Sunday, January 25, 2015

Tools, Gadgets, and the Hive

I have worked with kindergarteners all the way up to Yup'ik elders in Bush Alaska and I have always stood by one central principal in my work: It is not technology that defines us as a culture, but how we use it. The voices of students in their multimedia projects is music to my ears. The author of the story created in videos, musical scores, images, and blogs on the internet should be the focus, not the tool or medium they choose to create in.

“Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases, and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn,” Mr. Lanier observes. “There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.”

This is the takeaway I got from You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier. Ironically, I am writing a blog about the print media I just finished reading. In effect, you are now selecting my regurgitation out of a brilliant technologist/anthropologist's thoughts rather than reading, hearing and analyzing his thoughts on your own. I will not attempt to summarize or review Lanier's works here, only point out some of the most intriguing points I found interesting, insightful, or disagreeable. 

The philosophic (if accidental) guidance technology offers to modern societies, indeed humanity as a whole, is astounding. I wrote recently about consumerism after reading Want Not (J. Miles) and fear the culture of waste may be our collective undoing. Technology streamlines processes, cheapens labor, and generally improves the well-being of the employing organization. The waste produced is an acceptable byproduct. Who decides on these levels? Who created these parameters? The answer is "we" did. "We" do this in every relationship whether human-human, human-God, human-nature, or human-technology. The problem is that politics, religion, environmentalism, and the ubiquity of technology infrastructures can lead to licentiousness and ineptitude. Lanier asks the question, "How does the English language influence the thoughts of native English speakers?" After thoughtful consideration, compare this idea to the file system of modern computers. The file, the idea, was a concept adopted out of necessity to ship product quickly and build applications efficiently. The world without files now is simply unfathomable. So too is a world without religious strife and political polarity. The danger is in the belief that files are fact... or that there will always be war and human suffering, as gravity is simply part of science, a fact. Oversimplified? yes. important? most certainly.

"The file is a set of philosophical ideas made into eternal flesh. The ideas expressed by the file include the notion that human expression comes in several trucks that can be organized as leaves on an abstract tree-and that the chunks had versions and need to be matched to compatible applications" Lanier goes on to say, "what files mean to the future of human expression? This is a harder question to answer than the question "How does the English language influence the thoughts of native English speakers?" At least you can compare English speakers to the Chinese speakers, but files are universal. The idea of the file has become so big that we are unable to conceive of a frame off to fit around it in order to assess it empirically." (Lanier)

Files being locked into the philosophy, the foundation, the genetic code, of all computers to some is not something to take lightly. Who chose to make this decision and how we, the consumer, choose to accept these choices is not just a question for the 'techies' out there, it's a question that may concern the future of humanity. The future of the internet is quite possibly to become a single "file" of human accomplishments, culture, ideas, knowledge, and understanding. This terrifies me because group-think or crowd-sourcing inevitably leads to negative outcomes.

You may disagree with me at this point and yes I may be traumatized by the Borg, Terminators, and War Games as a youth, but the truth is this: Many believe that computers of the future will be so fast and so complete in their aggregation of humanity that they will make better decisions than any single human. Decisions are not so easy to make though. Algorithms cannot guide humanity. The agreement of the majority cannot be right all of the time. This is the foundation of Judeo-Christianity, in fact; Humankind is inherently cruel and sinful. The idea that a computer (programmed by humans and bereft of central truths) could be a moral compass for a society is ludicrous, but the success of Credit Karma and buzz around artificial intelligence suggests otherwise about societies opinions. 

The danger I see is that we belittle ourselves to make computers seem more powerful than they really are. Previous generations to mine could complete long division in their heads but children nowadays can't figure out the price of a candy bar with 5% sales tax. Lanier puts it this way:

"Did that search engine really know what you want, or are you playing along, lowering your standards to make it seem clever?"

I am careful to measure the impact of the tools I use in my daily life. I have been following the research of Dr. Ruben Puentedura for some time now and I recommend this as a measuring stick for useful application. In this model, technology is judged by it's alteration of your pre-conceived notions of what you wanted to occur. In the classroom this is an easy example and you can read more here if you wish. For now I'll use the business environment instead: 

You could use a ledger to keep track of sales/transactions, but substituting a CSV would be easier and even searchable for specific amounts, names, etc. > You could use the CSV for a while, but augmenting it with graphs and sorting by columns with Excel is more useful > You have the information in a static document and find it useful, but you could now allow for collaborative modification of the document, indeed modifying the concept of the file itself, by creating a SQL database editable with various applications and users > To completely redefine the project and vision of the data, it's collection, etc, your business could use SalesForce to create a community in and around the data in a virtual sense...

Lanier very clearly defines technology (mostly computers, the internet, AI) as a tool. A tool, then, should be praised for it's usefulness, not how new it is. 

Mr. Lanier sensibly notes that the “wisdom of crowds” is a tool that should be used selectively, not glorified for its own sake. Of Wikipedia he writes that “it’s great that we now enjoy a cooperative pop culture concordance” but argues that the site’s ethos ratifies the notion that the individual voice — even the voice of an expert — is eminently dispensable, and “the idea that the collective is closer to the truth.” He complains that Wikipedia suppresses the sound of individual voices, and similarly contends that the rigid format of Facebook turns individuals into “multiple-choice identities.” A Rebel in Cyberspace (by Michiko Kakutani)

How does all this fit together then? I think the tool we have at our disposal now is the internet itself. Will we use it to find the best and the brightest authors and ideas? Will we share, blend ideas, and work positively together? Or will he continue to define ourselves with check boxes while conforming to the machinery of databases and social websites. This behavior leads to fewer real connections and creates systems of impersonal, insincere false-realities prone to negativity. The hive mentality pervades everything from the local newspaper's comment threads to online gaming. Communities that develop online are uninhibited and aggressive in their position as members of the hive. With anonymity comes unabashed frankness, unfiltered by society norms and laced with pent up anger we don't allow ourselves to share normally. Cyberbullying and harassment become more and more commonplace as we dull our perceptions about the morality and consequences of our actions. In order to humanize each other online, we must reintroduce creativity and flexibility to our presence online. Status updates and tweets tell us a lot about ourselves, but we must have a voice to flesh out the rigid tables of information collected by all of the Facebooks and Googles out there. 

We must resist the urge to blur the thoughts of the masses into a single "file." My aim is to respect the uniqueness of an author's work online, intellectual property, and the sanctity of media in any form, regardless of it's searchability or digitization. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Rural Internet FAQs

Working in rural Alaska for a number of years I have seen the bandwidth to schools and homes increase exponentially, been present for teleconferences across the globe (I just missed the VTC to outer space in SWRSD), and now have a cell phone with data faster than my first satellite based ISP! 

With all this change the question is still asked of me: "Why is the internet so terrible in the Bush?" or "Is there anything we can do to make it faster?"

Faster is a difficult concept to nail down though. Let's start with some vocabulary. 
Bandwidth a measurement of bit-rate of available or consumed data communication resources expressed in bits per second or multiples of it (bit/s, kilobit/s, Megabit/s, Gigabit/s, etc.)
Latency a time interval between the stimulation and response, or, from a more general point of view, as a time delay between the cause and the effect of some physical change in the system being observed

If you need help understanding, let me put it this way: You are in the typical village in Alaska trying to Facebook chat, listen to Pandora, and download a movie on iTunes for entertainment later tonight. Your movie started out with a 3 hour download time, but after you clicked on Facebook and opened the chat window it slowed and now it says 3 hour and 15 minutes. This is your bandwidth. Once you launch Pandora you click on your favorite channel and it takes forever to load... this is both bandwidth and latency. You're frustrated, so you chat your friend to tell them the internet is too slow, but the message is delayed and it's hard to explain to your pal in Los Angeles. Thinking it better to just call them, you pause Pandora and Skype them. The connection bumps your movie to 5 hours now and your connection is grainy and pixelated. There is an echo when you talk and a big delay, this is latency.  

In the case of satellite-based internet we have two more issues to understand. 
Packet Loss - the loss of data segments in the transmission (caused by programming, decoding, or physical irregularities)
Jitters - the loss of signal due to environmental influences (something is in the way of the dish, obstructing the path of the signal

An example of this follows the earlier one except your download times out even though Pandora was streaming the whole time. This was an example of jitters, or an unexplained drop in the connection, one that didn't even register with Pandora, but caused your Skype to go offline for a second and error your download. 

So if satellites are so bad, why not try something else? Alaska did just that: they ran a fiberoptic ring around the state and where they couldn't run cable they linked microwave towers. This system produces a signal more reliable, less dependent on weather, and with a faster connection.  How much faster? Well the ISP for LYSD currently the has a 1000-1900ms latency, or time from one village to Anchorage (and the outside world) and back. The alternative is generally closer to 30-60ms. We're measuring in milliseconds here, so don't go crazy just thinking of the numbers... 

This terrestrial system is limited by the weakest point in the ring, which I am often asked about as well. Many villagers, myself included, are residential customers of this service. Our signal drops, the access goes down, and sometimes even the transmitter/tower in town needs replacement. This is not a break in the service to the village, though. We are experiencing a failure in the delivery of the service from the mainline to our home via cellular transmission towers. The backbone is still up though 99% of the time. The microwave towers and fiber are extremely reliable. 

"But if the fiber ring is dependent on microwave transmitters/receivers, aren't those just physical dishes, just like the satellite systems of other ISPs?"

This is a little complicated. Yes, in a way, but no, resoundingly, they are not the same. Transmitting a signal across a nearly line-of-sight is nothing compared to two trips through the atmosphere. Think about that for a second. You click a link and send a signal to an orbiting satellite, floating around the planet, then bounce it to Eagle River, AK which receives the signal and passes it on to the rest of the world... The server on the other end sends you back a signal in the same way and you enjoy the webpage or action expected. That's pretty amazing in itself, rght?! The real question here is how fast is a microwave transmission.

"[New York-based networking company] Strike, whose ranks include academics as well as former U.S. and Israeli military engineers, hoisted a 6-foot white dish on a tower rising 280 feet above the Nasdaq Stock Market's data center in Carteret, N.J., just outside New York City. Through a series of microwave towers, the dish beams market data 734 miles to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange's computer warehouse in Aurora, Ill., in 4.13 milliseconds, or about 95% of the theoretical speed of light, according to the company. Fiber-optic cables, which are made up of long strands of glass, carry data at roughly 65% of light speed."

The bottom line is ISPs in the Bush will always have a monumental challenge on their hands. For users, the only option is to appreciate what you have, use it to the fullest, and have a backup plan when things are not working.

I hope this all made since and that you do not disagree with my analogies. If you have questions or corrections, please email me.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

5W's of Downloading Media From the Web & How

It's been a while since we've addressed this topic, downloading media from the internet, so I thought I would revisit and update things for 2014. The last post I made on this subject was 2012 (click here) and it is still one of my most requested and most viewed postings on this blog. The Bush hasn't changed much since then (or in the last 10 years to be honest), and satellite internet and insane latency is still a problem. To avoid bandwidth draining, ceaseless buffering, and annoying outages, I recommend always downloading materials from the web to host locally on your computer. 

Let's start with who: everyone... I can't tell you how many keynotes or presentations I have sat through that took me to a link, sometimes in front of hundreds in the audience, only to buffer awkwardly or not play at all. Heaven forbid your favorite YouTube example of the comedy of a telephone conference get taken down the night before your big meeting... All this is to say that everyone (teachers, businesspersons, students, and anyone who appreciates a good online resource) should follow these instructions/advice. Let's try it out: Visit the download site now
(Yes, it's for Firefox, so download it first if you haven't already.)

If you are still wondering why this is necessary stop and consider the last time you were in front of a group of people. Maybe you're a classroom teacher preparing a lesson for tomorrow and you're worried if you to filter will be blocked at your school. Maybe your business person traveling to another office and you're not sure if you will have Wi-Fi or not. Or maybe just have a particular video that you use so often it would be silly to click the link for the thousandth time. You never know when an author could be flagged by YouTube or take down their content for reasons unknown to you. I'm not suggesting you break a copyright laws, but I do recommend you build your own repository of media locally on your machine. I have numerous videos from over the years. Video Download Helper is just my favorite application, but there are many. 

When you download these files isn't all that important, only that you do it before your presentation. The beauty of this application video download helper is that you can stream media and download it simultaneously. With it running in the background on your Firefox browser it takes almost no extra effort to rip. Simply click a button type in the title he was to say that I was given the location and you're done.

I prefer to click the dropdown of the spheres in my browser > select "medium" file sizes > download.

You can get as high or as low quality of videos as you prefer, limited, of course, by what is posted by the creator.  Ready to give it a whirl? 

If you want to try it with me, you can actually download this video with Video Download Helper:  

What you download is up to you. The default of the Video Download Helper addon to Firefox is that it can capture numerous filetypes, including YouTube Videos, for download. The default is only a few common file types like mp4, flv, and mov. These are a great start, but what about audio or shockwave flash items? I personally capture the following: mp4, mpeg4, m4v, mov, rbs, divx, movie, rar, mp3, asf, wmv, ram, rm, avi, mpeg, flv, mpg, and swf. If there is something on the page I want and VDLH doesn't see it, add it! 

Right-click the VDLH spheres > preferences: 

Click "capture" > Network Tab > then type in the files you wish to rip. 
Use the file extension without the dot in the front. For example, for Shockwave Flash Video files, type "swf" and you will see the "file.swf" available for download. 

Where should you keep these files? I suppose you could upload them to your own dropbox or YouTube, but that won't do us any good without an internet connection. You could save them on your computer, but then you might get lost in all the other junk on your workstation. The best advice I can give is embedding them in the presentation itself. I'll stop there and ask you to refer back to my 2012 post mentioned above. Of course the application is irrelevant. You can use anything from Notebook, Keynote, to PowerPoint: 
PowerPoint > Insert Ribbon: Media > Movie from File...

Select your file.

And there you have it. A video in .ppt format that follows your favorite presentation wherever you go. This will of course make the file massive, so break up presentations heavy on the multimedia so you don't lock up the application in front of the crowd (been there, done that). 

Well, I think that about covers it. If you need more help learning how to download music and video from the internet, let me know, I'd be happy to help or at least point you in the right direction. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

ARD Unix Command Lines

I have been in the Bush and working with Apple computers since 2006. If I had to choose one area to which every school district is deficient across Alaska, I would say it is student workstation management. With simple tools like Apple Remote Desktop available, I think every teacher who interacts with student computers should have a tool to manage their classroom. Lots of companies make management tools like this: SMART Technologies, SourceForge, and CognitiveEdge to name a few.

When it comes to the specific interactions between teacher and student in the state of Alaska, then you are probably talking about Apple computers. Let's take a look at a simple example of using UNIX commands in the classroom. Don't work, there is no programming, coding, or even a terminal interface involved.

First things first, open ARD. I use ARD 5-10 times daily and still don't keep it in my dock. Click the spotlight finder and type "rem" and you should get it fast. If you don't yet have ARD, you can download it at the app store and if you work for me, just ask for the redeem codes. Now that you have opened the application, select the users you wish to make a change to. There are UNIX codes for all kinds of things ready to go or you could write your own. Be careful, though, you are about to make some serious alterations to the device in question.

To begin with a simple example, click the user you wish to send the command to and click the UNIX button:

Now you will see a dialog box and several options. Click the radio dial for user and type "root."

In the dialog box, paste the following command: 
chmod a-r /System/Library/QuickTime/QuickTimeUSBVDCDigitizer.component/Contents/MacOS/QuickTimeUSBVDCDigitizer
chmod a-r /System/Library/PrivateFrameworks/CoreMediaIOServices.framework/Versions/A/Resources/VDC.plugin/Contents/MacOS/VDC
chmod a-r /System/Library/Frameworks/CoreMediaIO.framework/Versions/A/Resources/VDC.plugin/Contents/MacOS/VDC

Assuming you have a connection to the user, you should now see the effects of your command: 

The users iSight camera is now disabled. The iSight camera is used in lots of applications, so be careful to turn it back on later when you are through. Someone who is not familiar with your actions may mistakenly think the computer has been damaged. 

If you have any comments or questions, please add them below.

Remote Desktop 101

If you have been around computers for any amount of time you have probably wanted to access, control, or test things on a different machine. I often find myself wondering how a feature or application will run on Windows instead of OS Mavericks. Other times, I want to test a feature on an older OS or even iOS device. How you accomplish this is a matter of personal preference, but I thought I would talk briefly about the simplest options in the next several posts.

In this post I will take you through my preferred method of remote desktop (and iOS) interaction. I'll give you some pro's and con's and why I choose to use them. If you have any trouble with these methods check the FAQs then send me a message via email and I will try to help you out.

Apple OS - Apple OS
Single User
Screen Sharing in Apple is as simple as a check box in SysPrefs>Sharing. With this tool enable, simply open your Finder window and CTRL+click (right click) on the shared computer. If you know the admin password, click share screen and authenticate. It's just that easy. Send files, interact, or just watch. 
  • Cumbersome, Saving authentication tricky, only interaction and sharing. 
  • Free 
Multi User
Nothing beats ARD (Apple Remote Desktop) for any number of users you wish to interact with. I am probably running this application 70% of my average workday. 

  • Download from the AppStore a bit costly.
  • Hands down amazing! Unix commands; multi-user observation and file sharing; control features including drag-and-drop between desktops; scheduling of tasks; saved authentication; history; bandwidth adjustments for efficiency
  • The list goes on and on... 

Apple OS - Windows
Single User - Emulation
VMFusion is hands down the best product I have used for running a Windows environment on a Mac. Parallels has been problematic for me over the years, and my current working configuration is Mavericks/VMFusion6/Windows7

Multi-user - Emulation
SourceForge CoRD. I have been using this product for about 4 years now and even with Microsoft Remote Desktop for Mac available, I still prefer CoRD. For managing several devices, VMs, etc, CoRD is flexible and simple to set up.

iOS - Apple OS
My favorite method of remote control is SplashTop Desktop 2. I have it installed on all of my computers so I can remotely manage from any WAN/LAN with Google credentials. If you are curious about displaying iOS to OS, see my other posts on iBooks and Reflector App.

iOS - Windows
Doceri Desktop, but SplashTop is great on Windows, too.

Agnostic - Control/Collaboration
Team Viewer