Saturday, December 15, 2012

Coping with Newtown and a modest proposal

It's now 3:14 am and I can't sleep, obsessing about Newtown. As a parent, the horror of what happened gives me pangs of irrational fears about my kids. As a regular guy, I am immensely sad for all those involved. As a libertarian at heart, I struggle to come up with a balance on the nature of the 2nd Amendment and the need to protect society from violent acts.

As more details emerge from Newtown, there's several aspects that make this a more complicated case than just 'people shouldn't be able to buy assault weapons' or 'we should have psych evaluations prior to selling guns' or even 'let's ban all guns':
  • The more powerful Bushmaster .223 rifle was found in the car - apparently not used. This means it may not have played a part in this tragedy and legislation to ban it would have been of no consequence in Newtown.
  • The school HAD a recent security system installed. Why did it fail to stop him? Was it malfunction, operator error (since it was new) or did the killer just slip in before the system activated at 09:30am or otherwise bypass it?
  • The two guns used - 9mm Glock and 9mm SigSauer - were legally purchased by his mother and, barring any additional information, were kept in accordance with state requirements for safe storage of firearms.
  • The gun laws in Connecticut are already considered some of the most stringent laws in the country. Needless to say, the suspect violated state carry laws.
Banning all guns is not practical, period. There are over 300 million firearms in the US and the right to have a firearm is an integral part of American society for over 400 years. To me, it would be easier to convince people to switch to a monarchy before taking away the right to own firearms.

All this is not to say that Newtown will be just another statistic: the indiscriminate killing of children in what society considers one of the safest environments possible - an elementary school in a peaceful suburban town - is so against everything Americans (and others, of course) hold dear that there has to be a policy response of some kind. This was not university students (adults), temple worshipers (adults), shoppers (adults), movie goers (mostly adults) or even high-school students (older kids). Please excuse me not mentioning the adults that died, but these were 5-10 year-old kids, for goodness sake!

I don't know what the policy outcomes will be. Outright gun bans, banning assault rifles, adding security guards to schools (think TSA-style guards at every school), etc... are, in my opinion, doomed from the start. 

I want to offer one suggestion, though, that I think can help: Just like 9/11 resulted in mandatory reinforced cockpit doors on airplanes, Newtown should result in state laws with requirements for MANDATORY biometric+PIN locks for gun storage safes for ALL firearms, at all times, with stiff penalties for violation. It matches the spirit of the 2nd amendment (people are allowed to bear arms) but also restricts access to firearms with a stronger '2-factor authentication'. It would have likely prevented this tragedy.

We all love our kids and want what's best for them. In this case, I think it means facing the reality that gun culture is here to stay, but that Newtown was not just another incident and that adjustments need to be made.

OK, signing off, with a very heavy heart thinking about what happened, hoping I won't have too many nightmares.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Self-education with Coursera

One more weekend has passed and again I was singing the praises of Self-Education and Coursera to my friends. I'm guessing many of them are fed up with me talking about it. Sorry everyone... just too excited... :-)

If you're not familiar with it, Coursera is one of the leading providers of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), basically a platform for universities to offer free access to some of their coursework online, to anyone with an Internet connection and a desire to learn.

Take a look at one of the founders' TED presentation.

For me, with my never-ending quest (obsession?) of self-development, this is an absolutely AMAZING opportunity. There's currently nearly 200 courses available on a variety of subjects, just waiting for the eager student. They currently have students from all over the place...

So, what do I find so nice about it?

  • In my opinion, it offers a great balance of self-education with a little bit of structure. Each course is divided into lectures which themselves are broken down into segments. Watch each lecture, answer quizzes or do assignments, participate in forums, ... and you're on your way...
  • At the same time, it is 'freeform' enough that you can speed through content you already know or watch it on your own schedule.
  • The number of course options is enormous. Coursera has close to 200 courses from approximately 30 universities, covering 18 different areas. From Music to Biology, from Economics to Circuit Design, there's bound to be something that interests you...
  • The format is great, the selection is ample and the quality is top notch too. Content is well-designed for the delivery format, teachers are articulate and engaging, plus the exercises are relevant.

I've now had experience with 6 courses in Economics, Statistics, Finance and Investing and I'm enrolled in a few more. History, Cryptography and more Econ/Stats/Finance are on my horizon.

So, how do I find the time to study for this?
First of all, I study in the evenings, after wife and kids go to bed. 2-3 hours a night and that's easily 15 productive hours to learn something or refresh old content.
To get those 2-3 hours, I've severely limited my TV time as well as cut back on social networking (fewer Facebook discussions! :-) ) and other distractions. Each one is different, but this is what worked for me.

As with everything, there's a couple of things about Coursera courses that I wish could be improved upon:

  • First, for now, all courses have a scheduled date, often many months in the future. I understand this is done to match the academic schedule, but perhaps over time Coursera might offer a more 'on-demand' model.
  • There is minimal interaction with the teaching staff. This is understandable, as some courses can have 100,000 people or more registered. In many cases, the best option you have is hope the teacher or one of the teaching assistants participate in the discussion forums that exist (which they often do, but not the same as asking question in class...)

"So, I get to be a <insert university name> student for free?"
One key point is that courses offer minimal, if any, official status. What this means is that attending a course taught by Stanford faculty, for example, does not make one a Stanford alumni or imply any other relationship. The reality is that each course is free to issue whatever type of status they want. Some offer nothing whatsoever, others may offer an electronic statement that you completed the requirements for the course, while others may even consider issuing 'credits' towards their existing programs.
I have seen people add to their Facebook profiles that they were 'alumni' of those institutions. They're NOT. Don't make the same mistake.
In my case, what I've done is that I have added Coursera courses to my LinkedIn profile, but under the heading of 'Independent Coursework'. This still shows that I'm pro-active in my self-learning but that I also recognize the limits of the MOOC system.

As you consider Coursera, I leave you with two parting thoughts.

One, that Coursera is but one of many offerings in this space. Other notable options include Udacity (mostly computer technology related material), EdX (an upcoming partnership between Harvard, MIT and Berkley) and Khan Academy (more focused on, but not limited to, high-school level across several subjects). Good link for these and other options here.
I still think Coursera towers above them in terms of breadth and thought leadership.

Finally, Isaac Asimov's popular quote: "Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” Not much else to say, is there?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Syncing Multiple Google Calendars to iOS devices

With the complexity of home life increasing - our son grows up and has multiple activities, we all have doctor's appointments, fitness, travel plans, etc... - we have been using shared Google Calendars for a long time. What works well for us is:
  • Mom's and Dad's work calendars get uploaded via GoogleCalendarSync
  • We use shared Calendars for each child (daughter still too young for one), plus one for the family as a whole and one for 'Home Maintenance' things.
  • We also have a calendar for friends/family birthdays (the actual date, not any celebrations, which go into the 'family' calendar)

For some reason, one of the things left out of the configuration efforts when we both started using iPads was syncing those multiple calendars. We easily synced our main calendar and that was it... Life moves fast and sometimes 'good enough' is good enough.

Well, complexity caught up with us and now I needed to find a way to look at these alternative calendars without the hassle of opening the Google Calendar page (via Safari or a HomePage link)... I wanted to see them on the native iOS Calendar app.

It was VERY, VERY easy to do (easier than I thought), but took a little searching.

Short version is: starting from a setup that already has the main Google Calendar synced to the iOS device, just go to and choose the other calendars you wish to see. Next time you iOS calendar app syncs, either they should appear automatically or just refresh the calendar list from the 'Edit' section on the app.

I got this from Google's Help section at CalDAV Calendar Sync - Google Mobile Help. While it talks about setting up the account as CalDAV explicitly, it just worked with the 'regular' GMail account.

This is likely old news for many people, but I was pleasantly surprised. :-)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011


I feel I should say something about Christopher Hitchens, the brilliant mind that has left us way too early. There have been many tributes to him on virtually every newspaper I read today, all of it well deserved.

I first learned of him after having read, enjoyed and agreed with most of his thinking in 'God is not great'. As I learned a bit more about him, I became a fan. I would invariably take the time to read his Salon column every Monday morning (it would arrive via RSS) and always come out impressed with the breadth of topics he would cover, the poignancy of his comments and clarity of his thinking. I deeply admired his stance as his own man, not simply aligning himself 'right', 'left' or anything in between.

Watching him (unfortunately never live, but online or listening afterwards via podcasts) on debates such as Intelligence Squared and the Munk Debates was uplifting: here was the personification of 'applied intellect' - the perfect combination of erudite knowledge, moral clarity and unflinching delivery. One would almost - almost - feel bad for the opposing side. A lot more to be found at and google elsewhere.

There's surely others who will write much better prose to honor him, but let this be my simple contribution. Some of us will praise him for his positions, some won't, but we should all praise him for his courage and contributions.

Thanks Hitch, we'll miss you dearly.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Instapaper or Read it Later? Both!

As I battle to keep up to date with everything that happens in my industry (IT, specifically security/networking), one of the best tools I use is a 'to read later' application: basic premise is that if you come across something that you think might be interesting but you just don't have the time (or resources) to check it out now, you can mark it for later. Then, when you have moment (yeah, right...), you just go back through your unread list to check them out.

There's a few of these apps out there - Apple actually included the functionality in the latest Safari with iOS 5.0 - but the ones I'm more familiar with are Read it Later and Instapaper. They both have support for tags, multi-platform support and free/paid versions (though Instapaper offers virtually all functionality for free so 'paid' really means donation, which I find totally worth it).

One of the more interesting thing about both of these apps is that they have a stable API so other applications can hook into them. This has led to a variety of applications supporting direct "one-click" integration, allowing things like sending a link to the 'to read later' queue while browsing your Twitter feed or Facebook news, for example.

That - sending off to 'to read' list while browsing Twitter - is primarily how I use this functionality. My preferred Twitter client is 'Oosfora HD' (paid) on the iPad and I'll happily bookmark links for reading later from within that app.

But which one do I use? The answer (as per the title of this entry) is both! Wait, what? Why both? Heresy!
As with every other 'battle' in IT (Windows or Mac? Chrome or Firefox? iOS or Android?) there *must* be one choice. Your entire self-worth as an individual is tied to choosing the ONE app that is clearly BETTER.

Well,no. One of the benefits of using BOTH apps at the same time is that you can easily curate your collection so that you end up with two distinct 'flavours' of bookmarks to check out and can then review them according to your mood, resources at hand, etc...

As an example, I use 'Instapaper' for industry-related links that I either have to be in the right mindset to review or that I want to take notes into my Personal Knowledge Management system (future blog post...). I use 'Read it Later' for more 'generic' links that I want to check out but not necessarily 'study'.

Why not use one and just tag things instead? Simple answer: the process of tagging something is not well integrated into the other apps I use and frankly just slows down the process. It is a lot easier to just select 'Read it Later' or 'Instapaper' from a pop-up than actually type a tag.

Anyway, I hope this helps others who face similar situations.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dashboards and my Weekly Planners

I mentioned before that I'm a huge fan of mindmaps for personal organization. My tool of choice is MindJet's Mindmanager, which I bought out of pocket for back in 2001 and never looked back.

One of the things I've done recently is to finally set up a couple of dashboard mindmaps - for me, maps that summarize what I have to worry about as it relates to a particular topic and jump-off points to other locations, from other maps to Web sites out there. The benefit of dashboard mindmaps is that I can quickly glance at them and take in all the relevant information about something.

My first dashboard is business-specific (sorry, not meant for publication): as a Sales/System Engineer (see my LinkedIn profile here), I need to keep track of business contacts and current business opportunities. A couple of maps - one for the business contacts, with linkages to account-specific maps, and one for the opportunities themselves - let me have a great summary of my territory. Some of the benefits I get from it are:
- Quickly identify key people I need to get in touch with.
- Have an at-a-glance summary of opportunities I need to focus on in the short term.

My second dashboard is 'personal', meaning it tracks everything in four main categories: work, personal, career and home (family, kids, etc...). I use it as a scratch pad for things on my radar (in addition to my detailed task list in MyLifeOrganized). See my earlier posts for some description of how I work.

Here's a high-level view of my personal dashboard:

Well, one thing I added to my personal dashboard is a weekly planner. This is simple but very useful. In a nutshell, I now have an easy to view/edit location where I consolidate information from many sources:
- My personal and business calendars (Gmail and Outlook, respectively)
- Key tasks I want to achieve on that date (manually, but taken from MLO)
- Additional tidbits not available elsewhere that I think are relevant.

Here's a redacted example:

The nice thing is that I also have not only similar views for upcoming weeks (as you can see in the image) but also a 'weekly template' (not shown) that I can just copy over to a new week.

Like I said, this is simple stuff - maybe old news to more experienced mindmappers - but still something that helped me organize my affairs better. Hope it helps others too.

Until next time!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Looking at one's career - part 1 of ?

In a continuation of my series on looking at career (started here), where I describe some of what influences me) I want to address the notion of improvement. Keep in mind these are my thoughts without explicit linkage to existing theories/content/... out there. I'll be more than happy to point out additional resources as I find them.

Continuous Improvement

First and foremost, I am a strong believer in the fact that constant improvement is essential, non-negotiable really, if one wants to achieve and at a minimum maintain (never mind increase) the means to function as a professional in modern society. This does not necessarily mean "working" all the time, taking courses like there's no tomorrow and throwing work-life balance out the window, but the deliberate pursuit of improvement in at least the following contexts:
  • Tasks - The specific actions one needs to take to fulfill their responsibilities to their employer. 
  • Job - The things that are relevant to one's present employer, be they "external" - everything related to how that employer interacts with its customers - or "internal" - how to function effectively as a member of the employer's organization.
  • Skills - Your specific abilities related to your field of expertise or your capabilities to be a functioning individual in modern society.
  • Career - The progression of roles within one or more organizations over a period of time.
  • Area - The broad knowledge field(s) in which one operates.
Ultimately, I think "taking care of one's career" is the constant, never-ending balancing of improvements in each of the areas above. Neglecting any one of them for the benefit of others will result in heartbreak:
  • if you ignore the Tasks, you can't actually *do* what you're supposed to do and may end up dismissed for not adding value.
  • if you ignore the Job, you may end up a sub-par member of the organization, either at risk of losing your job or stuck in the same place until obsolescence.
  • if you ignore Skills, whatever you know or know how to do may not be transferable to other scenarios, be they in your current organization or elsewhere.
  • if you ignore Career, your work history may be a series of roles with no distinguishing growth. It may be OK for some, but rarely the stuff people aspire to.
  • if you ignore your Area, it becomes difficult to identify and understand the impact of larger trends in your industry on what you do and on your plans moving forward.

What do I mean by pursuit of improvement? There's several alternatives, including but not limited to:
  • Formal training: academia, continuing education, corporate training, private courses, tutors, ...
  • Self-study: reading books, joining study groups/lists online, watching/participating online training (I *love* the Khan Academy as an example, or, keeping abreast of developments, news, etc...
  • Practicing: volunteering (offline or online - Livemocha is a good example of online volunteering for language training), internships, hobbies, side businesses, etc...

The amount of time one dedicates to this will naturally fluctuate: from extra-hyper crazy days/weeks at work to dealing with family commitments or even one's own motivation peaks and troughs, there will be times where one can dedicate 'x' hours per week on a set schedule and there will be times when one is lucky to get 15-30 minutes without distractions.

Wrapping up, the key ideas I value are:
- keep improving
- balance it with the rest of life, but don't neglect it
- balance it between all the contexts I mentioned above
- balance it between the ways to improve I mentioned
- keep improving
- keep improving
- ...