Retiring this blog – focusing on the work at hand

Friends and Followers,

I’m focusing on my work at CU Boulder’s Office of Information Technology and am acknowledging the obvious: I’m not going to keep this blog updated.

I do have many thoughts on the subject and hope to get to a place where I will be able to re-launch this blog with fresh content.

 

 

ExemplarySupport – New Blog, New Focus

What’s Up?
My old (and infrequently updated) blog, TechAdviceAndInfo.com has now become ExemplarySupport.com.

A Shifted and Expanded Focus
This Blog will focus more on things involved in providing support to a large organization. Such support is often delivered one person at a time, but at a larger scale opportunities arise for efficiencies of scale. Spending a week to set up a management system for 5 or 15 computers to save 5-10 a machine might not make sense at those numbers, but doing so when looking at 150 or 500,  or perhaps 1500,  becomes a necessity. But when you do so, how do you keep service at red-carpet level? What are people doing to do this? What are the big ideas in this area? The big players? That’s what I think we’ll focus on here, and I hope to have guest bloggers along the way.

But this is still a personal effort, and so, even though some attention may be given to management, I will still also post on personal electronics, software settings, personal productivity, new software and hardware — those topics covered TechAdviceAndInfo.

Why?
I got a new job.  I’ve moved from the University of Colorado Law School to the central University of Colorado Office of Information Technology. At Colorado Law, I focused more on close-to-the-customer issues for the relatively small population there. In my new job, I have a more widely focused position serving the larger population of the whole university, a much larger staff and a much larger customer base. It’s an enormously entertaining job and I hope to share thoughts that come from it.

Blog stuff changes now and in the future
While I loved hosting the site at SquareSpace, I’m moving the hosting to Dreamhost, where I have a number of other sites – all of which I hope to revamp to some degree. My expenses at Dreamhost are fixed, and so, even though SquareSpace was quite reasonable for what it offered, I’ve moved from it to WordPress, like so many other blogs, and it’s enormous variety of plug-ins and add-ons.

The site is just a skeleton today, with the bare-minimum graphical design and feature set, but it will grow, and get set up again in this new environment in my spare time over the next few months.

Suggestions Welcome
Please share any suggestions you have for this blog. I want it to be useful.

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Why I like Lynda.Com for OnLine Training

We all learn differently. Some learn by doing. Some by reading. Some by hearing. I like having someone tell me how to do something and then going and trying it in the real world immediately after learning.*

I worked for more than 10 years in eLearning software development at Platte Canyon and Titan Client/Server Technologies. I wrote numerous software simulations that allowed learners to see, try, and do. I narrated hundreds and hundreds of pages of training. I wrote tools to help others write eLearning. All of that doesn’t matter now, though, because I think Lynda.Com finally got it right and they basically do nothing that I was doing. They just shoot videos:

The Good Way: Lynda.com

They skip most of the fancy simulations. They skip the ad nauseum quiz questions. The core of the training is down-to-earth video training on specific tasks in specific software. There are some sample files you can download and try on your own to follow along (sometimes helpful), or you can just watch the video and go do it on your own.

From a technical side, since the training is all just web videos, it’s very easy to get.

  1. Quick to learn Technical Training.
  2. Just like an in-person class.
  3. No distracting eLearning BS like quizzes and simulations
  4. I can use any browser.
  5. I can use any platform.

Lynda.com: Great content, easy to get to, taught in a way that I can quickly absorb and understand.

The Bad Way: SkillPort

I’m comparing my Lynda.Com experience to the University of Colorado’s standard offering from SkillPort which has the craziest multi-window login I’ve ever seen. Then, once you go through the 5 screens or so to get in, you then need to navigate the daunting tree of available courses.

Once you actually find your course, THEN, FINALLY, the actual course launches in yet another window. And it’s a read, click, read, click sort of thing, with some simulations that you are required to go through before you continue.

The simulations stink. Here’s one example of a simulation in SkillSoft: Say you need to save a document. To save a document, you just wnat to press Ctrl-S and the save is done, right? That’s what we do in MS Word, for instance. Not with SkillPort. That doesn’t work. Ctrl-S = Fail. The simulation blocks you from going on until you choose File, Save.  So it all feels just a little cumbersome and old fashioned.

End of Story: I Love Lynda.Com if for no other reason than it works the way it should. I learn from it. It’s easy to use. All good.

*Since I’m talking about how I learn, actually, from what I can tell, I’m an auditory learner in live classes. But I’m the annoying student who learns best hearing MYSELF say the content. I raise my hand and summarize the point: “Wait, are you saying (blah blah blah)?”  The teacher says, “yes, Chris, that’s what I’m saying,” and moves on thinking, “didn’t I just say that?” And when I’m really trying to learn something, I do interruption and restatement over and over. It’s a nightmare. (I’ll understand if you never want to take a class with me).

If this then that. Changing my life

Have you found this site yet?

ifttt.com

You set your own simple rules.

It’s revolutionizing the way I handle reading and filing rss feeds (just star an item in google reader and the whole post gets added to my Evernote folder).

It does great with me posting/tweeting or whatever and having that automatically posted on other social media sites.

Very exciting.

IT In Higher Ed: We’re Ahead of the Game in One Way

Stephanie Overby’s excellent September 9 article in Infoworld entitiled How to Handle Rogue IT is written with an eye to the corporate IT. She talks about the difficulty of a diverse technical environment with more and more participants bringing in their own devices and popping on to the enterprise network. She looks at a “new” situation with “rogue” departments buying equipment of their own choosing and setting it up outside the view of the main IT department.  Heck, that sounds like normal in my world.

Ask anyone in a higher education IT department if this sort of decentralized IT environment is a concern, and they’ll look at you like you’re from another dimension. Decentralization and “rogue” setups are the norm in higher education.  It’s as core to the university setting as academic freedom, papers, and faculty with strong opinions. It’s natural. I would argue that such an environment is the soul of the Internet. Diversity is good in IT just as it is in the human groups. The Internet’s birth, in fact, was all about joining together diverse networks from universities and military centers.

So, while IT shops from shiny Fortune 500 corporations may be scrambling to get their hands (and minds) around this new world, higher ed types know it. We’re ahead of the Fortune 500! Let’s just take a moment to bask in this rare situation.

<a moment. ahhhh.>

The article mentions some strategies for IT shops working with diverse IT environments. My favorite quote: “The New IT Mantra: Yes, We Can”

Her point with this newly needed can-do attitude of IT is that if the main IT department won’t meet the customers’ wishes, then the customers are just going to work around the IT department and do it themselves. And doing it themselves may or not be okay for them,  but it will surely not be implemented with an eye to the enterprise. Ane the IT department is sidelined and later, when the system is old or stops working, IT will be called in to fix it at that point anyway.

So, IT should say “Yes” to helping with small groups and individual projects. I’m happy to report that we’re onto this already as well: The small IT department at Colorado Law, where I work, has had an internal motto for the past 5 years: “CU Law IT, we never say ‘no.’”  This attitude was born from a strong customer service orientation and actually got the IT department a little 1-page spread in the Greentree Gazette a few years ago. (The Greentree Gazette was a magazine on the business of Higher Education, now sadly defunct.)  The large enterprise University of Colorado IT Department, OIT, under the leadership of Larry Levine, now also seems to be saying, “Yes” as much as it can, sometimes I think to the chagrin of the folks inside the department who are more used to the traditional approach of long lead times, careful steps, and detailed implementation plans. In a world where the orientation is “Yes, we can,” the folks in the department will feel scattered, have multiple and expanding points of responsibility.

There’s a lot more to do at Colorado Law and the larger U. of Colorado and a lot more to Overby’s article, but for me, the most important take-away was:

In working with a diverse IT landscape, IT in higher ed rocks.

Computer + Softdrinks = CocaCola Freestyle

There was a time in my life when I gave up softdrinks – focused on iced tea, and then gave that up too. Now is not that time of my life. So, when I came across the best soda fountain dispenser in the whole world, I used it. Oh how I used it.

Our local movie theatre just got the CocaCola Freestyle machine, and it is amazing. With an advertised set of possible 100+ fountain drinks, I had to check it out. Sure enough, I could make a combination of Diet Coke Vanilla with a bit of Diet Coke Lime if I wanted. But they also had Coke Zero Rasberry! Plus a whole selection of Caffeine-Free coke and other selections. And we haven’t even mentioned the various non-coke flavors or all the non-carbonated ones.

The machine is a wonderful combination of precision “microdosing” and computers. Throw in a touch screen, and you have a great set of possibilities.

After conducting as much field research as i could stomach, I later conducted extensive research using the “Google Decimal System.” I turned up such fascinating acts as these. It offers not just the advertised 100+ flavors, but actually 81,129,638,414,606,681,695,789,005,144,063 (over eighty-one nonillion) flavors if you’re willing to mix different soda types together according to WikiPedia‘s calculations. My goal, try them all. I can do it! I will get one drink a day, so it will only take me 222,272,981,957,826,000,000,000,000,000 years to do so.  I’ll keep you posted each billion years.

My hope: the next version will take this concept and combine it with the awsome jumping water fountains from Disney Imagineers. Could you imagine choosing your soda selection, entering your seat number, and then the soda just gets shot into your cup? Jetsons style baby!

I want to acknowledge that I’m late to this party. These dispensers have been out since 2010 or maybe even 2009. But they’re new to me! And I’m totally in love.

General Printer Installation Steps, Windows 7, USB Connection

I recently wrote up this set of instructions for a friend who was going to install a printer at home.

Assuming you have Windows 7 and the printer connects to your computer via USB cord.

Normal Steps

1. Look at the printer and determine the Make and Model.

2. Turn on the printer and plug it in to your computer’s USB port.

3. See if Windows 7 just automatically feels it and installs it. If so, great. If not, keep going.

4. Go to <Windows Start Button>, Devices and Printers

5. Click “Add a Printer” along the toolbar of your window

6. Click “Add a Local Printer”

7. Use an Existing Port, LPT1

                When you click Next, it might sense it and prompt you.

                If it doesn’t…

8. You’ll see a list of printers.

                Select Manufacturer on the left side.

                Select the printer model on the right side.

                                if you don’t see your printer model

                                                – Is there one that is close but a little older? For instance if you have a “model 2100″ is there a “model 2000″ listed? If so, you can try to use it.

                                if you don’t’ see it, it’s time to go to the internet, Skip to Alternate Step A below.

9. If you were able to select your printer, click next, follow the prompts, print a test page.  If it didn’t work, skip to Debugging Step i below.

 

————-

Alternate Steps if Your printer isn’t listed

Alternate Step A. Do a web search for your printer drivers.

                Google “<brand> <model> printer driver”

                Ideally, you want to get the files from an official site like HP, Brother, etc.

Download the driver.

If it’s a file you can run

                Run it.

                Follow the prompts of the software for the rest of the installation.

If it’s a zip of compressed files, unzip the file to a place you know, maybe your desktop.

                Look in the unzipped folder for a “setup.exe” file or something similar.

                If there is one, run it and follow the on-screen prompts.

                If there is not one, just note the location of the folder again (desktop maybe?)

                Repeat steps 1 through 7 above

                At step 8, click “Have Disk” and browse to the folder with your unzipped printer drivers (desktop?)

                                Select the file that seems to make the most sense. Maybe a file named the same as your printer?

                Keep going by clicking next.

 

————-

Debugging Steps

 

Debugging Step i: Check all connections. Unplug replug power, USB code on both ends.

Debugging Step ii: Power Off, and then On the printer, restart your computer with the printer still attached.

                Watch for something to happen with the printer. Anything? If not, question the connection. If so, good.

Debugging Step iii: Look at the list of printers on your computer and delete unnecessary ones.

                Go to <Windows Start Button>, Devices and Printers, right click on any listed printers that don’t need to be there. Uninstall.

Debugging Step iv: Delete your printer from the same list. Reboot the computer. Try again.

Debugging Step v: give up. Call someone for help.

Dropbox as Cloud-based Backup?

Someone recently asked me about the “cloud-based backup” tool I was raving about in a presentation. Here’s a follow up email where I clarify and explain:

The cloud-based backup you may have heard me raving about is DropBox. Here are a few quick thoughts on it (that I’m writing in a more generic way since I’ll probably repurpose it for my blog (techadviceandinfo.com):

It’s a little different than a pure cloud-based backup in a couple key ways.

  • Function:
    • The absolute beauty of Dropbox is that you just save to a folder called Dropbox on your computer and it syncs up to the cloud in the background automatically.
      • This really is cool because there’s no delay when you save or open. It’s just there.
      • It feels like you’re just saving to a normal file folder.
    • Whatever devices you have connected to that DropBox account all have access to the files.
    • Even your iPhone has access to the files.
    • So, while the cloud-based backup is there, it’s really a secondary to the “ubiquitous access” that it’s giving you.
  • Space:
    • The free version doesn’t have that much space – 2 Gigabytes
      • You can get a bit extra if you get referred. I’ll refer you. Here’s a link that if you use it to sign up, you and I both get extra space:  http://db.tt/lCLtSAU
      • You can also get another set of megs if you jump through a few more hoops.
    • You can pay $99 for 50 gigabytes for a year.
      • I’ve recently done this
      • I’ve set up folders inside the main account for my kids.
        • One kid uses this exclusively and loves it. She saves it locally and then retrieves her files at school.
        • One risk: she can also access her files AND my files.Luckily DropBox has a “previous versions” feature when lets you get back any deleted files for the past few days (weeks?).
      • If you start with a free account and then upgrade to a paid account, all the “free space” you got from referrals comes with you. So now that I’ve upgraded to the 50 gig version, I actually have 53 or so gigs from previous referrals.
  • Advice:
    • Get a free account
    • Use a referral from me or someone else to get more space. Here’s mine: http://db.tt/lCLtSAU
    • Try it out.
    • If you like it but need more space, then pay for it. The upgrade is instant.

Video Conferencing – Corporate Quality or Skype?

I was recently asked by the Dean of another School what I advised today regarding video conferencing. The choice was either corporate video conferencing with a hardware CoDec that goes for over $10,000 or a Skype connection which is computer based and goes for free.

[First, a note:  I wrote these thoughts two morning's ago, which as anyone in this field will tell you, is a lifetime. It was announced yesterday that Microsoft has purchased Skype the company. The question arises then if I would still advise choosing Skype as much as I do below. I think I would. I think MS funding will only help Skype grow and mature. Now, on to the discussion!]

There are certainly valid arguments for spending the money to get a high-end corporate-quality video conference system, but Skype is almost as good technologically and it’s getting better all the time. At the law school, we have two Tandberg codecs that the sales folks tell us are outdated at five years old. We’re not about to replace them since they are still working just fine and, more significantly, since we are using Skype instead in many cases.

I see Four main issues when comparing corporate-quality video conferencing with Skype and its relatives.

Issue 1: Quality of the call

Video Quality

                A dedicated corporate-quality video conferencing unit (often called a CoDec) connected to another corporate quality video conferencing unit will produce a better image than a Skype connection on the same network.  The difference will be noticeable. The question arises regarding how important it is to have a high definition video signal. It’s very nice, but I think it’s not necessary in most cases.

Winner: Corporate Quality Video Conferencing

 

Audio Quality

                Audio is so easy to send over the internet nowadays that I think there will be no difference in the audio when comparing the two types of system. It all really comes down to the quality of the microphones and speakers on both sides.

Winner: Tie

 

Reliability

                This is the main issue. The important point here is that in almost all cases, you’re going to be connecting between the points via the internet (TCP/IP). If you use Skype, you can plug in to the same wired network jack as you can via a corporate video conferencing unit. There is a difference though. With the corporate video conferencing, the connection is between the two units — routed through the internet, but connecting point-to-point.  With Skype, the connection is through the Skype servers: both parties connect to Skype and the call is routed by Skype. In theory, then, the point-to-point connection is better. In practice, however, we’ve found this issue to be negligible and in some cases it seems that just the opposite to be true. I don’t know why, but it seems that the Skype servers help the connection in some cases. (Please don’t repeat this very last statement as it just doesn’t make any technical sense … it’s in the realm of voodoo.)

Winner: Unclear

 

Issue 2: Convenience for person on the other side.

In the majority of the cases, Skype is more convenient for the person on the other end. They can just go to Skype.com and follow the prompts. Many people have built-in cameras on their computers now. If they don’t, they need to go buy a camera (or you need to mail one to them) at a cost of $35-$50. 

The corporate video conference solutions require both ends to have compatible equipment, and because of firewall issues and the nature of the point-to-point connection, it’s always important to do a trial call a few days before just to make sure it will work. If the person on the other side isn’t at a place with a video conference system, they’ll need to go to one. One option for this is for the person to go to a commercial video conference facility. These seem to be going out of vogue, but many Kinkos still have them. Cost is about $150 per hour for this service. There is also at least one commercial network of video conference facilities that charge similar rates.

One counter note: The techies at CAETE (the distance learning arm of Engineering) have opted to avoid Skype because they say it is confusing for some users. Skype requires each user to have a Skype username and to log in to Skype to receive the call. While we have found this not to be a problem, they have. They  have opted for some sort of hybrid where on the CU end they have a corporate quality codec, and on the other end, the user downloads and installs some software. (That feels the same as Skype to me but they say it is different).

Winner: Skype by far (but others may argue)

 

Issue 3: Cost

At free, Skype wins here.  


Issue 4: Perception around Installation

A big corporate video conference unit, either “portable” on a big cart with a big screen or built-in to a conference room, looks very impressive. The important part here, though, is that you can accomplish the same thing with a skype set up. In the end you really have the same pieces:

 

Piece 1: Monitor 

This is needed with either set up. With Skype, it can just be a laptop monitor. With corporate video conferencing it MUST be an external monitor or projector. But with Skype, it can be the same big external monitor.

 

Piece 2: Computer or CoDec

This is the part that does the work. With corporate video conferencing, it’s the CoDec box. With Skype it’s the computer. 

 

Piece 3: Camera

The better the camera, the better the image you send out. For Skype, a high-def little camera costs about $100. I’m not sure of the costs of video conferencing cameras but I think they’re around $500. There is a difference though — the corporate ones typically can pan-zoom-tilt via remote control. The computer ones are typically just mounted.

 Piece 4: Microphone

This is important either way. On Skype, the fancy external cameras have a mic built-in. It’s worth experimenting to get the best one. 

Piece 5: Internet connection

It’s better to plug-in to the ethernet jack if possible (required on the corporate video conference units). Skype allows flexibility to go via wireless network connection if necessary. 

Winner: Tie if you pay attention either way: Corporate quality video conferencing requires attention to all of these pieces, but Skype can benefit from the same.

Conclusion

Skip corporate-style video conferencing. Get Skype. Install your hardware in the same way you would with a corporate video conferencing solution so it looks all slick and nice.

Another benefit to this solution: if Skype isn’t the best choice tomorrow, you can easily switch to the new software of choice. Or run both on the same machine. No problem at all. You’re buying flexibility.

LastPass Data Breach

Lastpass Hacked
I’m not a current LastPass user, but had checked it out at one point. Look at this disturbing email I got overnight:

Dear LastPass User,

On May 3rd, we discovered suspicious network activity on the LastPass internal network. After investigating, we determined that it was possible that a limited amount of data was accessed. All LastPass accounts were quickly locked down, preventing access from unknown locations. We then announced our findings and course of action on our blog and spoke with the media.

As you know, LastPass does not have access to your master password or your confidential data. To further secure your account, LastPass now requires you to verify your identity when logging in. You will be prompted to validate your email if you try to log in from a new location. This prompt will continue to appear until you change your master password or indicate that you are comfortable with the strength of your master password.

Please visit https://lastpass.com/status for more information.

Thanks,
The LastPass Team

Doesn’t look good!

It’s not a major deal because the bad guys are probably not able to decrypt the datafiles since they’re protected by a master password set by each user. But it does raise questions about storing secure data “in the cloud.”  I could see this same sort of message coming from any number of cloud-based services including my go to favorites DropBox and Evernote.

 

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