Friday, November 30, 2012

We Are the Miracles Other People are Praying For, or, Thoughts from the data recovery trenches

Recently (OK, it was at 4 a.m. today, so I was a little punchy after a lot of hard work) I had the transformative experience of being an agent for good for a change. A friend of mine, a woman in her late 80s who is, shall we say, not a "digital native," had managed to overwrite not only her life history in Microsoft Word but also the backup file. When I say "overwrite" I mean that she had probably pressed Ctrl+A followed by spacebar, thus converting 400-odd pages of carefully wordsmithed prose into a single space character. If she had pressed Ctrl+Z (Undo) at that point, or if she had closed the file without saving, I wouldn't have anything to blog about today. However, what she did was to save the file under its existing file name. Ulp. Then, 9 minutes later, apparently seized with panic, she saved the file again, thus destroying the automatic backup copy. Double ulp.

There is plenty of "undeletion" software to recover deleted files. Undeletion is simple, since the metadata (file name, time, date, etc.) are not destroyed. Unfortunately, that's not the situation I faced. When my friend saved her file under its existing name, all the metadata were transferred to the new file, and the old data were left in a state of limbo, drifting aimlessly in the hard disk's hundreds of gigabytes of unallocated space. To recover data from the unallocated space, one needs special "carver" software (I used Photorec) and a lot of patience.

When I first spoke to my friend yesterday, she was distraught and was relying on me to do something. The most recent partial backups I could locate were way too old to be useful, and though she had some hard copies, they were out of date and would have required many hours of painful retyping at a minimum. So, when I informed her today that I had, indeed, managed to recover something that looked very much like her 414-page memoir data file, she was in tears. From her point of view, it was a miracle!

Most people wouldn't call it a miracle. I knew exactly what I had done, and it wasn't rocket science. True, sending the hard drive out to a data recovery service might have cost a lot of money, but no single step had been particularly difficult or had required anything outside my skill set.

Then it hit me . . . just because I didn't think it was a miracle doesn't mean it wasn't a miracle. From my elderly friend's point of view, it most certainly was a miracle. I felt privileged and deeply humbled to have been placed in the right place at the right time to engineer her miracle.

And when a natural disaster hits people elsewhere in the world, or a personal crisis hits someone we know, we may find ourselves in a position of being able to answer their prayers.

We are the miracles that other people are praying for!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Everything We Need to Know about Millennials, or, "My unscientific rant on an entire generation"

Millennials tend to be

1. Not alert
2. Bite-sized, with everything at arm’s length
3. Addicted to context switching (do NOT say multitasking)
4. Largely lacking in curiosity
5. Deficient in written and oral communication skills

1. It’s not that Millennials have an attention deficit disorder or are incapable of paying attention. They pay close attention to live sporting events, for example. The problem is that the “Tivo culture” has trained them that almost nothing is worth paying attention to. Anything significant will be stored, archived, and endlessly replayed for them, so why bother paying attention the first time?

2. Millennials have little or no interest in anything “long-form.” YouTube videos are popular only if they are short. Movies are watched in snippets. Audio files are heard in snippets. Scripted TV shows (with plot, a narrative arc, a beginning, a middle, and an end) are of waning interest. Articles are usually read in snippets--rarely finished before being interrupted by a hyperlink jump or a distraction. “In-depth research” refers to anything beyond the first page of a Google hit list, and there is no point in trying to think of different search criteria; whatever one comes up with initially is probably good enough. Books are largely irrelevant, not because they are lacking in content, but mainly because it is not possible to copy-and-paste from a book. Most Millennials, if forced to attend a one-hour performance of a symphony (or even a rock opera) would feel compelled to tweet or text about the experience while it was happening--they couldn’t simply experience it. By the way, the arm’s-length approach to everything explains why texting is vastly more popular than chatting on the phone. Live, real-time interaction with a real human being takes one’s full attention if done properly, and who wants to be that involved? This leads to #3.

3. Ample experimental evidence exists to say that cognitive multitasking by humans is impossible. We have only one cognitive center. We can do multiple activities simultaneously (e.g., walking, breathing, and chewing gum) only when there are different regions of the brain responsible for those activities. Since there is only one cognitive center, we cannot engage in higher-order thinking about more than one thing at a time. Teenagers are better and faster at cycling their attention rapidly among activities (i.e., context switching) than adults are, but they are not actually multitasking. Context switching is less efficient than single-tasking and leads to less deep thought. Context switching while doing homework (e.g., IMing friends or Facebooking) ensures that homework is a superficial, chore-type activity, not something that has one’s full attention and engagement.

4. How does a CD player work? Answer: Nobody cares, we’ll buy a new one if it breaks.
How does a microwave oven work? Answer: You punch some buttons, and the food gets warmer.
How does a cell phone work? Answer: You talk into it, and people on the other end can hear you. But why talk? Texting is easier.
How does a PC work? Answer: You click on stuff. If that doesn’t work, double-click. Sometimes things go bad. When that happens, buy a new PC (or better yet, a Mac).
How did the Romans manage to engineer and build tunnels, bridges, roads, and aqueducts without modern earth-moving machinery or computers? Answer: It doesn’t matter, since we have all that stuff now. Besides, the Romans like went extinct like, what, a hundred years ago?

5. Written communication with Millennials is an acquired taste. Millennials, having been raised on texting, tend to avoid subject lines, capitalization, punctuation, honorifics, salutations, proper grammar, or closings and signatures. A minority of them can spell the word “tomorrow” correctly. Since IMs, texts, and e-mails are as numerous as the grains of sand on the beach, there is no need to obsess or worry about the wording of any message considered in isolation, or even to respond if one doesn’t feel like it. As for oral communication, many Millennials say “like” almost constantly. (Like, every third or fourth word.)

Good things about Millennials
There are also many good things about Millennials! Here is my list. Millennials tend to be . . .

- very trusting
- trustworthy
- opposed to smoking
- opposed to (or, more correctly, bewildered by) bigotry against gay people
- entrepreneurial
- much less car-oriented than previous generations
- somewhat more international and interethnic in their choice of friends
- open, not hypocritical (though sometimes they share too much!)
- less cynical, perhaps, than the Xers and the Boomers
- not bogged down by rules of etiquette or convention, since new conventions are being created all the time

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Highly recommended reading: "Stop Stealing Dreams"

Maybe you have already heard the buzz about Seth Godin's massive education-reform manifesto. Maybe you haven't. Either way, you really ought to read the entire thing. Here's the link:

The only comment I can think of, off the top of my head, to add to Godin's magnum opus would be something like this:

134. Maybe it's because my first career was in business, not education, but this needs to be shouted: STUDENTS' TIME HAS A DOLLAR VALUE, TOO. IT'S NOT ONLY THE LABOR HOURS OF TEACHERS THAT COST MONEY. A school that organizes time and schedules for the convenience of adults and treats kids as if they should sit around, bored, most of the time . . . is a school that has no business surviving in the 21st century. Just as no businessperson would travel to a conference halfway across the country that consisted of nothing but non-interactive, large-group lectures, we shouldn't ask children to spend their precious time on this earth in so unproductive a venture. Seth Godin says that the original purpose of schools was to create compliant masses for the industrial economy and the consumer economy, and he says they did a reasonably good job of it. I disagree. Old-style schools do not breed compliance, they breed boredom and lethargy. They breed workers who think it's OK to loaf all day on the job, since they have been loafing from the ages of 6 through 18 in the public school system.

Germany has one of the most productive economies on earth, and Germans take five weeks or more of vacation per year. Americans are lucky to get a week or two. We Americans loaf in school, then scramble to make money by logging more hours on the job. If we worked harder in school, we could work smarter (not harder) in the workplace and have a much better quality of life. And maybe better beer, too.

I'm not saying that high-tech should replace schools. Far from it! I'm saying that education always has been, or at least should have been, a HIGH-TOUCH operation. Kids need lots of care and attention to grow up, and we should use all the high-tech tools we can possibly get our hands on to provide them with that HIGH-TOUCH personal care and attention, not factory-style instruction.