Technology

Getting Back on the Horse - I need to Write

18-Story Accenture building located at One Fre...

So... it's been a while hasn't it?  So many things change with time; school has started, my internship has ended, I'm applying to jobs, I have offers - there's so many things that have moved forward in my life since the last time I made time to write here.

I'm not going to apologize for not writing - I've been filling my time well, I promise you that much.  This summer I worked for Accenture, a global consulting firm, doing systems integration and technology consulting for EMC.  It was an absolutely amazing experience and has given me much more than employment, but confidence, ideas, inspiration, wisdom, and perspective.

One thing that has been missing, however, has been the thrill that I get from writing on a regular basis.  Back in Ireland, I was writing for the University College Dublin paper - the observer.  In addition, I was blogging often, podcasting weekly, and had all the time in the world to engage audiences online.  In contrast, the summer has been amazing but busy - I barely had time to deal with anything outside of work and a rather interesting social life.  My goal is to write every day, either here on Jamesmconnors.com or over on Collegetechcentral.com but hopefully both.  I want this to be a part of my life that doesn't go away anytime soon.

So best of luck to me and best of everything to all of you - thank you for continuing to read and stay involved!

America Can Learn A Thing or Two; Part Two

WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 05:  A crowd gathers for the annual lighting of the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree on the West Front of the capitol December 5, 2007 in Washington, DC. This year's tree, a 55-foot balsam fir from Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest, is decorated with strands of energy-efficient LED (Light Emitting Diodes) lights as part of the Captiol's commitment to save energy.   

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

One of the biggest energy hogs for any building would be the lighting and the climate controls.  I've seen varying amounts of integrations both in the US as well as abroad.  I have to say, though, the Irish design and architecture do a great job of using their designs to reduce the consumption of energy for airconditioning and lighting.  By leveraging open dynamic cooling, novel insulation methods, and available lights, the United States could reduce their consumption of energy.

One of the first things that I noticed when I walked into the Quinn School of Business was that the atrium was wide open... I mean WIDE open.  The ceiling was transparent to let in as much light as possible - there were even trees freestanding on the ground floor.  It gave the entire building a spacious, airy feel that limited the use of artificial light as much as possible.  It was always bright and this allowed supplemental lighting by way of indirect light - it wasn't as harsh on the eyes at all.  Take note, USA.

Where the two come together is another interesting thing that I've never seen anywhere but Ireland.  At the top edge of a line of windows on the exterior of buildings, there is a grill arrangement with angled slats.  These slats angle off the light depending on the sun's position in the day.  It allows two different savings.  First, by giving a shade to the window, there is no need to lower shades which would block out too much light and therefore require the use of lighting.  The second is that by reducing the need to tint the glass, as is the custom in the states, colder climates such as Ireland will be able to utilize the natural convection heating and not need to turn on the heaters.

When it comes to design, besides the transparent ceilings and the like, there are a few design characteristics that Ireland just nails.  The first was that shade above windows - that's great for reducing consumption.  The second really noticeable and beautiful design feature is the use of what I would call buffer space inside windows.  Basically one completely clear pane of glass is either outside the line of the building's walls or flush but then about a foot or two behind that is the interior pane.  By creating an open buffer, a wall of air, between the structural glass, heating and cooling efficiency is greatly improved.  It's similar to how double paned glass keeps windows from leaking heat but on a grander scale.  Colder air in the shadows would be able to cool the heated air in the sunny parts to make for a temperate average temperature.

By combining technologies such as these with designs discussed here, I think that the United States could do a lot to reduce electricity consumption and ultimately the need for oil dependency.  More to come this week!

 

 

 

 

 

 

America Can Learn A Thing or Two; Part One

A red tank of diesel fuel on a truck in Bombay, India.  

Image via Wikipedia

This will be the first of a few posts that I wanted to throw together that address some of the lessons that I think the United States can learn from countries like Ireland. CNET published a story about how green technology could make Europe a technology power house - story found here. At the same time, this is a chance to try BlogDesk as a remote blogging software tool.

Anyone that has gone outside of the United States will know that we waste a lot of energy (in the US). I have a feeling that I'm going to be a little shocked upon my return. Maybe, just maybe, someone with some pull will read this and make some changes. It's really not hard to conserve a little bit but making change is the difficult bit.

I'll address some background first. The Irish consider themselves "hardy folk" as Mary McClosky put it upon our first meeting. They keep the heat down, take short showers, turn out the lights when not needed, and unplug appliances when not in use. It's an attitude of conservation brought on because electricity costs are EXCRUTIATING.

Not only does Europe pay amazingly high prices for gasoline, equivalent to ~ $8.20/gallon, but the energy costs are easily twice what we pay in the US. Just looking around cities in Europe, it is clear that costs are a significant issue on everyone's mind - there are barely any cars on the roads and many that are use diesel fuel instead of unleaded gasoline.

What these environmental factors breed is a culture of conservation. The "hardiness" is less about being strong willed and more about being sensible. I've learned that it is possible to use all that you need and not overuse. In reality, it's very easy to do but hard to keep in mind. Just keeping in mind that I should unplug the computer or turn off the lights has been a large change mentally for me just because I've been so conditioned to not care.

One thing that Ireland has that makes this easy is that every outlet has a circuit-breaker in it with a switch. I can shut off the power just by throwing the switch and it keeps power from flowing to the machine or appliance. It's stupid simple but apparently is too difficult for Americans to ever want to implement.

Take aways from today's entry would be:

  • Foster a mindset of conservation
  • Use what you need and no more
  • Unplug when done
  • Switch off when leaving
  • Find circuit breaking plugs to manage power leaks

Thanks very much for reading and I'll see you next time!

 

 

 

 

Conducting Research on Student Experience - Please Help

A mathematics lecture, apparently about linear algebra, at Helsinki University of Technology (HUT) — Teknillinen korkeakoulu (TKK) in Espoo Finland.

Image via Wikipedia

Second post for the day - I'm asking for your help.

As part of my time abroad, I am required to do a fair bit of research.  I am currently working on a research project looking into a concept known as "student experience" and I need your help.  All I'm asking for is that you take 5 minutes to take a very short survey.

URL: Help me with my research

The above URL will bring you to survey monkey where I have put together a 5 minute survey.  Please take a few moments to fill it out and help me with my research but also help companies and institutions improve the experience that students, faculty, administrators, and parents have when dealing with the administration.  It only takes five minutes or less.

Zemanta Pixie

Exams Are Over

I last wrote about a week ago about how studying early wasn't so much fun. Well, it's not and apparently my mind doesn't like to work that way either - early, that is. Instead of following the detailed study plans that I generated, I was much more inclined to work on the "fun" stuff. The fun stuff being my blog, podcast, personal branding strategy, networking, etc etc etc. Basically, I found every opportunity to not study that any college student would be able to manage. It was brutal... but that wasn't even the worst of it. Saturday's exam was, in my mind, going to be the hardest - the mathematical modelling for decision making. I had extensive study guides, past exam papers, notes, problems, and all the rest printed out... all for nothing. The final exam was basically the exam that the instructor had set in 2005... not impressed. I hardly had to think about it since we had already worked through it, just adjusting my work for the new numbers (he did change a couple of those).

OH! Before I forget, let me say a little bit about UCD exams. Basically, imagine a large conference hall at least two football fields in area. Now, fill that hall with 4,000 desks and chairs in rows. Now, place 4,000 students into those chairs, an "invigilator" talking over a PA system, more invigilators pacing up and down the aisles in random intervals and a dead silence. That might be about what we experienced - it was truly something out of Harry Potter.

Monday's exam was a breeze - the Management of Information Systems comes to me as if it were hard-coded into my brain, gosh I love technology! Unfortunately, this particular exam didn't get over until after 7pm leaving me scant hours before the finance exam the next day. At the same time, two of my close friends from softball were headed back to Virginia the next morning ?. It was a sad night indeed. I did, however, pop over for a while to hang out and say goodbye. I dominated at charades but was constantly killed off when playing mafia. In any event, I made it back to my dorm by mid-night and faced a tough decision. Continue to study until I was tired and then sleep for a bit or sleep now and get up really early. Knowing my night-owl tendencies, I opted for the former option working until just about 5am, sleeping for 3 hours, getting up at 8, walking to the convenience store for some coffee and breakfast, getting home, popping the first redbull of the day and then carrying on the studying.

I was furiously trying to fill my little head with knowledge all the while under the gun that I hadn't realized it was going to be so hard. After the first exam, I figured that this class would be no different... I was wrong. Needless to say I didn't feel as confident as I usually like to when it comes to exams but I was able to answer enough questions that I think I did reasonably well (plus I only needed to get 45% of the points on the exam to pass the class with a B).

Clogged Tubes - A World's Move to Broadband; [Originally Published with UCD Observer]

Clogged Tubes - A world's Move to Broadband Most University students take for granted that there is going to be fast internet connections around them these days.  We have grown up with the likes of YouTube, Google, Limewire, Kazaa, and the rest.  In fact, there is a lot of technology driving your ability to download podcasts, watch your friends' antics online, and even get your course information online.  However, no computers in the world would be able to get you information if it were not for a little something called Broadband.

What is Broadband?

Broadband is a telecommunications technology that runs both at a hardware level (physical wires etc.) as well as a data level.  In its basic form, broadband is a network of high bandwidth cables spreading throughout the world.  High bandwidth refers to the amount of information that one can send at one time over the internet signal.  On campus, we have high bandwidth wireless and wired connections that allow large amounts of data to be moved at once - approximately 100 Megabits (100,000,000 bits) per second for the wired connections in the Quinn School of Management.  Once that information leaves the University network, it is most likely passed off to the greater "internet" over a T3 or Fiber Optic connection.  These two connections are VERY high bandwidth connections that allow the highest speeds and data transfer rates.  From there, a series of smart switches, also known as routers, process the information and direct it to its intended destination e.g. YouTube video data being sent to your computer.

Who has Broadband?

Unfortunately, not everyone in this country is lucky enough to be on campus with such good connections.  In fact, only about eighteen and a half percent of households in the Republic of Ireland have broadband connections and the country ranks thirty-fourth in the world for number of broadband internet users.  What do these other seventy-one percent use to connect to the internet?  Usually dial-up connections over ordinary phone lines or a technology known as DSL, which stands for designated service line.  These connections are faster than ten years ago but still do not approach the speeds of modern broadband services available.  Dialup connections rely on an old backbone of telephone wires that then connect to the modern "internet" through a node or entry point.  The data then follows a similar path to the YouTube video in the first example.

How does Broadband work?

Broadband internet connections work in a highly efficient manner.  When a client (end user, YOU) type in an internet connection, your browser sends data over the Ethernet or wireless connection to what is called a DNS Server which stands for Domain Name Service server.  This computer sits attached to the internet and holds a translation table to change your www.google.com into its IP address (standing for Internet Protocol address), 64.233.183.99.  Those series of numbers are then used to address your request for the page through the University proxy server (topic for another day) and on to the internet.  Routers will look at the request and the IP address and then decided the fastest route to get to the destination using the least "hop," end-points for the cable at another router, with the highest speed cables.  For example, if you were trying to get to the UN homepage, whose website is hosted in South Africa (for this example), the data might be sent first to Dublin, then the UK, then Spain, then to Egypt, then finally to South Africa where the server is located.  All along the way, routers are picking the fastest connections and the whole process takes mere milliseconds.

How can I get Broadband?

The easiest way to get broadband for yourself is to go on the internet and search "Broadband Ireland."  A number of results show options for selecting a service provider.  These include RTE, BT Ireland, Smart Telecom, Clearwire, and Irish Broadband.  Another route you might take is using what is known as mobile broadband.  You have probably seen adverts for this service from Vodafone and O2 wireless.  These services use a 3G cellular connections to access the internet over the wireless data networks.  Unfortunately, for those of us studying here for just a semester, both of those providers require 12-month contracts.  However, just last month 3 Mobile released a service known as 3pay Mobile Broadband that offers pay as you go 3G internet.  It is a handy service that allows you to pay daily, weekly, or monthly using top-up vouchers.

There are many great benefits to having a broadband connection - everything from being able to see more of the world to being more productive on the internet.  Some countries such as Northern Ireland and South Korea have been able to offer 100% broadband coverage to their citizens but they are the exception, not the rule.  There are a number of options for internet service here in Ireland and everyone ought to go out and at least explore their options.  Look for more information on internet regulation, network policies, and rumors of a Tiered Internet in upcoming issues.

My Article (Original Version) for the UCD Observer: "Nano Nano"

What is nanotechnology?  Well, it is all about small stuff.  It started about ten years ago when scientists started experimenting with what they called "Bucky balls."  These microscopic, molecule size materials were made entirely from carbon.  They promised to be an interesting field of research and to this day have yielded some amazing advances for computing and science in general.  These Bucky balls have some interesting properties.  They are tiny - to give a scale of the size, a pinhead could hold over 3000 buck balls.  They are incredibly strong and can conduct electricity too.  Since that time, scientists and engineers have explored and developed novel and innovative uses for these miniscule Lego blocks. About two years ago, researchers managed to form these carbon nano-structures into what are now called nanotubes.  They are long hollow chains of carbon molecules in a particular mesh structure.  These engineered structures are considered some of the strongest and most robust materials known on earth.  They can also be manipulated into useful structures.  Scientists have used them to make molecular toilet bowls and other structures just to prove it can be done.  All fun aside, researchers have found very useful ways to use and transform nano-tubes into nano-wires and other structures for industry.  The following three technologies are some technologies already on the market or nearly to market that all of us can benefit from.

Nano-wire Capacitors

Current batteries use chemicals to store electrical charges.  Unfortunately, the amount of charge batteries can hold is limited because the chemicals swell when energized.  Also, after many charge-discharge cycles, the chemicals tend to wear out and become unusable.  Nano-wire capacitors stand to change the way we store energy forever.  Instead of using chemicals, these batteries would use bundles of miniscule nano-wires.  Capacitors are limited by the surface area of the circuits storing the charge - nano-wires, being so small, have TONS of surface areas.  Nano-wire batteries would be the same size as our current batteries but could store 6 times the charge and would never suffer from "memory" or wear out.  Think about not having to charge your phone for weeks at a time?  Don't need that charger for your next trip, now would you?

Nano-particle Solar Panels

Today, the world derives less than 10% of its power from renewable or green sources.  Of that, most is hydroelectric.  One reason for is that solar cells have been incredibly hard to make and prohibitively expensive.  A new US company, Nanosolar, has developed a novel way of producing cheap, efficient, and flexible solar cells.  They use nano-particles in an ink that is then printed on sheets of conductive foil.   When compared to traditional photocells today, Nanosolar's cells produce pay for themselves in a few months where others take years to make back the money invested in them.  These new cells come in two flavors, one geared towards utilities companies, the other to manufacturers.  The manufacturer side is a flexible cell that can be cut to exact size and used on almost any surface.  This means streetlights could power themselves, bike lights do not need replacement batteries, and your car roof can keep the car battery charged when the engine is not running.

Nano-wire Generators

Ever wished that you could put all of your walking and motion into better use?  Well, an emerging technology promised to do just that.  A new sort of fabric is in development that uses nano-wires woven into fabric with Kevlar casings and brushes (microscopic mind you).  Like industrial generators, when these brushes move, they create static electricity with the nano-wires, which then conduct that energy to a battery or nano-wire capacitor.  Next time you go for a run, you could charge your iPod so you will have tunes all through your work out.  For those with prosthetics, nano-wire generators promise to provide power for more advanced electronics and motors thus improving quality of life.  Just think, your next static shock could just power up your dead mobile phone or give an artificial heart a few more thumps.

Mind the Step...

Ireland3 054 Ireland3 056 Welcome back from the break. Sorry about that, I was just crashing last night. As some may have noted on my fitness blog at http://surelybonds.blogspot.com, I have decided to start training for a marathon. Yesterday was the first day and even at just 3 miles, I was tired (we had just had 2 hours of softball practice - I am not that bad haha).

Last night, I made a couple revisions to the PHP coding of the website so now you have a date in the message feed around all of the items. I hope that this will help those of you out that were not quite clear on the dates. Sorry about that, it was part of the template I used and did not really do much modification before I left. I also posted up the article that I wrote for the Observer. Since then, they have asked me to come on board as a bit of a regular columnist in the science and technology field. Therefore, that has been kind of interesting. I submitted an article about nano-technology this afternoon - it will be posted up once published next week. In any event, I will continue here with the trip to Galway picking up with our tour of the Cliffs of Moher.

Flash back to Saturday night, there were two different camps when it came to deciding which tour company to take. One company got us back at "approximately 5:30" and came highly recommended by the hostel staff; it also was supposed to pick us up right there at the hostel. However, we needed to make it on a 6pm bus back to Dublin... The other company got us back at about 5pm but was not as recommended citing some customer service issues, was 2 hours shorter and departed on the other side of the city centre. Well, the camps were divided between the two and those that wanted to take the "better" tour knew that there were other options to get back on later buses or trains - we would just have to pay for the ticket again.

Needless to say, we ended up going to the "other" tour that got us back by 5pm because it was the safer bet and those that wanted it were not willing to compromise. I understand that but I really did not want to split the group up and I also wanted to enjoy the 20 euro that I would be paying to see the sights... Fortunately, for us, our tour was amazing. Billy, the coach driver and tour narrator, flung our agile bus around mountain switchbacks like a La Mans driver. He didn't seem to have any regard for the winding roads and charged forwards with the sort of determination a middle aged woman might have to get home when they need to pee (I remember that lmc...).

In any event, when I called to confirm the location for departure on Sunday morning, the owner/operator told us to stay put at our hostel and that he would come pick us up. Five minutes later, we were whisked away in a nice mini coach and delivered to the loading area for the main tour. I had a slight feeling that this tour was going to be better than we had heard. At this point, I bumped into a bunch of friends from the softball club that were also in the city for the weekend. We chatted a bit and then parted ways to get onto our respective tour company's buses. Our coach was not nearly full; each of us had our own row and got to spread out comfortably. This was a godsend because those of us with long legs rarely get comfortable on the cramped seats of the coaches here in Ireland.

Before we knew it, we were rushing past beautiful scenery as we headed south out of the city. It was still early and the morning fog still held the harbor but we could tell there would be better conditions to come. Our first stop would be an area known as the Burren. Billy explained to us that it was named such for the abundance of limestone rock that scoured the hills. Indeed, the landscape looked much like the alpine zones of high mountains with little more than scrub brush and grasses filling in the space between rocks. We let off some passengers at a welcome center for a preordered "walk" around the hills. I couldn't help but think of it as the Australian "walk about" where we just sort of wandered through the brush and such forth until we found what we were looking for. For the rest of us, we held on for dear life as Billy launched our nimble craft up some treacherous switchbacks and hills as we climbed the side of hill to reach a welcome center for some natural caves. Unfortunately, the tour was not included in our tour costs so I decided that once you see one set of caves, they are really all about the same. Mammoth Cave National Park pretty much got me set with all of that and the caves in Colorado Springs that we visited during basic training gave can't really be topped.

After dining on a latte - can I just say that this country is in love with its espresso drinks!? I mean I cannot get a regular filter coffee for the life of me. Instead, they hand me a café Americano and I am sorry, but that is not the same. Anyways, we left that facility passing an aviary that some researchers were trying to preserve and train hunting birds for public display. We then had to bypass the next stop because of road works - another thing this country has an awful lot going on. If there is so many road works, why do the roads still stink? I mean it really ought not to take 4 hours for us to cross this country... it's not that wide! Our backup was a spot called the corkscrew hill, which as you might guess had more switchbacks but also offered a beautiful view back down the valley. I am not sure that the pictures do it any justice because of the haze.

Next, we were dropped off at the cliffs - dropped because the city had decided to raise coach-parking costs from 5 euro to 60 euro per bus. In protest, the tour companies are boycotting the parking area. Anyways, the first thing we noticed was that the visitor center was built into the hill - that was pretty cool. The next was the odd look of built up steps and ramps around the edge of the field. It looked something more akin to the Great Wall of China rather than the dramatic landfall that everyone calls it. Ironically, the Cliffs of Moher are not the tallest cliffs in the country - they are about a third the size of those found in the northwest coastline near Ulster province.

We trekked up to the walls that contained us in the publicly owned areas. They kept us back from the edge by about 10 feet but even so, the view was absolutely amazing. Looking in each direction the site was just as majestic as the professional postcard photographers make them out to be. Craggy cliffs shaded in grey as far as the horizon to the south and a hill with a small castle to the north. Many photos and scenery shots were taken to be sure. A couple of us BU students ventured farther down the coastline and finally past the public area on a well-trodden path with a series of signs that were ironic. First was a Samaritans sign that read, "Feeling depressed? We care" and gave their helpline number. Good to know that I can call someone while I am enjoying freefall before hitting the rocks and water below. Next was a large national park style sign that proclaiming that we were entering private property. Finally, an even larger sign asked us not to go beyond that point. Well, we went past that point and with about a thousand of our best friends that day and the millions that have already gone before us, we pressed on further down the cliffs.

Now, we no longer had the fences holding us back and one false step would easily send us sliding down the mud and into the abyss below. I trod carefully. We took many more photos and had some great shots of the coast and cliffs since there were no fences to get in the way. I have posted all of the shots back up onto flickr and facebook so take your choice - links are to the right hand side in my blogroll. It was about time to get going so we headed back to the visitor center to avail ourselves of the restrooms and then headed for the gift shop (The visitor center "experience" was something like 12 euro... not happening. There were the standard knickknacks and Chinese made Irish gifts etc - we left without purchasing anything. Back to the bus for us.

We made another stop two stops on the way back to Galway. One, a nice rocky shoreline with 30ft cliffs on the edges, the other had an old castle. I think I slept through the second one, oops. We made it back to Galway in record time thanks to Billy's lead foot. We were so early that we caught the citylink bus at 5pm instead of waiting an hour for the 6. Good thing too because the bus hit traffic and made us about an hour behind schedule. It was to home and to bed that we went since all of us were about to get into bed on the bus already.

Well thanks for reading the annals of my journey over the weekend. This week I have got another article for the Observer - turned in today - a hiking trip to the Wicklow Mountains and Glendaloch on Saturday. We are also launching our private beta of my newest adventure with MinuteFix at http://www.minutefix.com where we offer community based IT support at per minute rates. If your problem isn't solved you don't pay anything. So we are off to Irish History class here in a little bit but I wanted to get this written and posted up now that I am back from grocery shopping in the city center. I hope you are all well and in good health. Thinking of you all!

I Started a Couple of Different Projects

It has been far too long for this blog to get updated.  It's true, weeks and months have moved past and settled without a single update, not a word.  I kept promising so many things and didn't get you anything.  I'm sorry about that everyone, I feel badly.  That all said, I want to show you a couple of the projects that I've been working on. Number 1:  SCHOOL!

Some of you know that I'm in Boston University School of Management's Cross Functional Core Curriculum program.  For those of you who don't know what this innovative program is, let me fill you in.  CORE, as it's known, is a comprehensive class sequence that integrates four different classes together as you work in a team towards building full business plan.  What constitutes an integrated program?  Well, let me put it this way: I take four classes that are in different subjects but the topics, the goals, of each class is to provide you with more information about your business plan.  Marketing, Operations Management, Finance, and Information Systems classes feed us bits of information that we must assimilate and coalesce into a complete and manageable business plan.

My team is working on a product known, right now, as the Portable Laptop Lock.  Without going into details right now, let me say that seven other teammates and I have worked countless hours designing, developing, marketing, building, and all the other applicable verbs, for this one little product that culminates in 30% of our grade.  Which is silly since we spend 80% of our time on the team project.  It's unique in that having one common thread throughout the course gives examples in real time, something solid and tangible to tie the business concepts to that we're working on.

Our product will be able to be found on our team website at http://www.hemispheresecurity.com where we'll be able to show off what it takes to be a real presence in e-commerce.

Number 2: College Tech Central

My other baby is my new podcast, College Tech Central.  But, James, what is a podcast? A podcast is very similar to a blog, sometimes called an audio blog.  I first got turned onto the idea over the summer when I was using a MacBook Pro provided by my office at ISPS.  It was so easy to play in the digital lifestyle.  Unfortunately, I didn't get out any shows before I had to turn the computer back out.  Macs make it so easy to build a podcast and produce and distribute the entire system.  Well, I finally got it up and going.  If you run over to the website you can see some of the great content that we're putting out over there.  I'm recording Information Systems lectures from Professor Shankar, with permission, as a student study resource.

Once the class winds down a bit, I'll be able to produce a more robust podcast that brings together so many more bits.  College Tech Central, Technology on Campus, is your home for technology news, tips, tricks, reviews, and secrets where we demystify computers and make it easy for students and young professionals.  Tune in sometime soon for some great content.

Well, that's all for now, everyone.  Thanks so much for surfing over and taking a look.  I hope that you bear with me as I try to get more work done and still maintain these blog posts at least on a weekly basis. Until next time, take care!

What Does it Take to Do Helpdesk?

This week marks the beginning of school for freshmen all around the country and it also signals the graying of hairs for helpdesk operators on campuses all over.  So, while sitting here on the phones helping frantic parents and ditsy students, I was pondering what it takes to do this job... and well.

First, I think Patience is probably the most important.  Students or corporate users are already stressed out that their computers aren't working properly and losing your patience with them will only result in badness.  Today, already, I've had four different parents basically yell at me that their computers bought from "YOU" (also known as the University's Computer store) and basically said it was my fault that it wasn't working correct.  After getting the user to actually plug the correct cord into the correct port, they felt really stupid.  This brings me to the next item.

Allow the users to Save Face.  Just because running a bash script to disable and enable the Network Interface Card (NIC) is like peeling a banana for you, definitely doesn't mean it is for them.  In fact, if it were that easy for them, then they wouldn't be talking to you in the first place.  By letting the client "win" they will feel better about technology and might actually learn how to fix the problem in the future.  This is a good thing since they'll be happy and might not need to call you back next time.

Without a doubt Technical Knowledge, is pivotal to running a successful help desk operation.  This is the bread and butter of all Information Technology Support, the skills and tools of the trade. You use this knowledge to determine the users problems and find possible solutions to their problems.  Also, when working with difficult users, your knowledge is your leverage in controlling the consulting experience.

Squishy Toys are to de-stress after those users that really drive you nuts.  Kongs for large dogs, beanie babies, or any other squeezable and slightly humanoid item can help you feel better when you're rather stressed out.

If you've got these tools you may very well be a good candidate for helpdesk operations.  However, if you don't really like dealing with people, can't communicate with "mortals" or otherwise have a bad attitude towards others, stop here and do not pass GO.

Adding Another Hat

Some of you may know that I recently accepted a new position as the Network and Web Administrator for Generations Incorporated.  If you've read this blog for long, you know also that I'm currently working desktop support for Boston University.  It's about 10:30 here in Boston and I was thinking about the transition in skills and knowledge of a job such as this.  Desktop support with Information Systems Planning and Support has been a really great experience where I've learned a great deal from the technical aspects to time management and relationship maintenance.  These are all skills that I'm able to apply to this new organization I'm working with. Unfortunately, as a student employee and the nature of the desktop support position, I have not learned much in the way of server technology.  Sure, this means that Generations Inc (GI) took a bit of a gamble with me since their prior admin was basically a brain-child genius.  On the other hand, having worked in an environment where you don't always see the whole picture or deal with users that honestly don't know what happened, I have learned the ability to troubleshoot problems.  Perhaps this, the ability to systematically find problems and resolve them in an orderly fashion, has been the greatest benefit I've gained from my work with ISPS.

Troubleshooting skills aside, I face a large learning curve when it comes to specific technology such as Windows 2003 Server, Windows Small Business Server, Terminal Services Server, and Microsoft Exchange Server 2003.  These particular OS's are my bread and butter - the daily grind if you will.  My primary tasks on a day to day basis are communicated via the task application of outlook and revolve around server maintenance and backup, desktop user support (similar to my position with ISPS), and longer term research and development projects.

I think I'll mention a couple of the projects I'm working on right now.  The first, a full inventory and audit of computer assets, users, policies, and infrastructure.  This is a rather basic concept - figure out what we have, where it is, and who uses it, then make changes as necessary.  Since we're such a small shop, it won't be difficult to get any one bit of information but to do the updates and remediation that I think will be necessary, I expect that I'll need some out of hours time.  The other big project I'm working on is to align mobile computing to our network where users with Blackberries will be able to sync with our servers or perhaps Windows Mobile devices will use the AirSync technology.  I'm still in the research phase for this project, gathering the raw numbers and information to then present to the directors in a report.

So what spurned all of this?  Well, I was bored for one.  I'm in the midst of a book that teaches the Windows 2003 Server information in a crash course sort of way.  I've been reading about installing, domain controllers, all sorts of bits about network infrastructure that I just needed a bit of a break and here I am.  In any case, I will bring this to a close.  I know I haven't been writing often but I think that my more regimented schedule will do well for my publishing cycle.

Thank you to all that continue to read and support City Streets, my professional blog and website!

Social Networking Right in Your Browser - FLOCK

We all know that there are a number of browsers on the internet these days. Today, I want to take some time to discuss FLOCK, a socially oriented browser built on the Firefox platform. This unique browsing program combines a host of features from Blogging to media streams right into your browser, thus eliminating the need to browse to blogging interfaces or load special plug-ins. Though their market share isn't even on the level of the big three, Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari, FLOCK carves out a niche for socially minded, tech savvy users. Perhaps we will see more and more users from my generation using this tool as social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace become more and more popular. I think FLOCK is worth everyone's time because of the accessibility, standardization, and tools that this wonderful browser has to offer. Dominating the browser scene is the standard, meat and potatoes, Microsoft Internet Explorer. Despite a recent update, IE still fails to follow some basic web standards and is known to be vulnerable to many mal-ware exploits. Mozilla Firefox is the open source alternative giving IE its toughest competition. This browser combines an easily extensible platform with standards compliant engine and a healthy dose of non-conformism that has many younger users leaving Microsoft behind. Apple's Safari browser should be familiar to every Mac user since it comes bundled with every Apple system much the same way IE takes over Windows. Steve Jobs boasts about Safari's fast load times and full compatibility as two of the browser's strongest point. Apple has even launched a Windows Beta aiming at promoting market share and providing development tools for Windows programmers to use on the newly released Apple iPhone. Unfortunately, none of these browsers can combine all of the bits and pieces of social media that I was looking for straight out of the box. Then came a mention of FLOCK on the CNET Buzz Out Loud podcast that brought this new browser to my door.

As I said earlier, FLOCK is built for those who have a large web presence, especially if that has to do with social networking and blogging. Being a 20 something and interested in technology, this was a natural step for me - perhaps just an extension of my long hours spent crawling through Facebook. In a nut shell, FLOCK brings all of the best things that I love about Firefox, ScribeFire, Sage, and live bookmarks into a single integrated interface. I'm going to focus on the two features I find to be the most convenient: blogging toolset and the Feed Sidebar.

The blogging tool set will automatically discover most internet based blogging interfaces such as Blogger, Wordpress.com, Livejournal, and more. Asking permission first, FLOCK can import your settings from these blogs and then offer you the ability to write a post straight from a button on the tab-bar. For me, it's always been cumbersome to have to navigate to the back end of my wordpress blog and then post so this was a great time saving feature.

By entering the interface (a quill icon), the user gets a new window with full HTML support in which to craft their post. At this point, the user hasn't needed to decide where it's going. Upon finishing their work, the blogger gets a confirmation screen and chooses where to post their blog. I have to admit, sometimes when I start writing a blog post, I can get carried away and end up with a rant rather than something tat is designed for public consumption. Having the option of where to post the article allows me to easily tunnel to my rant blog and come back another time to write the intended article when I'm relaxed. All in all, it just works. The interface is easy and intuitive, such that I've recommended it to many of my non-technical friends.

The second feature I wanted to mention was the use of a sidebar feed aggregator. Those familiar with Sage in the Firefox browser will appreciate the simplicity of this nifty tool. Whenever you browse to a website that has an active RSS or ATOM feed attached to it, FLOCK will post a toolbar and ask if you want to subscribe to it. Assuming you choose to subscribe, you can then browse through all the available articles from the feed via a sidebar interface. The sidebar will show the number of new articles in the feed and, when clicked, opens a tab that shows you the feed in a Sage-esque sort of interface. The reader can choose the display to work with two or three columns, and decides whether to see headlines, excerpts, or the entire article. By default, FLOCK will mark the news items read as you scroll past them allowing you to scan the headlines for something of interest while leaving not requiring the user to check or click anything to proven that they've moved on from that given nugget of information.

The innovation just continues from here. Media feeds, visual bookmarks, and a trendy "in" feel brings FLOCK to the top of my list of browsers now. It's as easy as Firefox but more useful for those spending lots of time on the social web. I appreciate all of you readers and especially Todd Cochrane's mention on his Podcasting website, www.geeknewscentral.com. I listen to his witty conversation many times a week, so go on over and check him out. Stay glued to this feed for more web centric posts and all of your technology analysis!

DARPA Brings New Meaning to the Mobile Web

A wired blog article broke news about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) newest public project.  These little pals are robotic wireless access points, or more properly - autonomous, mesh networked, wireless extension units.  The agency sees the future of the glorified lego mindstorms robots as being expendable units for soldiers to deploy as they move, thereby extending the multitudinous information technologies available to field commandos. Each robot must be less than $100 per unit on small production runs, must have a long service life of 7 - 14 days while on batteries (they won't be recharged), and they must be intelligent.  Swarm technologies have been used in robot demonstrations where each unit is aware of each other and actually work together by passing information from unit to unit to achieve the objective.  These units would be able to heal the network, should an individual unit shutdown or be destroyed.

I found myself wondering about these technologies.  I feel that the most difficult requirement to satisfy will be the cost measure.  I'm sure that some University has been working on just such a project somewhere but otherwise, how could a corporation hope to make and $$ on this?  There won't be any support because they're throw away and self programming.  There won't be any parts market for the same reason so all of their costs for production and development must be paid off within the sale price.  Of course, like every government contract, this project will be going to the lowest bidder.

The hardest part of the hardware will be designing a router that will interface with both the data and voice networks of the military (NIPRnet and SIPRnet plus many others that were not declassified at my time in the Air Force) while at the same time being able to communicate with the other units in the area.  The truss and chassis will probably be a lightweight metal with treads of some sort.  The battery unit will invariably be the largest portion of the entire unit since it will need to power both the propulsion unit and the router technology.  But these hardware issues can surely utilize market technologies without needing in house development.

Software will be a different issue all together.  Not only will the routers have to recognize where information is going and coming from, but they'll need to know where the other units are such that they can cross route information without having to go back to the main servers in order to facilitate faster data transfers.  Each robot will need to have a broad understanding of the current network coverage as well as the holes in reception and be able to navigate to improve connection strength and safety.  Fortunately, DARPA is looking for these units to fit into the urban warfare environment where coverage must be robust with respect to structures and shorter distances rather than the more open distances of desert or wilderness environments.  Perhaps the military will integrate the GPS system into the unit providing waypoints for the robots to traverse but this would increase costs and incur further programming time for what was supposed to be a zero-configuration project.

In summary, I think that this particular project will be a new step for DARPA by showing their interest in disposable network technology (tolerance for it falling into enemy hands with no plan for recovery by US forces... can you say self destruct?) as well as their continued insurmountable cost positions.  Let's get real... even if a company was going to get further gov't contracts as a result of this, there is no way they'll be able to fulfill the mission specs while simultaneously staying within the price point for each unit.

Web 2.0

What is it? I think that Web 2.0 is more than just a name, more than a simple idea of sharing. No, Web 2.0 is the future of technology. Think about it - what websites have become some of the biggest money makers in the near history? Mark Zuckerberg, the 20 something founder and CEO of Facebook.com, was offered 1 billion dollars for his social networking website and now supposedly waits for a $2 Billion Offer. There's big business where people can come together and create something for almost nothing. I don't think that we should be afraid of this move though - rather I feel energized by these developments. A fellow blogger hit the nail right on the head on his personal blog. People no longer wait for mail from the postal service, nor do individuals require years of experience in order to have their part in the information super highway. I'm just a college student that enjoys sharing his perspective on the world, especially where it comes to computers and technology but that doesn't discount my contributions.

The internet has become much more than a way to post or find information; it has become a tool for everyone to use. No one is kept out, no certifications or resume required - just an interest and a dream. I hope that anyone reading these posts are enjoying the time that I spend here because I enjoy it and that's why I do this. The ability to teach, share, or even argue is a freedom I enjoy and wish to bring to everyone that wants to listen and participate.

Booo Monopoly Microsoft, Hurray Google!

Today Google announced that they would be launching capabilities to support presentations within the Google Documents & Spreadsheets service. This marks a major inroad into the world of document management and word processing. A ZDnet blog brings more details to the announcement. But what does this mean? For one, Office might not be the top dog for too much longer, in the personal computing field at least. Currently, Microsoft owns 95% of the office productivity market, most of which is dominated by the business market. Corporations are usually much slower to adopt new technologies because of their need to test, harden, and secure most applications. The other reason MS has such a large market is that it's products work well together - windows with office, office with exchange, exchange with Windows Mobile etc. Companies are going to need to branch out and take some risks if they are ever going to get out of the MS strangle hold.

There are many companies starting to test out these new technologies. Many cities and towns are starting to require that documents archive into an open source format. Massachusetts legislatures were among the first to convert to the open source formats - Hamburg, Germany is close to follow. Why are they moving? Well, open source products are earning more and more respect among the consumer and business groups. Google Apps provides an online office suite available free of charge to individuals and schools as well as a more robust premium version for enterprise. Open Office is another open source office suite - desktop based - that utilizes the now common and highly secure Open XML formats. Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of Microsoft?

True, Redmond has tried to embrace the XML wave by releasing their Office Open XML format. BUT - this isn't inter operable with other open source document programs. I, for one, feel that there needs to be more testing and proving built into the current open source productivity suites so that corporations will find more confidence in these solutions. By bringing more money and time into these technologies, the very solutions we're working to improve will develop incredibly fast.

No matter what productivity platform you choose to use, I suggest everyone look into the open source solutions because they are making up more and more ground on currently available private software (Read as MS Office Suite). Check it out - GO OPEN!!