Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Holiday Shopping and Gift Ideas...

Well, we have officially begun the weeks of shopping insanity leading up to the holidays - and maybe you're like me and want to avoid looking for gifts at mega-malls and driving all over the place, preferring to shop online and stay away from civilization as much as possible. Rest easy, friends, because the internet was made exactly for us. Here are some ideas for holiday shopping in cyberspace...

A slew of new comparison-shopping websites have been gaining in popularity. Boddit is one of my favorites, though Froogle, PriceGrabber, and Yahoo Shopping are solid alternatives. Boddit acts almost as a search engine. Type the product you want, or browse the categories, and it will display those products - with their prices - from hundreds of different retailers across the web. It makes comparison price shopping real easy when you know exactly what you want and are just looking for the best deal, but is also extremely helpful in getting gift ideas when you don't know what you're looking for.

Another option that's becoming more widespread is Wish Lists. Most of the major e-tailers such as Amazon.com allow people to create wish lists of gifts they would like, and then make it easy to share those lists with their friends and family. Essentially, it works like a wedding or baby registry, and you can search the major sites by someone's name to see if they have a wish list already created. It will probably surprise you how many of your friends do.

These are just some of the e-commerce developments seeing major growth in use this year. Yet don't forget that the old-fashioned standards might still be best. Online gift certificates at the Amazons of the world are always a sure-fire bet, Ebay auctions will help find those hard-to-find gifts and get you a deal, and when in doubt, you can still just give the gift of cash... by PayPal-ing money electronically to whoever you like.

For instance, to rdomanski@hotmail.com :-)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving...

Today is Thanksgiving, so I will keep it simple and share with you this Thanksgiving Prayer, by the legendary William S. Burroughs.

Gobble gobble.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

More Backlash on iTunes and Zune...

Just to follow up on yesterday's posting, Newsweek Magazine has just published an article on how music lovers are becoming "fed up" with competing digital rights management (DRM) schemes for digital players like iPod and Zune.

Read the article here.

And without wanting to re-hash everything I discussed yesterday, let me simply highlight an extraordinarily important point in the article:

As Lawrence Lessig states, DRMs don’t expire even after copyright does. This means that the record companies are making it impossible for individuals to claim their property rights over things they've purchased - even after those companies' copyrights have expired. This completely illegitimizes the music industry and its argument that the goal of DRM is copyright enforcement.

“Give consumers a file that will play in any device and consumers will be willing to pay for it”. --- Steve Gordon

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Evil of iTunes and Zune...

Last week, Microsoft introduced Zune - an online marketplace to buy and download music, just like iTunes. Just as Apple does with iTunes and iPods, Microsoft plans to link the Zune service to its portable music player (also named Zune).

For a while now, I've been railing against Apple for this bundling of its music store with its media player. Most people are still unaware that if you buy music off iTunes then you will only be able to play it on iPods. Now Microsoft is following the same "business model" (or what some of us refer to as "illegal anti-competitive trust practices") by making any music you buy off Zune to only be playable on the new Zune device.

As Sean Captain points out in this New York Times article, "Zune calls attention to the conundrum that consumers don’t like, which is being locked in to a retailer by virtue of what hardware you buy". As Apple and Microsoft insist on using closed formats rather than the more open Mp3 standard, consumers are unknowingly having their rights stripped away from them which they've had for decades.

That's right, iTunes and Zune users, you are being intentionally misled. So to clear it up once and for all: If you buy music on iTunes, you can only play them on iPods. You also no longer have a choice of which online store to buy your music from - you can't buy from Zune or other similar sites; it's either iTunes or nothing, even if the same song is cheaper somewhere else. Plus, even though with some hacking tricks it's possible, Apple makes it so hard to backup your music from your iPod to your hard drive, and so hard to copy your music from one iPod to another, that many people don't realize until its too late that if, say, they leave their iPod on a bus, they'll have to replace their whole collection and buy those songs again.

Of course there's an easy solution: buy your music from online stores that sell songs in the open Mp3 format, such as eMusic, or even - gasp! - download them for free. Plenty of sites like Etree and Archive.org actually offer totally free and legal music downloads.

As consumers, if we purchase music then we have the right to play it however we want. The closed formats of Apple and Microsoft, who forcefully bundle their online stores with their music players, take away our choices of where we're able to buy our music, and where we get to play it.

So where is the outrage?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Is Web 3.0 For Real?...

First there was the original World Wide Web, a simple place where people could mostly just view websites, navigated through links on portals like Yahoo and Excite. We, the people, were simple consumers of information.

Then came the dawn of the (arguably) current era of Web 2.0, a more intricate version of cyberspace where normal people actually contributed to the content of websites, and by doing so, helped shape a more "organic", bottom-up type of internet - and whose power is demonstrated through sites liek Digg, Flickr, MySpace, and YouTube.

But now, as John Markoff reports, we may be on the precipice of an entirely new era yet again... that of Web 3.0. The idea behind Web 3.0 is to use artificial intelligence "to add a layer of meaning on top of the existing Web that would make it less of a catalog and more of a guide".

What the hell does that mean? Apparently, the Googles and Microsofts of the world are trying to mine all the data on the internet in order to create "thinking" search engines. What these Web 3.0 efforts seek to accomplish is "to build a system that can give a reasonable and complete response to a simple question like: 'I’m looking for a warm place to vacation and I have a budget of $3,000. Oh, and I have an 11-year-old child.' Under today’s system, such a query can lead to hours of sifting — through lists of flights, hotel, car rentals — and the options are often at odds with one another. Under Web 3.0, the same search would ideally call up a complete vacation package that was planned as meticulously as if it had been assembled by a human travel agent."

Is it me, or does this sound familiar? It's only been the stated goal of artifical intelligence computing for the last few decades, and has hardly ever lived up to its promises. But even if a "semantic" web was within reach, would we, as users, really be better off?

I would argue that the true power of "organic" Web 2.0 technologies lies in keeping the internet egalitarian and putting The People in the greatest position of influence. Markoff is mistaken in thinking that Web 3.0 is the next generation of the internet. In reality, it's more representative of decades-old backwards-looking thinking, and would be better thought of as a simple enhancement to the real revolution occurring in cyberspace - that of Web 2.0.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

TiVo Integrates Internet Video...

Two articles caught my eye this late morning. The first is a New York Times report on how TiVo will soon allow people to use its digital video recorders to watch some video programming from the Internet on their televisions. In other words, when TiVo releases its next generation of set-top boxes, you will be just as able to record and play YouTube and Google Videos as you currently are able to do with traditional television shows.

The second article, a blog by Dave Zatz, describes the new strategy for how TiVo plans to do it... through peer-to-peer file trading. Under the guise of sharing home movies, the idea is that rather than burning and mailing DVDs, "friends and family will now be able to set up their own private channel to send home videos directly to a TiVo subscriber's TV set".

So a few observations. For starters, TiVo's push to integrate internet videos into its service clearly demonstrates just how quickly the convergence of television and the internet is taking place. Within five years, there will hardly even be a distinction between the two. Plus, it offers hope to decentralize the media market as smaller video podcast creators will now have just as much access to people's televisions as do Seinfeld reruns and big-time network programming. The small guy comes out a winner, as do the rest of us who simply watch TV and will have far more variety.

Also, the peer-to-peer delivery system sounds terrific! That is, if it will actually work. It sounds like they're trying to make a private BitTorrent type of network exclusively for sharing videos, which might function more efficiently in technical terms, but would also undoubtedly open the floodgates for the uncontrollable peer-to-peer sharing of all types of videos (not only home movies). Even TiVo must realize and get a good laugh out of saying that the P2P system will only be used for legal home movies, rather than become a vehicle for mass piracy.

Not that I'm complaining. In fact, I hope this type of thing really does catch on in a big way. I just wonder why the same type of thing can't be tried for music and audio trading as well.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

On Election Perspective...

In keeping with the election week theme, one complaint my students always raise is that money has too much influence in politics. Surely, the amount of money spent on campaign finance is obscenely huge, right?

From Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Levitt and Dubner...

"In a typical election period that includes campaigns for the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, about $1 billion is spent per year - which sounds like a lot of money, unless you care to measure it against something seemingly less important than democratic elections.

It is the same amount, for instance, that Americans spend every year on chewing gum."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Data Mining the Election...

It might come as a surprise to most people to hear that the most important element in this week's midterm elections was not the quality of the candidates, nor their policy positions, but rather it was... DATA MINING?!

That's right. The big secret in Washington political circles these days is that data mining is the key to electoral success. For those of you less computer literate, data mining is the process of using computers to automatically search through large volumes of data for patterns such as association rules. Better data mining leads to better information on voter tendencies and behavior.

Starting in 2002, Karl Rove and the Republican Party really began using data mining techniques to sift through all kinds of information on registered voters. As the Houston Chronicle described, the Republicans implemented its now famous 72-hour-program just before an election aimed at identifying likely Republican voters and getting them to the polls - all with the assistance of data mining to make the identification process more efficient.

For example, the GOP might use data mining "to calculate whether a certain voter in a particular district owned a snowmobile and was therefore a likely Republican voter, then targeting the prospect with a narrow political message". Then using that data, they would, for instance, look "for snowmobile owners and [let] them know that Democrats want to close down their trails," said John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute.

Does this really make a difference? You bet. Especially in close elections, voter turnout is typically the single largest factor in deciding the outcome of elections. As Kevin Cornwell describes in his blog, Karl Rove has clearly demonstrated in the 2002, 2004, and even this 2006 election that "using data mining techniques to target voters that would otherwise have been overlooked really can swing [an electoral outcome] by few percentage points".

So the next time you listen to political pundits on cable TV talk about why so-and-so won the election and why so-and-so lost, and they lament the failings and espouse the virtues of the two political parties, just remember that data mining, of all things, at least to some extent, trumps them all.

Yet another reason why computer scientists are taking over the world.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Pandora and Internet Radio...

For all of you out there stuck in your world of iTunes and iPods, let this be a friendly reminder that you're missing out. There is a world of music out there that you're probably not exposing yourself to - and of course, it's free and legal to listen to it over any internet connection.

On a recommendation, I recently created my own Pandora internet radio station. A group called the Music Genome Project has a database of nearly all the music in the history of the world, and when you tell it what you like, it will not only play that music, but also more obscure material of similar music geneology. I've been testing it for a few days and am already hooked.

Other internet radio stations abound. Popular streaming internet radio directories include Live365 and ShoutCast, in addition to several open-source alternatives such as IceCast. Also, many bands' offical websites offer their own stations, as well as music festivals, such as Bonnaroo Radio. Penguin has even started selling a stand-alone device so that you can listen to internet radio stations without even having a computer. This is not even to mention the millions of podcasts that you can download for later listening.

But there are, however, several downsides. First of all, the overwhelming majority of internet radio stations are amateurish at best - meaning that since any schmoe off the street can create their own station, there is, naturally, an awful lot of junk out there, and sifting through it to find stations you like can be a daunting and time-consuming challenge.

Second, as with traditional radio, I am constantly frustrated with not having control over what songs I get to listen to. For instance, when I'm listening to a station and they play a song I don't like, I'm forced to sit through it anyway - and I HATE that! At least Pandora allows me to skip songs that aren't my speed, but even they limit that feature.

It is in this sense that, in a world where users have increasingly more control over what content they consume, even internet radio seems stuck twenty years in the past.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Michael J. Fox and "The YouTube Election"...

Tomorrow America will vote in, what the New York Times has called, the first "YouTube Election". Almost every obnoxious political ad that bombards us on TV is now also available anytime on YouTube. But will the internet as new political medium actually have real effects on the election? If so, how much?

As James Poniwozik's essay in Time Magazine points out, web video has limited influence because ultimately it is an opt-in medium - that is, people have to seek out political ads they want to view and click on a link, rather than get unwillingly bombarded by those ads on television and radio. This means the number of people viewing poltical ads online is miniscule in comparison.

But can political web videos still have at least some effect? Last week offerred a telling moment. The Michael J. Fox ad, where he expresses his support for Claire McCaskill for Missouri Senator, made it all the way up to number one in the YouTube rankings for the week as most viewed video on the site. After Rush Limbaugh stirred up controversy by mocking Michael J. Fox and the symptoms of his Parkinson's disease, the ad received national attention (not only Missouri voters, who were the only ones to see it on television). Suddenly, the YouTube political ad went viral - it was viewed and shared by millions, through the site, by email, and classic word-of-mouth.

As Poniewozik notes, what may be most significant is that these are millions of people who are now watching political ads on purpose! After tomorrow we should have a better understanding of how it may have actually shaped the election outcome, but in the meantime, YouTube has certainly helped turn a local advertisement into one having far-reaching national effects.