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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