Cool Techs



I have been thoroughly enjoying the past several days as every day from Saturday we have had a UConn team advance forward in the NCAA Basketball. UConn men’s win yesterday was fantastic and totally unpredicted. They outsmarted some of the best teams along the way and proved that height alone cannot win games. Looking forward to the UConn women’s game tonight.

I don’t have to tell you how mad the “March Madness” has been. As of last Sunday, only 1,780 brackets remain which correctly predicted a Kentucky v UConn finals. Wait, that many predicted this final? These folks must not know basketball or must have been in some unseemly state to have chosen these two teams. I resisted the temptations to make choices this year. I watched only a few critical match ups in NCAA Men’s basketball during the year. Was way too busy watching all the rest of the stuff on TV.

As a surprise gift, we got to see a cricket finals on ESPN2 on Sunday! It was a shortened version of a cricket match which is immensely popular now, called T20. India played Sri Lanka for the title. India played poorly and the Sri Lankans won the title for the first time. It was great to see Sri Lanka win (how can I be disappointed by my birth country winning) because this was the last game for some of the fantastic, gentlemanly players in the team.

Whether it is the replays during the basketball games or cricket, cool technologies are being developed all around us, many of them, every day. It is becoming so hard to keep up. In fact many of them seem to just come and go. As we are launching the major facilities renovation at Wellesley, we are rethinking classroom spaces and some of the newer technologies that we are looking at are really exciting. The vendors remind me that interactive displays that we are excited about is no longer “new”. They have been in the market for over 5 years and are very prevalent in K-12 space. Why do I have to be constantly reminded that Higher ed is slow to adopt newer technologies?

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NERCOMP 2014 Annual Conference

nercomp I attended the NERCOMP annual conference from 3/24 till 3/26. It is one of my favorite gatherings (Newly constituted NERCOMP band that you see in the image entertained us). This year, we had record attendance of 725.  We had two highly entertaining keynotes – one by Jeff Borden from Pearson and the other by Bryan Alexander from NITLE. Jeff talked about the connection between neuroscience, learning  design and educational technology and how we can learn from brain research and psychology and use the emerging technologies to deliver better learner experience. Through a simple exercise of asking us all to get up and stand on one leg with arms spread, he proved that a whole bunch of us were drunk at 10 AM. There may be some truth to it! You can see a conversation with Jeff here. Bryan laid out various trends in technology and higher education nicely and made it a point to remind the audience that predictions by humans generally are worse than those based on throwing of darts or, plain random predictions. You can see a conversation with him after his talk here.

The big question in the minds of most of us in the audience is “This all sounds great and we are on board. But, whats next? How do we bring along the others such as the faculty, students and the administration to buy into all of this?”.

I sampled several very informative sessions. The session on flipping the classroom by Thomas Menella (Baypath College) was very good and you can access his presentation material here.  If you are interested, please watch the Prezi presentation which provides in great detail what Thomas does for the class. It was funny to hear him describe how they have mock trials about DNA mutation. Students are grouped together – for, against and a jury – to decide whether the DNA is guilty or innocent of mutation (or at least that is how I understood it). I was not there for the student presentations, but based on the tweets that I saw, looks like they really learned a lot from this.

Of course, we all tweeted a lot and you can see them here.  If you are interested seeing all of mine, click here.

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Metrics are useful, but…

I am at the San Francisco Airport waiting to board a red-eye back to Boston after two days at Google for a gathering of colleagues from a few other Higher Ed organizations and K-12 school districts. I love visiting Google. Unfortunately, I cannot openly discuss everything that was part of the meeting.

I have been thinking a lot about metrics. Thanks to technology, we have tremendous amount of data. Some are clean and some are not. The balance of good to bad data depends a lot on the institution, its commitment to collecting and keeping the data clean, so on and so forth. Many institutions use them for comparison purposes, either to show the trends within the institution (faculty/administrative staff ratio over the past ten years) or with their peers. I am sure that a lot of thought goes into these metrics, but some of them tend to fall in the category of “they are doing it, so we must”.

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Modular Design

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 7.31.17 AMWhat you see here is the percentage of users of various age groups that use social media from Pew Research Internet Project. For more detailed data on social networking, click here. I have been fortunate to have been a participant of the Internet from very early on. Many of us in Higher Ed would relate to this because we were the first ones to experience it before it was opened up to everyone in early ’90s. In the same fashion, out of my own curiosity, I have been active in social media fairly early on. I am not sure about you, but every morning, when I get up, the first things I check are my social media applications such as Twitter and Facebook before checking my email. I have a careful subselection of everyone I follow on Twitter whose posts I value the most and this provides me such a lot of useful information every morning. While I sleep, they have done the work of scanning the world events and post information that I am most interested. It is like reading a newspaper. Similarly, I get a lot more information on Facebook about friends and family than through emails. The use of social networking tools has been on the rise as you see from the graph. Email, while its use has not declined  as much as one would think, serves a whole different purpose. This is where I get most of the professional communications, be it work related or from colleagues from other institutions.

I am a big fan of modular design and reusable “things”.  From Wikipedia – “Modular design, or “modularity in design”, is an approach that subdivides a system into smaller parts (modules or skids) that can be independently created and then used in different systems to drive multiple functionalities.” The general idea of looking at a problem and breaking it into smaller and reusable parts doesn’t come naturally to everyone. However, I am a big fan of this methodology and practice this as much as possible. When I was doing my Masters in Chemistry in India, I took a class in Group Theory taught by a fantastic teacher – Prof. P. T. Manoharan. It turns out that Group theory is very handy in understanding symmetries and vibrations in molecules. One of the things we learn there is the concept of “Irreducible Representations”. In simple terms, these are the representations that cannot be broken down further. All other ‘representations’ can be constructed from these. Obviously, this is like modularity somewhat and my fascination for this began in 1977 in my Group Theory class. I believe that this has wired my brain to think the modular way!

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Technology Imbalance

20140217_081311-SNOWI just came back from a road trip from our home in CT to Las Vegas. My son moved there and he needed a car so I drove with him. It was a great trip. My wife and I did an unforgettable road trip in 1984 from NY City to LA and back. The route that my son and I took to get to Vegas had a lot in common with the route that my wife and I took coming back east in 1984. The variation in the landscape from Ohio to Nevada is amazing. The most breathtaking part for me is always the transition from Colorado to Utah to Arizona and Nevada. Whereas the time scale in which the nature changes is many orders of magnitudes slower, the technology around it is changing rapidly. But then, technology is not changing as rapidly in certain places, even in this country, one of the most advanced ones in the world!

We left right after the big snow storm last thursday and the roads were pretty bad in CT as well as most of NY. Weather prediction technologies have become fairly sophisticated and we knew with fair certainty when the snow will end, so we could plan accordingly. The very first talk I gave in this country was a required  talk for all PhD students in Chemistry. The subject of the talk is required to be not directly related to Chemistry. Because of my interests in computational methods, I chose the topic of weather modeling. The models that I spoke about at that time were being developed in National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In simple terms, it involves solving complex differential equations and evaluating predictive values using advanced numerical methods. This requires prior values of many variables, dividing up the atmosphere into cubes and solving the equations within the cubes. Of course, you have to make sure that the values at the edges of the cubes are within the margin or error. Humongous number of calculations were done using the supercomputers (probably slower than the most powerful PCs of today) available then. Of course, the weather accuracy depended on how good the prior values are (these were reported by various weather stations) and how small a cube is. The smaller the cubes are, the better the accuracy can be, but it requires exponentially more computing power. Anyways, before I get carried away too much – even the simplest model in 1978/1979 required so much computer time that the predictions arrived 5 days after the weather had passed. Look where the technology has taken us now!

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When it snows…

20140205_134925I am sure you are tuned into the news about statue of the near-naked sleepwalker on the Munger Green. Sunday’s Superbowl XLVIII was a blowout and the half time show resulted in its own controversy about the fact that the Red Hot Chili Peppers really did not play live, but were accompanied by recordings of instruments. I loved a few of the commercials and suggested that they should have run them more during the second half because that would have been more fun than the game itself!

Now it is time to concentrate on NCAA basketball. I had good luck with calling the Superbowl outcome and I am wondering whether that luck will continue with NCAA bracket. I am looking to win $1 billion by getting every winner in the bracket right. And no, that won’t make me retire because I love what I do!

My introduction to the first major snow storm was in early 1979. I remember venturing out in the snow and trying to take the subway to Manhattan. I was bored in the apartment and wanted to get to school and do some work. That was how bored I was! But, the normal 10 minute walk from the apartment to the subway turned into a disaster, because, in 10 minutes I barely went to the end of my street because nothing had been cleaned. What a different world it has become now!


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Happy Birthday Mac!


Happy Birthday Mac! Hard to believe that 30 years have gone by and the genius of the folks, headed by Steve Jobs, that resulted in a computer for the masses, has withstood the brutal technology landscape for so long. Many of the original ideas with respect to the interfaces still remain, giving a sense of familiarity that people crave for, while the underlying software has gone through enormous changes. The Macs, like all other computing devices, has gotten much faster and is able to do a lot more, but life’s simple pleasures such as ⌘Q still remain. I thoroughly miss Hypercard. I loved it and drove my officemate nuts by making Apple read the text in HyperCard, using MacinTalk, I think. Oh, those good old days!

I was listening to an NPR story on this today, I was amazed at the creativity of the group that designed the first Mac. “A self educated dropout, someone in the middle of an MD-Phd program,  musicians, an archaeologist, and an artist” who formed the initial team that designed the Mac. Of course, the result shows that this was indeed a brilliant idea. Leave it to the techies and you will get Alt-CTRL-Del!

I have been fortunate to have participated in the evolution of the Macs since its existence. Since I worked in computational chemistry, we had plenty of chances to dabble in new technologies. Initially we used it for writing papers, but soon it became evident that it had enough compute power and a version of Basic programming language that allowed us to visualize small molecules. Soon  after several programs emerged such as ChemDraw, that allowed you to draw and rotate small molecules with ease. This was extremely useful.


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Neutral to a Biased Net

IT Leaders I saw this image posted by someone I follow on Google Plus and I love it. It captures the perception of various people on what you do and in reality what you actually do! I saw something similar posted to our LTS discussion group about Librarians, which was very funny too.

OK, let us get down to the topic at hand. What is net neutrality? This definition by Wikipedia captures it well “Net neutrality (also network neutrality or Internet neutrality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.” Makes sense, right? It turns out to be not so and the Internet Service Providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have been fighting this in the courts. Net neutrality suffered a big blow recently when a court struck down this on technicality.

I am not a lawyer, so I don’t necessarily understand the intricacies of the difference, but as you see in this Time magazine article, “The groundwork for Tuesday’s defeat was established in 2002, when the FCC made the fateful decision to classify broadband as an “information service” not a “telecommunications service,” which would have allowed the agency to impose “common carrier” regulations prohibiting discrimination by the broadband companies.”

Bottom line – your ISPs will soon have a lot of control over what content and how it is delivered to you and you won’t have a say on it except to choose the best available option, which may not be necessarily the one you are so used to. You can read this article for “What the Internet could Look Like without Net Neutrality”

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What is in store for us in 2014?

We enjoyed the holiday break and I hope you all did too. We have been spared the wrath of Hercules in central CT. As far as I can tell, we got about 3 inches of snow, however, it is supposed to be bone chilling cold. Boston area seems to be affected more significantly and the College is closed for the day.

Though weekends, end of the month and beginning of a year are all totally arbitrary, we have grown accustomed to them and live with the cycles and in some cases the hype that comes with them. In that spirit, I have been following the various technology predictions for 2014. “2014: The Year That Puts the Nail in Desktop’s Coffin“, “Eric Schmidt’s 2014 predictions: big genomics and smartphones everywhere“, “Top Technology Trends for 2014” and “Cybersecurity Will Get More Complex in 2014” are a few that are worth a quick read. The problem with all of these is that no one bothers to measure these predictions at the end of the year to identify who has been a reliable predictor so far. In fact, in the second one regarding Eric Schmidt, the author notes correctly “It’s worth noting that Schmidt has a shaky track record on predictions.” It is the case that these trends have significant implications for libraries, but you would be hard pressed to find direct predictions for libraries!

Many of these predictions are relevant to businesses to prepare to maximize their profits and based on “consumer” behavior. Whereas we all have a “consumer” persona when we make purchasing decisions in our personal lives, it is a bit different when it comes to the use of technologies at the College. Primarily, the “consumer” options don’t always work well for what one needs to get done as a faculty, staff or a student. Whereas all the buzz about mobile phones and tablets is exciting and these devices are great for information consumption or even reading (for those who can like e-books), you can’t write a paper on them or solve a math problem or even run many of the academic software that you need to run. Of course, for the advanced users, there are apps that solve every one of these, but they are not convenient or efficient. Though it is extremely important to be tuned into these trends because our future students will be arriving on campus as users of some of these trendy technologies and we need to be prepared to support them.

A more relevant prediction for us is from New Media Consortium’s Horizon report.  For 2014, they have identified what is going to be featured in the report and we will closely follow how it develops.

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Happy Holidays!



I had a couple of pretty busy weeks. I traveled to Washington DC for a gathering of fellow CIOs from merged IT-Library organizations. Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) had organized this and a few of us from small liberal arts colleges gathered to discuss organizational makeup, challenges now and going forward. It was a very useful exercise and we all had a great time. There were the usual mixture of agreements and disagreements. My flights were delayed in both directions, which was annoying, but I think this has become the norm. Talking about delays being the norm, it happened again with my doctor who I went to see my physical. He is such a nice person that it didn’t matter much.

The MOOC controversy continues – “After Setbacks, Online Courses are Rethought” and “Speaking Up for the Creditless MOOC” are worthy of reading if you are interested. Wellesley’s first MOOC,  ”Introduction to Human Evolution” by Adam van Arsdale, will be wrapping up shortly and there has been a constant flow of rave reviews about the course from the students in this class.

I completed my third MOOC – “Introduction to Biology – Secret of Life” taught by Eric Lander. As I have written before, I learned so much in the class and I thoroughly enjoyed it though it was a hard class. I have signed up for my next class “Relativity and Astrophysics” which is slated to begin in February. I am looking forward to it.

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