North Wind And Sun

Google Labs adds head-scratching new feature to Gmail

Posted in Gmail, Google, Real life by Ricardo Bilton on 7-October-2008

I don’t think there is any Internet user alive that hasn’t sent an email that he or she has later had the misfortune of regretting. That said, I still find it very bizarre that Google has gone and added Mail Goggles, an e-mail reconsidering-catalyst, to Gmail.

Mail Goggles’s purpose, it seems, is to prevent Gmail users from making bad, potentially life-ruining mistakes via email. By giving users the option to reconsider (in the form of math problems, it seems) sending an email within a certain range of hours – late nights on the weekends, for example – the Google Labs folks hope to save many a young heartbroken lover the trouble of explaining his or her late night alcohol-induced emails.

While Mail Goggles still reeks of a far-too-early April Fool’s prank, I can’t help but shake the feeling that his new feature will indeed save many people much embarrassment.

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When technology competes with teaching

Posted in College, learning by Ricardo Bilton on 23-August-2008

The interaction between technology and teaching tends to skew towards either academic augmentation or destructive interference. Academic augmentation typically occurs a professor and student jointly embrace technology and create a novel implementation of it, thereby improving the learning atmosphere. Destructive inference is far more one sided, rearing its head when the student/teacher engagement is absent and technology, usually in the form of a laptop computer takes its place.

An article in the New York Times underscores some of the nuances of this interaction. A number of American Universities have taken a step towards supersaturating the already-striking device-to-student ratio, gifting their first years with one of the more desirable products on the market – the Apple iPhone.

The portability of the iPhone, as well as its ability to be built upon, say these Universities, makes the iPhone the ideal device in the effort towards enhancing technological learning. Of course, that very same portability will inevitably inspire – as it already has with the iPhone’s spiritual precursor, the laptop computer – students to enhance their learning by bringing the device to class.

That ability carries with it a number of drawbacks. A dull lecture by a professor coupled with the presence of a laptop computer or iPhone will inevitably give way to temptation, and a few seconds of casual browsing or email checking adds up over the course of a class meeting or a semester. While lost in their computer screens, students miss classroom questions and announcements. Multitasking is problem enough outside of the classroom environment, and it is certain that professors face an uphill struggle in competing with computers in the classroom.

But as with most new technologies, the worth of the iPhone in the classroom lies in its ability to augment the learning experience. The iPhone’s potential as a learning device certainly there for a plethora of new teaching techniques and applications. Right now, it’s simply a question of whether those applications will actually be developed and whether professors will be able to keep up with them.

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Super Smash Brothers and experimental teaching

Posted in College by Ricardo Bilton on 21-August-2008

Oberlin College, it seems, at one point offered a course called Super Smash Brothers Melee Theory and Practice. Here the course description:

This course will teach students the basic, intermediate and advanced combat techniques in the video game Super Smash Brothers Melee for the Nintendo Gamecube. This course will also provide in depth lectures and discussions involving many controversial issues concerning video games in our society today such as censorship, stereotyped characters, addiction, and gaming as an evolving art form. Gamecubes, televisions and controllers will be provided by the instructors. Gamers and non-gamers are welcome and encouraged to take this course. Classes will meet for two and a half hours each week-one and a half hours during regularly scheduled discussion and class time, and one hour outside regular class time as a practicum to practice and refine skills.

Oberlin College, located in Oberlin, Ohio, offers the course as a part of its student-run Experimental College program, whose goal, according to its charter is ” to provide members of the Oberlin community with the opportunity to share in educational alternatives not available in the area.” In order words, ExCo, as it’s called, gives students the chance to teach courses that are are a bit too unconventional (or, say, absurd) for the traditional teaching curriculum.

It’s easy to scoff at the silliness of it all, but there is certainly some merit to the experimental teaching approach, especially when it gives students themselves the ability to teach something they are comfortable with. Teaching any skill, even something as seemingly-wasteful as video games is as much of a learning process as taking any kind of class.

Other notable past offerings include (but are surely not limited to) “The Simpsons: A Cultural and Philosophical Perspective, Calvin and Hobbes ExCo, and Love is Understanding: The Truth About the Monkees.”

A listing of the ExCo’s offerings up to Fall of 2007 can be found here.

NCTA to FCC: Well…they do it too!

Posted in Uncategorized by Ricardo Bilton on 29-July-2008

(Note that the title to this post should be read in the reader’s best five year-old voice.)

National Cable and Telecommunications Association vice president Daniel L. Brenner submitted a list to the FCC which detailed the network traffic and bandwidth consumption polices of various American Universities.

In the letter attached to the list, Brenner presents his argument, which, at first glance, is particularly sound:

If temporarily delaying P2P uploads to prevent congestion is deemed somehow to violate the principles of the Commission’s Internet “policy statement” then surely the more severe outright prohibitions on P2P usage imposed by wireless carriers and by colleges and universities must violate them as well.

He goes on:

If there is to be regulation, therefore, it must apply equally to all providers […] But the far better approach, in the absence of any evidence that network management is harming competition or consumers, is to allow different network providers to continue to see out the network management techniques that are best suited to preventing congestion on their particular networks and maximizing customer satisfaction.”

In other words, if the FCC allows colleges and universities to manage their network traffic, then they are most certainly contradicting themselves denying ISPs that very right. Makes sense.

But on closer inspection, Brenner slips up. Instead of referring to companies like Comcast as ISPs,  he lumps them with colleges and universities, calling them “network providers.” Of course, therein lies the key difference between MIT and Comcast – while MIT is an institution of higher learning, Comcast is – and this should go without saying – a company. Calling Comcast merely a “network provider” is ignoring the fact that they are also a main source of Internet services as a whole, and not solely what Brenner calls “networks.”

One question that I wish I had an answer to is whether the FCC even has jurisdiction over the network management practices of colleges and universities in the first place. Does a typical university network qualify as delving into interstate or international communications,  areas where the FCC enforces its regulations?

In all, Brenner’s letter strikes me as a surprising juvenile ploy, and a classic one at that. What better way to attempt to take the focus off your constituents’ own practices than to implicate some other, unrelated party?

This is Cuil

Posted in Search engines by Ricardo Bilton on 29-July-2008

Like most internet users, I use Google’s search service almost exclusively. It’s not something I’m particularly conscious of; it’s a twitch reaction: Search? Google. As you might expect, things have worked out pretty well so far, which is why Google is my default search engine.

Naturally, in keeping with the market forces that launched Google to its current status,  competing search engines pop up on a fairly frequent basis, most of which, foolishly or not, are soaked with the intention of usurping Google from its pedestal.

Cuil (pictured above) is the most recent of these start ups. Pronounced ‘cool’, the name for the search engine derives from the old Irish for “knowledge.”  Much of the inital interest in Cuil seems to stem from the fact that it was launched by former Google employees, a number of whom worked on some of the key indexing features of the Google search engine.

According to Cuil’s CEO and founder Tom Costello, Cuil features a much more robust indexing roster, beating out Google with a number in the ballpark of 120 billion pages. (This number, as one should assume, is only as significant as the relevancy of the indexed pages, of course.)

Cuil's results page

The simplicity of Cuil’s (off kilter) search page is the most apparent hallmark to Google. (Note, however, that Cuil is decked-out in the energy-saving hue black. Shame on you, Google!) The similarities seem to stop there, as Cuil features a dramatically different results page from Google’s own. Rather than listing results linearly, Cuil groups results by category, realizing that sometimes results have different meanings in different contexts.

Their philosophy on how search engines should work is convincing enough to bring forth questions on Google’s own method. Cuil operates on the assumption that a popular page isn’t automatically a relevant page. Pages not commonly linked to can be just as significant as the most popular ones.

Cuil also separates itself from Google in the privacy sector”

Then we offer you helpful choices and suggestions until you find the page you want and that you know is out there. We believe that analyzing the Web rather than our users is a more useful approach, so we don’t collect data about you and your habits, lest we are tempted to peek. With Cuil, your search history is always private.

Though Google doesn’t attach names to their saved searches, they have been criticized in the past for their data collection practices. Cuil’s privacy statement is fairly straightforward:

Privacy is a hot topic these days, and we want you to feel totally comfortable using our service, so our privacy policy is very simple: when you search with Cuil, we do not collect any personally identifiable information, period. We have no idea who sends queries: not by name, not by IP address, and not by cookies (more on this later). Your search history is your business, not ours.

The potential for Cuil is certainly there, but the key to its success is not in its potential, but rather in its ability to become the automatic destination for those searching online. I think I’ll replace Google for a week and give Cuil an adequate test drive.

(As a somewhat humorous sidenote, Cuil itself does not appear when one searches it for it within Cuil. It does, however, appear via Google.)

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On being loved by a multi-national corporation

Posted in Economics, Nintendo by Ricardo Bilton on 20-July-2008

I’ve never put much stock in analyzing the actions and motives of corporations from any vantage other than profit. Profit is what makes a company tick. Milton Friedman said that “because doing so is legally required of of corporate executives, profit must be the ultimate of all business decisions.”

So color me cynical when I read something like this tear-jerker posted on Nintendo blog GoNintendo. In it, blogger RawMeatCowBoy relays his thoughts on an interview with Nintendo Vice President of Corporate Affairs Denise Kaigler. It’s a heartfelt, earnest post and I would encourage anyone interested in the current conflict between Nintendo’s core gamer and Nintendo’s stockholders to read it.

But there are a number of things about it that, through no fault of the author’s, strike me as a bit false and insincere, and much of it comes from a simple look at Nintendo’s recent history.

Over the past few years, Nintendo has launched itself from the doldrums third-place status in the console race to the dominant and well-earned position of market leader. It’s done this through pursuing what is called a “blue ocean” strategy, a strategy that vaunts innovation as a means by which to tap into new markets. Nintendo’s “blue ocean” was the largely untapped market of what became known as the “casual market.” This group consisted of those traditionally ignored by the video game industry – in particular mothers, the elderly, and young women – and Nintendo’s goal was to morph them into their newest income source.

Their strategy  paid off. Realizing that the number of people who did not play video games far outnumbered the number that did, Nintendo crafted titles aimed at attracting these new gamers. But they first had to answer a number of questions, many of which dug deep down to what the heart of what video gaming had come to be. Why had the term “gamer” become synonymous with geeky basement dwellers? Why did some people seem afraid of video game controllers? How can developers make games for those who had never touched a video game before in their lives?

The answers to these questions resulted in the invention of Nintendo’s two newest consoles – the Nintendo DS and Wii. These consoles radically redefined the gaming climate, and, led by Nintendo’s lucrative new strategy, launched the gaming industry – for better or for worse – into the the era of the expanded audience, i.e, the casual gamer.

But for Nintendo loyalists, this new era was fraught with a number of uncertainties. If the new focus was on the more lucrative casual game market, where did that leave the “core” gamer? Would Nintendo abandon those that stood by the company, even through the tumultuous GameCube years, in favor of increased profits? Would the traditional idea of the video game evaporate with the emergence of Nintendo’s new strategy?

This uncertainty was certainly brought to the fore once again with Nintendo’s recent, decidedly poor, E3 showing. For “core gamers” it couldn’t have been worse. Nintendo showed off a new iteration in the fan-favorite series Animal Crossing, a new Wii Sports title, and the painfully simple Wii Music. All of these were first-party, AAA-quality Nintendo titles, to be sure, but they weren’t what those who were really paying attention to E3 were looking for. Where were the core titles, the Mario‘s, the Zeldas? Weren’t they promised a new Kid Icraus?  (They weren’t.) Had Nintendo really forgotten the core gamer and the loyal Nintendo stalwart?

Enter RawMeatCowboy and his interview with Kaigler. Cowboy runs the very popular Nintendo blog GoNintendo, which I visit fairly often. The popularity of his blog, and the often rabid enthusiasm of its readers, seems to inspire Cowboy to think of himself as a type of representative for his readers. During his fifteen-minute interview with Kaigler, he addresses many of the concerns that core gamers are having with Nintendo’s new strategy, and, in particular, their issues with games presented at this year’s E3.

Responding to the question of the direction Nintendo was taking with its games, Kaigler points to the past few years as evidence that Nintendo has not shafted the core gamer in favor of the casual audience. Titles like Mario Kart, Twilight Princess, and Mario Galaxy, Kaigler says, are proof that Nintendo had not forgotten who their core constituents are.

Cowboy then goes into a thoughtful, philosophical adventure into Nintendo’s casual strategy, comparing Nintendo to television and their games to programs designed for everyone. It makes tons of sense, and I am certain that a number of GoNintendo readers forced themselves to begrudgingly agree with the analogy.

But I can almost hear the crescendo as Cowboy approaches his next point. Marking it as the statement that made the whole interview worth it, Cowboy says that Kaigler, honestly and sincerely, said the following:

Nintendo loves you.

As I read this, I could hardly stifle a groan. Like I said above, I’ve never been too convinced that a company like Nintendo, whom I have been a regular costumer of for most of my life, can afford to concern itself with emotions like love and duty. Uttered in that context, “love” becomes a PR word. The subtext of love, that fanciful notion typical of us fleshy humans, is a bit more cold and robotic: Profit. A corporation is not human. It can not love a group of people. If we view a corporation like a Darwinian machine, the symbiotic relationship typical of love becomes an evolutionary strategy. It’s another tool to be used in an effort to increase profits,  the corporation’s version of fitness.

Dangerous? Slightly.
Dangerous? Slightly.

This is why I think it’s dangerous to take these sorts of comments at face value. When we treat a PR spokesperson or Vice President like a personal friend, as someone whose views trump their company’s continuing quest for profits, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. In the case of the core versus casual debate, economic forces could cause Nintendo veer in a completely new direction, one that just might cause them to completely ignore their loyal core gamer. An event like that, as heartless as fans might take it to be, is completely natural in the corporate world. As glacial as it might seem, a corporation only values its customers as much as those customers are capable of producing revenue. Once a bloc of consumers ceases to become economically-useful, they cease to become relevant.

It’s safer, certainly, to see Miyamoto, Reggie, and Iwata as our best buds, those who hold our best interests at heart, but we cannot forget that those love-able figures have families to feed. And we don’t write their checks.

Surprised? Students pirate texbooks

Posted in College, Piracy, Torrents, Uncategorized by Ricardo Bilton on 19-July-2008

This is a textbook.

I propose – if it hasn’t been proposed already –  a new rule in the vein of Rule 34, only far less explicit.

It’s essentially this: If something can exist digitally, someone is pirating it right now.

I mention this in light of situation surrounding textbooktorrents.com, which, last I checked, had been taken down by DreamHost. Textbook torrents, a torrent tracker that, until recently, provided students with free, largely illegal textbook torrents was named in a Chronicle of Higher Education report about textbook piracy.

Now, I’ve been trying to rationalize two particular facets of the situation – why it exists, and why it matters – and I’ve reached a few conclusions.

Why it exists should be fairly obvious. The situation is a perfect storm of financial disincentives and technological prowess. As anyone who has ever been a student certainly knows, textbooks are expensive, often excessively so, and nearly out of the range of the wallets of most college students But that’s not exactly unique for textbooks. Technological prowess factors in when we realize that the group that high textbook prices affects the most is also the group that knows the most about illegally downloading material via the Internet. Thus, textbook piracy becomes an act that we can bind fairly well to a certain group of people – college students.

But why does this matter? Unlike, say music or movies, textbooks are often vitally important to successful completion of a course. When you look the average price for a college textbook it should start to make sense why students would pirate them – they are bloody expensive. This is not reason to condone piracy or any act that takes money away from authors, but it certainly reveals something about the financial situation of the average college student. This is why it should be looked at a bit differently than music or movie piracy.

I wonder if this difference can explain the publishing companies’ comparatively  tame anti-piracy tactics, which usually involve threatening emails to the sites that host content rather than crusades against the people who download from them.