Category Archives: Technology

How a computer works – Security Now

sn1400I’ve spent most of my lifetime fascinated by the fact that my computers work at all.  I have often told the story of the day I was able to get my first program to run and how that day competes for the title of the “greatest day of my life.”  Certainly, the wedding and the birth of the children win, but it’s a close follow-up.

I’m a subscriber to several podcasts from the Twit network (Leo Laporte), but my favorite is the geekiest of that network, Steve Gibson’s Security Now.  I’m not a security expert, but a wanna-be.  I’ve listened to the podcast since its earliest days (started in its first couple years but not first episode).  I’m not a die-hard fan who’s listened to every one of them, but probably half or so over the last 12 years.

During this weeks episode, Steve answered a listener’s question about what which episodes should a new listener go back and listen to since there’s almost no conceivable way to go back a listen to all of them.  Steve recommended a series he did back in 2010 over how a computer works.  I’ve started listening and he’s a done a great job taking me through the very basics up through the core components of a modern computer.  Even though he starts with resistors and transistors and how they are used to make basic logic gates, the core concepts are actually still very much the same.

It’s a nice follow-up to the book I read earlier this year by Stephen Levy called Hackers which documented much of the early history of the modern computer era.  I would actually recommend both.  Here’s where you’ll find the complete archive of Steve Gibson’s Security Now podcast, and here are the specific episodes he recommended.  Be aware that he spends roughly the first half of each episode reviewing security news.  I enjoyed the walk down memory lane.  It was also fun to recall where I was and what I was doing back when these episodes were first recorded (e.g., associate dean, pre-VC director phase of my career, planning first ever Spring Research Day at Wayland, kids were 9-6-4, Lori was at the VC as an instructional designer)

Security Now Episode Archive

Episode 233: Let’s Design a Computer (mp3)
Episode 235: Machine Language (mp3)
Episode 237: Indirection: The Power of Pointers (mp3)
Episode 239: Stacks, Registers, and Recursion
Episode 241: Hardware Interrupts
Episode 247: The “Multi”-verse
Episode 250: Operating Systems
Episode 252: RISC-y Business
Episode 254: What We’ll Do for Speed

And here’s a bonus episode from that time frame that ranks as one of my favorites of all time: Episode 248 – The Portable Dog Killer

My First Program from 1987

Back in 2010, I posted a brief story about one of the highlights of my childhood, the first time I was able to get a program to successfully compile and run on my Apple IIe clone, the Laser 128.

Here’s the tale again:

I was subscribed to a children’s magazine called “3-2-1 Contact” and in the back of every issue were a couple of programs in BASIC (as in the BASIC programming language). I can still vividly remember one of the most exciting and exhilarating moments of my childhood, perhaps of my whole life. The moment came after seemingly endless hours of trying to get the very first program to run. I knew nothing about how I was supposed to type it in, whether punctuation or case had anything to do with the code, whether the line number needed to be typed and I definitely had no idea what the code meant. Yet, I tried and I tried and I tried until finally, after pressing the “Enter” key at the “RUN PROGRAM”, something happened. Something beautiful. Something amazing. Something that made me jump up and down, hoot and holler, clap and do a little jig. Okay, specifically what happened was so basic and ordinary that no one but I would be impressed. It was the fact that it ran that made me so happy. The program just drew a multicolored box around the edge of the screen and then criss-crossed a multicolored “x” on the screen. It repeatedly drew the box and the x over and over again. It was essentially the most boring screensaver you could imagine. But, the code I entered ran. Brilliant! Genius! I still feel the excitement in my gut when I think about that moment.

from Chasing Rabbits in Stat Class (June 17, 2010)

So, today I was finally able to find the original code by digging around on the web.  I can’t believe I actually found a scanned image of the page from the back of the magazine, but here it is:


And then, thanks to Joshua Bell, I was able to use an “Applesoft BASIC in JavaScript” utility to re-create that experience again:

Here’s the code to copy and paste if you want to try it out yourself:

20 COLOR=1
30 FOR S = 0 TO 39
40 VLIN O,39 AT S
60 FOR S = 0 TO 39
70 COLOR = INT(RND(1)*232+1)
80 PLOT 0,S: PLOT S,S: PLOT S,0: PLOT 39,S: PLOT S,39: PLOT 39-S,S: PLOT S,39-S
85 FOR T=0 TO 100: M=T+100: NEXT T
100 GOTO 30

Note that I added line 85 just to slow down the rendering on the page.

Are you ready to see that amazing graphic that I created?  Again, let me just say that the moment this finally ran, I freaked out with excitement.  It was only after hours, if not days of trying to get that code entered correctly.  Seeing it again didn’t quite recreate that feeling, but I’m still feeling pretty proud of myself for being able to recreate the graphic from 1987.

Get “Things” for Free (An Excellent To-Do list app)

2014-11-21_9-33-48Before I moved all my action items to Trello, the “Things” app was my favorite To-Do list for getting things done (‪#‎GTD‬). It’s free this week if you want to try it out. I think they have separate apps for iPhone and iPad, so if you have both you might go ahead and get it now to try out later.

Remember, if you get a free app, it’s yours for good, even if they raise the price again later. So you could get it this week, then delete, but re-install it anytime in the future for free.

Apple is giving App Store customers something to be thankful for as its offering Things as its free App of the Week.


9 Essential Settings for the Teacher’s iPad

When using your iPad to teach, particularly in the one-iPad classroom, you can run into a few frustrations with the technology. In spite of all the exciting new features you bring to the classroom with the iPad, there are also some headaches that come along with it.

Here are some of the settings that our teachers have discovered and implemented to help to alleviate many of those frustrations.

1. Use Side Switch to Lock Rotation

Tap the Settings icon on your home screen and go to the General tab. You can configure the side switch to either “Lock Rotation” or “Mute.” It is recommended that you change the default from “Mute” to “Lock Rotation.” This way you can switch from portrait to landscape mode when you move from one app to another, but while in the app, you can quickly lock the orientation.

Continue reading 9 Essential Settings for the Teacher’s iPad

A Kindle for all Seasons

image About three weeks ago, I splurged and ordered myself a Kindle 2.  I had bounced back and forth between wanting one and not but finally convinced myself that it was time to add another gadget to my repertoire.  And let me say, I love it!!  To alleviate any guilt over spending that kind of cash on another gadget, I replaced my personal laptop with it and I haven’t regretted that decision for even a minute.

Here’s a short summary of what I’m using it for these days.

  1. Reading Books. 
    Duh! I know.  Who would’ve of thought that an ebook reader would work so well for reading books?  I’ve been impressed with just how easy it is on the eyes.  The font size is easily adjustable and there are times when I fill the page with tiny text and times when it is more comfortable on the eyes to have a large print. 

    The first book I read was “A Study In Scarlet” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, first of his Sherlock Holmes novels.  As a huge fan of House (the medical drama on Fox starring Hugh Laurie), I have been intrigued by the incredible similarities between the characters of House/Holmes and Wilson/Watson.  Plus, with the new Sherlock Holmes flick at the movies, I felt it was time to brush up. 

    The best thing about starting with these books is that they are all free!There are a huge number of public domain classics that you can put on your kindle for free and with the Whispernet service included in the Kindle, you don’t even have to plug it into the computer.

    For the record, I have actually purchased two books so far for the Kindle.  The first was “The Complete User’s Guide To the Amazing Amazon Kindle 2: Tips, Tricks, & Links To Unlock Cool Features & Save You Hundreds on Kindle Content (#1 Guide to the Kindle US & Global)” by  Stephen Windwalker.  The second was a Bible (which I’ll go into in more detail later).

  2. Lecture Notes. 
    I’ve begun using the Kindle for my lecture notes in all of my courses that I teach.  This was the deciding factor when wavering on whether to buy the Kindle or not.  I was fortunate enough to have a friendly neighbor lend me their Kindle so I could test out the PDF rendering.  Scanning my hand written and occasionally typed up lecture notes is a breeze with the copier at my office.  Once converted to pdf, I just move the files over via USB and the Kindle 2 natively renders the pdf.  As long as I’m careful to scan with the darkness turned all the way up, they are perfectly readable.  It’s extremely convenient to only have to bring my thin little gadget to class in lieu of the 1.5” binder.  Plus, it remembers where I left off.
  3. Daily Bible Reading
    Thanks to a free but awesome piece of software called Calibre, I have a daily bible reading downloaded from  I’ve not missed a day since I bought the Kindle.  I’m well into Exodus and wrapping up Matthew.
  4. News
    Using the same software, I can also have a USA today news feed prepared daily for my Kindle.  You can subscribe to newspapers and magazines through the Kindle store at Amazon, but cheapskate that I am, I have found a nearly as good solution for free.  Calibre has recipes built-in for several news sources including NYT, WSJ, USA Today and many, many more.  I do have to manually plug in my Kindle each morning to move these “subscriptions” over but the minor inconvenience easily outweighs the cost of these subscriptions on Amazon, in my opinion.
  5. Bible
    At first, I did not plan on putting the Bible on the Kindle.  However, the fact that I saw a friend using one in church combined with the fact that you can highlight and insert notes into the Kindle for any book convinced me to give it a try. I did some reading of reviews and found that the NASB by the Lockman Foundation is probably the best choice.  They were smart enough to include the book name with each chapter heading so that you can quickly look up a passage by just typing in the book name and chapter into the built-in search tool on the Kindle.
  6. Samples
    Just about every book in the Kindle Store at Amazon has a sample that you can have sent directly to your Kindle.  You can ready a chapter or two and see if the book is really something you are interested in.  You can shop for these books right on the Kindle or through the Amazon website.  When you click to send a sample, it shows up on the device within a matter of seconds.
  7. Checking Email/Facebook/Twitter
    The Whispernet service which delivers the books to the device is actually a data network just like I use on my Blackberry, only it’s free!!  I can log into my gmail, facebook, twitter, etc. and check all my stuff out from anywhere I have access to the the mobile network.  I’m pretty sure AT&T provides the service so if my Blackberry works, so does the Kindle.  It’s not a great browser and it’s relatively slow, but it’s still everywhere accessible and occasionally that comes in handy.

I’m aware that Apple’s probably about to announce the next big thing with its “iTablet” and I’m sure it will make a big impact on the world of ebook readers. And yet, I can’t imagine an Apple device that’s going to appeal to me in any way. I can guarantee it will be out of my price range.  I can guarantee that once I had it in my hands, I would be wishing it could run my windows stuff natively and that I could figure out how to get it to do what I want.  I’m not saying that Apple does things worse (or better) than Microsoft, but that I know how to do what I need to do and I don’t have the patience or the mental fortitude to balance my life between the Windows world at the office and an Apple world at home. 

Of course, the Kindle is not a device that runs Windows stuff natively but its niche doesn’t require it to.  If the iTable/iSlate or whatever it is going to be called, comes out and is basically an enhanced color ebook reader with awesome battery life and is in the neighborhood of $250 – $300, I will be totally bummed and will probably admit to having made a mistake in buying the Kindle.  Fortunately, that scenario is extremely doubtful.

In the end, I’m going to be very happy with my gadgetry for a good long while (at least 3 months, I’m sure).

Camtasia Screen Capture Problem Solved

image I was having a problem when using Camtasia Studio to do a screen capture of an algebra lecture.  On my laptop, the capture works just fine but on my desktop it was very jumpy.  For those who don’t know, I use a Wacom Tablet, Microsoft OneNote and Camtasia to produce a series of videos for our online Algebra sequence. 

Whenever I would begin recording, the system would slow down enough that the writing on the screen was broken and hard to read.  The sound capture was fine, it just seemed that the CPU was not able to keep up with capturing the video on the screen and allow me to write smoothly.  The laptop, where it works fine, is a faster processor but with the same amount of memory.  I’m not certain how the video adapters compare.

I first discovered the problem several months ago and had been switching back and forth ever since.  However, today I took initiative and attempt to solve the problem one more time and came across a tip I had not considered. 

The Solution that worked for me:  Reduce the color depth from 32 bit to 16 bit.  For the types of videos I am doing, that makes makes no discernible difference and now it is as smooth on my desktop as it is on my laptop.

Some other tips for increasing the capture rate were found here:

Here’s a short sample:

Merge Multiple Contacts in Gmail

An awesome new feature was recently announced by Google for the contact management tools in Gmail.  If you have multiple contact entries for the same individual in Gmail you can now easily merge them into one.


(From Lifehacker)

For example, if you’re staring in the face of numerous duplicate contacts that should represent the same person, the built-in contact merge feature in Google Contacts is a must. Just find the duplicate contacts, tick their checkboxes, and click "Merge these contacts…." Easy peasy. To manage your contacts, either head to the Contacts page in Gmail or to the unadvertised standalone site.

Gmail just keeps getting better.  I was back to using Outlook for long while until the Tasks feature was launched.  Now, all my email addresses are dumped into Gmail.  I don’t think I’m going back.

Oh, and thanks to the IMAP capabilities in Gmail, I have uploaded all my archived email into my Gmail account.  I can search my work emails dating all the way 2002. 

Oh, and I love the new Multiple Inboxes feature, as well.

Oh, and how about those themes?

You’ll find nothing but love for Google here…

How to not lose face on Facebook

image Be careful what you say.  You MUST assume EVERYONE is listening.

Every semester, I try to remember to convey this idea to my students in each of my classes.  Those that use online social networking tools like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc., must assume that when they put themselves out there, no matter where it is, anyone can see it.  I understand that most of them require you allowing people to view your page and follow your status updates, but there is very little guarantee that your information is going to be kept confidential.

I tell them to think of it this way: Imagine that you are applying for a position or even a promotion down the road.  Your boss sits down to a computer and “googles” your name.  What will they find about you and how will that affect their decision to hire or promote you?

As for a professor who also uses these tools, I have to be very careful.  I’ve set a policy for my blog that I will NOT discuss details about students in my current classes.  And later on, if I do decide to discuss specific students, I will NOT mention any incriminating information (without their full permission).

I was forwarded an interesting article regarding this very issue this morning (HT: Jay S.).  It is from the current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education and it is entitled, “How to Not Lose Face On Facebook, for Professors” by Jeffrey R. Young.

He makes some of the same points in this article but goes on say:

But Facebook, like e-mail, yields more pros than cons, so the trick is to learn to master it rather than ignore it. That’s according to Nicole B. Ellison, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, who spent the past three years researching student behavior on Facebook, and who uses it herself. "There’s tremendous potential with these social networks for developing relationships and being exposed to different perspectives," she says. They are particularly well suited to academic work, where researchers need to keep up with a number of far-flung colleagues.

I totally agree with this and have been absolutely blown away by my ability to keep up with our past graduates plus finding alums from years gone by.  It is an amazing tool for connecting with people.  And no, I haven’t begun soliciting donations from them just yet but you never know.

On a related note, I still a little creeped out by the idea of a professor, like me, requesting connection (“Adding as a friend”) from my current students.  If they request it from me, no problem, but the other way around just seems inappropriate.  Plus, the Provost of our University is on Facebook and I have yet to request his friendship on there just because I don’t necessarily want him to know that I’m updating my status 4 or 5 times a day during work hours.

What boundaries have you set or would you set on a professor using social networks like Facebook?

I take it back!

image So far since the beginning of the week , I have received no less than four messages claiming to have attachments that did not.  Within seconds of receiving them, a follow-up email arrives confessing the stupidity, idiocy, or moron-itude of the sender plus the previously promised attachment.  I point no fingers as I am as guilty in this matter as anyone else.

Worse yet are those “Reply-to-all” instead of “Reply” mistakes.  Even worse is the Reply instead of Forward to.  I recall one time receiving an answer to a question from the Facilities Manager here on campus (my land-lord, basically) which I did not like.  Instead of forwarding to my wife my response of “Ugh!”, I replied that back to him.  Nice move, Einstein.

So, here’s a recommendation to all you happy clickers that let the send button do the talking when you’re not quite ready:

Email Delivery Delay in Outlook 2003/2007:

This allows you to double check and re-think sending your email even after hitting the send button.  It causes your email be held for a specified number of minutes after hitting send.

  1. On the Tools menu, click Rules and Alerts, and then click New Rule.
  2. Select Start from a blank rule.
  3. In the Step 1: Select when messages should be checked box, click Check messages after sending, and then click Next.
  4. In the Step 1: Select condition(s) list, select any options you want, and then click Next.

    If you do not select any check boxes, a confirmation dialog box appears. Clicking Yes applies this rule to all messages you send.

  5. In the Step 1: Select action(s) list, select defer delivery by a number of minutes. Delivery can be delayed up to two hours.
  6. In the Step 2: Edit the rule description (click on an underlined value) box, click the underlined phrase a number of and enter the number of minutes you want messages held before sending.
  7. Click OK, and then click Next.
  8. Select any exceptions, and then click Next.
  9. In the Step 1: Specify a name for this rule box, type a name for the rule.
  10. Click Finish.

Forgotten Attachment Detector in Gmail

For Gmail there is an experimental feature that detects from the wording of your message that you intended to attach a file but did not.  It pops up a warning if it thinks you meant to attach something.

To enable this feature, go under the Google Labs section of the Settings page in Gmail.  Scroll down to “Forgotten Attachment Detector” and select Enable.  Then click “Save Changes” at the bottom.

I just turned it on for the first time and ran a few tests on the way I might say that I have an attachment.  For example:

  • I have attached a file” – works
  • see attached” – works
  • see attachment”- works
  • “Attachment” as subject line – did not work
  • Here is the file I mentioned” – did not work

Not bad.  It’s worth having running in the background.

Mail Goggles in Gmail

For those emails that you send late in the evening or over the weekend when your head isn’t in the right mindset to respond to some naysayer at work, wouldn’t be nice of something stopped before you vented all over them.  How about having to work out 5 arithmetic problems before you send? That would give you time to reconsider what you have written.

There’s another experimental feature in Gmail that does just that called Mail Goggles.  I don’t use this one but I’ve played with it.  You can control the difficulty and set a schedule for when this will interrupt your sending.


I have yet to discover a way to delay the delivery of an email sent through the Gmail web interface.  If anyone knows how, I’m certainly interested.