Friday, July 27, 2012

News on Changing the Education System

It is quite difficult to change the education system. New Orleans was able to do so after Katrina, but even that may not always be enough, as Mayor Bloomberg found out:
Mr. Bloomberg wouldn't have won [approval to start new schools] even if he had razed the schools to the ground and salted the earth. The union contract says the city has the right to open new schools that "did not previously exist." But Mr. Buchheit ruled that a school cannot be "new"—even if it has a new staff that runs the joint in new ways—if it replaces an old institution, as if a public school has some permanent claim on being. This metaphysical adventure raises the question of whether New York can change any school ever.

New York has been able to offer some schools outside of the public school system, and Joel Klein, the former head of the NYC public schools, reports their results:
But what really puts the lie to the notion that poverty prevents dramatically better student outcomes than we are now generally seeing in public education is the performance of several individual charter schools or groups of such schools. For example, Success Academies, a charter group whose students are almost 100% minority and about 75% poor, had 97% of the kids at its four schools proficient in math and 88% in English. Miraculously, that's more than 30% higher in both math and reading than the state as a whole.

Joel Klein is currently the head of the educational division of News Corporation. They just announced Amplify, their new plan to provide students and teachers with interactive educational tablets. Big money is now behind efforts to improve education with technology. Meanwhile, every day more universities are joining with Coursera to provide educational content for their online courses.

While Coursera is partnering with the universities to provide traditional educational content, some are taking a completely different path. With college tuition more expensive than before and the job market worse, some are turning to apprenticeships. NPR reports on Siemens apprenticeship program in North Carolina which focuses on teaching student-workers practical skills. A related development recently has been "programmer boot-camps" which lets people without programming experience learn to build websites in only 3 months. Venture Beat reports on an online program called Apprenticeships were the way people learned skills for thousands of years before college attendance became widespread. Companies may increasingly start wondering why they are asking for students with a degree instead of people with the skills that are actually needed. Together with online education, this may lead to new education system.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Google Fiber & the Future of the Web

What is Google's goal with their new ultra-fast internet? Read my article on SeekingAlpha...
Today Google announced Google Fiber, their new ultra-fast internet. It will start becoming available to residents in Kansas City and provide them with either free regular-speed internet...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Smartphones for Cheap II

In my last article on LifeHack, I discussed a couple of options for getting a smartphone without high monthly fees, but I did not go into details about specific prepaid plans. In this post I'll quickly review a couple of cheap options, and mention some ways you can save on usage.

Verizon Network - Page Plus Cellular
T-Mobile and Sprint do not have the best coverage where I live, so I ended up using Page Plus. They're the only prepaid carrier that runs on the Verizon network and their coverage map seems to be the same as Verizon's. This should mean that they have the same voice quality as Verizon's own prepaid plans, though that may not be the case in practice. The company's website and operations leave a lot to be desired, but once you get everything setup, they seem to work fine. The big advantage of PagePlus is that you can buy almost any Verizon phone (or even some other CMDA phones) and then activate it on PagePlus. The other advantage is their cheap plans. If you don't use the phone service that often, you can pay as little as $12 /month for service and get 250 minutes and texts. If you need more minutes, you can get their $30 plan, which comes with 1200 Minutes, 3000 Text/Picture Messages and 100 MB Data.

Sprint Network - Virgin Mobile
Many prepaid carriers run on the Sprint network, and some are also owned by Sprint. I mentioned Platinum Tel as a very cheap option, but I do not know their smartphone policy. A Smartphone-friendly alternative is Virgin Mobile, which offers a number of possible smartphones (including the $550 iPhone 4S). You can also buy a phone on eBay, though it has to be a Virgin Mobile phone. Look for a bargain, but make sure to get a good phone. I made the mistake of getting a Samsung Intercept and it ran slowly and had a poor battery life. Also, make sure to get a phone with a good ESN. A phone with a bad ESN usually means the phone was stolen, and it won't be able to be activated with Virgin Mobile.

T-Mobile Prepaid
Of the four carriers, T-Mobile is the easiest to use a smartphone with. For one, they're a GSM network, so you can put their SIM card from a regular plan into a GSM smartphone and it should usually work OK. In addition, they offer some cheap prepaid plans and let you use a smartpone with them. If you live in an area where they have good coverage, they are definitely worth considering.

Ways to Save
Once you get your phone and carrier, you will want to find ways to save on usage when in a wifi area. I mentioned Google Voice to send and receive text messages, and you can use many other choices or even your email.  It is more difficult to find a free Voip provider. There are many free services that let you speak to other people with the same app, but very few for calling other phones. Some services (such as Groove IP Light) allow free calls via Google Voice, but they are not the best quality.  Recently Vonage announced they would be allowing free calls for a while, so there's a free option for now. It may also be worthwhile to pay a small amount for a Voip service.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How to Get a Smartphone without Paying for an Expensive Data Plan

The phone companies know that people want a smartphone, so they try to force everyone into an expensive monthly data plan. However,t here are some alternatives that can save the user a large amount of money. Read my article on the Lifehack blog for more info:

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Prominent Judge on Patent Reform

Since I've discussed this topic before, I have to link to this article in the Atlantic by the Judge who recently dismissed an Apple-Motorola case:

He gives a very clear description of the problems in the patent system, and then suggests a few ways to fix it, such as eliminating patents in certain industries, eliminating court trial or requiring the patentee to produce the item within a specified time. See also my suggestion here for fixing the system with crowd-sourcing:

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Google And The Future Of Search

What challenges and opportunities does Google face in search? Read my article to find out:

Google And The Future Of Search - Seeking Alpha
[Commercial searchers] could benefit from real a web service that helps them choose the best deal for their needs, as opposed to just looking through a list of links. If another company is able to build a successful service to answer this need, it could harm Google's revenue, even if people continue to use Google for general searches.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Taking on the Public Schools

The U.S. public school system is a government-protected monopoly that fails to provide a satisfactory education for millions of children. Charter schools are government-funded alternatives that operate independently from the public school rules and are therefore often able to find ways to provide a better education with less spending. Since they are not part of the standard system, if they fail to perform well they can be shut down. The Wall Street Journal and the Economist both just published articles about the advantages of charter schools over the public school system:

America Has Too Many Teachers (WSJ)

Charting a better course (Economist)

Taking on Craigslist

Craigslist is a website a bit behind in the times that fails to offer basic features to help users find things or avoid scams. Padmapper is a website that allows people to find listings from Craiglist (and other sites) on Google Maps. Recently, CL sent Padmapper  a cease-and-desist letter to stop displaying CL results. Whenever a site becomes successful building off CL listings, they get sent this letter. CL as a website is quite poor, but they have a huge user base that makes it very difficult for a competitor to gain a foothold in the market. Both buyers and sellers just go to CL, since, despite its poor quality, everyone else is there. The easy way for companies to win is to display (a.k.a "steal") part of CL's listings so buyers will immediately find a useful website, and then they can get sellers later to list on their site. To prevent this from happening, CL needs to send out legal letters whenever a site starts becoming big. For example, in 2005, CL sent Oodle this letter.

The Cease-and-Desist letter normally results in the website complying, and that was what Padmapper's CEO  initially said he would do. However, he just did an about-face and announced he would be using a possible loophole to continue providing the data. Instead of scraping the results from CL, he would use, which gets their results from Google's cache of CL. I don't know how that will play out legally, and it seems to be a shady move, but its potnetially good for the user. While CL is all "noble" about having free listings without even requiring an account or any identification, their site ends up being filled with scammers and spammers. If companies find a way to create successful alternatives to CL, the user will benefit.