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. 


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


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.