Review: Chariots of The Gods

Chariots of The Gods
Chariots of The Gods by Erich von Däniken
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Däniken makes the case that what humanity thought of as gods in the past are actually aliens. We are the result of their breeding programs. Ancient monuments too sophisticated for the peoples of their times were built using the technology of the aliens to demonstrate our readiness of their return.

The evidence is viewed with the strongest optimism. In my more skeptical eyes it comes up wanting. Things presented as supposition are later used as fact to make more supposition still later used as fact. In this way the case becomes more and more fragile instead of stronger.

That people take this seriously is disturbing.

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Slackers and IT

Go read “Science Fiction Is for Slackers.”

As a rule, science fiction may be the laziest of all genres, not because the stories themselves are too facile—they can be just as sophisticated and challenging as those of any other genre—but because they often revel in easy solutions: Why walk when you can warp? Why talk when you’re a telepath? Technology in such stories typically has more to do with workarounds than it does with work.

I do love science fiction. From robots/AI to star travel to virtual reality. I love it all. I may even love it BECAUSE of the laziness. I’d love to have all these things to make my life better. And much of science fiction influences technologists into making decisions to make the fiction a reality.

The How Shatner Changed the World (mock) documentary talks about the technologies of Star Trek and how scientists work towards making these things reality. Faster than light travel and cybernetics are still aspirant. But cell phones and personal computers were influenced by technologists familiar with the show and movies.

At times I worry about automation putting me out of a job, but then I remember my career goal is always to replace myself with a tiny shell script. Why click when I can script? Why script when I can tell an AI to handle it? Sure it takes away some of my responsibilities, but what I am supposed to do has always changed. And I get better challenging work when I free myself from mundane tasks.

Guess this is why I told Puppet Labs my job is an Automation Evangelist. It’s not universal. I have allies, but convincing people of the good in automation is much like changing their religion.

Back in college I was encouraged to become a librarian. More specifically, people thought I should become an automation librarian. I guess the automation part stuck?

Athens Tech Blogs

Our office resides in Athens, GA about an hour from Atlanta. A work news post noting Atlanta tech blogs was strange to me. There is plenty HERE. Why ignore all the great local stuff?

And I do not mean my blog. I post too infrequently to really matter and mostly ignore technology of late.

  • Four Athens is a technology incubator here in Athens. They organize networking events and have a good calendar of various tech meetings happening here. (Twitter)
  • Free IT Athens is a local volunteer organization who help re-use computers and free software for the needy. They recently brought Richard Stallman here. (Twitter)
  • Vitamin C makes healthcare software. (Twitter)
  • The Accidental CIO is run by the Chief Information Officer for UGA. Work is related to UGA, but not part of their organizational structure. Tim has a seat on the search committee for our replacement CIO because, well, who we select is critically important to UGA. (Twitter)
  • The Hatch is an Athens makerspace. (Twitter)
  • Mark Fennell is an Athens DBA / web developer. (Twitter)

If there is something IT-related going on in Athens, then these two are probably writing about it.

Blogs are like so 2000s. They are sunsetting as the readers spend more time on Facebook and Twitter. All of you probably noticed I put links to the Twitter feeds for those blogs. That’s because much of the conversations who used to occur on blogs have shifted to Twitter. Actually, most of the blogs listed above I found through Twitter. Some other Athens Tech Tweeters:

Organizational Breakdown

Had a conversation with a restaurant manager when he said he hates computers. His life has gone from 90% working with food to maybe 60%. Naturally he did not get into this kind of work to spend so much time dealing with computers.

GeorgiaVIEW Admin Retreat

At first I thought the issue was empowerment. A few decades ago, important people had assistants to do all their minutia. They did not write letters so much as quickly express what it should say, someone else wrote, and had it approved before going off to send it. Now, important people write an email themselves. Well, more so than they used to do. Technology has made minutia easier and changed assistant jobs into accomplishing more complex tasks.

As it turns out the issue was more organizational complexity. The manager’s accountant found a mistake and told him to talk to another department who sent him to third who sent him to a fourth. Each admitted the mistake should be fixed, but none could correct it.

Sound familiar? You might have encountered it dealing with customer support with a utility or government agency. The organization is so big and so complex individuals within it are not capable of knowing where to direct customers to have the problem solved. Only the most tenacious can force the difficult issues. When employees are empowered with autonomy to make decisions and solve problems, they make things move along and keep customers happy.

Still sad computers take the blame for people designing organizations.

Trust in Info-Infrastructure

James Fallows has an interesting piece in the Atlantic called Why NSA Surveillance Will Be More Damaging Than You Think discussing trust in the US for the info-infrastructure of the Internet is part of why we have Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple. As that trust gets eroded by the behavior of the US government, users may elect not to continue leaving their data with US companies.

The real threat from terrorism has never been the damage it does directly, even though attacks as horrific as those on 9/11. The more serious threat comes from the over-reaction, the collective insanity or the simple loss of perspective, that an attack evokes. Our government’s ambition to do everything possible to keep us “safe” has put us at jeopardy in other ways.

It will be interesting to see whether the fall of the US information giants could be due to a balkanization from a Asia, Europe, and South America backlash. Some regions already have giant amounts of participation in non-US alternatives. This was from long before the NSA scandal.


The Loss of Tech Support

I found a statement in Twitter is your IT support interesting:

For reasons I won’t go in to, I haven’t been able to get [a WordPress install with the FeedWordPress plugin] done at the Open University, despite trying since last July. I’ve spoken to people at others unis and it isn’t isolated to the OU, it seems to be this low-level, experimental type of IT support is increasingly difficult to find.

Do you know who I think the culprit is? The VLE. As universities installed VLEs they became experts at developing enterprise level solutions. This is serious business and I have a lot of respect for people who do it. The level of support, planning and maintenance required for such systems is considerable. So we developed a whole host of processes to make sure it worked well. But along the way we lost the ability to support small scale IT requests that don’t require an enterprise level solution. In short, we know how to spend £500,000 but not how to spend £500.

(For those of you non-British/European readers, VLE are Virtual Learning Environments which are often also called Learning Management Systems on this side of the Atlantic.)

It is true the higher education IT has change with online class systems, but I think that part of the symptom and not causal. Chief Information Officers, Chief Academic Officers, and presidents all get recognition for big things. Enterprise level solutions are sexy because it is something that makes them look decisive and effective. Employees who report to them know this, so enterprise level solutions have the priority. Everything else fits into the dwindling extra work time.

What extra time?

The good news though is the small things have gotten much easier for anyone to go off on their own. At my last job, I sat as an ex-officio member of the Faculty Senate technology committee. One of the hot topics one year was a couple faculty members taught students how to use the LMS adopted by another college system in the state. It was two courses. Should we spend $20,000/yr and take up a significant amount of my time running a second LMS? Or should they continue to pay $800/yr for Blackboard to do it? The answer ultimately was to continue with Blackboard. Now days, they probably would be directed at CourseSites. At the time my to-do list was several pages long and hundred plus hour weeks were not uncommon just to keep top and high priority items timely done. The ETA for anything not top or high priority was over a year.

I prefer working with innovative technologies. Custom solutions that require creative thinking and problem solving make me feel like I accomplished something special. They give the biggest rush. Enterprise level software is steak and potatoes, so it is the core. The enterprise is the minimum. I just wish I more time to devote to achieve going beyond the minimum than I did. Well, do. This is a top level decision. Improve staffing and flexible team management so that people can spend time working on the things that make them happier.

TED Talk: I Share Therefore I Am

Human relationships are rich and they are messy and they are demanding and we clean them up with technology.
— Sherry Tuckle

Technology is the great deceiver. We can use it to craft how we present ourselves to others.

Unfortunately, we lose the connections. As a university campus webmaster, I most preferred meeting in person. Phone was second best. Email only was least. At the time, I thought it a James Borg thing that 93% of communication is non-verbal (words). Email only interactions usually suffered from misunderstandings. People with whom I had single meeting were more understanding and less problematic.

Now days, I think oxytocin generating trust is responsible. Email is just text and misunderstandings happen when the reader has assumptions to mistrust the writer. That meeting in person creates the necessary trust.

Technology does enhance our relationships when used to augment in person interactions not replace them.

If the above video does not work, then try Connected, but alone?

Should CS Be Required?

Each of the nearly 2,000 freshmen entering Georgia Institute of Technology each year must take a computer science course regardless of their major, says Charles Isbell, associate dean for academic affairs at the school’s College of Computing… Similar to traditional general education requirements such as philosophy or world history, the purpose of each courses is to turn out well-rounded graduates, Isbell says.

“Why you need to take a CS1 … is the same reason why you need to take humanities, why you need to take a science, why you need to take a math,” he says. “It’s not because you’re going to be programming …. it’s because each of those represents a different way of thinking.”

Computer science was not a requirement at my alma mater (not GT). Introduction to Computers was an easy core class lots of students took. The class offered by Mathematics and Computer Science was about the components of a desktop, using Microsoft Office, and making a web page. The College of Education and the College of Business offered their own versions tailored to their disciplines.

At first, I did not want to go through a class on “This is a mouse. This is a keyboard.” At the time I was looking at upgrading from an AT form factor to ATX. Microsoft Word 95 was my fifth word processor. Plus I had made the web site for African American Studies for the university. In the end I took the class because it would improve my GPA. Like, I thought, it was an easy A, but the instructor did challenge me by making me available to help the others in the class.

This was not a real CS class though. I had already taken one, FORTRAN, which apparently did not count towards my core to graduate, oddly enough. I took another, Introduction to Programming, where I picked up some Java. Both programming classes gave me novel practice at the time for how I solve problems, plan, and researched. They were good for me.

Despite not graduating with a computer degree, I did have a strong computer background and ended up in a computer profession. So my perspective pretty much is skewed in a positive direction for all college students taking computer science classes.

iPad Helps Kindergarten Literacy

iPad Learning

There is a story circulating that the iPad improves Kindergartners literacy scores. This title implies the hardware device or iOS is responsible for the improvements when much more likely there are specific applications responsible. After all, putting an Mac in a classroom with software designed to help literacy is more likely to improve literacy than an out of the box one.

A quote in the article confirms that the apps are the critically important factor over the hardware:

“The objective has to be learning, not just getting the technology out there,” said Muir. “We are paying attention to app selection and focused on continuous improvement — we aren’t just handing equipment to teachers.”

Yet, it does not go into what are those apps. Or the efficacy of certain apps over others. Otherwise, we will head down the rabbit holes of the past of buying technology that is supposed to improve learning, but not seeing good results because people bought hardware and random software.

Back in February, President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams of the Georgia General Assembly wanted every middle schooler to have an iPad to replace textbooks. His Senate just passed a bill to mandate high school students take at least one online class. An online class could be good for students, if it is the right class for the student in the right format by the right teacher. The wrong class could turn off the student to online classes forever. These are interesting mandates to push technology into the classroom. They just ignore that content quality is what is important (and expensive).

Photo credit: iPad Learning on Flickr by Aaron Hufnagel