Archive for April, 2008

Quickly glancing at OLPC

April 29, 2008

Quite a while ago i read this post about the rise of cheap computing solutions. In light of the growing critique of the OLPC project, it got me thinking that perhaps, by focusing on the details of this specific project we are overlooking some of its most important contributions.

OLPCJust three or four years ago OLPC was the only project explicitly targeting the developing world and the market for low cost, simple computers. Today, we have over 7 competing models targeting this very market (potentially more). As long as this competition continues we can expect better machines and lower prices in this segment. Perhaps that is good, since industry is probably better in taking care of the technical aspects (even if sometimes it needs a push, such as the OLPC project), leaving space for the educators and activists focusing on developing a decent educational infrastructure to utilize this technology.

The main critique of OLPC from the very beginning was that it should be an educational and not a technological project. And I agree that the technological solution alone is meaningless and the true potential for change lies in appropriate adoption framework, particularly when we talk about education. At the same time, I think that its contribution to the technological push should not be underestimated. Does it make any sense?

On an unrelated note, now you can also use Skype on XO computers. I think this is really cool, even though Skype has been recently loosing its quality.

(Images taken from, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5.)


On social networks and shared culture

April 25, 2008

I recently finished grading a lot of papers on the topic of “new” media and culture for Tarleton’s COMM 320 class. Our students had to react to the following statement using the class readings:

Digital media technologies tend to individualize us, to make us feel more separate; digital culture (i.e. the kinds of content those technologies give us access to and the cultural meanings that content regularly offers) tend to connect us, to make us feel more a part of something.

One of the prominent examples to how the “digital culture tend to connect us” was the social networks websites. This is probably why the following post caught my eye. It summaries results of social media study from Universal McCann, which shows major differences between the US and Asian countries in terms of online social networking. It seems that people in different parts of the world tend to join different social networks, which actually makes perfect sense, but undermines that globally-unifying factor that many of our students highlighted (also note the white spaces on the map). It also shows that even in the US itself there is not homogeneity in these environment. In fact, Eszter had a paper showing, among other things, that different ethnic groups in the US tend to join different social networking website.

It could be interesting to look at the complete report since it also suggest differences in patterns of grassroots content production in various regions of the world. I think when talking about “new” media and “digital” culture, it s very important to put things in context (and that is one of the ideas in my eyes behind thinking macro :). I wonder though what would be the best way to incorporate that in teaching.

WikiCandidate reloaded

April 14, 2008

Thanks to the dedication of our developers, we finally launched an updated version of WikiCandidate website. That’s exciting!

WikiCandidateI wrote about this project earlier, so i will not repeat much here. With the update, the basic priniciples remain the same, practically everything on the website is editable. What different now is a slicker look and that your participation is now more visible (for example, now all the stories have by-lines).

If you haven’t done it yet, please register and take part in editing the website. The content you currently see on the website was generated by users and it is easy to create new one or to edit the existing. Please feel free to send feedback with your thoughts (especially if you had an experience with the old design too). Thanks!

The plan for further development of the site includes adding further features that would highlight the users’ contributions. We also have the survey (aka “donate”) module ready and as soon as we have the question pool ready and approved by the IRB, you will be able to “contribute” to WikiCandidate’s campaign. Also, you will be able to link your blogs to WikiCandidate’s blogroll and create WikiCandidate Gear.

While all this is being developed, our primary goal now is publicizing the platform. So, if you don’t mind, please give a hand and spread the word around. Thanks!

WD bacup utility

April 11, 2008

I have a WD external hard drive. It came together with a utility named WDsync. It is used to back up your files, particularly your Outlook. On the surface it appears sophisticated. Your files are stored in an encoded format and you can still browse them through the utility program (including looking at specific emails, contacts, or appointments).

However there is a slight problem – IT DOES NOT WORK WELL! Recently i reinstalled my laptop and used the WD backup to restore the Outlook content. First, instead of synchronizing the main PST file or creating a new one, the program added the old PST inside the new one, thus making it impossible simply using the Outlook. After manually organizing the outlook so it could be useful, i realized that many of my emails simply disappeared, emails in Hebrew and Russian turned out question marks or Gibberish, and all the contacts appeared in some weird format.

The bottom line is that i would not recommend anyone using this backup utility. Try finding a better one or if you already know, please share.

Facebook and surveillance

April 8, 2008

Another post that spent a while in my drafts. I wrote it after Syria blocked FB and i got in a short conversation with bloggers on Mideast Youth.

One of the commenters stated that “there is no doubt that these socialisation sites like Facebook, Orkut, Hi5, Xuga, etc and even Hotmail, Yahoo, GMail and all others are connected to CIA, and CIA feeds MOSSAD when necessary”. That sparked a conversation about the degree of involvement of the intelligence agencies in monitoring the web in general and particularly FB. My interaction was actually with Tamara, with whom i think we agree and the discussion was mainly on semantics. I think my problem was primarily with an idea of CIA, or any other intelligence agency, actually being directly linked to something like FB and monitoring what is going on in there. From my point of view, that would be crossing a few red lines unacceptable “even” in the post 9/11 reality (as if to support my thoughts Washington Post published this article). In other words, assuming CIA having a pipe plugged into FB servers is going a little bit too far.

Interestingly, just a few days after that discussion, i bumped into a Newsweek article about a mysterious murder in Italy. One of the prominent points in that article is the use Italian police made of the Web in order to track the suspects. They did check out suspects’ FB profiles, their recent Google searches, and used Skype to reach one of the other suspects. However, linking this back to the CIA-Syria discussion, i think this articles makes an interesting point. It seems like when they need it, the security forces are capable of gaining the information from social networking websites and more. The articles of course does not explain how exactly they gained that access, but i don’t think it implies that there is a constant surveillance of these public spaces. Actually it seems to me that it makes quite an opposite point and in this sense the new media are no different from the more veteran technologies (phone, TV, or library for that matter).

Also, as I was reading that, i couldn’t help but think about the degree of exposure people are reaching online these days. And it is not that they were forced into it, or had actually to exchange something about themselves in return for a product or service. FB in fact does not have any content or even a product. All it provides is a platform, but the choice what to put on this platform is totally in the hands of the users. This leads me to thinking about the changing awareness and perception of privacy among the youth. What is going on there?

More on Facebook

April 5, 2008

Here is a post that has been sitting in my drafts for a while (I am even embarrassed to say how long).  Even though, re-reading it now, I think it is still relevant.

Since Microsoft bought a minority share in Facebook (FB), the later refuses to leave the news pages. Actually, i personally was surprised by the 15 billion evaluation of a network that has a rather fuzzy product. Unfortunately i was (and still am) stuck with school tasks, so i didn’t have the time to play with the numbers myself. Fortunately there are people out there with more time, who did the excercize.

As i suspected, the 15 billion figure is indeed appears blown out of proportion. Jesse Chan of FisTrain has a detailed explanation that leads him to estimate FB’s annual earnings in 2007 at US $47.7 million, which in turn gives Facebook a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of 316. In other words, Microsoft paid US $316 for each US $1 of earnings of Facebook. For comparison, General Electric’s P/E in the last 12 month was about 18.5, General Motors’ 11.23, Google’s (which i think is still high) was 58.21, and Amazon’s (even higher) 102.21.

Of course, we can assume that the company is going to grow tremendously in the future. For example, at the end of 2007 FB launched “FB Pages” that will allow local businesses and brands to have their own pages. Users will be supposed to interact with those pages, contributing to viral marketing and sharing their demographics. In other words it moves towards the mainstream, marketing-oriented media activity (an further away from its potential educational promises), which suggests better profitability. However, according to Chan, even if FB will generate US $200 million in net income in 2008 (four times more compared to 2007) , its P/E ratio will still be at 75, which in my view is very high.

My point is that FB is an example that has too much resemblance with the spirits of late 1990’s when we worked with multipliers of 400 and 600. Of course some lessons have been learned and the advertising models online are more sophisticated compared to what we saw in the year 2000. However, the remaining question is if the advertising industry capable of supporting an entire other industry that is producing nothing but detailed demographics while being expected to grow 3 and 4 times a year.

Neat gadget

April 2, 2008

I just read about this neat gadget. It is a pen that allows you to transfer your handwritten on paper notes to digital format. I actually suspected it to be an April’s fool prank, until I got to the price. Starting at almost $400 for a basic kit, I think I will have to stick to the old fashion ways for a while.

At the same time, I wonder if it really would be useful to have an ability to export my handwriting into a computer. After all, I type better and clearer than I handwrite. What would it leave such a device for? Just for drawings? In that case, would this pen be a better solution than a tablet PC?


It looks like was a bit too quick on the keyboard. I watched a video about the pen here and I could clearly think about a few uses for this product. Particularly, I am thinking about research field work that involves qualitative data collection such as interviews. In these situations you would not probably carry a laptop and type your notes as you speak. At the same time, you would often take notes and if there are dozens or hundreds of interviews to conduct it can be very handy. Also, the $20 notebook where you are taking notes with this pen has waterproof pages and allows you to use tags (and GIS in the future), which makes it even more appealing for research fieldwork.

There is of course still the issue of price as well as some technical questions that remain open. For example, right now it work only with MS OneNote 2007 and I wonder how good it is with text recognition. I have a really bad handwriting, yet it would be great to have an ability to turn the hand written text into editable typed format. Anyway, it looks interesting.