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Skin on Metal December 7, 2007

Posted by Michael McVey in Colleagues, Hardware.

glasses   “How many pairs of eyes do you have?”

When I first began work as a Director of Technology, I would amuse myself by gathering up my network manager’s reading glasses from behind computers, under desks, next to phones, wherever you could lose them in the normal course of a day. When I reached thirty pair of them I just piled them on his work bench.

When you only have one pair of glasses, you tend to take care of them. When you have thirty pair, you become careless. Such is the case with IT security these days.  According to the Great Lakes IT Report, almost 40 percent of IT professionals have lost a handheld computer, zip disk, or memory stick. Half of the respondents copy secure data onto memory sticks and almost half appear not to have a basic understanding of basic security policies.

If each memory stick cost a couple of hundred dollars, I suspect we would be more circumspect about the information we transferred onto it and where we kept the little thing during the day. But if they are as easy to come across as a cheap pair of reading glasses, then there is little motivation to monitor them.

It’s interesting to me that part of the solution to IT security is so bound up with basic human traits and habits. In the IT world, where the “rubber hits the road” is where the “skin touches the metal.”


Laptops and GCast November 15, 2007

Posted by Michael McVey in Hardware, Online Tools.
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olpc   We had a fun class yesterday. One of the students, Alison, did a great presentation on the One Laptop Per Child initiative and I got to share with the class how to create a podcast using GCast and your cell phone. We actually managed to produce a 60 second podcast using just my cell phone. We recorded the piece at the beginning of the class and then listened to it, fully resolved and playable, at the end of the class.

Meanwhile, in the next room, a team from Apple was running a workshop on podcasting using tools such as GarageBand. Such software certainly has its place, especially when you’re creating enhanced podcasts that include photographs spread throughout the podcast, but there are other alternatives and GCast is certainly one of them that cannot be ignored. When I was in Toronto I saw several photographs of students creating podcasts in their classes and right in front of the teams were cell phones being used as microphones.

So the theme in both presentations was that technology can lower boundaries and impediments to learning. Students who someday will have access to tiny laptops in remote and rural nations will now have the opportunity to join others around the world in a truly global conversation. And students with very limited access to technology can have, with something as straightforward as a telephone connection, the opportunity to add their voices and insights to the same global conversation.

Pyramid Police April 3, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Hardware, Online Tools.
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pyramid police   Have you ever been driving down a highway, carefully observing the traffic regulations, and been pulled over by a police officer? Among your first reactions was likely that you were offended that somebody is accusing you of breaking the law, being the good citizen we know you are.

A week or two ago I was asked to provide a few receipts and explanations for the purchase of some computers for the facility. I was under the impression that auditors, on occasion, would seek such information in a random sweep. I did not think anything about it until last week when the police sirens and flashing lights showed up in my rear view mirror.

It turns out I was under investigation for a potential scheme known as pyramiding. I had to look it up. It turns out that we can only purchase up to five thousand dollars from any single vendor at a time. When you pyramid, you are breaking up the order so it appears to auditors as separate orders. This is how the auditors saw it so they sent me an official looking document with lots of bold red letters asking for more information.

What I recall about the purchases was that they were for a three eMacs, a G5, and a large display screen. They were purchased for two different roles but they were purchased close in time to each other. This short interval of time was what drew the attention of the auditors. Today I received notification that my response was acceptable and that I was not pyramiding; however, they felt obliged to slap my wrist for spending more than five thousand. It was not much more than that but they told me they would be watching my purchases and me for a while.

That is a little funny; I thought they were supposed to do that anyway.

iPod March 26, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Hardware.

iPod   Last week, I suggested I would start sharing new software tools and toys on the Sunday blog. I usually like to talk about free things, the great applications you can find online that cost nothing. This week, however, I have to admit that I purchased an iPod for my wife for her birthday. I am not sure why I held off purchasing such a fascinating tool for so long, but I believe the truth is something to which I have already alluded. I don't like to spend money. I spend my days trying to stretch the technology penny for faculty and students and try to make wise and economical purchases whenever possible.

I suppose it really should come as no surprise to me that I have not purchased an iPod for the same reason. I keep thinking there must be an inexpensive way to download and play MP3 music and podcasts. I should note that there are many ways to download and play music on your computer already. Therefore, even though I know it is possible for students to simply click on a link and download a podcast, I have been trying to find a way of making sure students can listen to these podcasts easily and without the need for an iPod or some other expensive tool.

Now that we actually have an iPod in the House, I find the process of updating podcasts and downloading them on to my, I should say my wife's, iPod are making me feel like I'm partaking of a guilty pleasure from using this new toy.

Yesterday, while reviewing grants for Hewlett-Packard, that is another story, I transferred almost 30 CDs from my wife's collection to her iPod. Most of the CDs transferred well, but I did find that some of the older ones were not reading as well on my computer I thought it must've been a version issue. It turns out in four of the five cases, that somebody, probably the five-year-old who used to live in this house and who is now an 11-year-old used the CDs for an art project and severely scratched them. I think it will not be too difficult to find James Taylor's Greatest Hits somewhere or other. He is still a popular singer. I stacked the CDs in the living room so my wife would have a visual of just how much music was stored on her iPod.

It is a strange blend of hands-on and high-tech tasks when one sets about transferring an entire CD collection over to an iPod. There is the physical routine of inserting the CD into the computer and clicking the appropriate buttons and waiting. There is the knowledge that you are transferring millions and millions of bits of data soundlessly and weightlessly across wires and into a machine that will play in these sounds back for your entertainment purposes. I am not sure why I am still so in all of that process. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I am an early adopter of many new technologies, not all of them, but for quite a few technologies when I think they can be useful to my life or work.

Touching the Screen March 22, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Hardware, Online Tools.
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ftir   The other day I used a self-serve cash register to purchase some items from a grocery store. It was not my regular store so I thought I would take a few minutes to try the machines out. This may be a humdrum situation for many people, but I do not do that much shopping so it was still a fun new experience for me. You can ask how I have avoided shopping but the answer is simple. I am married to a bargain-hunting shopper who delights in being able to get the best value for her dollar. Secondly, since I have so few material wants or hobbies I have lost that materialistic edge. As a result, I just do not get into stores very often. 

The touch screen technology available at the grocery store and the building supplies store are simple enough, but today I viewed an online presentation of a new touch screen system that promises a vision of the future as far as this technology and computer technology can go. Look at this brief movie at http://mrl.nyu.edu/~jhan/ftirtouch/ and then find out more about it. 

The developers call it the frustrated total internal reflection (FTIR) technique. It acquires true touch information at high spatial and temporal resolutions, and is scalable to very large installations, according to their web site. 

The potential for visualizing and manipulating complicated data sets is impressive. Will these be coming soon to a classroom near you? I doubt that. However, there are so many potential applications to learning that I can certainly see these appearing at science museums in the near future. I wonder if that is the natural migratory path for these innovations. Perhaps they travel from research lab to science museum then on to university then library then schools then home. I will have to investigate a little more.

Mid-semester Aphasia February 15, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Hardware.
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emac   The students are entering the dark phase of the semester when they have more on their plates than they can handle without skipping a few corners. Chapters are skipped, presentations are shortened or padded, corners are cut, and e-mails are not returned.

I think the machines in my lab are feeling the same way. Tasks they performed beautifully the day before now they cannot perform at all. I had an hour of free time yesterday so I ran around taking brief snippets of video of all the staff members in the building. I am cutting them in to a video I will show on the last day of the semester at the award ceremony.

With the digital video camera, for those who do not now, you can download the images from the camera to the computer using what is called firewire. Usually this is a painless process. Click import and watch the clip gallery fill up with potential cinematic brilliance.

Today I added a minute or so of clips and I simply could NOT get the camera to work at all. It is a new camera so I had to eliminate the possible issues, including operator error. I tried in using the battery versus the direct AC power – no change. I tried using different firewire (IEEE) cables – no change. I tried inserting the cables into different slots on the eMacs – no change. I tried adjusting the camera, changing the settings, jiggling, loosening, and twisting. All this work was to no avail.

Now I have to wait for the other cameras to come back since students have been using them. I need to test to see if it is the hardware causing the problem. Yarrh!

I did get the video segments transported to the computer; I just used one of our older and trustier cameras. Now, as if on cue, one of the other eMacs is acting up and telling me it does not want to get moving any more. The machines are usually terrified of me but I think they are having a mid-semester rebellion. I believe it is time for a vacation.

Topo the Robot February 3, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Hardware.
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topo It was only a matter of time that Wired magazine would list the fifty best robots ever. Of course, other pundits have tried to improve the list with one listing the Ten Sexiest Robots of all time. Actually, those are robots of the silver screen so Angelina Jolie, who played one in Cyborg 2, counts. Wired’s list is both fictional and real but I was startled by the omission of Topo the Androbot.

Topo was part of a series of robots produced to be relatively inexpensive and helpful for their human masters. The reason I am so close to Topo is that we actually have a Topo II in the Education building. He is hidden in a secret location until we can get adequate security for him but he is the real thing. A professor who was quite a big fan of gadgets and gizmos had him for a while then tossed him out. Another professor, Dr. Mae Smith, literally pulled him from the trash and brought him back into the building and into her care.

TOPO Vital Statistics
Fullname: Androbot TOPO
Date Of Birth: 1983 (Year 1 A.B.)
Place Of Birth: Androbot INC.
Sunnyvale, CA.
Citizenship: International
Height: 3′
Intelligence: External Computer Provided.
Command reception: Internal radio frequency receptor to read joystick controlled direction signal and software directed signals at distances up to 100′.
Software Controls: Standard diskette for use with Apple II is included. Topologo and Topofourth software available at extra costs.
Wheels: Two, Independantly Driven.

Two, Hi-Torque.
Moving Speed: Two Feet Per Second (May vary depending on Surface Conditions.)
Lights: Forward, Backward, Left and Right Indicator lights.
Batteries: Gel Electrolyte, Sealed, Rechargeable long-life Industrial grade, LED indicates if battery needs recharging.

It is my intention to clean Topo up a little and make him (it) the mascott of my computer lab. I have even come across kits online that will allow someone with time and technical skills to get Topo moving again. I think he might look quite charming with a mortar board to decorate our Convocation ceremonies.

Touching Space January 27, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Hardware, Online Tools.
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app1  Twenty years have passed since the Challenger exploded in the blue Florida skies. For some, that moment stands out solid and still, a moment frozen in memory as profound as the news of the assassination of a president. For me, this week reminds me of other tragedies, one on a Florida launch pad almost forty years ago and one over the skies of Texas three years ago.

The fiery death of Apollo One’s crew snapped giddy supporters of manned space travel into the harsh reality that space exploration is dangerous and its potential for disaster very real indeed. At that moment in time, a divide in the community of scientists became apparent. One group saw the necessity for putting humans in space, another saw that robots and remotely manned machines could accomplish astounding science.

If there is some solid middle ground, I have sought to find it, admiring the science and detailed measurements of satellites and admiring the courage and human need to reach out to touch the stars and witness the surface of a new planet or moon in person. My position on the middle ground was validated when a team of astronauts repaired the Hubble Space Station. Human labor in a hostile environment fixed a tool that extended the range and depth of our view of the cosmos.

My middle ground crumbled beneath my feet when the shuttle Columbia tore apart three years ago this week. I was about to introduce our keynote speaker at the annual Teaching and Technology Conference when someone ran down the aisle to tell us the news. The news struck me as hard as a slap and I still recoil a little at the idea of moving to new frontiers off our world. I will leave those dreams of manned exploration to younger and less chastened dreamers.

Tools and Access January 11, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Hardware, Lifelong Learning.
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group06   Yesterday I formally met our new CASS teachers from Central America. We have nineteen this year from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic. They will be staying in Tucson for a year and I am optimistic that they will have a great year.

One issue that was raised about the program over the past few years, and this is the fourth year we have had a group of twenty here, is communication. We would like to communicate with the community more and perhaps ask for financial support. We also want ways of keeping the friendship families/familias amigas in touch with the activities of the program. To that end, I created a blog for the supporting families to visit and to submit pictures. Additionally, I will ask a different student every two weeks to write a little piece in English or Spanish to share about their experiences here.

From an Educational Technology perspective, their stay raises several issues for us. One issue is the advice we give the CASS program regarding what software and hardware we should be training them to use. Over the course of the year, they become skilled at using tools like scanners and CD burners and many can manipulate image and sound files into PowerPoint and MovieMaker. Once the year is over, many of these teachers will return to rural villages and towns that are, in some cases, quite isolated. Tow of the teachers had never left their small island homes before. When they return they may only have a very limited access to computers and the Internet. The question arises of how best to prepare them for their return home.

One school of thought is that even if they rarely have access to the Internet, digital cameras (both video and still) and fast and fancy electronic tools, they might be able to instill in their students a better sense of what lies outside their villages. As teachers, they might be able to give their students a better sense of the vista of possibilities that exists for them.

In conversations I have had on this topic recently, I also get the sense that there is strong pressure on some educators not to challenge or usurp traditional ways, the stewardship of the land, contributions to community, and traditional values of their families. Education is a powerful tool for change and I sense that some people view change with increasing trepidation and uncertainty.

One example of instruction that has a dubious impact happened last semester. Their literacy instructor, a wonderful and caring teacher, trained the CASS maestros/maestras in the use of MovieMaker for making digital movies about their experiences. When some of the teachers left in December with donated older model laptops, they were shocked to find out that MovieMaker was a tool built into the XP operating system and not available for their Windows 98 systems. They had been looking forward to sharing their new skills with students back home. I fear that will be just the beginning of their frustrations with the old laptops.

I guess the bottom line is that we need to leave them with skills they can apply to tools they can access.

Opaque Projector January 8, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in General Comment, Hardware.

Opque Projector   When I was in Grade Eight, I used an opaque projector for the first time. It was a large and heavy machine that I used to display photos I had cut from some of our National Geographic magazines. In hindsight I have a few observations on that experience.

I recall now that I was the only one in the class using the machine. Everyone else did their presentations on large poster board with images glues to them. After some experimentation, I found a little knob that activated a pointer. With a little practice it was possible to move the pointer to the place I wanted it. What was noteworthy was that I absolutely had to use the pointer. Just knowing it was there was not enough.

My thinking at the time was that simply standing at the front of the room and talking about the photos was far from enough. The technology of the opaque machine allowed me to amplify my voice and it helped me to show my classmates what I saw. If it was important enough to make it fill a screen at the front of the room, then it was certainly something important and attention had to be paid to it.

Perhaps that is why I get a little uncomfortable when I see people going to great lengths to fill screens with trivial items or worse with too much profound text. The big screen should be reserved for the big idea, highlights of texts, views of things that you cannot see ordinarily. It is a giant conceptual highlighter.

In much the same way, simply posting readings on a web site and calling it an online course is a lot like using a car to crack open walnuts. You are using one feature of the car, its weight, to effect but it can do so much more. Go ahead and crack nuts but please try to transform your life by using the car as a vehicle to explore the world.