Operating System

Welcome Class of 2021!

We at IT User Services would like to extend a warm welcome to all new and returning students!

As you learn and re-learn your way around campus your first month back, many of you will become acquainted with the technology and resources available to UMass students.

We at IT are here to enable your success by making technology the last thing on your mind while you make a home here at UMass, and begin or resume your studies. If you need us (or rather, when), we will be there to answer your questions, remove your malware, and fix your computer. The Help Center, the campus mothership for tech support, is located in room A109 of the Lederle Graduate Research Center (the cream-colored low-rise located across the street from the Northeast Residential Area). The Help Center is open from 8:30AM to 4:45PM Monday through Friday. We have extended service hours at the Technical Support desk in the Learning Commons. Our consultants are available for assistance there as late as midnight, depending on Library hours.

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Fitbit, Machine Learning, and Sleep Optimization

Photo: Fitbit Blog

My big present for Christmas this year was a Fitbit Charge 2. I’d wanted one for a while, but not for anything Fitness related. While I do like to keep track of my active lifestyle choices, I didn’t desire one with fitness in mind at all. My model Fitbit’s key feature (the reason I ditched my reliable $10 Casio watch for it) is its heart rate monitor. The monitor on my Charge 2 takes the form of two green, rapidly flashing LED lights. Visually and technically, it’s similar to the light you may be familiar with seeing underneath an optical mouse. Instead of tracking motion, though, this light’s reflection keeps track of the subtle changes in my skin’s color as blood pumps in and drains from my capillaries. It sends the data on time between color changes to my phone, which sends the information through a proprietary algorithm to determine my heart rate. Other algorithms take into account my average heart rate and my lowest heart rate to calculate my resting heart rate (55).

But in the end, these are all just numbers. Some people (like me) just like having this data, but what can you actually do with it? Well, the Fitbit has another interesting feature. It uses your heart rate and motion information to determine when you’ve fallen asleep, when you’ve woken up, and whether you’re sleeping deeply or restlessly. I can check my phone every morning for a graphical representation of my sleep from the previous night, and determine how well I slept, how long I slept, and how my sleep fits in with my desired regular schedule (11:45 to 7:45). Kind of cool, right?

With a new market emphasis on machine learning, and sleep researchers making strides in answering fundamental questions, things are about to get a lot cooler.

Everybody has experienced miraculous three-hour slumbers that leave them feeling like they slept a full night, and heartbreaking ten-hour naps that make them question whether they slept at all. Although most of us consider those simple anomalies, scientists have caught on, and are actively studying this phenomenon. From what I’ve gleaned online, scientists that study sleep find that allowing a sleeping subject to complete REM cycles (lasting about 90 minutes, with variation) results in fuller and more restoring sleep. In other words, 7 hours and 30 minutes can result in a better sleep than a full 8 hours. It sounds like quackery, but the evidence is widely available, peer-reviewed, and convincing to the layperson.

Machine learning has been a buzzword for at least the past year. The concept itself is worthy of an entire post, but to summarize it for my purposes, it’s a broad term that refers to programming algorithms that adjust their behavior based on data input. For example, programs that predict what a customer wants to buy will show ads to that customer on a variety of platforms and decide where to show those ads more often, based on how much time the customer spends on each platform. Machine learning is essentially automating programs to use big data to improve their predictive or deductive capabilities.

Let’s bring this all together for a look into the future: If my Fitbit can keep track of my heartbeat to a precise enough degree to determine when I am in REM sleep — or can use an intelligent, learning-capable algorithm to set alarms that give me an optimal amount of sleep — I can have a personalized, automatic alarm that adapts to my habits and improves my quality of rest. Would that convince you to buy one?

Operating System

Technological Divergence

xkcd Phone 4 [Credit:]

In 2012, I was a believer in technological convergence. I believed that by the year 2020, we would be doing everything with our phones. After all, what was one to think as the smartphone swallowed the planner, the agenda, the calculator and the mp3 player? Who could deny the convenience of carrying around in your pocket the functionality of an office’s worth of word-processors, cabinets, spreadsheets and calculators; a library’s worth of books? This phenomenon is called technological convergence, and it’s been pointed to ever since cable companies started bundling television and phone services. Retroactively, though, it can be used to describe something as (relatively) simple as the Swiss-army knife. All it describes is when a single device provides two or more services/functions previously provided by different devices. Like when the spork deftly adapted the stabbing functionality of the fork with the shoveling functionality of the spoon.

Image result for sporkGenius.

In 2015, I received a gift that changed my mind.

The Kindle Paperwhite is a modest piece of technology. It’s a small, flattish rectangle with one button on the bottom, next to the charging port, and a small matte screen. It sports no headphone jack, no speakers, and its screen displays in basic black and white. It uses a capacitive touch screen that’s sometimes slow to respond, and it often has to flash the screen on and off between pages to clean its e-paper slate. It cannot play video, and it renders images poorly. That said, it does its job expertly.

The purpose of the Kindle Paperwhite is to store and read ebooks. It accomplishes that with more features than I even knew to ask for. It can hold thousands of books. Its non-irritating backlight can be fine-tuned perfectly to your reading environment. It comes pre-loaded with an Oxford English and Oxford American dictionary, and allows you to define words by pressing on them, then automatically saves those words to flashcard decks for study. Oh, and its battery life is measurable in weeks.

While I’m happy to expound the benefits of Amazon’s Kindle line, the point is that reading a book on a computer screen, or on a smartphone is tedious and irritating. My Kindle can’t do everything — far from it — but it can do what it does better than anything else.

This realization opened my eyes: the world is full of devices and softwares that do what they do best: Desktops for gaming, Laptops for portable work, tablets for natural note-taking… Maybe the way forward isn’t necessarily in packing the most features possible into a single product, but in perfecting those features where they work best in new, innovative ways. I’m not advocating we decouple the cell phone and the calculator anytime soon; I just suggest that next time you’re looking to buy a product, rather than considering the range of features, you take a moment to consider quality over quantity.

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Working towards Perfect Information in the Digital Age

Voting with your dollar has been an idea since the earliest days of economic theory. It goes like this: In the absence of government intervention, ethical standards will be upheld by consumers, who will — being moral people — refuse to buy from companies that violate what they see as important rules and standards of ethical conduct.

As great as this idea sounds, for most of human history, it’s been a bit of a fantasy. After all, who but the most devoted of humanitarians with the most leisure time would take the time to research and evaluate every one of the companies they patronize? Like everyone interested in technology, you’re probably looking at this problem and wondering… Isn’t there an app for that? The answer is YES ( there IS an app for that. Multiple, in fact, but Buycott is my favorite. They crowd-source everything, and create a collaborative knowledge database on companies both in America and abroad, noting everything from corporate family trees to campaign donations.

Here’s how it works: You create an account, and the app immediately prompts you to choose from a number of causes that you feel strongly about. Be that GMO labeling or Female empowerment in developing countries, or even acceptance of Bitcoin, you can probably find a campaign that suits your interests. The idea is that you select support for multiple campaigns, then use the in-app barcode scanner to check items you plan to buy, and see how the companies you support stack up to your dearly held beliefs. If they don’t (which is a probability if you’re like me and buy a lot of cheap products from large, monolithic corporations), the campaign suggests an ideology-safe alternative.

Can’t find a cause you’re looking for? Make your own! All campaigns are user-generated and user-maintained, and on the off-chance you scan a product Buycott hasn’t yet heard of, it prompts you through a simple module to enter it into their database for the benefit of other users.

Never before has voting with your dollar and living according to your beliefs been so easy. Through technology, Buycott has created a community of consumers, dedicated to giving the buyer more bargaining power to engage in activism without giving up quality of life. As technology advances and people become more open to the idea of sharing their thoughts and activities with the world, we can move closer and closer towards a perfect market, in which all parties to an exchange know of alternatives, of each party’s activities, and of the moral character of those with whom we trade, and make redundant the clunky regulation of government intervention.


PS: There’s also a Chrome Extension