The Walmart Cashier and Cell Phone (Dis)Courtesy

Tonight I made a quick stop at the local Walmart on my way home from campus. Standing in line with my items I noticed the lady in front me in one of those self-absorbed cell phone trances. You know the trance. You’re in the zone, speaking too loudly, oblivious to anything around you, sharing your personal conversation with a host of perfect strangers, and yet sleep-walking through the physical world in which your oblivious body moves.

As I watched with interest, I saw the Walmart cashier looking at the cell phone trance lady with an amused but detached look, as if daring the cell phone trance lady to acknowledge the Walmart cashier’s humanity. I also noticed that the cell phone trance lady never once made eye contact with the Walmart cashier or exchanged a single word of verbal communication. The cell phone trance lady took four tries to get her PIN correct (she seemed distracted somehow) and then scuttled off, sharing her animated conversation with all in the path of her oblivious sleepwalking.

As the cell phone trance lady vacated the space in front of me, I turned to the Walmart cashier and somewhat enthusiastically said, “How are you this evening?” She was gently jolted out of her detached revery, and returned my warm greeting. I then told the Walmart cashier that I was a university professor with a research interest in the interplay between technology and society and asked her two questions: 1) How frequently does a cell phone trance person (such as we had just witnessed) come through the line? 2) How does it make you feel?

In answer to the first question, she guessed that about 10% of all the people that came through her check-out line in a given day were in a cell phone trance and failed to make eye contact or exchange a single word with her. 10% is not a huge number per se, but the cultural implications of 1-in-10 people in a check-out line at Walmart failing to simply acknowledge the humanity of the person taking their money is staggering. The Walmart cashier commented, “I could charge these people double and they’d never even notice.”

In answer to the second question, she waxed a bit more reflective and said with some emotion, “It’s VERY rude. What are people thinking?!” Then a pause. She continued with some resignation, “It’s VERY VERY rude.” She was being honest and a bit tender in her communication at this point. I could tell that she hadn’t intended to get a little emotional, but I could see it welling just beneath the surface. The sleepwalking cell phone trance people will never notice their impact on the Walmart cashier and others around them because they can’t be bothered to connect even for a minute while performing the transaction at the cash register.

Dr. K sez: If you are talking on a cell phone in a store, when you approach the cashier, either terminate your call or tell the person on the other end that you need to interrupt the conversation for a minute or two. Then pull the phone away from your head and interact with the cashier. It’ll only take a couple minutes. Repeat after me… “People in my physical space are as important as people in my virtual space.” Smile. Say, “Thank you.” The Walmart cashier is a real person, worthy of your validation. Baby steps…

Cuil Internet Search Engine — Um… Not found?

My friend and former student John Jenkins alerted me to the following potentially embarrassing design flaw in the newest entry in the search engine wars. The challenger — Cuil (pronounced Cool), designed by former Google engineers and touted by them as a vastly superior search engine.

I’ll let John’s text from the email he sent me introduce the flaw:

First rule of creating an index of web pages to search: make sure to include your own web page.


iPhone screen capture

I haven’t blogged much about my iPhone. (OK, lately I haven’t blogged much about anything…) But the latest firmware release (2.0) to my iPhone provides me an amazingly slick and valuable tool — screen capture of the iPhone’s display.

First of all, doing it is amazingly simple. You hold down the home button for a second and then press the off/lock button (on the top right of the iPhone). The picture of the display is saved in the photos. From there you can do whatever you can already do with pictures on the iPhone, such as email them.

So why would I use this? I can imagine a number of situations. An obvious one is simply any situation in which you’d like to show someone how cool your iPhone looks when it does whatever. Very useful for bloggers, educators and obnoxious Apple aficionados of every ilk.

Another involves the really helpful utilities on the iPhone, like the built-in Google maps feature. Imagine you are on the road while your friend is trying to figure out how to get to your lunch meeting location (in this case Nicolitalia Pizzeria in Provo, Utah — possibly the best authentic Italian pizza place in the valley). Imagine further that your friend is not cool enough to have an iPhone with the built-in Google maps feature. You go to Google maps on your iPhone, type in the search string “Nicolitalia pizzeria, provo, utah,” find a map of the place. You find that the built-in Google maps pin places Nick’s in the middle of University Parkway. No problem, you drop a second pin yourself and drag it right into the parking lot in front of the destination. You now snap a picture, and email it to him from your phone. Your friend is momentarily enlightened. Lunch goes off without a hitch. He will be more consistently enlightened when he springs for his own iPhone and when he becomes a regular at Nick’s.

The attached photo is my live demo of how this actually works. Yes, I did in fact email this to myself from my iPhone. Yes, that is in fact Nicolitalia Pizzeria. Yes, they do in fact have the best authentic Italian thin crust pizza in the valley. And now you have a map to get there…

If you see me there, say “Hi.” 🙂

Nicolitalia Pizzeria

Blogging from the beach in Oregon

A year and a half ago I tried to blog from the beach in Oahu using just my Treo and failed pitifully. Tonight I’m sitting in my lawn chair on the beach in Waldport, Oregon waiting for Independence Day fireworks to start. Not as spectacular a beach, to be sure, but my iPhone holds more technical promise than my Treo ever did so I’m drawn to make the attempt.

My wife just accosted me and has dictated the following message: “My husband is an addict who can’t put down his pathetic electronic toys even though we’re sitting on the coast in Oregon to watch fireworks over the ocean, for Pete’s sake!”

My brother-in-law wants me to add the phrase, “with his very cool brother-in-law” but I won’t stand for that kind of irresponsible reporting.

It’s time to try and post this. It’s getting colder and I think it’s not just the weather.

Commencement Speech, ITT Technical Institute-Murray, June 7, 2008

I was honored to be the commencement speaker at the June 2008 graduation ceremony for ITT Technical Institute-Murray last Saturday, June 7 at the Hilton Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Here’s the speech:

Thank you Mr. Bowcutt. I’m humbled and honored to be with you today.

I understand that you’re a generally older crowd than I might find at a place like BYU or the UofU. In 1982 I was facing the prospect of beginning school at the University of Iowa as a 22-year-old freshman. I was expecting to graduate at age 26, which seemed at the time like completely over the hill. I shared my concerns with a friend, about how I’d be 26 when I finished my degree if I went to college. He looked at me and asked, “How old will you be in four years if you don’t go to college?” “Um… 26?”

In fact it was six years later that I graduated from BYU at age 28, by which time I was married and the father of two little girls. I finished my Masters Degree at BYU when I was 34 and we had five kids. I finished my Ph.D. in Computer Science from Oregon State University when I was 38 and we had six kids. I started my professorial career at BYU at age 40, which was 8 years ago. And I’ve still got 19 more years to retirement!

It is NEVER too late to finish your degree!!

You are to be commended for your efforts and your commitment. And your families are to be commended for their sacrifices in your behalf.

I want to begin by quoting the late Douglas Adams [1], who was the author of The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

You are receiving Associates and Bachelors Degrees in various technology fields. All of which are extremely cool. Most of which were invented between when you were fifteen and when you will be (or in some of your cases, when you were) thirty-five. All of which will provide for you an endless stream of puzzle-solving satisfaction throughout your careers. And all of which will allow you to find yourself completely obsolete within the next five years.

If that terrifies anybody, just remember that I completed my Bachelors Degree in Computer Science 20 years ago this spring, and my doctorate in Computer Science more than 10 years ago, and I now know absolutely nothing about anything.

But… I have a degree, and I am tenured.

That’s only partially true. I do know one thing, and it turns out it makes all the difference. I know that I do not know, and I strive constantly to figure out both what I do not yet know, and what the answers are to the questions I have not yet asked.

Lest we wrap ourselves around our own axles too quickly, let me introduce you to the Laws of Ignorance as described by Dr. Philip Armour in his book “The Laws of Software Process” [2].

We’ll begin with zero, as we should in a technology friendly environment.

Zeroth Order Ignorance or Lack of Ignorance

I have Zeroth Order Ignorance when I know something, and I can demonstrate my lack of ignorance in some tangible form. Zeroth order ignorance is provable, simply by demonstrating that I know something.

How would I congratulate you in Italian? “Tanti Auguri!” This is just something I know.

First Order Ignorance or Lack of Knowledge

I have first order Ignorance when I do not know something and I can readily identify that fact.

How would I congratulate you in Etruscan? I have absolutely no idea. But I am aware that I do not know, and I’m quite confident that I could find out if I wanted to.

Second Order Ignorance or Lack of Awareness

I have Second Order Ignorance when I do not know that I do not know something.

In other words, not only am I ignorant of something, I am unaware of what it is I am ignorant about.

A few minutes ago some of you turned to your neighbor and said, “Is Etruscan a language?”

In order to give a definitive example of Second Order Ignorance I would have to describe something of which I am unaware, and this is obviously not possible.

Third Order Ignorance or Lack of Process

I have Third Order Ignorance when I do not know of a suitably efficient way to find out that I do not know that I do not know something.

In other words, I lack a suitable knowledge-gathering process that would move me to Second Order Ignorance (where I would learn that I didn’t know something) which would move me to First Order Ignorance (where I would learn just what it was that I didn’t know) and from there to Zeroth Order Ignorance (where I would obtain the answer to the question I became aware of at the previous level).

Sitting in front of the television is in general not a suitable knowledge-gathering process. Depending of course on the types of knowledge you’re interested in. For example, what Rosie O’Donnell said this week about her time on The View. Some of you are asking yourselves, “Who is Rosie O’Donnell, and what is The View?!” To you I say, “Tanti Auguri.”

Insufficient knowledge-gathering processes remind of the man who took a speed reading course, and read “War and Peace” in 20 minutes. When asked, what it’s about, he replied, “Russia.”

Fourth Order Ignorance or Meta Ignorance

I have Fourth Order Ignorance when I do not know about the Five Orders of Ignorance.

Now, let me tell you one more thing that you need to know to continue on successfully in your careers.

Throughout your education in grade school, high school, and college, you have been fed a very specific and dangerous lie. You have been told that the teachers and professors know what the answers are, and that your job as a student is to learn those answers so that when you encounter those questions, you can answer them.

But guess what? The first time you write software (for example), and somebody pays you to do it, it’s because nobody ever did it before. That’s why they’re paying you to do it. If someone else already did it, it’s much cheaper to buy it for $30 and drop the payroll by $100K.

As you move out of a Zeroth Order Ignorance mentality, in which you think your job is to know something, you come to realize that in fact, all of the knowledge you possess is transient and subject to obsolescence.

As you move out of a First Order Ignorance mentality, in which you think your job is to answer questions, you come to realize that in fact, all the questions are open to discussion. They might not be the right questions to be asking at all.

Your most productive professional time will be spent in Second and Third Order Ignorance. You need to constantly expose yourself to new avenues of learning, becoming increasingly aware every day of every year of your life until you are dead that there are significant fields of study — science, art, literature, technology — of which you have been completely ignorant your entire life. By building the habit of being an informational sponge, you equip yourself to discover important questions that you never imagined existed and to tie those into professional areas to which you never imagined they were connected.

Thomas Friedman, author of “The World is Flat,” said the following [3]:

The further we push the boundaries of knowledge and innovation, the more the next great value breakthroughs — that is, the next new hot-selling products and services — will come from putting together disparate things that you would not think of as going together.

In other words, every great innovation reflects a transition from Third Order Ignorance to Second Order Ignorance.

The big deliverable is the question, not the answer! Your value add to an organization must be something that can’t be outsourced to a call center in India.

To end, I want to help you understand your place as technologists in the history of the world.

Again, Dr. Armour:

There are have been, in the history of the Earth, five knowledge media:

1. DNA:

When a wildebeest calf is born on the grasslands of northern South Africa, it is able to stand and run away from predators within a few minutes of birth. How does it “know” how to do that? Where is the knowledge of running away stored?

2: Brains:

The human brain … can create and store knowledge that does not otherwise exist and has no recognizable analogue in the outside world.

The first two knowledge media were created by God (or by nature if you prefer). The next three were created by humans.

3. Hardware or Tools:

The real value of the hand axe as a tool is not in its material, but in the knowledge that went into its making.

4. Books or Written Records

People have been marking objects to retain images and information for a very long time. Archaeologists have uncovered artifacts whose purpose seems to have been to store a visual image of some sort (as opposed to performing a physical function) that are tens of thousands of years old.

And finally the 5th knowledge medium in the history of the Earth.

5. Software:

All computer programs, and by inference the data on which they operate, are forms of stored knowledge. There are many differences in the nature of the five knowledge storage media, but the key characteristic of software is that it is executable. Software has the capability of running, of changing its state, of processing inputs and producing outputs, and of interacting with the outside world.

You have been prepared to labor and get paid to play in the coolest sandbox since Gutenberg invented the printing press. Or if you prefer, since Babbage invented the Difference Engine. Or if you prefer, since John Von Neumann stole the idea of a stored computer program from Echert and Mauchley of Iowa State University in 1945.

A warning: You will be frustrated your entire career with the rapid rate of change and your inability to keep up with a field that is both accelerating and expanding at the same time. What I can say is, “Enjoy the ride. You will never be bored professionally!”

I recommend that every six months you walk into the computer section of your favorite brick and mortar bookstore, and look for an entire shelf with dozens of books dedicated to a computer technology that you have never heard of.

Finally, I want to say, as passionately as I can: TENIN E TVRINES KIS FiLICS, which I actually don’t know what it means but I do know that it is Etruscan.

Good luck to all of you. God bless you. Thank you.

[1] Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt, Ballantine Books, 2003.

[2] Philip Armour, The Laws of Software Process, Auerbach, 2003.

[3] Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat, 2nd Edition, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Computer Glitch Leads To Brawl At Wauwatosa Kmart

Computer Glitch Leads to Brawl at Wauwatosa Kmart

If this were fiction, I would pan it as being ridiculous and unbelievable. Alas, it is true…

A melee at a Kmart store in Wauwatosa [Wisconsin] Saturday morning was started by a computer glitch.

The store was running a promotion in which it would give away $10 to anyone applying for its credit card, but the computer glitch led to everyone’s application being granted — bestowing up to $4,000 in instant credit to anyone who applied even if they shouldn’t have qualified.

Once word started to spread about the so-called “free money” Saturday, witnesses said things got pretty nuts inside the Wauwatosa store.

Nearly a dozen Wauwatosa squad cars responded to the call just before 11 a.m. Saturday for what was called a large fight in progress.

“It was a nice brawl. It came from inside to outside. If you go up there, you’ll see hair, earrings, all pulled out on the ground,” Wilson said.

What started as a fight between two women in the crowded store evolved when several men intervened.

A store employee got punched in the nose and crashed through a glass display case. He was treated for a broken nose and various cuts.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things. The credit application problem was almost certainly caused by a software bug of some kind (a bit more accurate than the imprecise and somewhat generic “computer glitch”). But the fracas was caused by the mob mentality of a group of people lacking both personal moral control and common sense.

To paraphrase a favorite mantra of the NRA, “Computer glitches don’t throw people through display cases — people do.”

The Internet Safety Podcast!

I’ve been a downright delinquent blogger for the past multiple weeks. My apologies to the small but loyal cadre of readers. I’ve been distracted with a few things, including my day job… 😉

I’ve also been distracted with launching the Internet Safety Podcast. It’s been a labor of love and quite a bit of fun so far. My co-host is Joe Brockbank, who was one of my classmates in the Computer Science Department at BYU in the late 1980’s.
Why are we doing this? We want to help parents and families to understand how to maximize the amazing benefits of technology while minimizing the downsides.

We believe the Internet and technology are here to stay. We also believe that parents must become educated. Pulling the plug at home isn’t going to cut it. Your kids are going to be exposed to a variety of technologies, and we have to be in a position as parents to help guide them and keep them safe.

I know I’ve written about some interesting, educational, and just plain silly things over the past year, but this one is a bit more serious and important.

I encourage you to go check it out. If you find it valuable, please let your friends and family members know.

If you have questions you’d like us to address on the podcast, feel free to leave a message on the podcast, or email me directly.

Your mom goes to Facebook

Last spring I joined Facebook. I was doing research on internet safety, and wanted to get a better look at some of the popular social networking phenomena. Facebook seemed like a tame place to take the social networking plunge. Keep in mind that I didn’t do anything there. I just showed up. No picture, no real information about me. Think grandpa with a press pass at a Hannah Montana concert.

My college age kids (two daughters, one son) quickly became excited and added me as a friend. (Nice to know that $200/month in milk for the past 10 years actually meant something to them.) Apparently I was cool for being on Facebook. Sweet! I’ll take it wherever I can get it at this stage. I was added by a few other students that I knew. I invited nobody, and lurked occasionally. Still posted no picture. Don’t want to appear like I’m taking this too seriously. Just an adult passing by the sandbox. Moving along. Just an old guy. Nothing to see here. As you were, children.

So I lurked… and surfed… like once or twice a month. I learned a few things on Facebook–like the unmarried daughter now had a boyfriend. Isn’t that something? I live 12 miles away, and am a professor on the very campus where this sweet daughter of mine attends college, and I learned about her new relationship on Facebook. Nice looking guy actually. Checked him out. Great set of pictures. Cool major. Saw who his friends were. Seems like a great guy. Met him in person a few weeks later. Yep, great guy.

The following week I received an invitation from a business associate with whom I’ve done work in years past, and who is part of my professional network on LinkedIn. Nick, what are you, weird?! What are you doing on Facebook? Don’t you see my press pass? Hannah Montana for crying out loud!

I accepted his invitation. Didn’t want to be rude.

I surfed for information on a student. Checked out his friends. His dad is on Facebook. Picture and everything. Yeesh. Preferences? His dad’s favorite book? I asked this 22-year-old how he felt about his dad being on Facebook. “Cool!” Huh. I stare at my press pass, wondering if I’ve bypassed a coolness acceleration moment by remaining a non-committed Facebook lurker. I mean, someone has to provide adult supervision here.

I asked one of my daughters some time later why I never see her on MSN Messenger anymore. “Mostly I chat on Facebook now, Dad.” OK. Hmmm. I log back in. I’ve received an invitation request from… my wife?! What is THAT all about?! “The girls showed me how to get set up on Facebook and I decided to see what all the hoo-hah was about.” You go girl. I’ll stay here in the back, away from the Hannah Montana mosh pit of adolescent energy.

Next week I check out my wife’s profile, which publicly declares that she is, in fact, married to me. She has posted a profile, and it includes a picture of… US. My cover is blown. My visage is now on Facebook. Oh dear. What to do? Her list of friends now includes a healthy chunk of our extended family, most of them college age, all of whom think my wife has scored some sort of pinnacle of coolness.

They all start inviting me to be their friends as well. Riding my wife’s coolness coattails. Not the first time. I accept all incoming requests, as long as I know them.

One week later, family pictures begin to show up in photo albums on my wife’s page, visible only to individuals whom she has personally accepted into her network of friends. (Whew! I taught her that one, after my Education Week classes on Internet Safety.) Great pictures. How come I’ve never seen these before? “They’ve been on my laptop, but I figured I’d share them with the entire extended family.” Pictures of our April trip to Hawaii. The extended family is going crazy. Comments on the pictures. I can’t resist. I add a few comments of my own. My wife likes them. She thinks I’m funny. 🙂 Always a positive score in the Knutson household when the mom thinks the dad is funny.

More invitations, more pictures, the mom feels “Happy and Content,” according to her Facebook page. Yesterday her page announces that she “is looking forward to date night. It’s the best night of the week!” That’s date night with me, BTW. More upswing on the home front. On my page, Facebook implores me to “Update your status…” Like I want the world to know my status.

I ponder the press pass. I break down. I post a picture of myself. Of course the mom is in the photo. Touche’. I accept eight more invitations from people I care about a great deal.

Baby steps…

Student Blogs

This Fall at BYU I’ve returned to teaching CS 404 (Computers and Society) after a one year hiatus. One new twist I’ve implemented is to require all students in the class to create a public blog and post their work for the world to see. My motivation is for the students to discover that broader audiences exist for writing than TAs and professors. From what I’ve seen so far, this simple twist alone has induced a dramatically higher quality of writing in the students than I’ve seen in semesters past.

So by way of introduction to my small but loyal readership, I hereby introduce you to a set of talented, up-and-coming writers and imminent Computer Science graduates, the Fall 2007 CS 404 students of Brigham Young University. You will find links to their 36 individual blogs in the blogroll in the right-hand column.

[Restrained but considerate applause please… Thank you.]

Do you dare turn down this invitation?!

Yesterday I received an invitation for a LinkedIn connection from a friend and former student named Christian (last name obscured for his privacy).

LinkedIn invitations allow the recipient to indicate whether the inviter is an actual acquaintance, helping to regulate unwanted advances of the type so prevalent on less professionally-oriented social networks.

What’s interesting in this case, is what happened when LinkedIn abbreviated for the buttons…


There are some ominous spiritual overtones here, to be sure…

In case anybody is wondering, I clicked on “Accept.” 🙂