In the Internet graveyard: RSS, USENET, CompuServe and GeoCities

You have to be of a certain age to remember that geeky feature known as ‘RSS” and why it was supposed to change everything.* Or to have been on a USENET group or a BBS to know that there were ‘discussion boards’ before Twitter and Discord. I still remember creating a ‘homestead’ in GeoCities, which was a precursor to, Second Life. Second what? This was a ‘massively multiplayer’ virtual hangout in which businesses spent millions of dollars creating virtual storefronts, hosting virtual conferences etc. This was all part of a frenzy to colonize cyberspace, as if real estate was about to run out. This was when we breathlessly talked about the clash between the bricks and clicks.

IBM’s meeting room in SecondLife

I have to admit I too went in for a land grab with a domain I registered called Brand Buzz. I was nearly sued by a big name ad agency that claimed I was trespassing on their ‘land’ and for awhile stood my ground. (Long story; I featured this in my book Chat Republic.) As a tech columnist for Communication World magazine I remember attending virtual conferences in Second Life, and wondering where this bizarre game-like experience was taking us. Could we be chatting with each other as (through) pixelated avatars in the future? Thankfully not.

There was also a time when we had 56K modems, and needed a CD-ROM from American Online (Who remembers ‘ROM’s and AOL?). I bring these up because we are now being submerged in new terms and new technologies claiming to be defining the future of the Internet. I occasionally broach the subject in my class to give my students some context to the tech hype they are being exposed to, as we were then. Like 5G. Here’s what the Electronic Frontier Foundation, (a thinking person’s guide to anything with or without wires and apps) had to say of 5G:

Without a comprehensive plan for fiber infrastructure, 5G will not revolutionize Internet access or speeds for rural customers. So anytime the industry is asserting that 5G will revolutionize rural broadband access, they are more than just hyping it, they are just plainly misleading people. (“Enough of the 5G Hype 2019)

We’re still drowning in hype, aren’t we?

* RSS is dead. But the protocol that it was based on to provide ‘feeds’ lives on. Second Life is still on life support.

Drone surveillance in Sri Lanka raises deep ethical questions

Worth listening to Prof. Rohan Samarajiva break down the pros and the cons of drone use – and related sticky issues around big data, anonymization and machine learning this brings up.

This month, Sri Lanka’s army set up a drone regiment. Terms such as ‘organic aerial reconnaissance’ and disaster response are being used. But are we know with any technology, they come ‘locked’ with ethical and social dilemmas which go unnoticed.

This kind of deep discussion that professor Samarajiva brings, around whether citizens approve or recognize the privacy they forfeit for convenience, should be asked all the time. Otherwise, just as how the data mining companies are allowed to exploit us, a new technology could do the same until it’s way too late.

We love our machines – until we begin to see how they conspire against us.

Googler speaks to my students

Patrick Krecker, a software engineer at Google spoke to my students last week. This was the start of a series of Technology Speakers this semester at Benjamin Franklin High School.

The goal is to give students a different way of seeing the relevance of a computer class. My hope is that speaking to someone in the real world, at a company they are acutely familiar with, could put many things in context. The previous week, we discussed search engines, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s early engine, curiously called Backrub! They also took a deep dive into Google’s Moonshot projects at GoogleX.

Hearing about the Google culture, its pioneering spirit, and the way a Google engineer approaches apps was really enlightening. Even for me. I used to work with Patrick at ASU. I was so impressed to see what he’s doing at one of the most powerful, omnipresent companies today.

Thanks, Patrick! I would certainly want to have to back on Google Meet (what else?) in the future!

Hacks that make you long for un-smart devices again!

Have you heard of the hack that could make your smart watch expose your ATM PIN? Of how a guy with a laptop could hack into a vehicle and turn off the engine on the highway?

This demo of a Jeep’s system being hacked was in 2015. Imagine what’s possible today!

There’s a reason I will never wear a smart watch. Or install a Nest thermostat. Or a Ring smart doorbell.

Indeed 2FA, or two-factor authentication can protect us. But this could mean cyber-security manager would be yet another task we take on in managing and maintaining our appliances, our wearable devices and our vehicles. You probably know that your TV is watching you, right?

Next week, my students are going to talk to a someone who works in cyber-security compliance at Microsoft. I showed them this Jeep-hack video to get them thinking. They got quite spooked! I don’t think they’re going to sleep well. It’s Halloween, too!

Why isn’t encryption used in voting?

One of the long, ridiculous exchanges in the presidential debates last night was on voter fraud, a perpetual conspiracy theory of president Trump. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” he said.

Courtesy, Noah Pederson -Unsplash.com

Whenever I see the word ‘fraud‘ in the same sentence as ‘ballots‘ I wonder why software companies haven’t stepped in to fix this.  With some of the best software companies addressing all kinds of threats, whether it’s banking or homeland security, why has ballot encryption been on the back burner?

It appears that the software solution has been in the make-up room, but has never made a grand appearance on stage. About a decade ago, there was a suggestion that we might have ballots that use invisible ink that ‘code’ a ballot as well.

 “…instead of filling in a bubble next to a candidate’s name, the voter uses a special pen that exposes a code printed inside the bubble in invisible ink. A voter can write down that code, along with the serial number of her ballot, to later verify the results online.” 

Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office

Encryption is all grown up now. There is a product, according to a recent WIRED article, called ‘STAR‘ developed out of an initiative in Travis County, Texas.  Benjamin Wofford’s article traces the path of the development, the ‘secure, transparent, auditable, and reliable encryption solution (hence the STAR acronym) of the software.

To summarize it, STAR converts a person’s vote at the voting machine into a ‘hash code‘ that could be printed out and taken, similar to how we leave a grocery store with a receipt of our transaction.  Voter impersonation with this system is very easily detected. The best part is, votes can go back and check or track if their vote has been cast and counted.

It’s about time. We have turned to encryption for everything from text messages and financial transactions. It’s time we encrypt the vote.

 

Planning a school podcast, 11 years later

I have been working on material for a podcast at school in the past few weeks. It’s an opportune time to do it, with so much to discuss in education, especially with millions of students rethinking ‘school’ in the middle of a pandemic.

Ever since I re-discovered my 2009 podcasts, I’ve felt pull to get out that microphone and fire up the recording app! The tools make it so much easier. Here are some ideas to start up:

Recording:

  • Audacity, open-source software is free to download. It’s also super intuitive –easy to use.
  • Hindenburg This is professional-grade software. More complex, but serious features!

Now for mics.

  • I have a trusty old mic that does look like it was from the nineties, and it is. Quality is great but not too much base.
  • I am experimenting with a lavelier (clip-on) mic we were  given for our distance learning video recordings. I found an adapter on Amazon, which plugs directly into a PC.
  • Zoom. I consider the ZoomH4N the best. I used to own one. It has a curious shape, but voice quality is terrific with 2 uni-directional mics

Intros/Outros

Unlike in 2009, there is plenty of podsafe –Copyright free–music available. But it is highly recommended you support the artists with a small contribution. Nothing should be free, in this economy!

Sal Khan’s take on tutoring, timely

Sal Khan’s latest project is called Schoolhouse World – basically a platform for tutoring.  This guy never rests, does he? The ideas is so much in tune with the times – to avert what he thinks is a catastrophe in the making, with distance learning models. With students wrestling with screen time, and feeling disengaged though they’ve never been so ‘connected.’

We’ve seen the rise of tutoring needs, the private kind as well as the need for one-to-one sessions. During my ‘Office Hours’ each week I get so many requests from parents about this. It’s really unfortunate. Many distance learning platforms are not designed for parents, but Mom and Dad have become the de facto tech support team in the home, while balancing a noisy, work-from-home lifestyle.

Into this mess of pottage comes Sal Khan’s idea.  Every parent of a child struggling with assignments would love it! Listen to this interview he gave Bloomberg’s by Emily Chang.

Or listen to Sal himself:

In 2009 we planned for an influenza pandemic. I was in the room. I recorded it in a podcast

I have heard the ridiculous ‘plandemic‘ theory,  including one about a virus outbreak appearing in an election year. Or, that the US didn’t see this coming.

 

Well, in 2009, at ASU, I worked for an outfit that ran a 2-day pandemic planning exercise, with realistic scenarios. Elections were over. The participants were county health officials, school superintendents, infectious disease specialists.  People who would be called upon to make the tough calls, to safeguard populations, and schools.  Arizona State University’s WP Carey school of business was involved, as was the School of Health Policy and Management. But this was not what researchers typically call a ‘table-top exercise.’ This was a bit more realistic.

The location of this exercise was the Decision Theater – a visualization space that has a war room ambiance. (Fun fact: Decision Theater was used to movie as exactly that , where scientists wrestle with how to avert a catastrophe when an asteroid was heading to earth.)

Participants were presented with news reports, and data sets of unexpected scenarios: a virus entering the country through returning soldiers, outbreaks spreading to cities, and small towns, children infected etc. On the large screens in the Theater (also known as the ‘Drum’) our team created simulated news reports for each potential crisis point. The 2009 exercise, a follow up to the one in 2008,  was to be a test of how decisions would be made in an unfolding crisis.

Weeks before, our videographer, Dustin Hampton and I set up and recorded ‘news’ reporters, and edited story-lines that would track with the mathematical models that would be presented to the participants.  In one sense it was a fun exercise, even though the H1N1 Flu was a concern in some parts of the world.

I was in the room, and we were behind the scenes making the event look realistic. Cameras rolled, make-shift media were putting pressure on people to quarantine people, students, and shut down schools. I had not realized this but I had created two podcasts of the event, interviewing attendees.  They are a peek into the situation I describe.

This is not the only exercise of its kind that preempted the current pandemic. In May 2018 Johns Hopkins University ran a similar table-top exercise, that put people in a room to respond to realistic reports of a viral outbreak Watch the video below. It’s eerily similar. Even the date of the fictitious outbreak is so close, it shocked me when I watched it.

If you want more research into this, there’s a paper here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167923612002680#!

Below, is another interview we did with Dr. Robert Pahle who worked on another piece of software for pandemic preparedness.

POD Throughput Model from Decision Theater Network on Vimeo.

Purifiers, fiber-optics lines and masks. Welcome back to school!

I was as excited to be back in school as students were, last week. Online, of course. There’s something about a new school year that lifts our spirits, and simultaneously releases those abdominal butterflies. As I stepped out the car in park, strapped on my mask, and grabbed my satchel, I could feel this new normal creep up on me, and broke out into a grin – which no one notices now.

Distance learning is something we must get our arms around, like it or not. I’ve conducted webinars, and workshops online, but this is a whole new animal. (I date myself – in 2010, I taught a series of online classes that included blogging. Well!)

Behind checkered, floral and surgical masks, we go about our business, but it’s a business in a whole new dimension. Lesson plans need to get turned into material that delivered through a Google Classroom platform. These must be ‘chunked,’ linked and  annotated for a student doing it in small time slots, with slow WiFi, on a small screen. Video and audio recordings must be edited and uploaded –not to mention scheduling these moving parts in advance, with due dates and rubrics.

Tech questions arise and get solved on the fly by my colleagues: Could videos be cropped in Screencastify? Is there enough storage capacity on the drive? Why doesn’t PowerPoint let me use audio narration in a Microsoft 365 version? Check this neat way to turn a Google form into a quiz  (and have it grade the responses as well!) These and other issues must be figured out before dozens of Google Meets light up the building.

The week before we began, maintenance crew were crawling through the ceiling adding more lines of fiber optic lines  to support our data-hungry re-launch of distance learning.  We picked up our cameras to get up to speed with video conferencing.  With Bitmojis and bottles of sanitizer we took our positions and opened for business.

Three weeks of it, and still having many aha moments, this new normal is anything but. But as the students log into my ‘Office Hours,’ I am beginning to relax and enjoy being a teacher. I used to say that if I continue to do what I’ve always done each year, the students won’t be learning much. All of us – me and you and that dog named Boo — have collectively hit the reboot button. These lessons will last us a lifetime!

Thoughts on wrestling with ‘hybrid’ learning models as schools reopen

Photograph, courtesy Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com

The question on everyone’s mind is not, “When will school reopen,” but how.  It’s been on our minds, nagging us like crazy no sooner we closed for summer this May.  My wife and I being teachers, have different models and school environments. Hers is a Montessori – Li’l Sprouts. Mine is a classical academy, Benjamin Franklin High School.

Should her students wear masks? And social distancing two-and three-year olds? Hmmm. She has decided to wear a face shield when not donning a mask. My students will have to learn new ways to conduct themselves, from the simple things like sharing pencils and keyboards, to what to do or not during recess.

The hybrid model is something we have experimented with from March through May with mixed results. Students love computers, but aren’t exactly thrilled about being ‘instructed’ through them.  (She conducts Zoom sessions, I’ve been using Google Meet.) But having said that, we educators have to adapt to the times and be part of the learning. I love the challenge, however. I’ve been spending much of these quarantined months experimenting with platforms and lessons, while not hanging out at a coffee shop with a mask. Toggling  between face-to-face and online technologies: Screen-Castomatic, Explain Everything;  Jamboard, and Google Classroom.

Remember that ‘PLC’ buzz acronym (for ‘professional learning communities’) that got thrown around a lot five years ago? Now’s the time for us to show that we can be a true learning community. Not just with our peers, but with our students. A community of learners.  As the Coronavirus mutates, we must hybridize.  Would that make us ‘PHCs‘? Professional Hybrid Communities? Here are my random thoughts on how schools will be for the near future, at least in the US.

  1. Teachers will find ways to better connect with and understand students they don’t see face-to-face or have just a smattering of time with, should they show up in class or on camera.
  2. Parents will form strong partnerships with teachers in that there will be much more back-and-forth, rather than leaving it to annual parent-teacher conferences. We need their unstinting support as much as they need ours.
  3. We will all admit that technology is messy. It’s sometimes broken, and cannot be the magic bullet. Meaning, we will stop complaining about poor WiFi, or the audio not working.
  4. We will not forget the larger lessons we are called to teach. Yes we want to help students dot the i’s and cross their ts, but we want them to have grand takeaways that make them better people, not just high GPA achievers.
  5. The clock-watchers will disappear. It won’t matter if we run  ten minutes over to explain the difference between a web browser and a search engine for the eleventh time. The ‘lab work’ won’t end when the Bunsen burner is turned off.

Let’s not allow a virus to kill our enthusiasm. Let’s be safe. But let’s go!