Thursday, July 4, 2013

Computers, phones make us all open books

Last week's disclosure that the National Security Agency has access to telephone call information, emails and more came as a surprise to people.

For years, there have been rumors of what we now hear is called "Prism," the NSA's program to scan emails and other communications of non-Americans. I can't figure out how to distinguish an email that's written by an American from one that's not.

But I am amazed that people are surprised to hear that this is going on.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying it should happen or that there shouldn't be limits on it. Yes, I do believe there should be limits on what our government should be able to view.

But the fact exists that technology allows all sorts of digital eavesdropping, and it will continue.

One of the things that I tell colleagues and friends is that anything you do electronically, someone can see. From buying milk at the supermarket, to booking a flight online, to posting an update on Facebook, to driving around where our smartphone serves as our GPS, we create a digital trail quite literally wherever we go.

When people tie all of this information together, it makes a compelling story about who we are by what we do.

Of course, the story people like to tell is that this information about who you are and what you like, the better they are able to give you what you want. If you buy lots of diapers, you probably have a young child. If you subscribe to a number of online game sites, you probably do a lot of online gaming and may have a teenager in your home.

On the other hand, if you're buying dangerous products and are not qualified or licensed to use them, this could be a red flag. If you travel to places either typical or atypical of a person of your background, this could also be a red flag.

Another issue currently being addressed in Congress is legislation that would advise you when devices were listening or watching you. Most devices now have both a camera and microphone. We believe we know when they're active, but if someone chooses to turn them on, but not tell us, we may never know we're being watched or listened to.

Again, being watched and listened to has both benefits and drawbacks. Most people want to know when this is occurring, although knowing how the information is going to be used and who will have it are even more important, in my mind.

Nowadays, it's pretty safe to say that no matter where we go or what we do, with very few exceptions, we can be watched. For most of us, it's unlikely that anyone cares where we are or what we do, but with the advances in technology, including the reduction in cost for products and services to perform this surveillance, I predict that we're nowhere at the apex of how much information people will collect on us.

But neither do I fear this. My life is by and large pretty pedestrian. For people who want to be more private, they can choose to avoid many of the conveniences that we take for granted, such as using credit cards, mobile phones, computers and more.

And I do hope that we have say regarding how much our government can and does use this information. I realize that there are national security interests at stake here, and we have always had to balance our individual privacy with national security. I look forward to the conversation.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Tuesday 25 June 2013.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

'Immersive Telepresence,' videoconferencing on steroids

Most of us have now become accustomed to using our computers and even our phones to make video calls.

Applications such as FaceTime and Skype are generally good, especially considering that they're free. You can usually see the person on the other end, tell who they are and see what they're doing.

There are lots of flaws, however, including tiny cameras that don't make great images and inconsistent sound quality.

Videoconferencing has also been touted as a way that people don't have to travel. One can do business from a distance, and the money saved on time and travel expenses pays for these systems.

That argument sounds good, but I'd never seen a system that really delivered on its promise.

Until last month.

I had an opportunity to participate in a telepresence meeting using a Polycom RPX system. The sexier name is "immersive telepresence."

I had a meeting with people in both New York and Sydney, Australia. We hadn't had great luck with other videoconferencing systems, and I heard about immersive telepresence and was able to set up a meeting.

The rooms are specially designed with identical furniture, lighting, sound and decor. The tables are essentially a half conference table in one room with an identical half table typically thousands of miles away.

We face a wall where high definition television screens project an image of the other conference room in a panoramic view. Of course, the people in the other room thousands of miles away are seeing our room.

Due to many technical aspects — not the least of which were high bandwidth connections that gave crystal clear video and audio signals — the use of the telepresence system was nothing short of amazing.

Our eyes could follow each other and stereo sound enabled us to hear whether the speaker in the other room was on the left or right. All of the bits and pieces worked together to deliver an experience that let us carry on a normal discussion and almost forget that we were almost 8,000 miles apart.

Telepresence systems aren't cheap. But neither was making video phone calls 30 years ago. As this technology continues to drop in price, it will become far more prevalent. Already it can deliver the promise of the ability to save money through not having to travel as frequently, while providing an experience that's very close to being there.

The worst part of the meeting was that in New York it was dinner time, while in Sydney, it was breakfast. The people in Sydney were eating breakfast and it looked good. If we had been able to reach through and take some of the food the Australians were eating, the experience would have been perfect.

I understand someone's working on that.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 12 June 2013.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Google Glass and Other 'Wearable' Technologies

We are taking more and more of our technology with us nowadays. It's generally called "wearable technology."

I wouldn't say smartphones are "wearable" because we really still carry them with us. But one of the most visible pieces of wearable technology is Google Glass (

Google Glass works like a set of eyeglasses, although it doesn't replace glasses. Instead, it augments them, and you don't have to wear glasses to wear or use Google Glass.

Google Glass provides you with the ability to talk to and use the Internet (mainly Google) in your everyday life without having to find and touch your smartphone, laptop or desktop computer.

A friend of mine has one of the first releases of Google Glass and I was able to try it out recently.

Essentially, it looks like a pair of optical frames, but without the lenses. On the right side of the frame is what looks like a prism, which is a heads-up display, essentially projecting a screen in front of you that only you can see.

Interacting with Google Glass takes a couple of forms. First, you can touch it, much like a touch pad on a laptop computer or a tablet. One stroke turns it from idle to on. Another stroke serves as the "Next" or "Back" functions.

But when Google Glass is active, you simply say "OK Glass" and it waits for your next command. You can then ask a question, such as "What is the weather on Thursday" or you can say "take a picture" or "record a video." Glass will do what you say, within limits, of course.

Google Glass is probably not going to be a mainstream product as it exists now. As amazing as it is, it's quite limited in what it can do. But what it does demonstrate is how powerful, light and portable these technologies can be.

More technologies that truly become part of what we wear every day are becoming available. UnderArmour, the athletic-wear company, has some pretty exciting ideas in mind. Specifically, clothing that not only monitors your vital signs (heart, respiration, blood pressure and more), but can also change colors (a fashion aspect) and provide either heat or cooling, as needed.

The UnderArmour technologies still are mostly in the "visioning" stage, meaning they're not ready for consumer products yet, but they are certainly well within the reasonableness of future products.

Other companies already are providing wristbands that can monitor exercise and distance traveled, along with heart rate and blood pressure. These go into software that can not only keep track of your exercise regimen, but also track your progress. These are key ingredients to an effective training program.

The miniaturization and consumerization of technology are providing more and more opportunities for us to have technology become part of our daily lives — not just for sending messages to each other or being entertained. And most of us will like this newfound connection with technology and the value it provides.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 29 May 2013.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Creativity in Many Forms Makes Maker Faire a Success

Last Saturday saw not only perhaps the best weather of the year, but also the second annual Westport Mini Maker Faire, a one-day, family-friendly event that celebrates arts, crafts, engineering, food, music, science and technology projects and the do-it-yourself mindset. It's for resourceful, creative people who like to tinker and love to make things.

The faire featured the following events and activities:

The Nerdy Derby, a Pinewood derby with no rules. People build cars out of wood, paper, foam or whatever is handy. The entire supply of 400 kits were used.

Caine's Arcade, based upon the experience of a young boy in East Los Angeles who builds arcade games out of cardboard boxes. At this weekend's event, children built foosball tables, pool tables, skeeball games and more — all out of cardboard, tape and other donated items. And the kids played with them as much as they would have a professional machine, maybe even more so because they built the games themselves.

A high school student demonstrated his blacksmithing skills. The typical bellows to keep plenty of oxygen to the fire was replaced by an electric leaf blower. Yet, the blacksmith was quite able to pound tools out of red-hot steel.

Two $1,000 grants were given. One to two high school students who had designed and built an underwater propulsion system for SCUBA divers, and the other for a student here in Fairfield county who is working to create a solar oven for impoverished countries. The Awesome Foundation of Connecticut gave out the first grant and the Westport Sunrise Rotary Club, in combination with the Westport and Norwalk Rotary clubs, gave out the second.

3D printers abounded. Not only were there entry-level 3D printers in abundance, but some midrange Stratasys printers were on display in the Great Hall of the Westport Library, while Shapeways (a 3D printing service bureau) representatives demonstrated how items can be output in exotic materials such as stainless steel and porcelain.

While many of the makers emphasized technology, there were a couple of young girls who demonstrated how to make candies on a hot plate. Another maker used old comic books to make art. And still another maker demonstrated the art of violin making.

More than 40 students from Westport schools participated and students from at least five other school districts were showing off what they had made.

Dignitaries that attended the opening ceremonies included Congressman Jim Himes, Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, state Sen. John McKinney, and state Reps. Jonathan Steinberg and Gail Lavielle. They together delivered three proclamations and citations, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declaring Saturday as Maker Day in Connecticut and Joseloff declaring Saturday as Maker Day in Westport.

It's gratifying to see the interest in creativity and innovation are alive and well in Connecticut.

Editor's note: Mark Mathias is the founder and co-chairman of the Westport Mini Maker Faire.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 1 May 2013.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Computer Conundrum: Desktop, Laptop or Tablet?

When personal computers came out, there weren't too many choices. It would sit on a desk. Then came the portability of laptop computers, which gave people additional choices, albeit typically with less horsepower than a desktop computer.

Most recently, we've seen the advent of tablets, primarily in the form of the Apple iPad, although there are quite a few contenders.

I'm frequently asked: "What should I buy? A desktop, laptop or tablet computer?"

As with most difficult choices, there are no simple answers.

First, I use all three and typically carry both a laptop computer and a tablet with me when I am out of my office.

The quantity of desktop computers I use has diminished greatly over the years. But I find I still use them for functions that require significant amounts of CPU and disk space. For me, this means video editing. For others, this may be database work, large spreadsheets or other computationally intensive tasks.

Other functions of desktop computers include situations where you want to add multiple monitors, although most laptop computers nowadays come capable of supporting two monitors without adding anything other than a second monitor. Desktop computers also have more expansion slots in case you want to add additional ports, such as USB, FireWire, video or other components.

Furthermore, desktop computers still give you the most "bang for your buck" than laptop or tablet computers, meaning that if you don't need mobility, a desktop computer is your best value for your money.

Second, I think all three — and more — types of computers will continue to be prevalent. I've already mentioned how desktop computers are great for cost-effective computational power. Laptop computers provide great mobility with good horsepower. Tablets provide a very portable device, but are not yet ready for everyday use, especially in the area of content creation, such as reports and spreadsheets.

Third, there are even more platforms coming out. Smartphones are up-and-comers, and with a new category called "phablets" —   combination phone and tablet that is really a phone with a really big screen, especially those from Samsung —  he distinction between each type is blurring. And remember Dick Tracy's wrist radio that included a two-way video-calling feature? We're not far away from that.

The biggest challenge I see with the tablets, phablets and other similar devices is their lack of input device, aka a keyboard. And voice recognition is still a few years away. Almost all tablets allow the addition of a keyboard, but then the weight and size end up being close to that of a laptop computer.

But tablets have done an excellent job of making touchscreen interfaces real. We're also starting to see much of this touchscreen work its way back into systems such as Windows, with its Windows 8 operating system. Because Windows 8 is trying to help Windows compete with tablets, we're starting to see a number of laptop and desktop computers that have touch-sensitive screens and applications.

So, one day, I hope that when I travel, I will have fewer digital devices in my bag, but right now, I travel with a laptop computer, tablet and "phablet." The combined total weighs less than some of the early "portable" computers I had, so I'm glad for that, but my dream for a single, lightweight device continues to be a dream.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 1 May 2013.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When the Amazing Becomes 'Merely' Normal

When Orville and Wilbur Wright first flew an airplane, the idea of a man-made machine flying was amazing. Now, people take it for granted — and even complain about delays, lost luggage and bad — or no — food onboard.

I was driving my family to the airport recently. We knew the airline, flight number and gate, but not which terminal to go to. We literally spoke to our mobile phone and asked "What terminal at JFK is American Airlines flight 123 today?" The mobile phone responded with the correct terminal number. It was terminal 8.

How in the world does it do that? The technologist in me wants to know, but there's another part of me that just doesn't really know or care. I just know it happens, am amazed by it and now will be disappointed when I ask my phone any question that it can't answer.

Here are some other technological inventions or discoveries that have come along over the years that I see as being very important:

Fire: Before humans had fire, when it was dark or cold, life was much different. Staying warm and even eating food was very different.

Ships: When explorers started sailing the oceans, they started trading with foreign countries, which opened people's eyes to completely different other ways of life.

Electricity: The ability to power things like motors and light bulbs meant that labor didn't have to come from just people and horses and water.

Flight: Already dealt with that.

Automobile: The ability for individuals to travel long distances, commute to work and provide personal mobility is nothing short of amazing.

Television: The ability to see news, movies and entertainment without leaving your home also boggles the mind. While the announcement that television would help people to learn and travel virtually, I've been told that the most financially successful television program in history is "Baywatch," which became a global financial success.

Personal computers: Putting computational power into the hands of the masses has enabled people to do amazing things in business, arts and science. Personally, people now communicate in vastly different ways, specifically email and social media.

Internet: Connecting millions and millions of computers together globally has made the world a much more connected place.

Smartphones: Combining the power of a personal computer with the Internet with the ability to walk around and have the power of virtually unlimited knowledge and what's new with Kim Kardashian is truly astonishing.

And with each of these amazing technologies, we all just now accept them. They're part of our lives and we expect them to be available. Generally, we can't even imagine our lives without these technologies. Even going on a trip without them can be uncomfortable for many people.

Each form of technology essentially "raises the bar" and, hopefully, makes our lives better. I certainly can't think of any of the above technologies I'd like to be without for any substantial period of time.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 17 April 2013.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Theme Parks are High-Tech Fantasylands

Theme parks have always been hotbeds of leading-edge technology. I remember growing up in southern California, not far from Disneyland, and marveling at the technology that we would see whenever we would go there.
Beyond the roller coasters, two that I remember from years ago include the videophone (now commonplace, but seemingly space age for decades) and the flying saucers, essentially bumper cars that floated magically on a cushion of air.
During the February school break, I had the pleasure of going with my family to the resorts in Orlando, Florida, for a few days.
Of course, the theme parks never disappoint, and Disney was at the top of the heap in terms of WOW! technology, two of which I will describe here.
First, Disney has changed the way one gains park entrance. Instead of relying on just tickets and/or magnetic stripes, they are using biometrics. Essentially, the first time you go through the turnstile, you have to register your Disney ticket card that has an RFID (radio-frequency ID) chip in it and put your index finger on a small glowing pad.
On subsequent days and at different parks, you simply wave your card over the RFID reader, then place your index finger on the pad, a green light glows and you're in the park.
Of course, all of the machines and readers have a very space-agey look and an appropriate amount of glowing to make them quite cool.
I did notice that both my wife and I had to register using our fingers, as did our 15-year-old daughter, but not my 8-year-old son. Clearly, there are some regulations about ages of children and what biometrics are allowed to be recorded.
I sometimes wonder why these technologies are enabled. I didn't see that they necessarily sped up getting into the parks, but I can imagine that they prevent people from giving their park passes to others.
All in all, the new ticketing system worked well. There were plenty of Disney people around helping those who had difficulties and to answer questions, but the lines moved smoothly.
Second, I was very impressed with some of the live-action video technology we saw at the Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo attractions. What looked like a digitally animated cartoon was, in fact, live action. Each show was customized with the characters on the screen interacting with people in the audience, using their names, describing their outfits.
Clearly, there was someone who was talking while the animation was being created in real time. I understand how it works, but haven't yet figured out how it would be done.
But that is one of the reasons why I like to go to theme parks. I like to see the new technologies. For my kids, they just want to get splashed on a roller coaster. Works for us all.
Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 3 April 2013.