Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Committing Facebook Suicide...

For those individuals out there fed up with mindless status updates from "friends" who you barely know, for those who don't want their employers seeing family photos, or for those who are scared to death of new privacy policies that allow your favorite social networking site to share your status updates and photos with Google, there is a solution... suicide.

Digital suicide, that is. As RWW reports, several new websites have emerged that allow a person to easily kill their presence on social networking sites. Apparently, this is a major headache to accomplish (who knew?).

Websites like Seppukoo.com and the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine take your login credentials and post a tombstone-like RIP memorial on your former page. Also, by alerting everyone in your social network automatically of your suicide, they claim to cut the suicidal process down from over 9 hours (to do it manually) to just under one.

There are so many interesting (and ridiculous) elements to this story like why Facebook feels compelled to issue cease and desist letters. But what catches my eye is how committing digital suicide is a type of online protest action. There has been a well-chronicled revolt brewing over, first, the inherent lack of privacy on social networking sites and, second, recent changes to Facebook's privacy policies, in particular, which open people's personal info, statuses, and photos to search engines like Google by default. Some very prominent tech gurus have committed Facebook suicide specifically as a protest to these policies.

These suicides ought to be considered protest actions for other reasons as well. Anyone can simply and quietly delete their accounts if they no longer want to participate on these sites. But that's not what's happening. The suicides, by including a public RIP memorial and by making sure to inform all of one's friends about their decision, are intentionally designed to draw attention to the reasons behind the suicide, and not merely the suicide itself. Finally, the suicides aren't permanent. After you've killed yourself and told everybody why, you can reinstate your account with a few clicks.

Anyway, all this talk of people committing Facebook suicide en masse conjures up images of Jonestown and other disturbing mass real-world suicides. Creepy.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Blog Datasets for Researchers...

For any academics looking to perform research on blogs, a series of new tools has recently been developed to assist you in the endeavor.

Thanks to a listserv that I subscribe to from the American Political Science Association (APSA), a pair of datasets, and software tools to analyze them, have been made freely available. One dataset consists of nearly 4000 entries from the Huffington Post (.zip), another focuses on the Obama HQ Blog (.zip), and a third, the Blog Analysis Toolkit, is a web application that makes it easy to organize and sift through any and all blog data of a researcher's choosing.

To better understand...

The Blog Analysis Toolkit (BAT) is a free, Web-based system for capturing, archiving and sharing blog posts. Blog posts are acquired via RSS feeds, and stored in a database where they can be accessed and shared by other researchers. So far, 403 users have set up BAT accounts since April 2008, and collectively they have archived 101962 posts from 435 blogs. Users can add individual blogs to the repository or do research using samples from existing collections created by other users.

The significance of these datasets lies not so much in the raw data itself (which is still in its embryonic stage of development), but rather in the potential of a movement of scientifically collecting blogging data. There is a wealth of information out there waiting to teach us lessons about Americans' political behavior, and to standardize and assist the science behind it will bring those lessons closer to being realized.

Android Tutorial: Getting Started

After deciding to develop for Android rather than the iPhone, it's time to get started. Here are the necessary steps for newbies...

Step #1 - Download and install the Android SDK

Pretty straightforward. Go to http://developer.android.com/sdk/index.html, and download and install. The only "special" instruction is, for Windows users, right-click on My Computer, and select Properties. Under the Advanced tab, hit the Environment Variables button, and in the dialog that comes up, double-click on Path (under System Variables). Add the full path to the tools/ directory to the path. then Restart your machine.

Step #2 - Download and install Eclipse

Again, straightforward (isn't that nice?). Go to http://www.eclipse.org/downloads/, and download and install the language of your choice. Especially for GUI development, I'm a Java fan, myself.

Step #3 - Download and install the ADT plugin

Finally, you'll need the ADT (Android Development Tools) plugin for Eclipse. Download and install it using the instructions at http://developer.android.com/sdk/eclipse-adt.html. There's more steps involved with this installation, but nothing will work without it, so be diligent!

At this point, you're done and should be all good to go. I highly recommend this wonderful tutorial by Lars Vogel to step you through the process of creating your first fully functional Android app (code included). And after that, the sky's the limit.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Should I Develop for iPhones or Android?

Trying to shake off some programming rust, my goal for the winter break is to improve my mobile application programming skills, or, in other words, creating and selling apps for cell phones. Where to start?

First, which platform should I use? Creating apps for the iPhone is my preference, but, as I've ranted about before, Apple requires me to own a Mac (which I don't have). It's obnoxious. Meanwhile, Google's Android doesn't require anything, and that's quite a selling point.

Second, looking a few steps down the line, when I eventually want to sell my app, Apple's App Store requires a $100 registration fee, whereas the Android Market only asks for $25. Both companies take a 30% cut from sales, but Apple won't pay you anything until you break the $250 threshold, whereas Google has a $1-earned minimum. Additionally, employees at Apple have to approve all apps before they get posted in the store, and this has been a nightmare for some developers, since Apple often rejects apps without giving any explanation as to why.

Third, from a programming perspective, iPhone apps require that they be coded in the language of Objective-C. Meanwhile, Android apps can be coded in either Java, PHP, C/C++, or several other languages. Thus, no need to reinvent the wheel - you can just go with what's already your area of expertise. For a more detailed technical comparison, I recommend reading Green's Opinion.

All things considered, I'm going with Android.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Conservatives Battle Hacktivists Over Their Link Shortener...

Here's a story that demonstrates how political conflict is converging with internet technology.

Earlier this week, the Republican Party, through their consultant firm, Political Media Inc., launched a URL shortening service. Basically, GOP.am takes long web addresses and lets users convert them into much shorter ones, which comes in handy when trying to share links on Twitter where the number of characters that can be included in a post is limited.

URL shortening services like the popular Bit.ly have been around for a while, and GOP.am simply emulates existing ones. The only difference is that GOP.am seeks to brand specific links with a conservative label.

Well, hardly any time went by before hacktivists sought to disrupt the service. They accomplished this by creating dozens of shortened conservative URLs for very un-conservative websites. For example, as Wired reports, when Republicans users would go to one GOP.am link, the resulting website featured a sex toy in the likeness of Barack Obama.

But not to be outdone, Political Media Inc. responded by first blocking those hijacked links and, going a step further, is now redirecting the hacktivists to GOP action pages.

Political Media president Larry Ward is quoted as saying this is all done "in the spirit of good-fun politics". I hope so. If the tone between the involved actors is playful, then this is a cute little sideshow story. But if it escalates into more destructive or nefarious activities, then that's an altogether different one.

*** As an ironic postscript, the shortened URL for this post is http://gop.am/DB3S ***

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Coming 'Hulu for Magazines'...

With the media industry in a panic for several years now over the sustainability of its business model, the moderate success of Hulu is becoming the fad standard to follow.

As Peter Kafka writes, the magazine industry is finally ready to announce that it is forming a joint venture to distribute and sell digital versions of its products.

This "Hulu for Magazines" will include the industry's behemoths such as Time Warner, Conde Nast, Meredith, Hearst, and News Corp. The central idea is that, like Hulu, the content owners will create a single digital standard "that is designed to control distribution and sale of their product instead of ceding that to digital powerhouses like Apple (AAPL) and Amazon (AMZN)".

Which makes sense from their perspective. However, basing your enterprise on Hulu's business model is no panacea. First of all, let us remember that Hulu still isn't actually turning a profit. Call me crazy, but somehow that seems like it should matter. Second, there is greater consumer demand for streaming HQ video online than there is for print media. Plain text is already everywhere in cyberspace, but streaming high-def episodes of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia are not. Third, piracy of text is a joke compared to video. All one has to do is re-type into WORD what they're reading, as opposed to decrypting massive amounts of video data. And fourth, Hulu itself, it should be remembered is not a long-term solution either. There are already ways of getting around it (like using Bittorrent), so it's not like the genie was ever in the bottle in the first place. Eventually a tipping point of users will be reached where Hulu itself will be scrambling, again to protect everything, in an effort of futility.

Thus, it appears that Hulu for magazines is coming, whether it's a wise move or not. My money's on Not.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Most Searched-For Terms on Google 2009...

It's nearly the end of the year and the Google Zeitgeist has been released - the search engine's annual report on the most popular keywords people searched for. It's a fascinating glimpse into the public psyche when taken in aggregate.

(All results reflect the U.S. only)

Most Popular Overall

1. twitter
2. michael jackson
3. facebook
4. hulu
5. hi5
6. glee
7. paranormal activity
8. natasha richardson
9. farrah fawcett
10. lady gaga

Most Popular in the News (this is scary)

1. swine flu
2. susan boyle
3. jon and kate
4. adam lambert
5. rihanna (chris brown)
6. new moon
7. inauguration
8. michael jackson
9. nadya suleman
10. missing link found

Most Popular Political Headlines

1. swine flu
2. inauguration
3. rush limbaugh
4. rod blagojevich
5. henry louis gates
6. h1b
7. california budget
8. al franken
9. sonia sotomayor
10. mark sanford

Most Popular Economy-Related Searches

1. crisis
2. cash for clunkers
3. iceland
4. california
5. recession
6. obama
7. unemployment rate
8. green
9. great depression
10. inflation

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Cyber Monday and the Internet Tax Debate...

Yesterday was Cyber Monday - the online equivalent of Black Friday and the best-selling retail day of the year for websites. The results are in. According to CNN, even amidst the recession, Cyber Monday sales rose 14% this year compared to 2008 and consumers also bought nearly 30% more items per order versus last year. Also, shoppers bought 10% more items per order online than they did in stores on Black Friday.

This sounds like a success story for online retailers. So what better time to pull the rug out from under them with new tax requirements of online sales?

A New York Times editorial this weekend suggests exactly that. It argues that, since online retailers don't collect sales tax, they have an unfair competitive advantage over their bricks-and-mortar counterparts and, additionally, that state budgets could use the extra money for their coffers.

Fair points. However, requiring online retailers to collect sales taxes would be a logistical nightmare. The Supreme Court was right in 1992 when it ruled that "it would be unduly burdensome for retailers to collect other states’ sales taxes". The problem is that most small online shops don't have the technical resources to implement such a collection system at a reasonable price. You've got to know the different accounting rules and regulations in all 50 states, then continually adjust your software code to reflect all of them. Small mom-and-pop shops will find that task insurmountable, and it will chill new businesses from ever launching.

I'll admit, I enjoy not paying sales taxes on my online purchases. But the truth is that those savings are nullified by the cost of shipping. Consumers really aren't coming out ahead; it just keeps online retailers on an even keel with their real-space rivals. After all, let's remember the original intent of the Internet Tax Moratorium... to encourage and foster entrepreneurship in nascent cyberspace industries.

That still makes sense today, particularly in these economic times.