Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Future of Football?

Saving a sport that may be harming its players

American Football is getting a lot of attention these days. On the face of things, that may be no surprise – football gets lots of attention every year at this time, as the NFL teams get positioned for the playoffs and top college teams contend for a limited set of bowl games invitations. But a good deal of the attention these days is negative. Increasingly, football is implicated in concussions and traumatic brain injuries. NFL teams are having a hard time fending off tough questions as players from the past admit to cognitive issues, and parents are starting to wonder whether Pop Warner football or High School football is the right place for their children.

Many have wondered whether the NFL could make some key adjustments to rules to reduce the risks of concussions and head injuries to players. I'm inclined to believe that it would be too hard to make the drastic changes necessary. So here's a different proposal for the NFL: Embrace the issue, take up the challenge, and invent the future. The NFL should create an additional league - one based on today's NFL but designed from the start to do everything possible to eliminate the known risks of head and brain injury. This new league would be a brother to the NFL of today, and could play during the same season (playing in an alternate season is a sure way to have fans ignore it).

The NFL should pick several big market teams to create, at their own expense, the initial NFL Lightning League (or some other clever name that attracts fans). This League would have the same commissioner as today's NFL, and a set of 8 teams, each sharing the team names and stadiums of their home city NFL team. These 8 teams would play 4 heavily promoted and televised games each week, in the stadiums available when the NFL team that calls that stadium home travels. The rules of the game? A modified set of rules that make spearing and other high risk actions grounds for very serious penalty - to both the team and the player. The game might even be played without helmets.

Lighter pads, no helmets? Can it be safe? I'm not qualified to say. The NFL should put serious effort into this, drawing on the best experts in sports medicine and in traumatic brain injuries. Let's see if we can design the game to be fast, exciting, and safe, all at once. We might even borrow some expertise from other sports, such as rugby.

Where will the players come from? At first, they might be the practice squads and third stringers from the NFL teams, augmented by undrafted but otherwise strong prospects. But if the league is successful, in a few years these teams could participate in the college draft. A few years after that, we might expect that some NCAA teams, perhaps within the Big Ten or ACC, may start to field Lightning League teams of their own, and those players would hope to play for big money in the NFL Lightning League.

The league could borrow some marketing tactics from the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). The UFC knows how to draw the interest of a certain demographic of fan. Perhaps the NFL can portray the lightly padded, unhelmeted players as athlete-warriors using the UFC techniques, making the game that much more appealing. It's worth noting that players not wearing helmets are easier to recognize and therefore may more easily become celebrities. A few superstars recognizable on and off the field can go a long way for the game and for the league, as Michael Jordan and LeBron James have made clear in basketball.

Why will people watch? The game will be heavily marketed by the NFL, and the teams will be familiar - they will have the names of today's NFL Teams (the San Francisco Lightning 49ers, the New York Lightning Giants, the Dallas Lightning Cowboys, etc.) They'll wear the same colors. The games will be called by the announcers that fans have come to know and like, and thanks to the common parent organization, use the same graphics, theme music and major advertisers. In short, it will at once feel like the NFL and also something new.

The league could easily fail for a whole range of reasons, but the right investments and marketing could give it a chance. And this proving ground for a safer way to play football could inform the NFL or someday, even replace it.

My disclaimer comes at the end. I'm no football expert and I'm certainly not a qualified medical professional. I'm a fan of football who doesn't like seeing retired players suffering and dying young. 

It's starting to become clear that the long term effects of concussions and frequent blows to the head are serious and it's getting harder to ignore it. If we can find a creative way to bring safer play to a great sport, we owe it to the players to try. I suggest that the way to do this is through a companion NFL league called the Lightning League. Like the idea? Hate it? Leave a comment and tell us what you think.


Thanks for reading! A blog works best with active participation. If you enjoy this blog, please give it a +1 and leave a comment. Share it on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook. More readers will drive more discussion.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On Field Research

From time to time, I write in this blog about some of my graduate school experiences at Penn. This time, I want to say a few words about "field research." Not in streams, forests or meadows. I'm talking about a different kind of field - the kind where, for the purpose of qualitative case study research, the investigator visits the people that are the subjects of the research, at their locations. 

My current dissertation research on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) involves visiting other universities and collecting data at those locations through interviews, observations, and documents. These form the raw data of qualitative case study research. Later, coding brings structure, and analysis leads to the findings that are the product of the research. That's what I'm up to.

I have some thoughts to share - but not on what I'm learning about my research topic. I'll probably do that here some other time. Instead, what I want to share today is what I've been learning about being out in the field.

For starters, I'm lucky to be visiting some pretty great universities – Duke, Columbia and Harvard – and getting to appreciate their unique character. From the Duke Gardens to the stately Morningside campus of Columbia to Harvard Yard, these are some great places. Walking among the beautiful architecture, and getting to know each campus through its sights, sounds, and smells is intoxicating. 

Beyond the appreciation, there are the practical matters. While I'm on campus, I'm nomadic. I have no office, no home base, and this means I must focus on some basic needs. 

First of all is figuring out how to get from each interview to the next on an unfamiliar campus, generally with a paper map in one hand and my iPhone and the map app in the other. Along the way, I try to find handy places to rest and write a few notes. Finding a well-located bench on the campus (when the weather is pleasant) or a handy library study room (when it isn't) can be a real winner.  A comfortable chair near an electrical outlet to charge my phone and laptop is a great find, and all the more a treasure when it is near to my next interview. Wifi access is crucial, and it varies by campus. Luckily, because of my "day job" I know the network operators at these universities and they have all accommodated me with network access and even the occasional lunch. I owe each of them, and won't forget!

There's the joy of finding a place or two to get a decent cup of coffee, or a sandwich. And since I've been finding myself on these campuses for days at a time, finding a spacious, modern bathroom in a handy location helps.

Sometimes I think that by the time I really start to figure out a campus, my time there ends.

Finally, there are the people I'm there to visit with and interview. All are very smart and dedicated, and they are giving their time to my research. I'm truly grateful. If I'm being entirely honest, though, some are great interviews and some are not. Some are talkative people, some are quiet. Some are organized in their thinking and in their speech, others are a little more erratic. Some are suspicious of my motives or afraid of saying more than they should, afraid that they'll somehow embarrass their university.

Some of the people I've interviewed have been amazing. They speak with passion and have insights into my research topic, and I learn a great deal from them. Some have been gossipy, and at the end worry that they've said too much – such as a senior faculty member who spoke somewhat roughly of upper administration and then only at the end as I was walking out asked if I was "masking" names. I was not, I had said so in advance, I had the recording, and I had the signed consent form that made all of this clear. But I have no reason to get anyone in any trouble and so, of course, I will be cautious and kind.

Field research has been an interesting adventure for me, and is a part of my doctoral education in a way that I hand't expected. Like much of what I do as I dive into my research, it's exciting and a little scary. But most of all, I'm grateful for the experience and trying to make the most of it.

Perhaps others who do this kind of field research will add to my observations by leaving a comment and sharing their experiences.

Thanks for reading! A blog works best with active participation. If you enjoy this blog, please give it a +1 and leave a comment. Share it on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook. More readers will drive more discussion.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fingerprints as Passwords

Have you ever wished you could gain access to a building or an online application using an iris scan or the swipe of a finger rather than a key, a card swipe or a passcode? 

Biometric authentication has long been the stuff of Hollywood movies, but real systems (some strong and some weak) are already in use for special purposes like access to secured rooms and buildings. Now a biometric access control mechanism is being made available to the masses: With their newest smartphone, the iPhone 5s, Apple has introduced a fingerprint access control technique called “Touch ID”

Much of our digital lives are stored on our iPhones, and everyone should use a passcode to help protect this important information and their privacy. Unfortunately, not everyone does; more than 50 percent of smartphone users don't use a passcode.”

That’s a great point. A passcode is an important part of protecting the content and capabilities of your smartphone, so yes, I agree that just about everyone should use a passcode. Apple goes on to say,
“Your fingerprint is one of the best passcodes in the world. It's always with you, and no two are exactly alike.”
That’s an interesting claim, and while most people would accept that “no two are exactly alike,” not everyone would agree that “your fingerprint is one of the best passcodes in the world.” Why not? Several reasons. 

One reason is that they are arguably too public, since you leave them on surfaces you touch. This caused Dustin Kirkland to claim that they are better as a user name than as a password, a point I think he makes quite well.

A second (related) reason is that fingerprints are a password you cannot change. If your conventional alphanumeric password gets compromised today, you change it. What do you do when your fingerprint gets compromised? Change your finger?

The details of the system that uses your fingerprint matter a great deal. "Public" and non-revocable fingerprints as passwords seems most worrisome if their public nature allows them to be trivially copied and used by other than the actual "owner." If my leaving them on the water glass in your office doesn't lead to a practical attack (because of the nature of the authenticated access reader for example), I may be less worried about using fingerprints as passwords. 

How did Apple do on this score? Decide for yourself whether this process is trivial or worrisome:

But of course, I don't have any assurances about the details of the implementation. Whether on an Apple iPhone or in some system implemented by my employer or my bank, the details are generally hidden from me. Does an image of my actual fingerprint get sent somewhere? Or does it get used in combination with other secret information?
Here's why this matters: If multiple services (my bank, my iPhone, my employer) all want to use my fingerprint and even one handles it poorly and allows my actual fingerprint (as opposed to, say, a one-way secret hash of my fingerprint) to get into the wrong hands (I really couldn't resist!) then the risks to me may be greater. Attackers may no longer need my water glass. 
A former colleague used to wonder whether a fingerprint in combination with a password (something you know plus something you are) could be a winner, with an algorithm that combines them generating the actual password to be used, but was always quick to point out that this approach still relies upon every implementation being a good (strong, attack resistant) one. 
So is Apple's use of your fingerprint a serious risk? Noted security expert Bruce Schneier sayshonestly, if some bad guy has [both] your iPhone and your fingerprint, you've probably got bigger problems to worry about.”
My own choice for now? Fingerprint access to my own smartphone sounds fine (even cool), assuming I can trust that the fingerprint is not ever being sent anywhere. But going the next step and using only my fingerprint to secure commerce on the web (e.g., swipe a finger to make an iTunes purchase) doesn’t sound like a great idea to me in these very early days.


Thanks for reading! A blog works best with active participation. If you enjoy this blog, please give it a +1 and leave a comment. Share it on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook. More readers will drive more discussion.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The New 2013 Apple iPhones

Rumors and Expectations

On Tuesday September 10th, Apple will announce new iPhone models running iOS 7, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system. That much is expectation rather than rumor.

Photo credit lifestyle9
Everything else is best characterized as a rumor. 

Speculation evolving over the last few months, helped along by the occasional leak or tech reporter with a source, has converged to the point where most tech news sources (such as Techcrunch, Engadget, TWiT, Maccast, Apple Insider, Macrumours, etc.) are now very much in agreement. I’ll try to hit the highlights here.

  • We should see two models, a higher end iPhone 5S, with incremental improvements over the current iPhone 5, and a lower end iPhone 5C intended to hit a lower price point.
  • The two models will have the same general form factor as today’s iPhone 5. This allows Apple to get more mileage out of current parts, assembly process and supply chain. It also avoids ticking off their partners who build cases, docks, and other accessories which assume a certain form factor.
  • The higher end iPhone 5S will have a faster processor and storage of up to 128 GB (up from the 64 GB of the iPhone 5). It will come in today’s black and white/silver, and also a new white/gold. There are rumors of a thumbprint reader on the home button.
  • The iPhone 5C will likely be available in 16 GB and 32 GB models, and will come in colored plastic shells. Red, Yellow and Blue shells are expected. Black and/or White shells also possible. The screen size will be the same as the 5S, but overall dimensions might be just slightly larger than the 5S because of the plastic case.
    Photo credit 9to5mac
  • Today’s iPhone 5 will continue to be available, perhaps as the lowest end model with limited storage, or perhaps as a mid range phone cheaper than the 5S and more expensive than the 5C.
  • We should see discontinuation of all past models other than iPhone 5. This allows Apple to have a standard device form factor, screen size and resolution, and standardizes on the Lightning connector, putting the old dock connector out to pasture.

Other than that, we'll see and hear a lot more about iOS 7 at the September 10th event. We won't hear anything about iPads or MacBooks, and we certainly won't see an iWatch, a new AppleTV or the mythical Apple Television (yet).


 Thanks for reading! A blog works best with active participation. If you enjoy this blog, please give it a +1 and leave a comment. Share it on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook. More readers will drive more discussion.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Return of Fluke

Conservation Works!

Three North Atlantic Fluke
In the Northeastern United States, we fish the Atlantic Ocean and the connected bays for a range of salt water fish species in the spring, summer and fall. Among these are Striped Bass (called “Rockfish” in the Carolinas), Bluefish, Sea Bass, Porgies (sometimes called “Scup”), Winter Flounder and Summer Flounder. Summer Flounder, often called “Fluke,” are the subject of this post.

When I first started salt-water fishing regularly 35 years ago we didn’t bother to target Fluke often, because they were fairly rare. During the past decade, though, Fluke fishing has improved a great deal – today, we routinely catch more and larger fish. I credit New York State fisheries management  for their conservation efforts. They raised the minimum keeper size from 14” when I was a kid to 20” and even 21” some years, and kept the “bag limit” (the number you can keep per day) low. Through the management of regulations and measurements of fish stocks, they have helped the Fluke come back strong in my lifetime. The result has been great. The Fluke have had a chance to build back their numbers and we can see a clear increase in the total fish stock over the years.

Today, the limits for recreational fishermen in NY State are a minimum of 19” ( down from 21" in years past), with a bag limit of 5 fish per angler per day (up from 3 in years past). Limits have been relaxed because of the recovery of the fish stock.

A Keeper

These days when we fish, there’s plenty of catch-and-release fun with smaller fluke (most of which are 16” or larger), and often there can be one or two larger fish (over 19”) to take home for a fresh fish dinner. Watching a species recover over the years is very satisfying, and gives me hope for the recovery of some of the other species of fish which today remain endangered or nearly so. If we can all work together to keep the waters clean, and fish responsibly (both recreational fisherman and commercial fishermen!), there will be fish for our children and grandchildren to catch for many years to come.


Thanks for reading! A blog works best with active participation. If you enjoy this blog, please give it a +1 and leave a comment. Share it on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook. More readers will drive more discussion.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Budapest, Vienna and Prague

I was lucky enough to spend much of July traveling within Central Europe, visiting Budapest (Hungary) as part of my graduate work, and then was joined by my wife for about 2 days each in Budapest, Vienna (Austria) and Prague (Czech Republic). I'm not a good photographer and I didn't use a fancy camera, but I took lots of photos – everything that follows was taken with my iPhone 5.

This will be an unusual blog post for me in that it will be 90% photos and just a few words. Please let me know whether this was interesting for you!


We started in Budapest since that's where I had been studying for the past two weeks. I already had the lay of the land and a few sites for us to visit. Budapest is a great walking city, and out location, right near the Chain Bridge, meant that we could enjoy both Buda and Pest very easily.

The "castle" is now a museum

A group of grad students (including me) on the first night. I'm on the right side in the black shirt

Istvan, the first king of Hungary

The "Baths"

The "Baths"

The Chain Bridge

The palace, lit up at night. This was the view from my hotel

Hungary loves Ronald Reagan for his role in ending the cold war and bringing down the wall

St. Istvan's Basilica

In a wine cellar. We sampled 7 local wines and then had a great dinner.

Castle, lit up at night

Hungary's largest Basilica, at the Danube Bend

At Hero's Square

At Hero's Square

At the market

At the market

Ready to eat a Langos

Have a Langos with cheese and sour cream (like I do)

6 ft tall Michael Jackson made of Marzipan. I'm not kidding.

Tacey shows poise

We took a 3 hour train ride to Vienna where we enjoyed museums, concerts, palace tours, and just seeing the architecture and stopping at cafes.

St. Stephen's

St. Stephen's

St. Stephen's

St. Stephen's

St. Stephen's

Photo of my thumb. But look carefully and in the lower right there is an interesting building.

Albertina Museum

Albertina Museum

Albertina Museum

Wiener Schnitzel

Mozart Conert

Mozart Concert - they wore period costumes

Mozart Concert - Tenor and Soprano also wore period costumes

A palace

A palace

Excellent sidewalk cafe, across from the Albertina Museum

Sausage at the Mozart Cafe

Cheese at the Mozart Cafe

Coffee and sweets at the Mozart Cafe

Interesting metro station

On to Prague, 5 hours by train from Vienna. Prague was amazing. Not so refined as Vienna, but with a fabulous mix of museums, palaces, old world and new world eateries and great beer! Some call it the "Paris of Eastern Europe" and for good reason. Sophisticated, high-end stores and great streets to stroll.

Old Town Square

Old Town Square

Pilsner at Wenceslas Square

Pilsner at Wenceslas Square

"Selfie" at the Charles Bridge

The Astronomical Clock

After a 3 hour walking tour, I asked for the "largest beer you have" and the gave me this!

Vivaldi's Four Seasons as performed by 2 violins, a viola, a cello, and an organist

Slow Roasting Pig

Some for me (I tried but couldn't finish it!)

Karlsberg Castle

Karlsberg Castle

Horses shuttling people to Karlsberg Castle

Karlsberg Castle

Karlsberg Castle

Karlsberg Castle

A sausage lunch after Karlsberg Castle

Market near our hotel

We has a wonderful time in Budapest, Vienna and Prague. We made the most of our short times visiting, and will remember the trip for the rest of our lives!

Thanks for reading! A blog works best with active participation. If you enjoy this blog, please give it a +1 and leave a comment. Share it on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook. More readers will drive more discussion.