Software security, College Costs

The US government warned about using Java due to a vulnerability that was being exploited to install malicious software. Oracle has since released a ‘patch‘, but people don’t really need to run Java applets that much anymore. I don’t think these vulnerabilities are relevant to other software that runs on the desktop or phones.

Also, an exploit of Ruby on Rails sites was published last week. While a patch was released, some sites won’t update quickly enough. This  will probably cause an increase of hacked websites as hackers find vulnerable websites. I wonder if it was really necessary for people to publish the vulnerability so quickly.

College costs have been rising at a ridiculous pace, despite the poor economy and their poor results. A group of people create an infographic on this topic and sent me the link to share: College isn’t cheap. It shows how many college graduates are stuck with school-debt, but cannot find jobs. I think there are big problems with getting people into so much debt when there’s no guarantee their degree will help them.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that colleges have finally begun cutting tuition increases and offering more scholarships. This means they need to cut back on some programs. However, there are much greater changes that will need to happen, such as greater use of technology in education.

Lottery Ticket Investing

In a previous post, I listed a bunch of Startup Ideas, but I didn’t go into any details about them. In this post I will discuss one of the ideas – Lottery-ticket investing. I decided to start from one of the less realistic ideas, so I can move to more realistic ones in later posts. While writing this post, I realized there were even more issues than I initially thought.

Q: So why are you publishing it?
Well I thought it might still have some potential somewhere, and I can use a Q&A format to discuss its issues. And it touches on some questions in economics and psychology.

Lottery-Ticket Investing

Problem: People buy lottery tickets despite the poor odds, i.e. their negative expected return. They do this because they’re excited by the prospect of large winnings, and may not evaluate the odds correctly. But there should be some way to let them get tickets that offer a large prize, but still have an overall positive return.

Solution: Create an Investment Lottery: Invest the lottery ticket money in stocks, which historically have a strong positive return. Use a investing method with high-voltaility so there is a chance of large payouts.

Q: But how would you distribute the money?
One way would be to have an actual lottery at the end of the investment period and give the money to specific winners. However, this is too similar to a regular lottery, so the state governments wouldn’t allow it. Instead, one could give the actual returns of each ticket to the buyer. This way people who get or pick the right tickets can win big.

Q: So you’re basically just selling people stocks.
Yes, these tickets would let people easily invest small sums in a high-risk but high-reward manner.

Q: That sounds pretty boring.
It’s true that people are motivated to buy because of the hope of getting a huge prize, but people also buy tickets for smaller prizes. So one would need to examine where the cut-off would be. For example, people might be willing to pay $10 for a ticket that could potentially win $1000. If they here about one winner who won a huge prize, they might get excited enough by that possibility, even if it rarely happens.

Q: But how would you ever get 100x returns on investments in a short time-span?
There are a number of possibilites that one could explore. Perhaps there’s some way to do it with margin-investing, or with some variety of that. For example, the lottery stock tickets could insure other investors against losses, so the ticket-holders take larger losses or bigger gains if the stock has a large change. This will let the ticket-holders magnify their risk and provide insurance to safe investors.

Q: That doesn’t sound like a very good idea, and people can insure against losses without any lottery involved, e.g. by buying put options.
OK, so that idea might have some flaws. But there are risky investments that one could find, such as certain junk bonds. In addition, it will soon be legal for ordinary people to invest in small companies. They could serve as a very-high risk investment that could have extremely good returns. By making it easy for people to buy “Investing Tickets”, they can be encouraged to invest in a system that has good overall returns instead of losing so much money in the lottery. While they might not make it rich this way, they’ll have better long-term odds than in the lotto.

Mathematica, Bing vs Google, Web Hosts

Mathematica
Mathematica 9
just came out and it has a bunch of new features, such as a suggestions bar which helps you perform various actions after you enter a query, and support for units, like “centimeters and gigabytes”. I think math education should make much greater use of computers, and Mathematica is the most powerful tool to do so. In addition, it has many beginner-friendly features, such as the ones above or the ability to enter input in English if you don’t know the Mathematica syntax for something. Perhaps math education should be based on figuring out how to turn real-world problems into a format Mathemtica can understand.

Mathematica Suggestion Bar

Bing vs. Google 
A while ago Google changed their shopping search from being free like their regular search to paid-only inclusion, like PriceGrabber and Nextag.  Microsoft just launched a campaign against Google, calling them Scroogle. It attacks Google for not stating more prominently that the results are paid, and that they even partially base their sorting by how much much a merchant pays.

I don’t know if it’s such a big deal. Google Shopping used to be filled with all sorts of low-quality sites, and now it’s much easier for them to keep it high-quality. However, they have lost Amazon from their results, which makes a pretty big difference. Also, it would be better for the user to not factor in pay when you initially display an item. They don’t seem to do that though for a general search, and for a more specific one, you can always sort by price, which wasn’t useful when they had low-quality results.

Web Hosts
I made a couple of small changes to the Web Host chart, including adding another free static web host. More of those services should be coming out soon with the announcement of Google Drive support for web publishing. To keep on top of updates and add additional details, I created a Webpage version of my web host guide. This should be the one-page stop for people to find the right web host.

Writing with Less Writing

Ideas discussed:

  • People think all writing needs to be paragraphs, but that’s not always the best way to express something.
  • What’s the Appeal of Twitter? + Idea for new platform
  • At least include an outline in your article!
  • Bonus: What writing can learn from programming

My recent chart on learning programming did quite well and got upvoted on Hacker News and Reddit. I realized that one chart was able to encapsulate the important information from 3 previous blog posts. This makes me think there might be too much of a bias to write content in a specific form and style with paragraphs and connecting sentences, when sometimes another form would work better. A chart or diagram can display certain information in a faster and clearer manner than long paragraphs, making the paragraphs unnecessary. Different diagrams and styles can be used for different types of information.

Ways of presenting content

Content Format Good for this type of content Zappable Example Benefits for reader Extra stuff that get stuck in
Paragraphs of Text Long connected arguments Maybe Google and the Future of Search Easy linear read Connecting sentences, stylistic phrases
Table Repeated categories of information Resources to Learn Programming Fast to reference Certain cells just to match others in row. (Maybe use NoSQL-style instead ~)
Flowchart Simple decision guide Picking a Programming Language Can quickly reach relevant decisions Random Jokes
Outline-Style Hierarchical content of separate points Attempt below Can easily skip subsections Hopefully nothing

Even if content doesn’t fit into a chart, it does not mean that standard paragraphs are necessary. Sometimes an Outline-style could do the trick.

Outline vs. Paragraphs

  • I often start with ideas in note-form before writing a post
  • Before publishing notes, need to refine and clarify ideas.
  • Also includes “textification” into paragraphs, which consist of things like:
    • Keeping to a writing-style (varying words, paragraph format)
    • Putting in filler words to build and connect sentences
  • This turns writing into nice essay, but it can obscure points for both the writer and reader
    • It becomes harder for the writer to revise essay when each change affects the continuity of the sentences and paragraphs. (Maybe writers should also aim for looser coupling!)
    • Certain articles (e.g. academic ones) may be so complicated, readers may feel need to create their own outline or diagram to follow it
  • Notes need to be refined before being published, but they can still be kept in an outline style, with several benefits:
    • Often quicker to write than figuring out how to “textify” content.
    • Easier for reader to follow overall flow of argument
    • Lets reader skip certain sections or examples and still follow argument (In fact, maybe the reader should be able to understand the argument heading without even reading the implementation!)
  • Outline-style can be better for reader and writer, though not sure about this example

Obviously, people know that concise writing or charts are often helpful. However, I think people still feel constrained by standard style expectations. That’s why they need things like Twitter and even Powerpoint to permit them to write in shorter form.

While Twitter’s limits may be overkill in cases where you actually want to say something, the fact that its so successful shows the power of letting people get to the point. Maybe someone should create a blogging platform that enforces a posts that are concise and include a diagram, outline or chart. This could help popularize a new style of writing.

I’m not arguing for eliminating essay-style text, I just think it might be worth putting more outlines and charts within writing. Even if much of an article needs to be in paragraphs, perhaps some of it would be clearer or more effective as a chart. And more articles should come with short outlines (or diagrams) that says what their main points are. This would let people decide if they want to read it or review what it said afterwards. Why should some one need to construct their own outline or argument diagram to analyze an argument?

Charts and outlines are really just a minor step. For more challenging material, one can go beyond such static content and create more interactive content. But that’s for another post…

Stay tuned by following me on Twitter, RSS or Email. 

Top Posts on Zappable

Although I have a top posts section, I thought it would be helpful to provide links to some selected content, organized by topic. (Note: I put an asterisk by posts that are first in a series.)

Education

Web & Programming How-To

Articles on SeekingAlpha and LifeHack

Miscellaneous

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.

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:

lifehack.org/articles/money/how-to-get-a-smartphone-without-paying-for-an-expensive-data-plan.html

Blogging, Bucks & Bias – The Case for Disclosure

Previous college paper of mine that commented on new FTC disclosure requirements.

Should there be laws regulating bloggers to disclose any payments or benefits they receive for endorsing a certain product in the blogosphere?

As blogs become more popular, many people are turning to them for advice or suggestions on which products and services to buy. This gives the bloggers great influence over people’s commercial actions, attracting the interest of marketers. Often, successful bloggers are offered payments or gifts in exchange for writing positive reviews. Even smaller blogs can get involved by suggesting products with “affiliate links”, where the blogger gets paid a commission for sales generated from his link. These widespread practices[1] benefit both the marketer, who can reach new audiences, and the blogger, who can generate additional income from his blog. The side that may lose is the reader of the blog, who may not be aware of the deal, and not know that the reviews’ impartiality may have been compromised. Recently, the FTC implemented new guidelines[2] that require bloggers to disclose any payments of gifts received for their reviews. Some have praised this measure for protecting the consumer, while others have criticized it for interfering unjustly in the blogosphere. Are the new guidelines justified?

The Arguments Against

Opponents of the new laws give various reasons to support their argument. Some claim that there is nothing unethical about failing to disclose payments received for endorsements. They claim they will only endorse products they like, and turn down other endorsement offers[3]. Some admit it may be recommended for bloggers to disclose any payments, but argue that the law should not get involved in every ethical matter.  Others add that the law is misguided because the FTC cannot possibly enforce the law on the millions of blogs on the internet. A fourth argument is concerned with the scope of the law, and whether the FTC’s rules apply to too many cases. This essay will primarily focus on a more specific case: bloggers who receives direct payments or gifts for their endorsements.  I think the guidelines are justified in such a case because the importance of protecting the consumer and preventing dishonest advertising outweigh the fears some bloggers have of being over-regulated.

Is it Ethical?

Obviously, a blogger who recommends a product solely because he was paid to do so should disclose this fact. Failure to do so is total dishonesty. The reader thinks he is getting an honest opinion when he is in fact getting an advertisement. The ethical question arises when the blogger claims he can remain impartial despite any payments received. There are many difficulties with such a claim. Often they are only reviewing the product because of the offer, and not because they selected it objectively from all the products. So even if they claim to review it without bias, the very selection of it was influenced by money. There claimed objectivity is also highly questionable. Imagine if a judge takes money from one side to review his arguments. He may claim that he will remain impartial, but it is clearly bribery. People are biased in favor of the person or institution providing them money, often without realizing it. Studies have shown that this bias applies in many areas, from professionals giving evaluations[4] to scientists doing research[5]. Surely bloggers are no different!

Even if the bloggers think they are impartial, they should still disclose payments received. The reader is the one who may follow such recommendations, so he has a right to evaluate their credibility. Some bloggers[6] say they will remain unbiased because they do not want to lose their credibility. But if they never disclose the payments they receive, the readers will not know when to look out for possible bias. Only proper disclosure will create incentives for the bloggers to remain objective.

Should it be Regulated?

The main purpose of the FTC is to defend the interests of the general consumer. Originally, it fought monopolies, but later its role was extended to “administer a wide variety of other consumer protection laws[7]”. As new developments arise, the FTC’s job is to make sure the consumer is protected. The blogger’s endorsement of a product influences the reader’s commercial actions, so it falls in the realm of the FTC to monitor. Consumers can be financially harmed by biased recommendations that they thought were credible, so the FTC is justified in creating guidelines which require disclosure. The consumers’ rights should be protected in various areas, including new developments like the blogosphere.

Enforceability

The FTC admits it will not be able to enforce the law for every one of the millions of blogs on the internet.[8] There are still good reasons for creating such guidelines. First, the very fact that it is a law will encourage a large number of bloggers to comply with it. Many people were willing to tread in ethical grey zones, but do not want to break the law.  If something is illegal, it becomes more clearly unethical for many, and the slight chance of being penalized also encourages compliance.

The second reason for the new guidelines is that the FTC will be able to enforce the rules when necessary. The FTC plans on enforcing the guidelines only for very large sites that break the rules in a serious manner. For example, if a large blog recommends a health product without any disclosure that they were paid by the manufacturer to recommend it. This can cause health issues, and the FTC may get involved. The FTC also plans on encouraging the advertisers to inform the bloggers of the new rules, which will help generate the voluntary compliance mentioned above.

The Broad Scope

So far, the essay focused on a blogger that endorses a product and receives financial payments for it. Yet the new guidelines have a much broader scope. They appear to cover any endorsement, in any form, on any medium. If someone suggests to a friend to sign up for something on Facebook, he officially has to disclose the small reward the company is offering him for each new sign-up. Maybe sometimes this is the ethical thing to do, but often it may be overkill, as the disclosure might be longer than the message. Although the justification for the guidelines in these areas may be questionable, it is important to realize that the FTC will not actually enforce them in such cases, so people do not need to fear getting fined. The overall laws are a good thing, even if their scope could be considered too broad.

Implications

The internet has revolutionized many areas, and people can now access information and buy products in ways not possible before. Yet, as with any new technology, it has also been used in many unethical ways. In the commercial realm, many websites and bloggers have encouraged people to buy products without disclosing the financial incentives behind their suggestions. These practices have made it harder to find reliable recommendations on the internet. When one searches for certain product reviews, such as web-hosts or online colleges, the results are filled with websites who get paid based on the visitors’ actions through their site. Instead of giving the user the information he needs, the sites often just try to get him to click on a link, register for more information, or complete a purchase. These websites rarely disclose their financial incentives, and the reader may not realize the suggestions may be biased. As the internet becomes the primary source for product reviews and suggestions, this problem can become more acute. It is important to implement measures now to help improve integrity on the internet. The FTC’s new guidelines are an important step to help protect the consumer and prevent dishonest advertising. These principles should always be protected, even as the medium for communication changes.

 


[1] Affiliate marketing is widespread, as a Google search will demonstrate. Direct payments to bloggers is growing, but is mostly among large blogs.

[2] The full guidelines can be viewed at the FTC website at: http://ftc.gov/os/2009/10/091005endorsementguidesfnnotice.pdf. The shorter press release is available here: http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/10/endortest.shtm.

[3] See, for example, the end of this New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/13/technology/internet/13blog.html?_r=2

[4] See “Conflict of interest and the intrusion of bias”, available at: http://journal.sjdm.org/10/91104/jdm91104.pdf

[5] See, for example: The price of truth: how money affects the norms of science, by David B. Resnik. Available on Google Books at: http://books.google.com/books?id=6MZ7KoVdhiAC&dq=”D+Resnik”The+Price+of+Truth:+How+Money+Affects+the+Norms+of+Science”&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s

[6] New York Times ibid.

More Short Posts

I don’t have time to frequently write long posts, but a blog won’t get readers without regular postings. So I’m going to try to increase the number of short posts, which might just consist of a link or two with a short comment. Also, if anyone is interested in contributing to a tech blog, let me know.

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.  

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

 

 

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: 

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.