Category: The Other World

Tech Talk: Understanding Cell Plans

 

By Andrew Constantine

It’s important when making a purchase in the technology sector — whether that be a phone, tablet, laptop or anything else with a chip in it, even service plans and packages for these devices (think cell plan) — to realize there is more to the item then just the price alone. This is what can be referred to as the overall value of the item. Overall value means that the amount of money and time you’ve put into making the device work the way you intend it to, in the end, is worth it.

This leads us to the most important aspect of any tech purchase: Who am I and what am I doing? What are your expectations for service and support of the product or service you are paying for?

Probably the most prominent example of this is cell phone service. I have used every national and regional carrier since I’ve had a phone: AT&T, US Cellular, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, which I currently use. This was where I got my first real lesson in overall value. The smaller carriers offer a lower price and more heavy-hitting promotional offers; however, what I was expecting was strong service in most of the state. I found that the discount carriers lacked this: while the price was lower, I failed to get the value I was expecting out of the service. After a switch to a different carrier and more per month, I am finally getting what I need for phone service.

The same thought process can be applied to probably the first thing that a new college student thinks of: the laptop. As laptops range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, the choice is not an easy one. It’s important here as well to determine what you will be using the device for and what you need to get out of it. For some programs a laptop may not be the best choice. For example, a drafting program most certainly would run better on a desktop with enhanced graphics capability. Whereas if the program you are working in has an abundance of writing assignments, an inexpensive Chromebook will most certainly fit the bill.

These are only a couple of examples, but the overarching point is simple: Resist the urge to impulse buy, buy what your friends have, buy what some article online says you need. Take a step back and evaluate what it is you’re trying to accomplish with whatever it is you’re purchasing. Appreciate the overall value of something that may be priced a bit higher but gets you so much more out of it. As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for.

Andrew Constantine is a member of the Information Technology senior seminar course and is planning on a career in intelligent traffic systems. You can view this article online at andrewconstantine.tech/beacon.

Tech Talk: Airline Uses Old Technology for New Purpose

RFID

By Crystal Shorey

If you’ve ever had your luggage lost during a trip, you know how frustrating it can be. I work in the baggage-service office at the Portland Jetport, and I’m the front line of customer service to help people recover their lost bags. These people are mad, and I get many “How does this happen?”s and “They promised my bag would make it!”s.

The moving of luggage to its correct destination involves a unique tag that associates the passenger with their bag and the routing of their trip. Up until recently, the process involved airline employees using hand scanners during the loading/unloading of the aircraft to scan each individual bag and verify and track it  in the system. This process requires the employees to be diligent with the scanners for an accurate count — and unfortunately, things often go wrong.

At the end of 2016, Delta Air Lines decided to make a change to this process in hopes of reducing the amount of lost baggage. The cost for this change totaled over $50 million. It uses a technology that has been around since the 1970s: RFID, or radio-frequency identification, which, as its name indicates, uses radio waves to allow for communication between two objects.

The way an RFID system works is that an object called a reader is used to capture the radio frequencies emitted by an RFID-tagged item. When it comes to the tagging of an item, there are a few ways it can be done. The tagging RFID chips can either be considered active or passive, depending on their power source. Active RFID chips come with a self-contained power source and are constantly emitting a signal to be picked up by a reader. This technology is commonly used in beacons or other tracking devices for things that need to be tracked at a longer range. Passive RFID chips have no internal power supply, and the signal is picked up when it passes by the reader. The reader itself is the power supply; therefore, it needs to be in fairly close proximity to the tag in order for it to work.

In Delta’s case, the new luggage tags were created with a passive RFID chip embedded inside. Delta has equipped its baggage-sorting and loading equipment with RFID readers, which pick up each bag’s unique signal as it passes by and forward the information on to an internal system. Now, when passengers are given a bag-tracking number and enter it into the tracking system, they can follow along with the location of their bag as it passes past any RFID reader. For some, this has given great peace of mind, when they are sitting onboard an aircraft and an app can confirm that their luggage has already been loaded as well.

The new RFID tracking system is not without fault. Human error still comes into play, as many workers are still involved in the moving of luggage to and from the planes and belts. Delta estimated that the new system would reduce lost baggage by about 5 percent. So far, RFID has only been implemented in a few stations, and only for a short period of time. So far it has shown an improvement of about .04 percent.

Whether the benefits outweigh the cost can be debated — $50 million for .04 percent less lost luggage. I personally find that passengers have been much more at ease having access to their bags’ tracking info, and more understanding when something does go wrong.

Crystal Shorey is a student in SMCC’s Information Technology program. You can read more of her writing online at http://crystalshorey.com/.

Tech Talk: Keep It Simple, Keep It Cheap

By Eric Mekkelsen

Have you ever had the need to buy a new laptop or computer because you feel like your system is just running so slow? Many people out there run into this problem, and in most instances, sure, it’s time to get a new computer! Realistically, though, what many of us in IT or help-desk situations find is that a person’s system is often bogged down by various unnecessary applications; the hard drive is too full or maybe on its last leg. Very easy-to-repair, easy-to-fix problems. Often it’s the case that people will just purchase a new system. Sure, if you can afford to just buy a new laptop every year, this is a possibility. However, for most people, it’s not that easy. What if I told you that a simple application, regular updates and just checking your hard-drive space every so often could resolve this. What if a quick trip to Best Buy to buy a new hard drive and a screwdriver could save you hundreds?

If you feel like your system is running far slower than normal, there are some simple supplied features you can use. The first thing you should do is restart the device (yes, that same thing every tech-support person asks you to do). Secondly, make sure your machine is up to date.  On Windows, this feature is right in your start menu under Settings. On a Mac, this feature is in your Apple icon under Updates. Another option is to check how much hard-drive space you have. On Windows, simply open up My Computer or File Explorer and click on your hard drive.  It will give you a summary of how much free space you have. On a Mac, right-click your HD and choose Properties. This will also give you a summary of free space. After trying any of these methods, if you find that the issue isn’t resolved by a restart, update or clearing up some space, then don’t fret: There are still some easy solutions.

A next step would be to run a third-party application. I swear by CCleaner (and so should you), an application that will help clean up your system for you. It’s easy to find online and extraordinarily simple to use. Download the application and install it. Once installed, start it up — press Analyze, then Run Cleaner. That’s it! Nothing to it at all, and many support specialists use this tool all the time! If still your system is running very slow, there is a bit more that can be done. Yes, it may cost you money, but still far less than buying a new computer.

Next is hardware replacement, and please understand this is generally as easy as plugging something in or turning a screw driver. If your hard drive needs to be replaced, it may seem daunting, but it’s honestly very simple for most non-Mac machines. Just unscrew your computer’s case, you’ll see a large square box or thin square box with some wires running into it.  The box will even say the size of the hard drive on it, so you know it’s a storage device.

All you need to do is unplug it, unscrew it from its case, take it to your nearest Best Buy and ask someone for a similar hard drive. Bring the new hard drive home, screw it in and plug it in. Yes, you’ll have to reinstall Windows on it. But that’s what those recovery disks that came with your computer are for. Installing Windows is no harder than any other application you’ve installed on your computer. Heck, if you get stuck, you can always just use Google. There are tons of how-tos. Lastly, there is memory. If you know your memory is bad or lacking, go buy some — it can be so cheap! Take a few old sticks out (just Google what memory looks like, you can’t miss it), bring them to Best Buy and get the same type but with a larger size. They simply unclip from your motherboard and re-clip it back in. Now of course, these hardware swaps should always be done with the device off and unplugged.

That’s it, there isn’t too much to most computer problems that you can’t do yourself. So stop paying for tech support for your slow system. Open up Google, do a little reading and use some of these ideas. Technology can seem scary. But really, with simple issues, it’s no harder than changing a light bulb or putting together a coffee table that you bought at Walmart.

Eric Mekkelsen is an IT / Information Security student at SMCC. You can view this article online at http://www.ericmekkelsen.com/home/beacon-article/.

Lost in Addiction, and Finding My Way Back

By Joel Congleton

In the throes of addiction, the mind can get so diseased and unsettled that to imagine a life of sobriety is akin to wishing upon a star. It just seems so incredibly far away. Yet some people manage it, and go on to live healthy, productive lives. The odds are stacked, certainly, but knowing that these people exist is enough to tuck away a little hope.

My addiction led me to prefer the company of junkies, but occasionally I’d emerge from my self-created fishbowl existence long enough to cross paths with a recovering person. If they’d been working a program, they’d probably greet me with a solid handshake, a warm smile and a slightly intrusive stare. If I knew them from their past lives as active addicts, the contrast would be staggering, and I’d puzzle over how they could radiate so much confidence and coolness without the aid of a mind-altering substance.

I wasn’t a stranger to detoxes and rehabs; I’d been force-fed plenty on the topic of recovery. But no matter how badly I wanted sobriety, I’d always revert to the familiarity and comfort of the drugs.

There’s a certain simplicity in being a junkie. You’re either high or you’re dope sick. You either have drugs or you’re looking for them. So many of the variables and skills involved with managing a balanced life are removed, and there’s a beauty in that. While everyone was frantically racing around from this birthday party to that doctor’s appointment, I was perfectly content sinking into the couch cushions, staring at the TV with a needle in my arm. Some might think that the social stigma attached to this type of lifestyle would act as a deterrent, but I didn’t care what people thought. I was too focused on getting high.

Of course getting wrecked didn’t pay the bills, and as my tolerance to the drugs went up, so did the cost of my habit. Trivial problems began to arise — failed college courses, loss of jobs, etc. But I’d let the people who loved me worry about that stuff. More importantly, the high stopped working, so I began to hunt for that perfect combination of narcotics — amphetamines to bring me up, benzodiazepines to bring me down and a steady stream of opiates to keep me from getting sick.

Combining benzos with opiates is possibly the quickest way to an accidental overdose, and one night in my apartment, I woke up from what I thought was a typical heroin-induced “nod” to find my roommate in the middle of calling 911. He said I’d been unresponsive for more than 10 minutes. My glasses hung bent and crooked on my face from him slapping me, my crotch was wet from the ice cubes he’d shoved down it, and I had an enormous burn in my nylon shorts from the cigarette between my fingers. After the initial shock of almost dying, we had a good laugh and got high.

It’s not that I wanted to continue living that way. I’d grown weary of it years ago, but lacked whatever it took to change my trajectory. A favorite tactic of mine was the “I’ll get clean tomorrow” mantra. It was the best of both worlds — the moment I’d swear it was my last hit and pump myself up for the epic battle between my demons and the real me (the one who wouldn’t steal cash from my folks). Those were invigorating moments because I really meant them. And of course I needed that last hit so the hero inside me could take one last breather before the dope sickness and depression took a grip. But this type of self-deception only took me so far. After a while, I knew the game I was playing, and played it anyway.

Years passed. Eventually I tried a methadone maintenance program, traveling over an hour each way to the clinic every morning for three years before my Medicare got cut and I could no longer pay for it. I immediately entered into an outpatient rehab for the sole purpose of being prescribed Suboxone, an alternative to methadone. After the counselors had deemed that I’d made little to no progress in the weeks that followed, they kicked me out of the program. I continued to buy drugs off the street for a while longer, but things began to feel different. The accumulation of years of living the same mundane, repetitive existence had reached a tipping point. Something had to change.

I started going to meetings again. I got a sponsor, and he suggested 90 meetings in the first 90 days, so that’s what I did. Every night I sat in plastic chairs hastily strewn into rows or semicircles or squares around tables, depending on what church basement we were occupying. I sipped cheap coffee out of comically small styrofoam cups, the caffeine only adding to my nerves as I wrestled with the terrifying notion of raising my hand and sharing my vulnerabilities with the room. But I kept showing up, and it got easier.

On the date that marked my one-year anniversary of sobriety, I chaired a meeting at my home group, as is custom. I told the room the things I’d done and places I’d gone to get high. Longer than some and mild compared to others, my story was just one out of millions that ultimately got us all to the same place: searching for a way to fill the hole in our soul. As I fumbled nervously with the medallion my sponsor had handed me minutes ago, I talked about the tools I’d been given over the past year. How I’d been practicing meditation, learning to set my diseased and unsettled mind aside entirely (if only for short bursts). How the desperation and selfish motivations that got me to those meetings were slowly shifting to something more closely resembling altruism. I was starting to see the value in being helpful.

The thing is, it always made sense to me that I’d get clean at some point in the distant future. But I’m guessing most addicts feel that way. No one anticipates that last fatal shot that leaves them blue and face down, drowned in their own vomit. But I think I expected I’d do it on my own, relying on the same broken mind that had sabotaged me for years. It wasn’t an epiphany, but a slow, dull bludgeoning over the head that made me realize it would take a room full of broken minds. A church basement full of hardened, desperate junkies, alchies and outcasts that wanted what I wanted. We weren’t all going to make it, but what mattered was that we shared the desire to get clean.

The path to a life of sobriety was right there, among my people, but it was invisible as long as I was confined to the walls of my own mind. To break out would take courage, strength, and a commitment to myself and the recovering addicts I’d surrounded myself with. It would take raising my hand and speaking in the meetings, despite the nearly crippling anxiety. It would mean asking for help, and forging a willingness to do the things that were suggested to me. And it would require that no matter how grim things look, I always cling to hope.

SMCC Out and About: The Portland Symphony Orchestra

Beethoven

 

By Yesenia Moguel

As college students at SMCC, there are so many fun resources at our fingertips, whether that is on campus with our awesome activities committee, on our beautiful Willard Beach, or in the culture-rich cities of Portland and South Portland.

Involvement in community has always been a major part of my own experience at college. It is fun to work hard and concentrate on my college education, but it is also good to go out and explore the neat places around us that we never notice.

My violin instructor is second stand in Portland Symphony Orchestra. I went to hear Beethoven’s Symphony No.9  at Merrill Auditorium on April 25, attending the second of two sold-out performances with my roommate.

The evening’s program started with Robert Moody, the orchestra’s music director, welcoming the audience to the evening’s performance He mentioned that that evening’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth would be the last in a series of Beethoven symphonies that the Portland Symphony Orchestra started three years ago.

It is interesting to note that while we call Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 as the “Ode to Joy” symphony, Beethoven referred to the piece as the “Chorale Symphony,” mainly because it is the only symphony in which Beethoven used a chorus. In the words of Robert Moody, the Ninth was “a groundbreaking moment at the time. A symphony with chorus as the finale.”

Beethoven’s Ninth has been used over the course of its 200-year history to celebrate the end of war. It was played extensively at the end of World War I and World War II, and Leonard Bernstein brought together East and West German orchestral performers to perform it after the Berlin wall fell.

The evening’s performance started off with the orchestra playing Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” a solemn 11-minute piece that is “heart-achingly beautiful,” as described by Moody.

I was engulfed in the rich tones and emotional energy of the music, listened in awe to the soloists and enjoyed the expressions on the face of the concert-master. After the concert, we enjoyed a Q&A with the performers and listened to their thoughts and stories.

If you were not able to make the April 25 concert and want to hear the Ninth as performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra, the Portland Choral Arts Society and the Oratorio Chorale, tune into Maine Public Broadcasting (MPBN) on May 10 at 8 p.m.

I would recommend visiting Portland Symphony Orchestra to anyone. Expand your horizons and indulge in the enriching culture of music. The beautiful chords and melodies still resonate with me now.

Productivity on a Snow Day

By Lydia Libby

The week of February 5 through February 10, 2017, was to be one SMCC students would remember. February 7, 8 and 9 all had delays or full snow days due to the inclement weather!

Now, everyone loves a day off, but when many students have three days off, they wonder what to do with themselves. Sure, they could stay in bed and watch Netflix all day and night, but why not mix the routine up a bit? Below is a list of suggestions for those who enjoy the arts, cooking, and exercising to spruce up your chilly days off from school.

If you enjoy the arts, maybe you decide to color. Coloring is known to relieve stress, and you can bring color into your life by filling in blank spaces on a coloring page. Or maybe you enjoy painting, and decide to get a paint-by-numbers kit — or set up an easel, if you’re an avid painter. Painting and drawing can be done in silence, or with the television on or a music playlist going in the background.

If you are the outgoing type and you love to dance, why not create your own choreography, dancing to your heart’s content? The best part is, you’re in the comfort of your own home!

On the opposite side of the spectrum, you could be the more reserved and quiet type that enjoys reading or writing. Reading is relaxing and improves brain function. When reading, you are continuously retaining words and information, or learning new words you have not heard of before. And writing can often give people the sense of release that coloring can, because it can be mindless, and an exhalation of the mind’s inner thoughts.

Maybe you are someone who enjoys precision and attention to detail, so you learn to make jewelry. Taking your mind off boredom may seem difficult at first, but the arts can certainly alleviate boredom.

If trying arts and crafts does not stop your woes of being inside, cooking probably will. Even if it is just coming up with your own version of a sandwich, cooking helps put a stop to boredom. Everyone needs to eat, so why not try cooking on these snow-globe-looking days? Learning how to cook can be fun, and it’s a fundamental life skill people should learn. Maybe you try cooking Italian cuisine, or maybe Thai cuisine. Cookbooks are sold everywhere, and recipes are always available online. Some people prefer holding a paper copy, so cookbooks are great when learning how to cook.

When living in the dorms, it can be difficult to learn how to cook, but hey, learning how to properly microwave food is important, too. Or if you do live in the dorms, maybe you have a friend who lives off campus who would be willing to brave the elements of our New England winter to pick you up so you could cook together. Cooking with another person can also be fun, and you can make a meal faster, because you have more than one person preparing the food.

Another fun and productive thing you can do alone or with others on a snow day is exercise. Some may put a Zumba tape in their DVD player and dance the day away. Others may do reps of sit-ups, crunches, and pushups. Maybe you have a treadmill or an elliptical rider at home and you work in some cardio on your snow day.

Exercising is a great way to ward off lassitude, because you need to focus and move your body, which helps you forget you are trapped at home during an ice age like the one we just experienced. Stretching is also a great form of exercising, because you are relaxing your muscles but improving your range of flexibility. No matter what form of exercise you choose, it will still knock out snow-day blues.

However you spend your snow day, just remember these helpful tips when trying to diminish boredom. You’ll never know how much snow we will get in Maine, so it is always good to have plans when you are snowed in. Productivity makes people feel positive, and you can even learn new skills.

Who is Neil Gorsuch, and Why Care?

By Ben Riggleman

At the end of January, President Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Amid the fireworks of the travel ban and the Commander-in-Chief’s Twitter beefs, it’s easy to overlook the choice; Gorsuch appears mainstream by this administration’s standards. But Supreme Court nominations are always big news, and this one comes with heavy baggage.

The Supreme Court is a small group of unelected officials with extraordinary power. Justices serve from their appointment until they die or choose to retire. Since their job security does not depend on political approval, they are supposed to remain independent and, like secular monks, devote themselves to the pure principles of the law.

Yet the Supreme Court is never isolated, and never apolitical. Its rulings have real-life consequences for Americans at all levels of society. The Court has — to give just three examples — determined the outcome of a presidential election (Bush v. Gore, 2000), dismantled school segregation (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954), and opened the floodgates to corporate money in politics (Citizens United v. FEC, 2010). Today the Court is as bitterly divided as the rest of America on most contentious issues. The justices often split neatly along liberal-conservative lines.

Until 2016, the Roberts Court was divided into conservative and liberal blocs of four justices each. One unpredictable, decisive “swing vote,” Anthony Kennedy, commanded the catbird seat. But then, on the night of Feb. 12, 2016, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. Scalia had been an unwavering conservative during his 30 years on the Court. His death might have heralded a major shift to the left, had things gone differently.

President Obama’s replacement pick was Merrick Garland, a liberal D.C. Circuit judge whom Politico magazine characterized as having “a penchant for judicial restraint.” Garland was totally qualified and, as even Breitbart was quick to admit, had “earned respect from both sides of the aisle.”

So where’s Garland gone? Here’s what happened: Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, simply refused to hold hearings for him while Obama held office. They argued that presidential appointments made during an election year were illegitimate. And the bridge-burning tactic worked.

(The Constitution does not require the Senate to vote on nominees. Also, the Washington Post noted several historical precedents for the Republicans’ behavior — almost all from the 1800s. Still, the out-of-hand rejection of a moderate, credentialed Court nominee was unheard of in modern U.S. politics.)

So back to Neil Gorsuch: first, is he qualified? The general consensus is yes. He holds degrees from several of the world’s best schools; he’s clerked for Supreme Court justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy, worked at the Department of Justice, and held a judgeship on the 10th Circuit for over a decade. (Sources: Politico, New York Times.) An Atlantic editorial called him “one of the most respected conservative legal intellectuals on the federal bench.”

His judicial philosophy is said to resemble Antonin Scalia’s. He supports the freer exercise of religion and questions the regulatory powers of the federal government. He showed both stances when he ruled that the ACA couldn’t make businesses cover birth control in their employee health-insurance plans. (This ruling was later upheld by the Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a 5–4 decision.) He strongly opposes assisted suicide. Otherwise, his views on many timely issues are unknown. On LGBT rights, the president’s conflicts of interest, Muslim bans, Citizens United, and much else, Gorsuch has kept his cards close.

The Washington Post described Gorsuch as “a less bombastic version of Scalia” — and more politic: more likely to bring other justices around to his views. He might, due to shared history, exert a strong influence on Anthony Kennedy (who, you’ll remember, is the Court’s great decider).

But can Gorsuch win Democrats’ support to see himself confirmed? Well, as the Times put it, his nomination ignited “a brutal, partisan showdown.” So, in other words, it’ll be tough. Many Democrats consider Garland’s seat stolen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate minority leader, has vowed to hold up Gorsuch’s nomination by filibuster — not just on stolen-seat grounds, but out of fears Gorsuch won’t stand up to Trump. (Source: New York Times.)

Republicans have a procedural trick up their sleeve, though. They may use the so-called “nuclear option,” changing Senate rules to allow Gorsuch’s confirmation by a simple majority of 51. The president has already called for this strategy.

Citizens need not be powerless spectators to the Gorsuch battle. We can call our Senators and pressure them either way. Mainers have unique leverage; our senior Senator, Susan Collins, is a Republican who has shown herself responsive to liberal concerns. (Recall the skirmish over Betsy DeVos.) So, if the Supreme Court is something you care about, get involved!