Tag Archives: communication

All Hail The Beneficent, Ubiquitous Keyboard

There’s a little sort of game going on in Facebook lately. Someone is challenged to list three things they’re thankful for for seven days, at the same time tagging a friend each day (or something like that) to do the same. I haven’t been asked to do it, and I have no plans of doing it either, as it just seems to spread out and broad to do justice to the recognition of those things we might be thankful for. Nevertheless, it does give me pause and I have been thinking about what I would say should I choose one or two specific things for which I’m thankful. There is one seemingly mundane thing that keeps popping into my head. My ability to type.

I can’t imagine how different my world would be if I had to use what an old girlfriend of mine called the “search and destroy” method of typing. Most people use the more pastoral term “hunt and peck”, but she spent several tours with the USO in Vietnam and her life was colored by her exposure to that war, the military, and her involvement in the movement to end it. If I were hampered by that inability, my social presence and my ability to communicate would be virtually non-existent.

I was fortunate. In Junior High School I took a typing class; instead of what I haven’t the faintest, but I recall it seeming to be the most useful option at the time. As a result, I learned to touch type. Later on, when I was in Law School, I secured a position as a legal secretary for a sole practitioner who did a lot of contract and property damage work for several of the largest car rental agencies in the country. We were very busy and my workload was challenging enough that my speed increased. I’ve never been as prolific as the best, but I was up to a little over 80 wpm, with few if any errors. That’s not quite as fast as the average person can speak, but it’s a respectable clip.

IBM Memory Typewriter

The IBM Memory Typewriter

The job turned out to be a major turning point in my life, as I was introduced to the early stages of office computing and word processing. We ended up getting an IBM Memory Typewriter, the one built on the correcting Selectric, but with a dial providing memory for 50 separate pages. We moved up shortly to an Artec Display 2000, which used two 8″ floppies and had a scrolling display of approximately 30 characters. I don’t remember if it was LED or LCD, but the characters were red. We used it for pleadings, and wills and trusts.

Back to typing speed and how critical it is to communication in today’s world. I don’t really have to imagine what it would be like, because I had an experience with a colleague that pointed it out rather clearly, though it took months for me to recognize what was happening. I was working with the Director of our newly formed Program Management Office at what was then the Rocketdyne Power & Propulsion business unit of The Boeing Company. We were at almost opposite ends of the main office building in Canoga Park and I was upstairs in what was called The Annex. The distance between his office and my cubesickle was around 400 yards; not a huge distance, but it took time to walk back and forth. Plus it meant passing through the Executive Office area and there were always distractions.

I can’t recall the exact dates, but it was very early in our use of Instant Messenger; so early that I had to point out its value, as most of the older staff (which meant all of the Executives) perceived it as only a toy their kids used to communicate with each other. I kept sending IMs to this Director, but he never answered them, nor did he respond in anything resembling a timely manner to emails, so I was forced to walk to his office repeatedly during the day.

It wasn’t until a couple of months had passed that I happened to be sitting with him in his office and he was answering an email. Watching him type . . . ever so slowly and painfully . . . made it clear why he never responded to me. He had to hunt anew for each letter and, with his two index fingers, peck them out in a long, excruciatingly difficult session. He clearly hated it. I know I was cringing as I watched. I never sent him an IM after that day.

I’m thinking the ability to type is one of those essential tools we seldom think about — perhaps take for granted — without which our world would be far less rich and fulfilling. I can type this post, tweet, post to Facebook, engage in lengthy, spirited debates with dozens of widely dispersed people, and participate in a plethora of other forms of communication or collaboration relatively easily, all because of my ability to type quickly and accurately. I imagine this is true for almost all, if not all, of my friends and acquaintances.

For this I am deeply thankful.


Making Contact

VVAW Button

An Honorable Organization of Good People

Since “announcing” my nascent book project the other day, I have communicated with four people who were part of the action back in the time I am writing about. One of them reached out and reminded me of some of the things we were involved in that had yet to cross my mind. Two of them I had been in touch with previously and they just happened to answer emails I sent out a couple of days ago. One I called today to give him a heads-up.

Of these four, two are Vietnam veterans; one an Army Engineer, the other an RTO with an Army LRRP team. They both played major roles in my life back then, as their opposition to the war they had fought in strengthened both my belief it was wrong and my resolve to do something to end it. I have a hard time putting into words just how much their friendship meant to me, but I’m going to try.

Right now I’m working on an Introduction; an attempt to explain what I want to accomplish in the body of the book. This is all kind of new to me. Not entirely, as I’ve had the honor and experience of working with a few other people (as an editor or proofreader) on books they’ve written. It’s just that I’ve never done the actual writing before and those books were business books (and a couple of Zombie Apocalypse novels). I’m hoping once I get going a lot of it will just come pouring out. Those were eventful times.


The Crowd, The Cloud, & Working Out Loud

A couple of years ago, in response to a request from the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce, I conducted (as I recall) twice-monthly seminars on the use of social media for small businesses. They were called “Facebook Fridays” and you’ll never guess what day of the week we held them on. They started out as presentations on various aspects of the technology and the philosophy behind their use. However, after a short while it became clear that people had lots of specific questions they wanted answered. In response, I changed the nature of what I did and started each session off by opening it up to questions.

It worked quite well for nearly a year but, toward the end, attendance dwindled and I grew somewhat weary of doing the necessary preparation and having to show up twice a month. The Chamber found someone else willing to continue the work and I moved on. By that time I was becoming disenchanted with the direction I had chosen to attempt building a useful business and was looking to other areas of endeavor as well.

Recently, I had lunch with the CEO of the Chamber and we decided it would be useful for me to bring back what I had done before, the difference being the subject matter would be a little less focused on marketing and a lot more focused on business model, business process, technology, and cultural transformation. Today was the first of what I hope will be many such events.

I used a vehicle I have not used before to conduct this 50 minute webinar – Google Hangouts on Air. I’m not sure it’s the best way to conduct something like this, but viewership is unlimited and the session is both recorded and automatically placed on my YouTube Channel. I’m embedding the session below. This really was somewhat of an experiment and the subject was quite broad. I’d love to get some feedback. Don’t be shy now.


It’s OK, Beth. We’ll Carry On From Here

Beth Thompson

Farewell, Beth. You touched a lot of lives and will be sorely missed

I posted the following on Facebook two days ago and I want to share it here as a tribute to my friend and former colleague:

I am beside myself with grief. A couple hours ago I received a message from a friend who wanted to confirm what he had heard – that our former colleague and good friend, Beth Thompson, had passed away. I started frantically contacting as many people as I could think of, all the while hoping it was just some stupid Internet screwup. It was not to be. Apparently, while preparing to leave for work this morning, Beth suffered a heart attack and passed.

Beth was one of my first friends when I joined the Program Office on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program at Rocketdyne. Her good humor and iconoclastic attitude helped me ease into the corporate world, a world I didn’t join until I was 40 years old, and was ill-suited for. Along with many others I’m proud and happy to still call good friends, Beth was family. I still have the card she picked out for me and had everyone sign when I left for what turned out to be a short stint back in my family’s business. That was about 17 or 18 years ago.

She moved up to the Seattle area with her husband, Paul, and their three children, where she continued to work for Boeing, one of several major players that passed Rocketdyne around like a financial hot potato. This is tough to digest. My kids have seen me cry for the first time in their memory. People who are younger than you aren’t supposed to die before you do. It’s just not right.

We hardly saw each other in the past few years, but we liked and commented on each other’s FB posts now and again. At least I knew she was there and I got to see a little bit of her life and happiness. That is now gone and my world is poorer for it. Goodbye, Beth. I love you and will always remember how you brightened my world and the world of so many others.


Universal Innovation

Sometimes, it seems like innovation is all anyone talks about. It’s been a really hot topic for the last five or six years; probably more. In the last two years before I left Rocketdyne — let’s see, that would have been from 2008 to 2010 — I participated in several innovation classes/exercises and, in fact, I setup the SharePoint collaborative spaces that were used by the teams in one of these exercises that were exploring different avenues for the company to invest in. I was also part of a team looking at one of the many technologies we were investigating at the time, and we even brought in a Professor from the USC Marshall School of Business to help us “learn” innovation.

I’m not going to get into my thoughts about what it takes to be innovative, or creative, but I just want to throw out this observation I’ve been mulling over for some time and see what others think about it. One of the things I think I’ve noticed is that almost everyone approaches innovation primarily as a way to come up with new products or services to sell. There seems to be what I think of as a blind spot when it comes to how we got things done, to our processes and procedures that are the backbone of our day-to-day activities. I’m also not confining the daily activities we might look at to businesses or governmental agencies and institutions either. I’m also thinking about things like mass public transportation and local traffic patterns and uses, our use of public facilities like parks and schools, the ways we approach (or choose to ignore) recycling, the value of our food and how we produce, distribute, and consume it – and on and on.

So here’s my big question for now. What if we started looking at enabling – empowering, if you will – everyone who was interested, to be involved in social and cultural innovation; in our continuous social and economic evolution . . . as citizens of our local municipalities, our neighborhoods, our nations, and even as inhabitants of the planet Earth, i.e. as a species? What if we came up with ways to encourage, communicate, evaluate, and pursue ideas that would improve – dramatically or otherwise – the lives of many people, perhaps everyone? Very public ways. What would that look like? How would we do it? What would be the biggest challenges? What infrastructure and social constructs are already in place to support such a thing?


Google Glass and ALS

It’s been said the eyes are windows to the soul, and most of us can recognize much from looking into another’s eyes. We can sometimes communicate intricate thoughts and feelings through our eyes. Imagine, though, they were your only window to the world; the only method by which you could communicate, with anyone. Further, what if you were in a position where it was nearly impossible for you to initiate a conversation and, therefore, unless you had a way to get someone’s attention, you had to wait for others to anticipate your needs? Worse yet, once anticipated, that other person would have to use a method requiring them to initiate nearly every aspect of the conversation.

This is precisely the situation for thousands of people suffering from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), MS (Multiple Sclerosis), TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), or any one of several other conditions that result in the inability to move and talk . . . or write . . . or use sign language.  All they can do is acknowledge your greetings or answer your questions with a wink, perhaps a nod. How would you communicate?

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet someone in that position. His name is Ismail Tsieprati, and he is one of the longest-surviving sufferers of ALS, having had the disease for thirty years. I first met Ismail’s caregiver and wife, Cheryl, at a local Chamber of Commerce networking breakfast. She had recently left a long-time position in corporate training and was looking to establish a web-based business as a training consultant. She asked if I could help her promote her business through social media, and also suggested she help turn some presentations I had done into webinars. I agreed, and we worked together for a short while. As life would have it, before we could finish she was offered a full-time position in corporate training, and I was coming to the painful realization I had been chasing a pot devoid of gold.

We trekked off on our separate trails, as casual business relationships often do, but we remained in occasional contact, through Facebook and comments Cheryl would make in response to one of my sporadic blog posts. One of the several projects I had been working on was editing and proofreading a book – Age of Context – authored by Shel Israel, a longtime author and tech journalist, and Robert Scoble, an authority on bleeding-edge technology and startups.

Toward the end of the project, I was given the opportunity to invite a number of friends to read an early, limited release of the book. In exchange, I asked them to provide an honest review on Amazon.com. Since Cheryl had been one of the people to occasionally comment on my blog, I thought of asking her to read and review the book. She was an excellent prospect because she is not a techie and readily admits to being somewhat befuddled with technology.

It turned out to be a good choice, in more ways than one. Cheryl was one of the few people, of the many to whom I sent a link to the early release, who took the time to write a review—a thoughtful, useful review at that—not merely a quick stab at providing an obligatory yay or nay. She also was hit between the eyes with some of the stuff she read about. Particularly relevant to her was Google Glass. Shel and Robert had devoted an entire chapter to it, and there were numerous references as well throughout the book. I’ll let her explain, in this excerpt from a chapter of the book about their 30-year journey with ALS she and Ismail are working on:

“The greatest fear for people living with ALS is there will be a day when they become “locked in” – so completely paralyzed in the late stages of the disease that even the simplest of muscle movements have been stolen from them and they will be unable to communicate in any way with the outside world.  Those who are “locked in” survive in complete isolation.  They can see and hear everything around them, comprehend everything, think complex thoughts, experience joy, sorrow, and pain, and yearn to communicate with their loved ones and caregivers – to express their feelings, their discomfort, and their desires, but they are hopelessly trapped inside their bodies with no way of communicating with anyone.  For Ismail and me, as well as for others with ALS and their families, overcoming communication barriers and fighting off the “locked in” syndrome is a lifelong battle; an absolutely essential one.  After all, Ismail loves to talk, and he has a lot to say.  He’s not going to let ALS or anything else shut him up!”

                            – Tears, Laughs, and Triumphs: A Thirty-Year Journey with ALS

What struck Cheryl was the knowledge that Glass could recognize eye movement. She was very excited about the possibility of making eyeglasses with eye gaze technology available to Ismail and people in similar situations. Current eye gaze augmentative communication technology involves much larger and more complex systems, which require careful placement and frequent adjustment. Cheryl wanted to talk about it, and I wanted to know more. We met for coffee and, after a bit of discussion, I told her I’d like to write about their situation. We decided I should meet Ismail to better understand his world and I was invited to their home.

Ismail and Stephen Hawking - August 14, 1992

Ismail Tsieprati with Stephen Hawking, Peninsula Hotel, Beverly Hills, California, August 14, 1992
Photo by Lynn Klein

I had mixed emotions about the upcoming meeting. I was to meet Ismail for the very first time, and I was somewhat nervous about the prospect. I had never met someone with ALS, and mostly knew about it through the story of baseball legend Lou Gehrig and one of my favorite theoretical physicists, Steven Hawking.

Cheryl had invited me to lunch. After meeting Ismail and talking to him and Cheryl about this post, I sat down at the dining room table while Cheryl went into the kitchen briefly to dish up the meal and bring it out for us to enjoy. In doing so, she left me sitting alone with Ismail. The silence was deafening. I felt extremely uncomfortable, as I was struggling with how to approach this unique (for me) situation. I had never communicated in this fashion before and it was awkward.

I hadn’t learned the process Ismail and his caregivers use, which involves what they call a “spelling chart”. Ismail can initiate communication in only two limited ways. One is by grinding his teeth, which ensures getting Cheryl’s or his other caregiver’s attention, provided they’re within earshot. The other method is to modulate his breathing so as to trip the alarm on his ventilator. This works at a greater distance than tooth grinding, but likely is more stressful on Ismail.

Once Ismail has someone’s attention, he communicates by using his spelling chart. Everyone who communicates directly with Ismail has memorized this chart, which appears below. Since the chart is in everyone’s head, there is nothing to carry around, set up, or adjust. It’s a quite simple and efficient system, but it’s time consuming and requires patience. This is how it works: The alphabet is divided up into six rows.  Row number 1 is “A-B-C-D,” row number 2 is “E-F-G-H,” and so on. The person talking to Ismail calls out the number of each row of letters until Ismail blinks to select the number of the line containing the letter he wants to use. The person then calls out each letter in the selected row, until Ismail blinks again to select the letter he wants. The person then starts all over again, calling out numbers of rows, then numbers or letters, as Ismail builds words, then sentences, then paragraphs. If Ismail selects number 7, he’s telling the person it is the end of a word or a paragraph.  If he selects number 8, he wants to give the person a number or a date. People can also ask him “yes” and “no” questions. One blink means “yes,” and two blinks mean “no.”

Spelling Chart used for communication

Spelling Chart used by Ismail and his caregivers for communicating.

There are other methods of communication available to people who cannot speak or use their hands. For example, years ago Ismail wrote a screenplay by using an infrared switch attached to his glasses that he operated by blinking his eye.  The switch triggered the selection of letters and numbers on an alphabet grid displayed on a computer monitor. The design of the chart was similar to the one Ismail and his caregivers use today.  Scanning technology highlighted letters one at a time to allow the user to select one. The program had word prediction, which made sentence-building faster, and a voice synthesizer that could speak words he typed or had programmed into the system.  The software program and voice synthesizer were similar to those used by Stephen Hawking.

Since Ismail’s eye blink may eventually grow too weak to be a reliable method of communication, eye gaze is the technology that provides hope for the future for him and others like him.  He has been practicing with an eye gaze system that is a communication device, speech generating device, Windows XP computer, and environmental control unit, all in one. The system allows Ismail to select letters and numbers by gazing at them for a programmable pre-set number of seconds. He can also select icons or images that trigger a voice synthesizer to speak words and sentences for him. The system also has the capability of accessing Windows and the worldwide web. But Cheryl says that Ismail becomes tired after practicing with this system for only a few minutes and grows frustrated trying to navigate around its screens.  It takes time to set up the equipment and reposition it properly every time he moves from one place to another, so the device is bulky and time-consuming to use except for those times he’s sitting in one place.  Although it’s possible to attach the unit to his wheelchair with a special bracket, the machine still needs to be moved out of the way during transfers, then readjusted again.

Enter Glass. What if it had the same total eye-gaze control capabilities that Ismail’s bulkier, less user-friendly equipment has? What if a complex communication, web-surfing, environmental control system could be worn in a pair of eyeglasses and operated by the movement and gaze of an eye? Since Glass contains a built-in display, there would no longer be a need for the much bulkier external devices that are currently used.

“My eye gaze equipment can be slow and tiring,” Ismail says.   “It is difficult and time-consuming to use. I hope there will come a day when technology will improve for many people like me who are paralyzed but want to continue to talk to the world. I hope that day comes soon.”

The question now is not if, but when. It’s also a question of priorities, I suppose. I’m not sure if Glass has the capabilities Ismail and others require, but it surely won’t be long before they’re realized. The other question is, are there developers who have both the skills and the desire to create such an app. Also, Glass is not the only device that can provide the necessary functionality. In addition to wearables like Glass, there are companies working on interpreting brain waves. Emotiv is one of them and they are working on a device called Epoc that currently provides limited capability. Right now, they are concentrating on game playing and some forms of gross manipulation, but it shouldn’t be long before their system (and others like them) become more sophisticated. They are also licensing an SDK for people who wish to write their own systems.

If you have any interest in this kind of thing, there are some golden opportunities out there. Perhaps there isn’t a fortune to be made, but the possibilities of helping tens of thousands of people live more productive and engaged lives despite severe disability are immense and will be, I have no doubt, enormously satisfying.


A Slight Change of Course

Since my presentation to the American Oil Chemists’ Society at the end of April, I’ve been seeking out other engagements to talk about using social media for managing communities within an enterprise. All of my experience heretofore has been inside the firewall of a large (very large) aerospace corporation, and it was the essence of my presentation to the AOCS.

I haven’t been actually hustling engagements; rather I’ve just been suggesting I’m available and that I might have something worthwhile to say. Today, nearly four months later, I finally had the opportunity to present to an organization that could use social media to improve their ability to achieve their goals, which are manifold – but not commercial.

The organization I spoke with today is a local Rotary Club that has two major fund-raisers each year. Originally, I had spoken with my friend and former Manager who, since retiring, has joined this Club and had suggested I might present, about the one I gave to the AOCS. However, after having dinner with the President of the Club it became clear he wanted to at least partially address the difficulty he’d been having with getting the membership to “like” their Fan pages and join and engage with their group page.

So . . . I put this together somewhat hastily and concentrated primarily on the benefits social media provide for communicating and sharing knowledge, as well as addressing the issue of reluctance to participate. I finished with a little info on how its use is disruptive and pointed out how they could use Clayton Christensen‘s concept of Jobs-to-be-done (disruptive innovation is one of his as well) to address the direction they might take their new efforts in.

I also prepared the presentation exclusively using Google Docs; the first time I have ever done that. The only exception is that I imported a couple of slides from my AOCS preso, which I originally prepared using PowerPoint. I also heavily annotated the slides, which I do not normally do, and printed out a copy of them and the notes. However, I did not use them during the presentation. Once I got going I just winged it, which seems to fit my style perfectly. Having the notes kept me from being nervous, but turned out to be mostly superfluous. I only experienced one moment when I couldn’t think of the right word I wanted to make a point, but it came to me reasonably quickly.

So . . . here ’tis. I don’t know how intelligible it is without the notes. Especially considering I made these slides last close to 25 minutes, I believe. I guess having a long history and lots of stories comes in handy when you tend toward loquaciousness. :)

One more thing. I uploaded the .pdf to Slideshare in the early evening and shortly afterward received an email from them that my presentation was the most talked about one on Facebook (where I had shared it) and so they were featuring it on their home page. Frankly, I didn’t see any evidence of the discussion, but the preso had been viewed close to 180 times last I looked, so maybe I’m getting some traction there. Hope you enjoy it.


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