Monday, December 5, 2011

The Future of Education

The development of the internet and related technologies has revolutionized many areas of the modern world, everything from research to shopping. However, the educational system has basically remained the same as always, with little improvement or innovation. Yet, things are starting to change. New technologies and developments in online education will help make learning less expensive and more effective and enjoyable.

Currently, most educational institutions follow a lecture-based learning model. In general, the teacher or professor recites the same lecture each time for every class he or she has on a specific subject. This raises a simple question: why can’t students just watch a video of the lecture?

The basic advantage or repeating lectures is to make the class more interactive so students can ask and answer questions while the material is being taught. However, this is often not so effective in practice. Different students understand different things, and one student’s question might just be an interruption for many other people. Therefore, a student might not ask the question, but then won’t be able to follow what comes afterwards.  Perhaps certain subjects could get a discussion-model to work for small, selected groups, but then the per-student cost for the class would be very high.

What actually happens in many cases is that students sit passively in class for most of a lecture, with little interaction and varied levels of attentiveness. Such a class does not really provide any advantage over a video of the same lecture, which students could watch instead. In fact, once the lecture becomes a video, it can be given once by the best presenter on the topic, and then shown to all future students throughout the world. This model has been particularly successful with Khan Academy, a website with thousands of free videos on various topics. By having the lecture on video, a student can watch at his own pace, pausing it, fast-forwarding or rewinding it when necessary. Many students preferred learning from these videos over any other approach.[1]

Khan Academy does not even show any lecturers in its videos, the focus is on the material itself. This might be a little too extreme, since a blackboard can get a bit boring at a certain point. However, educational videos can move beyond such simple graphics and display sophisticated diagrams and visualizations that can make the material clearer and more interesting. For example, the focus of a biology video can be on the actual organ or cell being studied, rather than on a lecturer or blackboard.

Videos themselves can be useful but they are not the ideal total system to learn new material. They offer little interactivity, and play at a constant rate, ignoring the student entirely[2]. Newer technologies allow the student to go through the material in a more active and engaged manner.

At a simple level, the student can always be required to be answer questions and complete challenges in order to move forward to the next topic. This way, he will always be involved in doing things, not just watching them. The system can quiz him and keeps track of what he knows, so he can be tested on it later. There can also be various gaming elements as students compete for high scores in their topic. Khan Academy has recently begun adding such features to their website, and has reported much success.

Besides just having quizzes, the educational content itself will be much more interactive than a simple lecture, text or video. The student will not just passively watch content, but will be able to manipulate and explore virtual representations and objects. Some topics can be learned through simulations and games where the student will be able to directly partake in the subject material itself. For example, when learning physics, students can play around with a physics simulator to explore how different laws work. They could then be required to complete a virtual activity that requires the correct physical knowledge, such as building a bridge or firing a rocket. This would make the subject more interesting and understandable than current methods.

Although computer-based education provides many benefits, there are also some apparent disadvantages that need to be dealt with. When learning a subject it helps to have someone to whom one can ask questions. Googling questions do not always turn up good results, and sometimes one needs specific help with a particular issue. A good online educational system would need to provide ways to get specific help. Some of the content and questions can expandable sections and links that provide more explanation when needed. General questions can be asked in online forums, where other students or experts can answer them. This model has worked well on sites like StackOverflow.com where strangers often give excellent answers to answer to other people’s questions for free. It can definitely work for a group learning a subject online, and there can be experts who review some of the answers or answer the most difficult ones.

If a student needs help with a specific issue, it may sometimes help to have an actual person he can ask the questions to. However, there is no need to have a teacher give a whole lecture just so he can answer students’ questions. The student can learn the subject online, and then if he runs into an issue that another student cannot answer, he can ask a designated expert on the topic.[3] When needed, these experts can also give specific feedback on a students’ work. Overall, this model of answering questions can be both cheaper and more effective than the traditional one.

One apparently minor issue that arises when with computer-based education is the opportunity for distraction. Before computers, people only had their pens to distract them while studying. (In fact, for some students, scribbling is one of the main skills learned in school.) Yet now, thousands of distractions lay just a click away at any moment.  While this may help alleviate the boredom of a student stuck in class, it raises a fundamental issue: How will people learn how to scribble? Also, it raises another important issue: How can one focus in the age of Gmail, Facebook, YouTube and non-stop news? In one way, moving education from the dry lecture to a more interactive model may help it compete better with modern distractions, but they will still remain a major problem.

Any technology that puts people at a computer to learn will need to take these issues into account. On the superficial level, time-management programs, such as RescueTime and LeechBlock, can be placed on computers to help prevent students from wasting time. To help encourage people to actually do work, there can be general tasks they must complete, so they can’t just do everything right before the tests. This will help encourage deeper learning of material than the current test-focused models. On the more fundamental level, people need to develop proper focus and work habits, but this is something which becomes easier when the material is more interesting.

Currently, education is extremely expensive. Over the last few decades, costs in education have risen far higher than the pace of inflation, but without improving their results. For example, at Yeshiva University, tuition rose from $16,000 to $33,000 between 1999 and 2010.[4] Obviously, if people switch to a completely online education system, they will be able to save a significant amount on tuition. But there can also be significant savings if schools switch to a “blended model” where students learn most of the material on a computer but still meet in person for some study groups and classes. University costs will be able to be dramatically cut, while the education may become more effective and enjoyable.

The move to online education is already happening, and it is already working.  A 2009 meta-study by the US department of education found that “...on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”[5] Online education is not only far less expensive than traditional methods, it also has better results.  These results will only improve as more sophisticated interactive content and methods are developed.


 






[1] See Wired’s article on Khan Academy, at http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/07/ff_khan/all/1




[2] It is true he can pause the video, but one doesn’t have the same control of “processing” the content when it’s a video, and it is hard to refer back to a previous part.




[3] This would be similar to the “shoel u’meshiv” of a traditional Beit Midrash. One expert will be able to serve a large number of students for each subject.




[4] http://chronicle.com/article/Interactive-Tool-Tuition-Over/125043/




[5] http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Building Websites II - Creating Static Webpages

Static websites are written in HTML. It's a simple markup language to format documents and display basic elements in them. This series will show you how to create websites without having to deal with the actual code, but its useful to work with programs that keep the HTML clean so you can later use it while working in the program. An excellent program for such purposes is Microsoft Expression Web. It can be purchased relatively cheaply online, and is free for college students without any restrictions. To download it, sign up at Dreamspark with a Microsoft account, and then give them your student email address. After they verify it, you'll be able to download the installation file to a CD and install it on your computer.  One you've done that, you can read the dry introduction below to get to know the basics of Expression Web and its layout.

 Creating a Site with Expression Web

After you install and open Expression Web, click on Site>New Site to create your first site. There are different options you can choose from, such as trying one of their templates, but you might as well just create a single-page site. Pick a location and name and hit 'OK'. This will create a folder with a single file called "default.html". Whenever you go to a website without specifying a specific page on it, it sends you the homepage of the site, which is usually called "default" or "index".  So make sure to name this file correctly, or when people visit YourSiteName.com they will get an error. You can find out what format your web host uses by seeing what default files come with it.

 Creating basic web pages

After creating a site, double-click on "default.html" to edit it. It will open in a new tab, and you can immediately begin creating your site. You can type whatever content you want in the WYSIWYG editor.  Although you don't need to edit any code now, you should be aware how easy it is to do so. Just click on "code" on the bottom left.  This is where you could type or paste direct code. To view both the code and the design view simultaneously, just click on "split".

 The Toolbar

0image

The toolbar on top of expression web contains the basic options for customizing your webpage content.

In the center-right are common options that shopuld look pretty similar to toolbar options in other programs,  like bolding text or making bullet points.
1image

Further to the right are options for inserting basic HTML elements, such as a table or div. Tables should be used to display tabular data, while divs can be used later to help format your site. They mark off blocks of the site that can be formatted in specific ways. There's another button for inserting an image, though you can also just drag an image into Expression web from your computer. When inserting a picture, a dialog will pop up to prompt you for alternate text if the picture cannot be viewed.

The next button is for inserting Hyperlinks, one of the fundamental aspects of the web. No longer is information out of reach, everything is just a click away. After selecting on text and clicking on the link button (or pressing ctrl-K), a dialog will pop up. You can choose to link to another page in your site by selecting it, or you can paste in a URL to another page on the internet. Another option is to link to another spot on the same page, but to do this, you will first need to insert a bookmark at the location you want.
Image

On the center-left of the toolbar, there are styling options similar to those in Word, but customized for the web. The drop-down box on the left contains names for different HTML tags, mainly headers and lists. You can select text and then click to apply the style that you want, such as "h2 - Heading 2".  This will by default make the text larger to mark it as a heading.  You will also be able to format such headings more specifically with CSS styles.

The font option doesn't just list one font, but a whole series of them, or "font family". This is to make sure your site will display some font on any browser that its viewed on.  In case a viewer does not have the first font on his computer, the browser will display the next font in the family.  The font option has different sizes, xx-small to xx-large. They also display certain default fonts, though these can be customized later. On the web, you do not want to be locked-in to certain font-sizes, so the focus is on changing the relative size.

Styling sites and CSS

Since Expression Web is meant for creating standards-based websites, it uses normal CSS to style and format webpages. CSS is the styling language used on websites to control the presentation of a webpage, such as what colors and fonts to display for each HTML element. While we won't go into all the details of CSS, you should be aware how it works and how Expression Web generates CSS.

CSS lets you select a certain general HTML element such as "h2" and apply a specific look to it. You can also mark specific items with a "class" and then use CSS to only modify items of that class.

In Expression Web, you can select a specific item by highlighting it, and then apply formatting to it by clicking on one of the toolbars, or by clicking on "style" in tag properties pane on the left. When you apply a style, Expression Web will mark that item with a specific class, and then use CSS in the top of the page's code to apply the look you selected.  This area of CSS is known as an Internal Style Sheet.

If you want to edit the style of multiple items, such as every "h2" element, you can click on "New Style" in the Apply Styles pane on the right. This will diplay a dialog box with many different options. You first need to select what item the style will be applied to by choosing the "selector". In this case, you would choose "h2", though you could choose from any of them, or make your own to apply it more specifically. You can leave the "Define In" as "Current page" for now so the styles will be defined in the Internal style sheet. You can then try out the different options to see all the different ways you can edit something with CSS.

If you want to make things more efficient and apply consistent styles across all the pages of your website, you won't want to keep all the CSS on the page itself, but on an External style sheet. You can use one of Expression Web's default style sheets by clicking on File>New>Page>Style Sheet and selecting one of the CSS pages. You can then attach it to your HTML page by clicking on "Attach style sheet" on the right side. This can be done on any page that you want to have that look, and will automatically apply all the relevant styles to the page. Now, when you add new styles through the "New Style" box, you can select "Define In">"External style sheet" to have Expression Web put the changes in your general CSS page.

Previewing your Site

While the WYSIWYG editor shows you basically how your site will look, you'll want to preview it in a browser also. You can do this from File>Preview In Browser and pick from one of the available browsers. They give you these choices since each browser displays things in a slightly different way, though you don't really need to worry about such details at this point. When you're done editing something, you can also just click on F12 to preview the page in your default browser. If you make another change, you can just save the page in expression web, and refresh it in your browser to see the latest version. (To do this all from your keyboard, click on "Ctrl-S" top save, "alt-tab" to switch windows and "crtl-R" to refresh.)

Publishing your website

Once your done creating your basic website, you will want to publish it online. The most effective way of publishing your web page is through FTP, or "File Transfer Protocol", a way to upload and download files to and from your web server. Expression web has built-in tools for publishing FTP. Click on the "site view" tab>"publishing". The first time you use it, you will need to "add a publishing destination". You can name it whatever you want, but will need the FTP location, username and password that came with your web host. You can also select a specific "directory" (or folder) to automatically open when connected.  Once you've successfully added the FTP information, you should be able to connect to your web host at any point by clicking on "connect to current publishing destination". You can then drag and drop the files you want to publish to the folders you want to publish them to, or you can select them and click on the right arrow. You can also publish files quickly from the "Site" menu, but make sure you're sending them to the folder you want.  Once you've published your site, it will be available to anyone in the world with internet access. You have created a small part of the web. Congratulations :)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Web Hosting Deal of the Year

Dreamhost.com seems like an honest and reliable shared web host. They normally cost more than some of the other hosts, but today I visited their site and they're offering a $110 discount on the first year of hosting. So you can get a domain and a full year of shared web hosting for $9.24, which is about the cost of a domain alone. That's the best deal I've ever seen, though the second year will be at the regular price. An alternative option is Dreamhost Apps, which offers free webhosting for Wordpress and a couple other popular scripts. However, it seemed a bit buggy when I tried it out, and its definitely not like a full-fledged webhosting account.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Google's Idea, the Quality of Search & Quantum Mechanics

Google's been in trouble lately for being too successful, so I thought it would be worth examining how Google improved search and what quality issues have arisen.


Historical background
In the 1990’s the Internet changed the world by providing a way for every type of information to be accessed from anywhere. Yet, this plethora of information would have been impossible to use without technology capable of sifting through it to find what the user needed. Many search engines tried different techniques to rank search results, but none of them did a satisfactory job.
 
In 1998, Google entered the scene. While Sergey Brin and Larry Page were graduate students at Stanford, they developed a new way to rank search results and created Google.com. However, Google soon became a distraction from their important work pursing a PhD, so they tried selling it for $1 million, but no one wanted to buy it. Sadly, they were forced to drop out of school to focus on their company. By 2007, their company was worth more than $200 billion, but they still had no PhD’s.

How Google Works
Brin and Page realized that there was something important on the web that let them rank pages – hyperlinks. The links were simple ways for users to get from one page to another, but they realized the links could also be considered votes. The more incoming links a page had, the higher it would score in their algorithms, PageRank. They also factored in the importance of the linking pages, and the number of outgoing links each page had. This algorithm was finally able to rank pages in a meaningful way, and so Google became quite popular. Google also took into account the frequency and placement of different words, and has added many other factors into its analysis, but PageRank still plays an important role in their rankings.

Issues with Google’s Algorithm
An issue immediately arose with Google’s algorithm. A site could accrue many incoming links for two reasons:
1)      It was a high quality sit, so many websites linked to it.
2)      It spent a lot of effort and money into getting people to link to it so as to boost its PageRank.
The problem with PageRank is that it was too easy to be gamed. As Google became more popular, this became an ever-increasing problem. If only a few people used Google, it wouldn’t be worth the website owners’ efforts to try to game it. But once Google became so big, a site’s entire existence was defined by their rank on Google. Websites had to put a lot of effort into using the right keywords and getting lots of links, and many low-quality sites succeeded at this. Google tried to counter such moves with more advanced algorithms, but there was always a constant cat-and-mouse game between the websites and Google.

In the past year, this issue has been raised in many blogs and newspapers. The New York Times published three articles on websites gaming Google searches (The Eyelasses Crook, JCpenney and Online Flowers Stores). Many topics on Google were returning low-quality sites derided as “content farms” like eHow.com and Associated Content as the top results. While these sites were sometimes useful, they often just stated the obvious without adding any real insight to the topic at hand. The content on the sites is created entirely so as to appear on Google results. Algorithms generate topics and titles based on Google searches and low-paid content writers quickly pump out articles to match the titles. Google’s algorithms were being beaten by content algorithms.

Like in quantum mechanics, Google was unable to remain an external obsevrer, their very act of looking changed the nature of the web.
Google responded to these criticisms with some algorithm updates, but with mixed results. It overall seems to have improved their quality, but low-quality sites still frequently come up high in the results. The problem has been especially problematic in certain high-expense advertising areas. Many sites that are mostly filled with affiliate links (where they get paid for each referall they send) have managed to reach the top of Google’s results with their “reviews” of the topics. For example, try searching for informative reviews of  web hosts, online colleges or penny auctions.
Many sites will pretend to give honest reviews without any disclaimer, but really just contain empty positive reviews so as to get you to click on their affiliate links. On occasion, they will hide an honest disclaimer, such as this top-ranking site for the search “penny auction scam”:
The website www.pennyauctionsreview.org receives compensation for the reviews posted on the site. All the reviews on this site are meant for entertainment purposes only and shouldn’t be taken as fact. Many of the reviews are in fact sent in via email from other people. PennyAuctionsReview.org does not own any of the trademarks used on this website.  The typical person does not win anything by using penny auction sites.

Few visitors will end up reading their disclaimer, but I’m not sure this is the type of content someone investigating penny auctions is looking for. There are also searches where the top Google results have returned incoherent combinations of keywords without any meaning in English:
“With Purchase in every click advertising You could get Suited internet websites visitors into your Company net site The time and effort Your online Marketing is active.”

Other Issues with Google
Google still does not understand many types of queries, so even with a good algorithm for ranking, it won’t know what to search for. For example, if you type in a slightly complicated question, Google will often return irrelevant results. Often you will want to focus on a specific category or group of sites, but that is difficult to do on Google. There are times when the link-based algorithmic approach may not be able to tell which site will be most useful to an actual user.
Sometimes certain sites with overall good content always make it to the top of Google, even when some of their pages do not deserve to be there or are not the best for the user. For example, Wikipedia is on the top of Google for many types of searches. Yet often Wikipedia might not be written clearly enough for the average user who is not familiar with the topic.

Alternatives & the Future of Search
Google is constantly testing and improving their search, but there are also alternatives to Google. Bing is the only big competitor to Google, since they also power Yahoo’s search. Many of their results are similar to Google’s but they have more features for certain categories. Blekko is a recent entry to search which uses human editors along with their algorithms, and tries to only display results from high-quality websites. They also allow users to search specific categories of user-created topics. Google and Bing both recently added the ability to see friends recommendations in search results, and they might eventually allow user votes to affect global search results.

There are also other tools a person can use to find information and websites besides a general search engine. Delicious.com and Xmarks lets you search through other people’s bookmarks. The old-fashioned directory, such as the wiki-style Open Directory can occasionally be useful to explore a certain category. If you have a question, Ask.com’s search engine is now focused on finding if anyone has asked it before. You can also try going directly to high-quality Q&A sites that cover your area, such as Quora or, for some topics, StackExchange.

One of Google’s weakest areas also happens to be the source of much of their revenue. Google makes 99% of their revenue from advertising, but especially in certain categories. They get most of their billions from advertising in commercial categories, especially certain ones such as insurance, loans, and law. Yet these results are frequently low-quality. People are looking for help with major purchases, they need a site that will either solve their issue for them or point them to the right site consistently. If a company is able to help crack such an issue, they may be able to grab a piece of the billions in advertising money that is available.

In the meantime, users can find other sites to help them with their purchases. There are many sites that help the user find the best deal within a specific area, such as the shopping comparison search Nextag, the compare-and-sort site FindtheBest, the review site ConsumerSearch or the bill-analysis site BillShrink. With sites such as these, the user can narrow in on the best deal at the best price.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Computers Begin Taking Over

Soon computers will be diagnosing patients' problems and answering their legal questions...



Watson, the "Jeopardy!"-playing computer system, is getting a job... WellPoint said it plans to use Watson's data-crunching to help suggest treatment options and diagnoses to doctors. It is part of a far broader push in the health industry to incorporate computerized guidance into care, as doctors and hospitals adopt electronic medical records and other digital tools that can record, track and check their work.



 


http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903532804576564600781798420.html


 


 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Posterous Platform Adjusts Focus to Photo Sharing

I've been blogging on the Posteorus platform for about a month and its worked OK. It is able to quickly turn emails into blog posts, so it does the basic job effectively. However, it is missing many features, such as the ability to add useful widgets to the side of the blog. In addition, Gmail does not make the best text editor, since its also a bit oversimplified. For example, its missing basic formatting options that exist in other programs. 

Today, Posteorus just launched a new focus on being a kind of social network and photo-sharing site. The blogging platform will still exist, but they will no longer be focused on blogs. So I guess I won't be able to expect any blogging platform imptovement. I wish them luck, but I will probably move this blog to Wordpress soon.

News sites: 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Teaching through Games

In this Quora answer, I suggested a few ways that games can be used to teach advanced subjects. For example:
 [To learn] programming, one can be required to create programs to complete missions. 

I recently came across a mention in the WSJ of a game that will do exactly that. From the website of CodeHero:
It is a co-op first-person science shooter where you use the code gun to shoot javascript. Your code gun can copy code like new items and fire it like ammunition to do new things.
You can edit new code to do anything you can imagine. You'll learn how to blast the enemy, manipulate the world, and build structures creatively to create the games of your dreams and recruit an army of coders to save the world from rogue AI. 

In the meantime, there's always programs like Greenfoot, Scratch and Microsoft SmallBasic to teach kids programming. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Guide to Building Websites - No programming required - Part 1

Introduction
Many people want to build websites but think they will have to learn programming to do so. This series of posts will show you how to build a website without requiring any coding. Many basic sites can be set up without writing any new code at all. However, programming will be necessary if you want to customize things further, or to create a new type of site. This series will therefore focus on solutions that will work well with actual custom coding later. These posts will also be useful for someone with some programming experience who wants to learn the non-programming aspects of building websites.

What is a website?
A website means you have files hosted on a computer that is always connected to the internet, which is known as a server. The server sends webpages over the internet so that anyone connected can view them. So when a user goes to Amazon.com, a server from Amazon send his computer Amazon's homepage. Technically, any computer can be turned into a server, but practically, you will want to use a web host to host your files on their servers.
So a website is just a collection of files? 
This depends on what type of site you have - static or dynamic. A static site doesn't do anything, it can just display text, images, links and videos. The files are stored on a server and sent over to the user when requested. This may be enough for your site if all you need is a simple online presence for yourself or your business. The pages just consist of simple pages made with HTML and CSS. You can't run any code from the server, but you can use javascript to run simple code from the users' computers. However, if you need a site that can 'do stuff' such as using databases and running code, you'll need a dynamic site, which will be discussed in a future post.


The easiest way to create simple website is to use a DIY-service such as Google Sites or Weebly.com. They offer easy-to-use interfaces for creating simple sites. However, if you want to be able to customize more aspects of your site and have more control over the actual HTML, you'll need a web host that lets you upload your own web files. This guide will assume you will pick a host with such flexibility. There are many free options you can choose from, such as Webs.com, Microsoft Office Live or Static Cloud.

 
What is a Domain Name Registrar? 

A domain name registrar is where you buy your domain name from, such as Example.com. A website actually requires two things - a web server that holds the websites, and a domain server that sends people to the web server when they type in the website name. For example, when you type in Amazon.com into your browser, the name is sent to a Domain Name Server which looks up Amazon.com and then sends your computer the information to connect to Amazon's web servers. The web hosting and domain hosting are often packages together, but they're two separate aspects. So you can buy your web hosting from one place, and then buy five domains from another place.

 
Where should I buy a Domain Name? 

If you're building a simple site, Doteasy.com offers a basic web hosting package with your Domain purchase. If you picked a web host separately, they normally also offer the option to buy a domain name. Though if you want a special deal, GoDaddy.com and 1and1.com often offer domain names for $1 for the first year (You can check deals here). If you're going to get a dynamic host, most of them will throw in a free domain name. Otherwise most Domain Names cost about $10 a year. After you have a domain and a web host, you'll be able to create static websites.


 
How will I do that? 

Stay tuned for the next post...

The Modern Doctor's Office

Last week, I posted that the health sector hasn't modernized and isn't transparent. When ever you visit a new doctor, you have to fill out tons of the same paper forms, and its difficult for one doctor to get information from another. In addition, the doctor has to pay various secretaries and administrators to handle all the paperwork. Today, one startup has raised money to help improve things: 



One Medical operates 9 doctor’s offices in San Francisco and New York, and will open 5 more this year, expanding to Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. Patients can schedule appointments online, request prescriptions, get lab results digitally, and see their personal health summary online. Doctors can access medical records electronically (One Medical designed its own electronic medical record with doctors and patients in mind, not administrators). One benefit of having digital medical records is that patients can visit any office since every doctor has access to their records.


New patients can join online, and pay online.  It even has its own iPhone app for scheduling appointments.  Simple questions which can be addressed via email or the iPhone app are done digitally instead of requiring an in-person visit.  And when patients do go in, the offices are bright, airy and modern. 



http://techcrunch.com/2011/09/05/one-medical-raises-20-million/

Sunday, September 4, 2011

How to claim your Blog on Technorati 3ZP97E2ENKSW

3ZP97E2ENKSW Technorati might serve some use, so it makes sense to claim one's blog on it. You create an accoutn, submit your blog to them, and then post the code they give you. In this case3ZP97E2ENKSW 

Guide to Selling Your Textbooks

If you're a student, you both need to buy textbooks and figure out what to do with your old ones. In most cases, you probably won't look at the textbooks very much in the future, so you should sell them quickly before they depreciate in value. The textbook publishers try to come out with new ones every few years so as to keep sales high. Once the new edition comes out, the prices of the old ones drop dramatically, so don't delay. 


Where to sell Textbooks

Another Student - Again, this is the simplest option if you can do it. You avoid paying fees to any site, and you don't need to bother shipping the book anywhere. You can post an ad on college classifieds site, or put up a sign in the classroom that will have the same course that you took. Then you meet the buyer, exchange the book for cash, and you're done, without any fees involved. 



Amazon or Half.com - If you can't find another student, this is second-most profitable option. You enter the ISBN and condition of your book and it gets listed on the site. Amazon is the most popular site for buying books, so its probably your best bet. However, Half.com has slightly smaller fees, so it might be worthwhile to sell popular books on it. These are the exact fees:

 Both sites charge 15% of the purchase, but Amazon also charges an additional flat-rate of $2.30 for every book sold through their site. Meanwhile Half secretly takes part of the shipping commission, so you only get $2.64 or $3.07 as a shipping credit, depending on whether its soft or hard-cover. However, Half does lower the fees for books over $50.


After the book sells, you need to ship it to the buyer within a couple days. Normally, the cheapest way to to this is with media mail. Both Half and Amazon let you buy shipping labels through their site, which is the most convenient option. A single book normally costs $2.41 - 3.64 to ship, depending on the weight. You then print out a shipping label, stick it on a padded envelope, and mail the book away. 

This table summarizes the costs of each site:





















 



Amazon.com



Half.com



Commission charged



Price * 85% – 2.34 fee + 3.99 shipping credit



Price * 85% + 3.64 (hardcover)


Price * 85% + 2.07 (softcover)



Money received on a 2-pound hardcover $30 Textbook after shipping costs.



$24.33



$26.32





Buyback Sites - Another option is to sell your book to a buyback site. This normally isn't worth it though, since they pay much less than if you just sell it yourself, and you still need to ship it somewhere. The exception is in the rare case where you get a decent amount through these sites. The book must be in very good condition though. As with buying books, you can compare buyback prices with a price comparison search, such as on DirectTextbooks, or NYtextbooks. Amazon Buyback occasionally offers a decent amount of Amazon credit for a book, so that can be a good option if you'll anyways be buying from Amazon in the future. 


Campus Buyback - This is the most convenient option, if its offered on your campus. Be careful not to get ripped off though. When I ran a buyback, I payed 60-70% of the book's used selling price on Amazon. Amazon than took 15% and other fees. Then there were other costs, such as for envelopes and barcode scanners, and some books didn't sell, so I had a small but reasonable profit in the end. Just check the price on Amazon before selling your book and make sure you're getting over half of it. Otherwise, its worth it to just sell the book yourself online.  

Friday, September 2, 2011

Google Kills 10 Products

Over the next few months we’ll be shutting down a number of products and merging others into existing products as features. The list is below. This will make things much simpler for our users, improving the overall Google experience...

Here’s a quick overview of where a number of products and features are headed: 

  • Aardvark: Aardvark was a start-up we acquired in 2010. An experiment in a new kind of social search, it helped people answer each other’s questions. While Aardvark will be closing, we’ll continue to work on tools that enable people to connect and discover richer knowledge about the world.

  • Desktop: In the last few years, there’s been a huge shift from local to cloud-based storage and computing, as well as the integration of search and gadget functionality into most modern operating systems. People now have instant access to their data, whether online or offline. As this was the goal of Google Desktop, the product will be discontinued on September 14, including all the associated APIs, services, plugins, gadgets and support.

  • Fast Flip: Fast Flip was started to help pioneer news content browsing and reading experiences for the web and mobile devices. For the past two years, in collaboration with publishers, the Fast Flip experiment has fueled a new approach to faster, richer content display on the web. This approach will live on in our other display and delivery tools.

  • Google Pack, Notebook, Sidewiki [and 4 more...]



http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2011/09/fall-spring-clean.html

Pretty Crazy. I occasionally used Aardvark if I needed a quick answer to a question. What other service emails people questions and send back answers so quickly? I would've thought Google would have tried to incorporate it more into Google+ to compete with Facebook Answers. FastFlip was also an interesting way to browse news, though I don't know if it was actually that useful. And Google  Desktop was a good way to search one's computer, though Windows has improved greatly on that front. I don't think they'll actually be able to get everyone to move to the cloud that quickly, but I guess they want to stay focused.

 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why Governments Don’t Get Startups « Steve Blank


To date, Israel is only country that has engineered a successful entrepreneurship cluster from the ground up. It’s Yozma program kick-started a private venture capital industry with government funds, (emulating the U.S. lesson of using SBIC funds.), but then the government got out of the way.


In addition, the Israeli government originally funded 23 early stage incubators but turned them over to the VC’s to own and manage. They’re run by business professionals (not real-estate managers looking to rent out excess office space) and entry is not for life-style entrepreneurs, but is a bootcamp for VC funding.




Government and private enterprise don't generally go well together, but Israel managed to get venture capital flowing by gathering the money and then getting out of the way.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Guide to Buying Textbooks

A new semester is beginning, so I figured I'd write a quick guide to buying textbooks. Textbook prices are ridiculous because capitalism doesn't function correctly in many areas in academia. In this case, the professor who chooses what book to use gets the book for free, while the student just has to buy whatever is assigned. There's no reason to pay full price for textbooks however, so it doesn't end up being that expensive if you buy books the right way.

Where to Buy Textbooks



  • Another Student - If you can buy from students at your college, that's probably the best option. You get the book right away without any shipping costs, and you can sometimes get free notes and tips too.

  • Buy it Used Online - Never rent a book or buy one from a  bookstore. Don't just go straight to Amazon.com either. To get the best price, use a price comparison search. The best ones are probably CampusBooks.com and DirectTextbooks.com. I also put up a book search at NYtextbooks. You just enter the information of the book you want, and find the best price for it on the internet. There's no point in renting a book, since when you finish using the book, you can often re-sell it for only a little less than what you paid for it.

  • International Edition Books - The book publishers charge American students a very different price than what they charge the international students. However, American students can buy the international editions online on sites like TextbooksRus.com or the slightly more reliable AbeBooks.com. They are much cheaper to buy the international editions, and although “not authorized for sale in the USA”, there's nothing illegal about buying them (The Supreme Court ruled on this issue in 1998). Lately however, the publishers have tried to make the international editions different than the US editions. If you're not being assigned homework from the book, this normally isn't an issue, but if you are, you'll likely have the wrong problems. In theory, you can photocopy another students' HW problems, or even downlaod a copy online, but that obviously runs into legal issues. Also, you often have to wait longer to get the book, since they normally ship from places like Singapore or China, so you should order the book in advance. International editions are also harder to re-sell, since it goes against Amazon's and Half.com's  terms. However, you can sell them to another student or on TextbooksRus.com.  

  • eBooks - These are normally not worth the cost. They often charge more than the cost of a used textbook, but only let you use it for 180 days. Eventually, they may add more interactive features to these eBooks, so they become a better option than using dried tree. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Health Information and Transparency

While most businesses have made great use of computers and the internet, the health sector has lagged behind. This not only makes them less efficient, but makes things less transparent for the patient. They do not have easy access to the information relevant to them. This helps keep the health sector less competitive and less accountable to the patient. For example, when a dentist takes X-rays, the patient almost never receives a copy of them. That way, he just has has to accept the word of the dentist on faith and trust that he really needs whatever treatment the dentist suggests. But if the patient received a copy of the X-rays, he can gather other opinions about the issue from people that don't have any financial stakes in the question. Just the fact that the patient could access such information would make the dentist be more careful when deciding about an issue. 
There are many other areas within the health services that should become more open. The most fundamental one is probably pricing. When a person wants to buy a standard product or service, he normally gets a price or estimate before deciding on the transaction. Yet in health services, this is often not the case. Only after he receives the service does he find out about the price. This information-hiding practice prevents fair competition from happening and helps keep health costs so high. The current health industry has little incentive to change, so people may need to look elsewhere to help patients get more access to their relevant information. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

In search of the best automated bookmarking solution

Problem: I have thousands of uncategorized bookmarks. I want to find a bookmarking tool that will let me upload my bookmarks and then automatically tag all of them by category. All the existent solutions seem to at best offer tag suggestions but are unable to organize the bookmarks on their own. Is there any bookmarking tool or hack that can do everything automatically? One would think there's enough data from links and social bookmarking sites and from the website's description, tags and text to do this pretty well.



I looked at Xmarks.com, Delicious.com, Diigo.com and Springpad.com, but didn't notice this ability. I'm offering a 50-point bounty on stackexchange for the best answer to this question. I'll maybe also donate ezinagroO.com to this important cause for Organized information!


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tech Links of the Day

HP Touchpad

Didn't get the HP touchpad? It's listed as available in Paramus Best Buy. According to Slickdeals, new stock is supposed to be coming into various stores today.



Ti-83 Calculator

The Atlantic contrasts the pace of change of general technology and the TI-83 calculator. 

1999versus2011.jpg

Not sure why they think it makes sense. There are many apps for under $2 that can do far more than any TI calculator. Such a situation could only exist when the people making the purchases are the ones who get to decide what item they need or want. Its a good example of the inefficiencies of the current educational system. See also this xkcd cartoon


Google fined Half a Billion

From Reuters:


Google Inc has agreed to pay $500 million to settle a criminal probe into ads it accepted for online Canadian pharmacies selling drugs in the United States, the U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday.
The advertisements led to illegal imports of prescription drugs into the country, the Justice Department said.
The $500 million represents Google's revenue from Canadian pharmacy advertisements to U.S. customers through Google's AdWords program and Canadian pharmacies' revenue from U.S. sales. The forfeiture is one of the largest ever in the United States, according to the department.



 It seems quite excessive, but the government is short on cash. Maybe another way they can raise money is by allowing Americans to get drugs from Canada? Why should Americans be forced to overpay so much for drugs? It's not like they're still in school buying textbooks or calculators. 


[Warning: Programmer Link]

Facebook & StackOverflow

Facebook moves their developer forum to StackOverflow. This is probably a nice boost for SO. They're making it part of Stackoverflow instead of a totally separate site. I never really got why they had so many different computers sites in the first place.






Sunday, August 7, 2011

Link of the Day

Another post relating to patents, but this deserves to be linked to:
 Like patents, I see unions as incredibly well-intentioned and at one time vital to America’s development. But let’s face it: Mismanaged unions are also at the root of a lot of our capitalistic problems today. It’s hard to see what’s happened with the airline industry, the automobile industry, public education and feel that unions are a totally benign force in the corporate world.

Workers may have been exploited in the past, but does anyone really think that's what would be happening  with teachers and auto-workers today? Instead, education causes crazy debt with poor results, while the U.S. auto companies need the government to bail them out.

How to Fix the Patent System

Why do patents exist? A person does not inherently own the rights to his ideas. The patent is an artificial construct to encourage innovation in areas that otherwise would be under-developed. For example, certain companies invest millions of dollars in R&D and only get a return on their investment if they own exclusive rights to their inventions for a certain period. In this way, the patent system can encourage innovation.
However, in many areas, the current patent laws end up causing the exact opposite. Software patents are often given as the prime example where patents end up stifling innovation. Frequently, patents are granted for ideas that are not really that innovative. Often the patents are granted when similar ideas had been floating around before. In other cases, many people can come up with the idea independently, but once company manages to patent it first and exclude others from using it. In fact, even if a person is only later able to come up with he idea on his own, why should the initial patent prevent him from using the idea? He was able to discover it without their help, what economic good is served by preventing him from using it? It would be difficult to prove he didn't see the original patent, but the system should be adjusted so only extremely innovative patents are granted.



 
Another issue with the patent system is the inefficiencies and costs involved. It costs many thousands of dollars to apply for a patent, and then it can take the government years to process the patent. The whole system is slow and inefficient. Patents should have a much higher bar to be granted, but they should also be a quicker, cheaper process.



Recently, some have begun trying out to crowd-sourcing some of the patent review process. Instead of just having inefficient government clerks reviewing the patents, some have begun opening the process to the wider public. This way many people can review the patents to see if they involve any "prior art". This is a good step, but the very definition of the patent needs to change. Even if a patent does not involve prior art, who says the idea is so innovative that others couldn't have thought of it on their own?

Instead of just checking the patents for prior art, I suggest a more radical move. If an idea truly deserves to be patented, then no one else should be able to think of the same idea on their own. To apply for a patent, a person or company would have to submit the problem they are trying to solve, and the general area of the solution they have in mind, which would all be posted to a public site. Their actual solution would be posted privately to the patent site. If no one can suggest the same solution, than the patent is truly innovative and will be granted. But if people can come up with the same solution on their own, then no patent would be granted. Why should there be a patent, when others were able to figure out the same idea?

This would greatly reduce the number of patents that are actually granted, but it would fit with the way ideas are actually discovered. In a recent paper, "The Myth of the Sole Inventor", Mark Lemley demonstrates that most inventions are invented simultaneously by different groups of people working independently of each other. There is little reason why one group should be granted exclusive rights to something that would have been invented anyways. In my proposed solution, they would both be able to submit to one site, and instead of a patent being granted, the idea would become open to the public. The companies would still be encouraged to submit their ideas, whether to get their patent, or to prevent their competitors from patenting the idea.

By having the general public review the patents, people will suggest different ideas, and this will lead to even more innovation. Of course, this will lead to large numbers of submissions, and new methods will be needed to categorize and process all the patent data. In the current system, the patent-reviewers do not even have access to the internet when reviewing patents. In the new system, all patent applications will be well categorized and tagged and have clear semantic data that could be processed by computers. This way, it will be much easier to find related patents, and perhaps even to discover what areas are ripe for new ideas.


 
The entire patent process would be much quicker and cheaper. Instead of payinggovernment clerks to review the patents, the process would be open to the public. People will compete with each other to suggest solutions to the problems or to find related patents. They're could be some financial incentives, or there could be certain opportunities for suggested ideas to be patented themselves. But people would likely partake in the process without even getting any money, as they do on sites like Wikipedia and StackOverflow.com. However it is done, the whole process will be much faster and cheaper than the current system.Many details of such a system would still need to be worked out. Perhaps it could then be tried out in a small area of software patents. If such an idea succeeds, it could lead to greater innovation, a greater spread of ideas, reduced legal costs, and a true stimulus for the economy.


Friday, August 5, 2011

New Name for Site

Techedu.posterous.com didn't have so much zing to the name, so I bought a new name today for $1.20 on GoDaddy. Welcome to Zappable.com!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Things Gmail has Fixed

OK, I'm impressed. About a week ago, I suggested a couple of things Gmail should fix. The next day they came out with an appscript that did something similar to one suggestion. And now they've come out with my main request - a "Preview Pane":
When I check my email, I often rely on the message snippets to figure out which messages to open first. Sometimes, though, I want to see more than snippets, which is why I’m happy to announce that you can now preview messages in your inbox using a new feature in Gmail Labs called Preview Pane.

That means people can now just click on their important emails without having to constantly return to their inbox. Based on they're record so far, I predict they'll soon come out with faster Gmail and better multi-send features.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Another day, another 72+ compromised companies, NGO's & GO's

I am convinced that every company in every conceivable industry with significant size and valuable intellectual property and trade secrets has been compromised (or will be shortly), with the great majority of the victims rarely discovering the intrusion or its impact. In fact, I divide the entire set of Fortune Global 2000 firms into two categories: those that know they’ve been compromised and those that don’t yet know

http://blogs.mcafee.com/mcafee-labs/revealed-operation-shady-rat

Every short while, there's more news of large number of companies and organizations being hacked, normally with hints that it came from China. In this case:

The interest in the information held at the Asian and Western national Olympic Committees, as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency in the lead-up and immediate follow-up to the 2008 Olympics was particularly intriguing and potentially pointed a finger at a state actor behind the intrusions, because there is likely no commercial benefit to be earned from such hacks. The presence of political non-profits, such as the a private western organization focused on promotion of democracy around the globe or U.S. national security think tank is also quite illuminating. Hacking the United Nations or the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Secretariat is also not likely a motivation of a group interested only in economic gains. 

They used spear-phishing to get into everyone's computers. I think its time to start re-thinking the very structure of the internet. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

To Err is Human...

Problem: In the last few years, many congressmen have gotten in various affairs and scandals and been forced to resign. It seems its too difficult for these powerful people to avoid getting into trouble. Yet people still want to vote for the platform the representatives ran on. 

Solution: Instead of having human representatives, people should be able to vote for algorithmic representatives. Computers can't sin, so there won't be any scandals. The computers will have set principles that they will vote by, and will be able to follow their campaign pledge better than any human. Humans are also too slow, and can never pass a law in time for it to work (e.g the Stimulus). An algorithm will just kick in some predetermined measures at a certain time, which will be much more effective ;)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

NPR on Intellectual Ventures

NPR recently ran a full story on Intellectual Ventures and patent trolling. Most software patents are pretty ridiculous, and clearly the system needs some fixing. More on that in the future... 

At the same time Crawford's patent was being prosecuted, more than 5,000 other patents were issued for "the same thing," Martin says.
Crawford's patent was for "an online backup system." Another patent from the same time was for "efficiently backing up files using multiple computer systems." Yet another was for "mirroring data in a remote data storage system."
And then there were three different patents with three different patent numbers but that all had the same title: "System and method for backing up computer files over a wide area computer network."
Martin says about 30 percent of U.S. patents are essentially on things that have already been invented. In 2000, for example, the patent office granted a patent on making toast — patent number 6080436, "Bread Refreshing Method."

Things Gmail should Fix

Microsoft Hotmail and Outlook allow the user to view both his inbox and specific emails at the same time. This is very useful if you don't want to view every email in your inbox, but just click on the important ones. On Gmail, you either have to click through every email or go back to the inbox each time, which takes too long. 
Which brings up second issue - Speed. Gmail often takes too long to do things. Maybe its because of all the labs and stuff I have enabled, but Google is supposed to be faster than this. 
There are other basic abilities Gmail should add, such as better multi-send features,  better formatting options and more. There are also random features that could be useful, such as "Deal-with-this-email-later" option, but that could be for another post. 

Posting from email

One advantage of posterous is you can post from email. Email is always easy to get to, so you can quickly share a link or comment that way. In fact, I'm currently writing this on my phone in the subway. It does raise security issues though. Do they make sure the email really originated from you? That's what I'll check next.


Update: When I sent an email from PHP, they saved it as a draft so I could confirm it was really me. So they don't have any gaping security hole. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Math Education

Intro - Education & Math
Mathematics is probably one of the most important subjects taught in school, and the school system does spend a large amount of time on it. But they do not teach it in the best manner. There are a few basic questions that need to be asked, such as Why, Who, What & How. 
Why teach math? 
Its useful. Its wise. But how well do are these reasons applied in practice? 
Who to teach math to? 
Many people barely use or appreciate any of the math they learned after division, so they don’t get much from it. There’s little point in causing them all that trouble. Maybe people who have no mathematical inclination, should not  go through such a system. Of course, an improved system might interest some of them… 
What they teach now
I never understood (at least since elementary school) why they have to teach so much by hand. What is the point when there are computers? People give many reasons to defend the practice, but they’re mostly just attempted justifications for keeping things as they are. For example, some people used to say ”What will you do if you don’t have a computer/calculator?” I’m not sure that rare occasion ever really justified spending so many years on it though. Anyways, that reason has become obsolete now that everyone has cellphones, and soon all will have smartphones.
A slightly stronger claim is that true understanding only comes when you do it on your own without a computer. Except there’s no real fundamental difference. People rarely actually understand what they’re doing, they just plug things into formulas they’ve memorized. In which case, they are just like a mindless computer, generating an answer. I bet many people don’t even know why the most basic formulas work, such as multiplication of 2-digit numbers.
Also, much of the math learned doesn’t even involve any true understanding, its just techniques to do things before computers. For example, most of calculus II is learning unnecessary techniques to solve integrals. There is no reason for so many people to learn such things when they can have silicon “formulas” to the work for them a billion times faster without errors. 
What they should teach
I’m not even sure how much of a value there is teaching the understanding of every formula. Maybe for mathematicians, or in certain areas. But the main thing they should be teaching is how to convert life into math so the computer can solve it. Computers cannot analyze life on its own, and wont be able to for quite some time. Students need to learn how to take questions in life and mathify them. People can focus on the higher-level interesting and useful questions, and let computers do their calculating thing. 

For more on this topic, see Conrad's Wolfram talk, which discusses similar issues.

Posting on Posterous

Every now and then, I try out a new blogging service. I would like to be able to share links, comments and thoughts on the web. I normally use Facebook, but that limits the audience somewhat. I'm also planning on writing some longer posts, so I wanted to try a new platform. Wordpress works fine, but I wanted something focused on speed. I thought about Twitter, but I decided the 140-character is too ridiculous. So I'm trying out Posterous!