From Tech to UNT: Great Education, Awkward Football for Life

Just about anyone who knows me, knows that I am finishing up my Master’s degree at Norwich University and am immediately starting my Ph.D. What they may not know is where, because over the past few months, I have floated many names of potential institutions to start my next degree program. After a process of mutual rejection and disappointments, I have landed in the Learning Technologies Ph.D. program at the University of North Texas.

There is a lot that I like about this. For starters, UNT is forward-thinking with the program and have opened it to include distance learners. This was important for me, because Tech did not have a single Ph.D. program that I felt captured the essence of the doctoral work I wanted to pursue in computing, education, and cognition. Because of this, it originally appeared that I would need to leave the professional nest that I have built for myself in Ruston. Fortunately, that will not be the case, as I have grown quite attached to some of my coworkers.

Secondly, I like the fact that UNT, like Tech, is an institution that is building prestige. When I was deliberating whether or not to pursue the Ph.D. program at UNT or wait to reapply to more competitive (read: prestigious) universities, one thing that resonated with me was the idea that it is much more satisfying to help build a program than to stand on the backs of people who have already built elite programs.

What I’m not looking forward to about UNT is football. For those who may not be aware, both Louisiana Tech and UNT are members of Conference USA. More specifically, both are members of C-USA’s Western Division which means that UNT and Tech face off on the gridiron more-or-less every year theses days. To make matters especially awkward, my first year as a UNT student finds the Mean Green taking a trip to Ruston in November – for Tech’s homecoming game. Pretty awkward time to don green for the first time.

Kidding aside, I’m really excited about being involved with the program at North Texas. Classes started today, and so far the professors like my type: no nonsense. It will be interesting adapting to the teaching methodologies at UNT after spending a year-and-a-half with Norwich. Still, it should be easier than adapting to wearing green after fifteen years of blue.

Go Land Crabs: Better Call Saul and the Perception of Distance Education

Among those who know me, it is no secret that I have been a big fan of the television show Breaking Bad. That translated into much excitement when AMC announced that they would be bringing the Breaking Bad universe back to television with the backstory of shyster, ambulance-chasing attorney Saul Goodman in the aptly titled Better Call Saul.  Better Call Saul has become a fixture in my Monday evening, post-work liturgy, which is fortunate given the recent death of another of my favorite Monday-night past times.

So far, we have found out that our favorite ambulance chaser started life as James “Jimmy” McGill. He had some legal troubles and after paying his debt to society, was encouraged by his older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill to get his life straight. Jimmy took his brother’s advice to heart, and worked as a mail-runner in the legal firm in which his brother was partner, Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill. We recently learned, in S1E8 RICO, that Jimmy secretly completed his undergraduate degree through a community college, earned his law degree, and, after several attempts, passed (presumably) the New Mexico Bar Exam.

I found the scene in which Jimmy announces his success to be interesting, due to the way that the scene implicitly deals with the issue of perception of distance education. First, there’s Jimmy’s own reticence to admit his alma mater, the in-universe accredited (though in reality non-existent) University of American Samoa. Then there’s Chuck’s own nervous retort of “correspondence school,” followed by his “as what?” response to Jimmy’s request to be hired  as an attorney with the firm. Finally, there’s Chuck’s partner, Howard, who destroys Jimmy’s ambitions all while eating a piece of celebratory cake.

The whole exchange scene was a roughly three-minute exploration of some of the pitfalls of distance learning. It reminded me of a story told to me by a professor about a person they ran across at a counseling conference. This person was sitting in the floor, dejected. Turns out, it is because they just found out that, because their distance degree in counseling came from an un-accredited, distance school, no one would even consider them for employment.

So, is this a fair judgment of distance learning? I think not. The truth of the matter is that many working adults use distance learning through reputable schools to further their education and their career. In fact, studies have shown that many of those students perform better than their traditionally-instructed peers.

The problem with distance learning is not in the concept of distance learning itself. The problem with distance learning is its perception in the minds of people who associate it with diploma mills.  I think this will change in time, as distance learning becomes more common and as more people interact with competent, educated people who earned legitimate degrees through distance-learning programs.

In the meantime, I think more can be done to raise the status of distance learning, and those of us who are successfully completing online programs should lead the charge.

The Scary Thing About the Sony Incident Isn’t North Korea

By now, almost everyone is familiar with the attack on Sony and the fallout that ensued over the Christmas holidays. The data exfiltrated from Sony’s digital coffers included all sorts of intriguing tidbits to keep drama flowing over the holidays, such as: studio execs’ hatred for Adam Sander, allegations of abuse on the set of American Hustle, possible racism towards Denzel Washington (who they can continue casting as much as they like as far as I am concerned), and George Clooney not actually being a cyber security expert, but playing one on TV.

With this kind of dirt kicked up in the wake of the Sony attack, it would be easy to think this attack to be the work of an overzealous fan of TMZ rather than that of a hostile nation that enjoys threatening the United States with nuclear holocaust on a semi-regular basis and whose usual work looks more like this. Indeed, it would be tempting to think the Sony attack more along the lines of digital mischief than international espionage, until the apparent motivation of the attack became seemingly clear – stoping the release of the Sony film, The Interview. 

The Interinterview searchview, as most knowis a fairly juvenile film sporting lack-luster reviews (53% on Rotten Tomatoes) in which the CIA approaches two reporters to assassinate Kim Jong-un. One can see in the Google search trend graphs that, when compared to other Christmas release films, The Interview was not faring well even after the initial data loss, and search interest was flat when compared to interest in Unbroken and from last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Thanks to the Sony cyber attack coupled with “terrorist threats” against theaters, release cancellation, and finally a selected release in mostly smaller theaters, The Interview went from a film that seemed to be dead on arrival to a film that not only had a pulse, but to a film in which there was actually a fair amount of interest.

Now, I am not willing to go so far as to suggest that the Sony attack was a planned public relations stunt as has been suggested by many. Make no mistake, Sony has suffered as a result of the data that has been leaked.  Some of that has been in the form of lost or diminished value of intellectual property (specifically related to pre-release films that were stolen and posted online). Other losses cannot be quantified, particularly those with respect to lost good-will in working relationships that comes with the airing of dirty laundry. Though the PR stunt theory is intriguing, I cannot see Sony going that far simply to save one floundering film, and would be the Hollywood version of cutting off the nose to spite the face.

Nevertheless, this creates a context in which it becomes easy to see potential motive for other parties to be involved, and where others may have more to gain from Sony’s embarrassment than North Korea. This seems to be bolstered by the fact that many in the security community are seeing evidence that the exfiltration of data may have been an inside job. Bruce Schneier has a good article sifting through some of the various viewpoints as well as a previous article discussing some of the possible attribution scenarios, for those who are interested in delving further. The technical details of who attacked Sony are really beyond the scope of my concern at the moment.

The primary fact of interest is that despite the FBI’s continued insistence that North Korea is directly responsible for the Sony attack, many very capable members of the information security community are not thusly convinced (including this shredding of the FBI’s initial statement). Put another way, we have a very big problem with attribution. We think we know that North Korea is responsible, but do we really trust the FBI’s determination both in light of previous intelligence failures in recent American history and in the face of so much skepticism from within the information security community?

This might not be such a big deal… yet.

President Obama, despite some rather harsh rhetoric, has been pretty emphatic that (assuming you buy the North Korean involvement in the first place) this is not an “act of war,” but instead an act of “cyber-vandalism.” This, I believe, is the most alarming thing about the Sony attack and its attribution to North Korea, whether right or wrong. We are now making judgments about whether or not cyber attacks on corporations constitute acts of war.

Fortunately, the President’s position on this question seems to be reasonable, but there are two things to consider. First, we must consider that the next attack may not be so easy to dismiss. A major cyber-attack on military systems, some government systems, and possibly some civilian infrastructure (like power generation) could create legitimate pretext to launch military operations in real life. Secondly, we must also consider a changing political environment and that the next President of the United States might have a lower threshold for what constitutes an “act of war.”

It may well turn out that North Korea is indeed responsible for the attacks on Sony. Then again, it may turn out that North Korea is a scapegoat and that The Interview has been nothing more than a red herring for garden-variety cyber-punks.

What is certain is that we really don’t know who is responsible, and with the rhetoric swirling the Sony attack that is a scary thing. Not so much because the rhetoric is dangerous in this particular case, because North Korea and the U.S. are both given to hyperbole when addressing one another. No, what is scary is that is that we seem to lack the ability identify cyber-attackers with a high degree of certainty, and eventually this will be a problem when the inevitable day comes that Americans are gearing up for a war that began with a digital Pearl Harbor. When that day comes (and it will) we have a responsibility to be certain we are gearing up for war against the correct guilty party. Proper attribution becomes imperative when the stakes are nothing short of war.

Featured Image: Collage of American and North Korean flags (Wikimedia Commons) and Promotional Artwork for The Interview (Copyright, Sony Pictures; use believed to fall under Fair Use Doctrine).