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You can stay on top of breaking news involving UMBC’s information systems and technologies by following us on Twitter @umbchelpdesk.  From security alerts to system outages and restorations, @umbchelpdesk will keep you informed about what’s going on, as it happens!

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JamieUMBC Joins The MyUMBC Development Team!

The MyUMBC team is Collier Jones, Bradley Tinney, Billy Schneider, Kevin Somers, and now – me!

As many of you know, I’m fortunate enough to be a staffer at UMBC’s Department of Information Technology. And many of the folks at DoIT know that I like to write stuff, as evidenced by this blog. Now, in a wonderful synergy of two things that I love (technology and writing), I have been asked to assist the awesome team that works behind the scenes to make the magic that is MyUMBC.

Now, if you remember an earlier post of mine, you know that I’m not nearly smart enough to do what the MyUMBC team does on a daily basis. Fortunately, I’m not being asked to do any of the heavy lifting (read: coding). What I’ll be doing is writing about all of the nifty and useful things that are happening with MyUMBC, and helping the UMBC community to get the most out of the great tools they’ll find there. It sounds like I’ll be having a lot of fun, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Last week I had my first meeting with team leader and coder extraordinaire Collier Jones, and as he gave my a quick tour around the beta version of MyUMBC, I just couldn’t believe how great it looked. The Events area, for example, is designed with many clever tools and yet is is so easy to use, I find it hard to imagine how much work must have gone into making it happen. If you’d like to have a look yourself, here it is. Or, you can just admire this screenshot:

So now I get to both enjoy our new tech tools and write about them, too.

Sweet.

The Speed Camara Conundrum

Speed cameras are once again in the news as State Senator Jim Brochin wants to curtail their use in inactive construction zones, probably after having read a story in the Baltimore Sun that credited 8,800 tickets to the cameras over a six-week period on three stretches of highway marked as work zones.

As a driver who often struggles to stay within the posted limits, I have no love for devices that promise to surreptitiously expose and punish my bad driving habits. However, as someone who believes in the principle of a society based on the rule of law, I have a difficult time defending my right to evade detection.

Yes, I realize that they’re probably just cash cows for local governments, disguised as traffic safety devices, but if they’re generating a lot of money, that means that there are a lot of scofflaws out there, myself included. If I accept the argument that the ability to evade the law is not a right, if I accept the premise that law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to enforce the law, then I must also find my distaste for the cameras problematic, especially in light of the 12mph “grace zone” granted by the devices.

At the end of the day, to argue against speed cameras is to argue for speeding. Speeding causes accidents by reducing the amount of time a driver has to react to changing situations; speeding makes accidents worse by increasing the velocity of the collision. Therefore, it would be lunacy to be consciously supportive of a behavior that can only be viewed as potentially destructive.

There are positive aspects to speed cameras as well. Speed cameras allow police officers to be somewhere else, doing something more important that hiding in the bushes alongside a highway. It would also stand to reason that they’re also probably conditioning drivers to obey the posted speed limits.

Some call the cameras an unreasonable invasion of privacy, but I don’t buy that. If I’m operating as a government-licensed driver, in my government-licensed vehicle on a government-maintained road, where can be my expectation of privacy? Did I not surrender that when I agreed to be subject to government oversight in exchange for the privilege to operate a motor vehicle publicly?

And what about police cameras aimed at street corners where drug-trafficking is known to exist? If those are a good idea, why not speed cameras?

Conservatives contend that the devices are just a sneaky way for tax-and-spend liberals to take and spend more of our money. Perhaps, but bear in mind that those contributing their money have at their disposal an easy way to opt-out: stop speeding.

Does all this logic make me feel better about speed cameras? No. Do I now welcome a proliferation of cameras everywhere, as a low-cost, convenient way to promote law abidance? Unequivocally not. Am I left feeling more comfortable with an increasingly intrusive government? Quite the contrary.

What I’m left with is that uneasy “Big Brother Is Watching You” feeling, but without any way to protest rationally. I know there’s something in all this that’s not right, but I don’t know what.

And it’s that intellectual impotence that bothers me the most.

MHEC Ruling On UMUC Program Must Be Reversed

Last October, the Maryland Higher Education Commission ruled that University of Maryland University College‘s online doctoral program in community college administration was a duplication of Morgan State‘s face-to-face program and thus a violation of civil rights protections in place for historically black colleges. As a result, UMUC is now prohibited from offering the course in Maryland, although curiously, it can offer the course in the other 49 states.

The MHEC‘s misguided ruling reflects not a bias toward Morgan State as much as it reflects the age of the members of the Commission, with the only member of the Commission younger than 45 being the student representative. The delivery system for higher education in America is being rapidly altered by existing and emerging technologies, and these changes require a modern, more nuanced way of thinking about universities, what they offer and how they serve the needs of the community. I have firsthand knowledge of this, being enrolled in UMBC’s online Instructional Systems Development program.

To anyone paying attention, it is clear that various forms of distance learning will play an increasing role in the delivery system of the nation’s colleges. As this occurs, there will necessarily be overlap with some traditional programs. However, it is a mistake to treat online courses as if they were classroom courses for the purpose of excluding them. We should be encouraging the development of parallel online courses, not shutting them down. And giving Morgan State, a university with limited online experience, two years to create something from nothing, is at best a weak nod in the direction of distance learning.

What the commissioners may not understand is that UMUC’s program isn’t competing with Morgan State’s – it’s competing with other online programs across the country. The MHEC’s decision presupposes that the market served by Morgan State, traditional students available for attendance in a classroom, is the same group of people targeted by UMUC’s online program. Clearly, this is not the case. Online learners are almost always working adults seeking to fulfill their educational requirements while maintaining job, family and other commitments (like me).

The good news is that the university system’s Board of Regents is unwilling to surrender so easily, and will ask the Commission to reconsider. From the Sun article:

“The decision completely ignores a stated priority in the 2009 Maryland State Plan for Higher Education,” wrote Board of Regents Chairman Clifford Kendall in a letter to the commission. “The State Plan supports access to degrees through online programs in order to meet ‘the needs of a largely working, adult population who require a flexible schedule.’ This decision sets a potentially debilitating precedent that will discourage universities from doing the very thing that MHEC’s state plan charges them to do.”

Demonstrating his antiquated view of the situation, MHEC Chairman Kevin O’Keefe said, “I remain convinced that this was an isolated issue.” Even more depressing is O’Keefe’s belief that there will not be a “…strong sentiment among the majority of our members that we should reconsider the issue.”

Perhaps it is asking too much of this particular group of individuals to free themselves of a lifetime of assumptions about higher education and the way this product is delivered to its market. Too often, membership on the MHEC is a reward for a career of service to the community and while this may seem noble, it deprives the commission of the benefit of fresh thinking and new ideas. It may be that the only way for Maryland to become a leader in e-Learning, m-Learning and other non-traditional delivery systems is to replace (or supplement) the existing members of the MHEC with individuals who are not so tied to the past. I just hope that by the time this happens, national leadership in higher education hasn’t fallen too far from our grasp.

Remastered Beatles CDs Totally Worth It

So, here I am, almost 40 years into my obsession with the Fab Four, getting to know the band as if it were for the first time – and loving it.

For Christmas this year, I received the Beatles Remastered Stereo Box Set. The set includes 13 remastered Beatles’ CDs, plus Past Masters, a collection of Beatles’ singles and other recordings that were never included on their LPs. It also contains a DVD documentary on the making of each Beatles’ album.

Listening to the remastered discs is somewhat like discovering the Beatles all over again. The new clarity of these recordings peels back the layers of each track and allows the listener to hear each instrument and vocal part individually. I’m hearing instruments that I never knew were there, because on previous releases everything just blended together.

For example, Paul doesn’t use his bass guitar on “I Will,” he sings each note instead. For all these years, I had no idea, but with the use of earphones, I heard it distinctly (and then did internet research to confirm my discovery). Crazy.

Having gone through the discs once, here are some things this experienced Beatles connoisseur discovered:

In Glass Onion, John sings “here’s another place you can go – where everything froze.” I had always thought it was grows.

During a rest in Don’t Pass Me By, Ringo gives himself an audible eight count.

Another lyrical correction from Happiness Is A Warm Gun: “…lying with his eyes while his hands were busy working overtime.” I had it as flying.

Also in Happiness Is A Warm Gun, in the line “…down to the bitch that I left uptown,” I thought it was just John double-tracked, but now I hear someone else singing backing vocal, too.

Paul shouting “wooo…” and “come on…” in the background of Birthday is much more noticeable.

In Yer Blues, “…girl you know the reason why” is not just John double-tracked, someone echoes John in the background. Other unidentifiable background shouting. There’s also a overlaying of two different lead guitar solos in this song.

The background laughter, talk & shouting is much clearer on “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey” and “Helter Skelter.”

The end of “Long, Long, Long” is really eerie.

There are strange sounds on bass side early in “Cry Baby Cry.”

The voices and sounds in “Revolution 9” are much more easily distinguished.

The use of echo on Sgt. Pepper is much more obvious.

Ringo plays maracas on a lot of Beatles songs.

I became aware of the use of drumsticks as a percussion instrument on “Do You Want To Know A Secret?”

Ringo’s overdubbed Arabian drum accents are easily noticed on “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You.”

McCartney’s walking bass on “Honey Don’t” really comes through.

I’m sorry, John, but it sounds even more like “I Buried Paul” on Strawberry Fields Forever now.

“Baby You’re A Rich Man” is a lot of fun to listen to.

Someone says something at :22 of “All You Need Is Love.” I could make out the word “change.”

Listening to George Martin’s film score from Yellow Submarine really brought back memories. I had forgotten how beautiful “Pepperland” is.

Everything about the “Let It Be” album sounds better remastered. The ever-present studio chatter is much clearer – for example, after “Dig A Pony” (one of the rooftop numbers), Lennon can be easily heard saying “My hand’s getting hurt…too cold to play a chord.”

When I was copying the Past Masters CD to iTunes, for some reasons, the titles of disc 2 were imported in Japanese. Strange.

A final note: the DVD documentary is only about 40 minutes long, but it’s very well done. It covers the making of each Beatles album and includes the recollections of John, Paul, George, Ringo and George Martin. It’s stylishly produced, and interesting to watch.

So, now I’m heading back for more doses of Fab Four. You should, too. After all, a splendid time is guaranteed for all. And on this promise, the Beatles always deliver.

I’m a Mac; No, I’m a PC; No, Wait…

The Help Desk gets phone calls occasionally from Mac users, and this is an area where I have little practical experience. So, last week, hoping to make myself a more well-rounded Help Desk Support Staffer, I acquired my first Mac.

My first assignment was to do a clean install of the new Snow Leopard operating system. I’ve done hundreds of operating system installs in my life from Windows 95 to Linux Fedora 12, so I figured that installing a Mac OS from a disk would be no big deal. I was wrong. The entire process, from the keyboard shortcut that enables the Mac to boot from disk, to the not-very-intuitive partitioning process, was so alien to me that I ended up having someone from Desktop Support just do it for me. Linux looked much easier to install, and that’s saying something.

Once the OS was installed, then I had to download a few updates and reboot a couple of times. The Mac’s reboot process was fast, so this ended up being no big deal. Next, I installed Microsoft Office for Mac 2008, which took almost as long as did the OS install. After that was done, I set up Apple Mail, which was easy, since the icon (a postage stamp with an Eagle on it) is on the Dock at the bottom of the screen, and the two or three settings are the same as in any other mail client. Finally, I was ready to use my Mac.

Almost all of the work I do is through systems that are accessed by a web browser, in this case Apple’s Safari, which reminded me a bit of the Google Chrome browser I had been happily using on my PC. Safari is fast and has the thumbnail collage view of recently visited pages and bookmarks that I’d come to rely on in Chrome.

I quickly discovered that Internet Explorer keyboard shortcuts mean nothing in Safari; in Safari, F5=Command+R, for example. Also, when a word is misspelled, I was used to using my right-click function to access the auto-correct; in Macville, this is done by Ctrl+left-click. This is where I made a neat discovery, which was that the Mac/Safari tricks worked on Chrome! One thing I don’t like about Safari (or Firefox for that matter), is that the address in the address bar doesn’t highlight with just one click. This means that if I want to enter a new address, I have to drag the cursor across the address; if the address if terribly long, this might require multiple attempts. (In Chrome, the address bar doubles as a Google search bar, too.)

I haven’t had to use Word for Mac much, but so far, I’m not impressed. At first glance, almost all of the radio buttons I’d come to depend on in the Windows version is gone. After a little exploration, it looks like the functionality is there, but it’s just inconvenient to access. Perhaps after I get used to it, I’ll find that it’s no different, but for right now, it’s awkward.

I really like Apple Mail. It’s easy to use, it highlights messages that are associated with each other (Re: ‘s) and when you send a message, it makes a cool “whoosh” sound. When a message arrives, there’s an audible alert and a number (representing unread messages) appears over the postage stamp icon.

Another big plus with the iMac is the coolness factor. When you hide a window, the window seems to be vacuumed into the dock, where a tiny image of the window remains visible. Also the screen is bigger and brighter than my PC’s, with a built-in webcam that takes still photographs with a pre-installed program. The dashboard (represented by the black circle icon second from the left of the dock) is a neat feature, especially if you find yourself using the calculator a lot.

Clicking the dock icon makes the dashboard appear; clicking anywhere outside of one of the four apps makes it vanish.

The mouse is a bit strange. It feels small, and not having a right-click button takes some getting used to. The keyboard I am not in love with. It’s like an abbreviated version of a normal keyboard, and most notably lacks the numeric keypad that I’ve grown dependent on.

One thing that is very nice about the Mac is that there’s no tower for me to knock my knees against. Everything is self-contained behind the monitor, including the CD drive, and the only cords leaving my desk area are the power cord and the ethernet cable, which means there is very little wasted space.

So far, I really like the iMac, although some things have to be relearned and will take some getting used to. Of course, I wonder if I like it so much that I’d be willing to spend an extra $700 on it in the real world. Probably not, but that’s one of the perks of working in IT, right?

I’m also wondering whether, as a Mac user, I’m required to grow a “cool-guy” half beard, like Justin Long.

Justin Long - He's a Mac