Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Mind Mapping Daylight Savings Time

Monday evening, I had the opportunity to talk to a group of fellow IT professionals at the Waterloo-Wellington IT Professional User Group about using mind mapping software for IT management tasks. Ruth Morton, IT Pro Advisor with Microsoft Canada, wrote about the presentation on the IT Managers Connection blog.

During the presentation, we did a brainstorming session to illustrate the utility of mind mapping software to quickly capture ideas in a group setting and to then organize those ideas into a form ready for further research and investigation. The group chose the perfect subject for IT pros - the implementation of the new daylight savings time seasonal extension on operating systems and application software platforms.

I took a blog entry from another Microsoft IT Pro Advisor, Rick Claus, who was in turn forwarding information from another Microsoft Canada Technical Account Manager, Pierre Roman, with the latter's gathered wisdom about DST, and mapped it. The result is shown in the accompanying map. Unfortunately, much of the functionality of the map is entirely hidden here, such as the hyperlinks to the relevant Microsoft knowledgebase articles or the text notes which automatically popup when you hover your mouse over the topic.

Blog entries like this can only tease the reader into investigating mind mapping further. They can't come close to illustrating the amazing richness of the feature set. To do that adequately, the user would have to download the map as well as a free viewer (Mindjet's viewer can be downloaded here). I hope to have this particular mind map available online soon to share with other IT professionals (until then, if you would like a copy, email me privately and I'll forward a zipped copy of the file).

In my view, there is absolutely no other software category that comes close to mind mapping for presenting information in a "big picture" context. The reader of a mind map automatically gets a sense of the relationships of ideas and concepts.

But it is in generating ideas, collaborating with others, editing and rearranging, and linking concepts and ideas that mind mapping truly shines.

Daylight savings time is meant to save energy on the macro level. Mind mapping does that on a micro level; but it does so much more. Finally, it appears that the world of software is catching on. Do a simply Google search on "mind mapping software" and it will quickly become apparent that the category is exploding in interest and products available. MindManager Pro 6 (from MindJet), iMindMap, NovaMind, Visual Mind, MindMapper, MindGenius, BrainMine - these are only some of the products now available. If you want a blog dedicated just to mind mapping software, you can do no better than Chuck Frey's The Mind Mapping Software Weblog.

Save your time. Save your energy. Try mind mapping.

Hands In My Pocket

Jim Guthrie wrote a very catchy ditty for Capital One's marketing campaign for Canadian TV. You can listen to an extended version on YouTube that has nothing whatsoever to do with the marketing campaign. TrendHunter online magazine also has a decent article about the genesis and rationale for the ad campaign. Whatever the merits of the campaign or the music, the jingle embeds itself like a virus in your subconscious.

But what got me thinking about the jingle this week - apart from watching too much TV of course - was receipt in the mail of the prize I won from Podtech for a blog writing contest on why I needed more computer storage. The prize was a Seagate 8 GB pocket drive.

What a slick, well-designed, and useful device! 8 GB in my pocket!

Once I told a few friends at work about the prize, it was a no-brainer that I'd have to make sure there weren't any hands creeping into my pockets to steal this little baby. Perhaps I should have kept it a secret. It looks good and it works even better.

In my part-time custom application development business, I often have to transfer large files back and forth, files too large for email and sometimes too large even for FTP site transfers. Now with the Seagate pocket drive, those files can be safely copied in a matter of moments. True, I have to visit my customer to do this, but that is something I need to do anyway in order to discuss enhancements and upgrades. Where physical copying of files is a likelihood or necessity, the pocket drive is the best solution I've seen yet. No power cords, no clunky external drives requiring special software to install on the client computers, just a USB hide-away connector.

File transfer and backup is really only the start to this device's usefulness. What really sold me was the ability to install applications on the pocket drive while connected to a thin-client notebook (the Neoware m100). I did a minimal install of Microsoft Office 2003 and was very pleased to see that the performance was very good. The Neoware m100 is designed for mobile thin-client computing, which means that unless there is a wired or wireless network readily available, the device cannot be used for always-ready applications. But with the pocket drive, the mobile thin-client can be used in a similar fashion to an everyday notebook computer, without the attendant problems of malware protection, data theft, etc. True, you have to protect the pocket drive, but the device comes with software which does exactly that.

I suppose in another few years I'll look back and think "how quaint" just as I do now nostalgically recalling my very first 5MB removable hard drive I had for the original IBM PC in 1985. Ah, good time...good times! But for now, it's cool, very cool!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Thin-Client Computing on the Move

Neoware is making it possible to have the security and ease-of-use of thin-client computing on a mobile platform. The recently released m100 looks like any other notebook computer except for a couple things. There is no hard drive and no CD-ROM - just a keyboard and screen, a Windows XPe operating system, and some management utilities. If a road warrior loses the m100 or if it's stolen, the only true loss is the price of the unit. There is no exposure of sensitive data. True, without Ethernet wired or wireless connectivity, the unit isn't useable for word processing, spreadsheets, databases, or anything else that might be possible with a standard notebook computer or tablet PC. But more needs to be said, I think.

I couldn't get over how simple it was to get the unit configured for use - 10 minutes from opening the carton containing the unit, it was ready for use on our corporate network, both wired and wirelessly. After taking the unit home in the evening, it took only a few minutes to configure the WEP key, connect the Windows Media Player to an online jazz station and connect through Remote Desktop to our corporate network.

Security is unparalleled. IT management couldn't be simpler. No viruses to worry about, no worms, no rootkits - no malware period! No moving parts to malfunction. It couldn't be quieter (except when Windows Media Player is running, of course). A VPN client can be installed if necessary, but everything else is ready to go right out of the box. No training required since almost everyone using units like this will already be acquainted with Windows XP.

But should you need to take some notes when no connectivity or VPN access is available, there is still Notepad. If you want to take along some music, photographs, or videos with you while on the road, there is still USB connectivity. If you want to read PDF files (or books, for that matter), Adobe Reader is already installed and ready to go. In my test, for instance, I connected a 1GB memory stick that contained an entire set of IT manager-related documents from Tech Republic in PDF format. No problem! In additionn, while that smart stick was still connected in one of the five, count 'em, five USB ports, I connected my 8GB Seagate pocket drive and accessed JPG and HTML files. I could just as easily have watched a movie or two.

There are audio in and out jacks, a modem port, 6 hours of battery life, a port for an external monitor, 2 stereo speakers, and one PCMCIA type II slot. The modem port is old school, to be sure; it would have been much cooler if bluetooth or infrared ports were available to use along with a Smart Phone or phone-enabled Pocket PC for those rare occasions when you need connectivity but no Ethernet networks are available. But overall, if you don't need always-ready, always-available applications and data, this sweet little unit provides almost all you need while on the road.

In the office, especially offices with wireless connectivity available, it gets even better. You can easily take the unit with you to conference rooms or meeting rooms or a colleague's office, take notes, use all the server-provisioned applications available, work online or anything else that you would do while tethered to the desk in your office.

But most importantly, if you want to make your IT staff happy - and who wouldn't? - consider mobile thin-client computing...please! (This entry, including saving a copy of the photo above, was all done on the m100)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Spam that kills

If you get spam, you've probably received some, perhaps many, of these spam messages before. They purport that you are eligible for an inheritance transfer. Most of the time, the message indicates that your name was part of a search linking you somehow to the person who died. Again, most of the time, there is no apparent rationale for the linkage apart from the claim of the spam artist sending the email. So, you simply hit the delete key and move on, no matter how many millions of dollars are supposedly available in the "dormant" account of the deceased person.

But what if you received a message about an inheritance transfer that said your brother or sister had passed away and that you are named in the will? Would it be as easy to hit the delete key, especially if you live in another part of the world and haven't seen or spoken to your relative in a few months or years? What if the person named didn't have a will - and you happen to know this as well - and that you were discovered in a last name search? What if your name is uncommon and the person named as the deceased does have the same first name as a close relative? What if the email doesn't make extravagant claims about $30,000,000 million in American funds? What if it doesn't even mention the amount available, but instead simply suggests that a certain percentage will go towards legal costs in securing the inheritance for you?

You've probably already figured out that this sounds a lot like the Nigerian 419 spam. But this one comes from England or some other part of the world.

The variations on this spam/scam are endless. Unfortunately, it's becoming more sophisticated all the time. The particular example I'm giving came to me from a colleague at work who life was put into temporary turmoil because he did, indeed, have a brother whom he hadn't seen for a while and who might possibly have died.

It was probably only a coincidence. His brother is alive and well. It was probably only a case of a generic Nigerian 419 spam email message that just happened to have more plausibility that other variants. But in his case, we're talking about spam that kills your brother and then asks if you want part of the inheritance. It can't get much worse than that.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

SWAG meister

One of the nicknames I have at work is "the Don Meister". All it means, of course, is Don, the Master. One can hope it's used affectionately to denote the one with the the keys to information technology heaven and hell, a kind of St. Peter ordinaire, not at the pearly gates, but at the gateway to that awesome computer screen phenomenon of "hey, that was easy!"

But being associated with the computer industry now for over 20 years, I've come to appreciate being a meister of SWAG - sometimes known as "Stuff We All Get". SWAG is promotional items that you get from companies or organizations by virtue of participating in a seminar, a course, a conference, or some other kind of event. Over the years, I've done fairly well. Not all SWAG is received by everyone, of course. Very often, it's the result of a draw.

What have I won? A notebook computer, a keyboard, a few backpacks or tote bags, toques, T-shirts, sweatshirts, paper weights, squeeze balls, pens, pencils, notepads, USB memory sticks, external storage devices, even blankets. Spread out over 20 years, it hardly seems noticeable, but when you take stock and itemize the collection, you realize just how much has actually come your way by participating in promotional and training events. In the last month, for instance, I have won prizes from Podtech (sponsored by Seagate) and another from Microsoft Canada. Nothing worth gloating about, but certainly bright spots on cold winter days when the sun might not be shining.

Some SWAG I've received has come to me by virtue of being an employee. Pano Cap has given me T-shirts and lunch bags, for example.

Sometimes SWAG is controversial. Some companies require that all employees ensure gifts they receive from suppliers and partners are under a certain monetary value (I'm assuming that doesn't include prizes won in a draw). Some bloggers (people like Robert Scoble, for instance) get so much SWAG that they make a point of publicly declaring everything that comes their way, whether they accept it or not.

But most of the time for most of us, SWAG is not too controversial. It's just a pleasant, occasional aspect of being part of a professional community, a member of an association, or an employee of a company.