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. :-)