachian Trail.

May I suggest a resolution? This year, resolve to better protect your identity. There are some very practical steps you can take. I’ll list a few here and invite you to suggest and share some others. Many, but not all, have to do with passwords. Any of these in isolation can help, and doing some combination of them can help even more.

1.     Choose good passwords and passphrases. Longer passwords and more complex passwords can both help to protect against “brute force attacks” in which a hacker tries to guess your password. Certainly, avoid very short and simple passwords. If a service allows very long passwords and doesn’t require complexity (uppercase, lowercase, numeric, special characters), you might use a pass phrase which is a long string of words that are meaningful and memorable to you, but that would be hard to guess. If complexity is required, you might try a password generator (built into some browsers and applications) to suggest a password, or perhaps base your new password on a long phrase by taking the first letter of each word and making a single acronym and then swapping some of the letters with numbers or special characters. Finally, add some additional characters to the beginning and end.
2.     Avoid using the same password for multiple services. Whatever password you choose in step 1, it is best not to use that same password for more than one service. If an online service somehow allows your password to be compromised, it would be better if the compromise were limited to just that one service rather than several services for which you have used that same password.
3.     Use a password vault application. When you take the first two items above into consideration, you very likely will have the need to safely manage many different long or complicated passwords. Don’t write them down. Pick a good password vault application that can store and protect your passwords in an encrypted storage. The best password vault applications can even generate/suggest passwords, sync passwords across your computers, smartphones and tablets, and even auto-fill fields in web applications if you choose to enable that feature.
4.     Be careful about “password recovery questions.” Password recovery questions such as “what is your mother’s maiden name?” and “what was your first pet’s name?” are often used to allow you to prove your identity to recover a forgotten password. This can be very handy. Unfortunately, it can also lead to account compromises when someone else guesses the answers. In the most extreme example of problems with password recovery questions, a major hack of Yahoo information led to not only passwords but password recovery questions and answers to be compromised. The result? The questions and answers you use on Yahoo and perhaps many other services wind up in the hands of the bad guys. In the worst case, they could use what they learned in the Yahoo hack to log into your unrelated accounts!
5.     Try two-factor-authentication where available. Some services will allow you to use more than one “factor” to prove your identity. One factor may be a password, while another may be a string of numbers or letters sent to a smartphone or other device in your possession that you are then asked to enter on the login screen. In this way, login is only possible by someone who both has the device and knows the password. Something you have, and something you know, are the two factors. This greatly improves security at the cost of a small extra step during login.
6.     Be suspicious of email that invites you to log into a service. Hackers send email messages that invite users to either send their login information or invite them to connect to a page that looks very much like a legitimate service login page but that can be used to capture usernames and associated password. This attack on user identity is called phishing and it has become a major risk on the Internet. We recommend that you not click links in email messages in such cases. If your bank or employer seems to have sent an email message asking you to connect and log in, use your browser to connect to that service via a known address, and make sure the URL that shows up in your browser is the location you expect before logging in.
7.     Avoid giving out your social security number. Social security numbers have been used for many years as a unique identifier by many services, online and off line. Unfortunately, this practice has allowed criminals to combine this information with other less sensitive information like birthday and address to achieve identity theft at banks. When you are asked to supply a social security number other than to an employer or a financial institution, it is reasonable to push back, express concern, and ask about alternatives. This practice may help you to avoid identity theft.                                                                                                                                                                   
These are just a few of the important ways available to help protect your online (and offline) identity. Perhaps you have been using passwords to access email and web services for many years and have established practices and patterns since before identity risks rose to today’s levels. Now, armed with better information and better tools, it is possible to do more to protect your identity, and I believe that revisiting your practices is truly in your best interests. These can be resolutions that really work for the long term. If only I could say the same for my diet and exercise resolutions!

Do you have other suggestions to help protect identity information? Please share them here in the comments section.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fishing off Newport Beach

Plenty of Red Snapper and Rockfish on a beautiful fall day

Whenever I travel near the coasts, whether for business or pleasure, I look for an opportunity to go fishing. Back in late October I attended a great higher education Information Technology conference in the Los Angeles area. Thousands attended. When the conference ended mid-day on Friday, my colleagues all headed to the airport to fly back home, but I picked up a rental car and drove southwest to Newport Beach. As an avid fisherman who has fished more on the east coast, I was hoping to do some west coast fishing.

Fishing Station
The area where I wanted to fish, Catalina Island, has a great range of fish including Red Snapper, California Sheephead, Bonito, Tuna, and many kinds of Rockfish. What really had my attention, though, was that this area can sometimes be a great place to fish for Yellowtail, a kind of colorful amberjack that is often featured in sushi restaurants.

I headed down to the docks on Friday afternoon, found the Newport Landing Fishing Company, and confirmed a 12-hour trip for Saturday morning with a 5:30am boarding time and a 6am start. I was told that only 19 fisherman were booked on a boat that can accommodate up to 40 fishermen. This was called a “limited load all-day” trip, meaning there would be plenty of room to fish and enough time to have a good shot at good fish.

The Patriot
Though the Newport area had plenty of great restaurants and nightlife, I got to bed early on Friday evening to be rested up for an early start. I woke up at 4:30am, dressed in layers, and headed down to the docks to check in at the fishing station where I bought my one-day fishing license, rented a 7-foot rod with a big spinning reel, and got some fishing tackle for the trip. Next, I bought a cup of coffee and started chatting with two other fishermen waiting to board, Kyle and James, who were both in their mid-30s. I later found out that James was getting married in a week or two and this was part of Kyle’s bachelor party gift to him. That’s a good friend! The three of us ended up hanging out together for the day.

Heading out at dawn
The Patriot, our boat, was an older boat and not very fast. It had three mates, Mike, Matt and Jake, and a captain (whose name I never caught). Overall there were 19 fishermen and 4 crew ready for a day of fishing on the Patriot. As it happens, there was not one woman aboard. Fishing can sometimes be like that. 

We shoved off and motored out past the moored boats and waterfront properties on both sides. We made a quick stop at the floating bait barge near the mouth of the inlet for a big supply of live sardines. It was barely 6am and the sky was still dark, but I could see and hear the sea lions breaking the surface near the boat and gobbling up any stray sardines that fell from the net and didn’t make it into the bait well. Loaded down with bait, we started the long trip out to Catalina Island. Every fishermen threw a $5 bill into the winner-take-all jackpot for the heaviest fish at the end of the day, and most of us ordered breakfast. There was plenty of time during the two and half hour ride to watch the sun rise, to sleep a bit, to sit up at the bow and look for dolphin, to hang out at the stern and watch the sea birds chase us, and to eat a breakfast burrito cooked by the head mate, Mike. As the sun came up and Catalina Island started to come into view, we got our tackle rigged up and staked out our spots at the rail. Kyle, James and I picked out a big section of the starboard side stern right near the bait. Fishing at the stern is considered lucky by lots of fishermen. Whether lucky or not, I know the distance from the water to the rail is shortest in the stern, which means you can get your fish into the boat faster and more reliably.

I took some photos of Catalina Island in the morning sunlight and watched the dolphins swim close by. The boat settled into our first fishing spot and we baited up and let the lines go down. 200 feet of water! That means even cranking up to check on your bait is hard work, let alone reeling in a fish.

It was a relatively calm day, with the sun peaking out behind some high clouds. Good visibility and plenty to see. As we fished we saw dolphins, sea lions, and lots of sea birds including cormorants which swim under water to go fishing. At one point we saw a marlin resting at the surface before slipping back down into deeper water. A little later, a small mako shark swam alongside the boat looking for a free meal. One of the mates actually tried (unsuccessfully) to gaff him!

The day wore on and it was clear that there would be no real opportunity for Yellowtail, but that didn’t matter. It had been a beautiful day out on the water, with plenty of action. We caught lots of Rockfish, Red Snapper, White Seabass, Sheephead, and even a few flatfish. None of the fish were huge on this day, but we appreciated catching every one them. My arms were tired by the end of the day! We pulled up lines for the last time at around 4pm, and secured our fishing rods, grabbed some cold beers from the galley for the long ride home and started to check the catch to see who would take home the jackpot. In the end, one of the larger Sheephead was the winner and we congratulated the guy who caught it.

Heading in after sunset
As we rode home, the mates cleaned and filleted fish for us for tips. I had my fish cleaned and kept just enough for dinner (about a pound of Red Snapper filets) and gave the rest to Kyle and James. They told me that these fish would be on the menu for a big barbeque the next day as the celebration for James' pending nuptials continued. I was glad I could add something small to the festivities. I tipped the mates well and bought a round of beers for Kyle, James and myself.

We motored in closer to 7pm, and the skies had already grown dark again. The houses and docks were lit up beautifully. We pulled in at the docks and, grabbing our bags of fresh fish, headed our separate ways. I wished Kyle and James well and, on advice from one of the mates, took my fresh Red Snapper fish filets to a local restaurant that was happy to cook them for me. A delicious end to a great day out on the water.

When I travel, a day of fishing will always be on the menu when possible. For me, it's therapy. It reminds me of days fishing with my father and grandfather and it makes me happy knowing that I've passed on my love for the water and sea life to my sons.


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Monday, May 30, 2016

Five Years Blogging

A little more than 5 years ago I started the RapidGroove blog with a post called “I think that bird said beep.”

I had my reasons for starting to blog; I wanted to challenge myself to be productive through more frequent writing on interesting non-work topics and hoped that it would help me to hone my writing skills. I also hoped it would be a fun way to connect with friends on interesting topics in an even deeper way than is practical on Facebook and Twitter.

In the spring of 2011 I had applied to grad school and was wait-listed. I knew I’d try again in 2012, so the year in between was a time during which disciplined writing practice made good sense. I’m happy to say that I got into my graduate program the following year on my second try, and two years after that completed my Ed.D. degree. 

During these last 5 years I’ve written nearly 200 blog posts – sometimes just once a month, at other times as many as 3 in a week. I even borrowed from my studies from time to time to share something with RapidGroove readers, such as when I posted a piece I wrote called Does History Matter.

Life Happens

Also during this same 5 year period, I have had some life experiences. During a management restructuring in 2015, after 20 years with my then employer, I suddenly found myself unemployed. I took the opportunity to step up my commitment to teaching both graduate and undergraduate college classes at several Philadelphia-area colleges and universities. I taught 7 courses over a little more than a year and attended many seminars and training sessions on modern teaching and learning practices. Most of all, I confirmed my suspicions that I would really enjoy teaching and being part of the student experience. I know that teaching is something I will return to when I can.

During this same time period, I started to look for a new challenge in a professional Information Technology position. Despite all the conventional career advice that a man in his 50s who finds himself out of work should look for a lateral move (that is, look for another Senior Director or Executive Director position in my field), I decided early on that I would set my sights higher. I would focus on moving up to a Chief Information Officer (CIO) or Chief Technology Officer (CTO) position.  As long as I was being aspirational, I decided that for now I would not seriously consider relocating, and I would remain focused on higher education, so I would be looking for great college and university positions within driving distance. That was a tall order – there aren’t all that many positions that met my criteria. Thank goodness my wife was supportive and well-employed. We could afford for me to methodically pursue such a position.

Months passed. I was teaching classes and applying for only a few great opportunities. I was also visiting my elderly mother more often. It was clear that she was coming to the end of her life and I was very glad that I could be with her more often. When she died in early February of 2016, I was grateful that I had spent quality time with her, including being with her on the day she passed away.

Over the months, I had made it to the final round of a few CIO searches but had not landed a position. By March, an exceptional local university was moving toward a decision and I was again a finalist. In April I accepted a position as Vice President and Chief Information Officer at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. I’ve been there now for about a month and I’m thrilled and honored to be part of their leadership team.

So what about that blog?

During these last five years, whatever else was going on (grad school, family issues, job changes, etc.), I blogged when I could. My blog posts have been seen more than 40,000 times. That’s a small number compared with the many popular sites on the Internet, but seems to me to be a fairly large number for a personal blog. I’m surprised and happy. Some of my popular posts have, predictably, been on technology topics. But other popular posts have been on grilling seafood, boating and fishing, and even the importance of voting. These and many other subjects I've written on are integral parts of who I am, and it is truly a pleasure to discuss them with all of you and to listen whether you agree or disagree with me.

Writing this blog has been a fun and rewarding experience for me. I’ll take a break for a while as I put all my effort into succeeding at my new position at West Chester University. But from time to time when an interesting topic comes my way, I still hope to write... just not as regularly or as often.

Thanks to you all for a great 5 years.


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