Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Design Deal of the Year (so far)

The standard price of Adobe Photoshop CS5 extended is normally $1000, while students can get it for $300. However, Adobe is now running a promotion so students can get it for only $40. It might be worth buying Photoshop in one of Adobe's "Creative Suites", such as Web Premium ($90) or Design Standard ($60).

You will need to provide proof that you're a student, and you'll probably need to enter the following coupon code before checkout: SAVE80EDU

Adobe Discounted Software


Although the deal was supposed to last until March 3, it is now expired. Adobe says it was a pricing mistake. Its unclear if they even honored the deal for those who purchased it before they fixed it.



Sunday, February 19, 2012

Newspapers in the Information Age

The future of news is not bleak, even if some newspapers will need to close. This is another previous paper, but it seems to long for a blog post, so I'll put it on Scribd (Though I'm not really sure what Scribd accomplishes):

[scribd id=82119921 key=key-48tpofy1efz5d08svt4 mode=list]



Thursday, February 16, 2012

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.


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.


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: The shorter press release is available here:

[3] See, for example, the end of this New York Times article:

[4] See “Conflict of interest and the intrusion of bias”, available at:

[5] See, for example: The price of truth: how money affects the norms of science, by David B. Resnik. Available on Google Books at:"D+Resnik"The+Price+of+Truth:+How+Money+Affects+the+Norms+of+Science"&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s

[6] New York Times ibid.


[8] See the end of this article:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Future of Education II – A New Curriculum

In a previous article, I discussed how interactive technology can be used to move beyond the lecture-system of education that has been dominant for so long. In this article I will discuss what material should actually be taught. I think the educational syllabus in many subjects should be changed to reflect the changing nature of knowledge. In addition, the educational curriculum should be changed to teach new skills that are relevant to the information age.

People are Not Hard Drives
The development of computers and the internet has changed the way people can access information and therefore changes the nature of the material people will need to learn. When knowledge was stored in books, perhaps it made sense to require people to memorize large amounts of information. However, since knowledge is now available at the touch of a smartphone (or even through speech), people can have easy access to the information they need without having to have spent years memorizing information. This information can obviously be much vaster and more up-to-date than anything they could have memorized. This does not mean that people will not need to learn anything and can just become an instant expert in any field by Googling any issue they have. (Try fixing your car’s transmission based on an eHow guide.)

An expert will need a solid understanding of the principles of his field and practice in applying them so that he can correctly draw on database of information to solve a specific issue. This is what students will need to learn instead of memorizing thousands of little details. Perhaps a student training to become a doctor no longer needs to memorize every inch of anatomy. The curriculum of many fields still remains focused on the same material as it did a few decades ago, but it may be time to revise it in light of modern technologies.

People are not Computers
Computers can do much more than just provide access to relevant information. Any problem that can be solved with clearly-defined steps can be programmed so that a computer can solve it. This fact also needs to be taken into account when designing a syllabus of study. Many areas of education involve students learning to mechanically implement set procedures and formulas to solve problems. This is particularly true in math-related areas such as mathematics itself, the sciences and parts of business and economics. These mechanical processes can all by definition be solved by a computer, so why pretend that these technologies do not exist? Human computers were once necessary, but they have since been supplanted.

Instead of focusing on being the computer, students should learn how to do the things computers cannot. They should learn how to use the computer tools and learn how to take real-life problems and convert them into a form that computers can solve. Computers are still quite poor at solving general real-life problems unaided by humans, and this is an important skill people will need. Even as computer programs improve, there is always an area where computers cannot solve problems, and people will be needed to work on them. Instead of teaching methods that are no longer needed, the focus of  education should be on the areas that are beyond the reach of computers.

This does not mean students should not learn any principles of a subject that a computer can solve. Students who are training to be an expert in a field should learn the basic principles of it so they can fully understand the material and be able to apply it in cases where a specific program does not exist. But it is not necessary for students to memorize a large number of mechanical methods for solving specific problems (without understanding them) when they will anyways just use computers to solve such problems. Plugging something into a formula or into a computer involve about the same amount of understanding, just one way is a million times faster. So perhaps it is not necessary to for high-school students to learn all those formulas and methods. Students should either understand a subject, know how to apply it, or learn what computers cannot solve, but there is no reason to treat them like mechanical computers themselves.

A New Curriculum
New technologies should cause more changes than just modifying the focus of specific subjects. The curriculum of subjects itself should be changed to meet the needs of the times.  Besides learning subject-specific computer skills, students need to learn general computer-skills that will allow them to use computers effectively in many different areas. There are many computer skills that many people do not know well, from the most basic (such as typing) to the more advanced (programming). Since these skills are often extremely useful, they should take precedence in an educational curriculum over less important subjects.

A Simple Example
Typing is obviously one of the most common and useful skills of modern times. People almost never write things by hand anymore, but instead type almost everything. Yet many elementary schools still focus on teaching cursive in 4th or 5th grade! While this was never very useful, nowadays it is completely pointless since no one writes in cursive. Many people never learn how to touch-type correctly and instead use the hunt-and-peck method to type throughout their life (I’m currently using a modified pecking method myself to type this myself). This is probably one of the most basic things that kids should learn when they are younger. There are also simple related topics people should learn, such as keyboard shortcuts and the purpose of certain keys, e.g. the “home” key. (I’ll teach that right now: It lets you go to the beginning of a line without having to press the arrow key 20 times. You’re welcome.) These skills are very basic, but learning them can probably save people hundreds of thousands of hours over the course of their lifetime.

Other Computer Skills
Typing is a simple example of the most basic skills people need, but there are many other areas people need to learn, such as greater proficiency in using operating systems and common computer programs. For example, many people do not know how to perform common tasks in Word or Excel (such as managing styles or creating graphs), despite their common practical use. There are also certain higher-level skills that are very important. For example, while there is a huge amount of information easily available on the internet, it is not always easy to quickly find the information a person needs.  There are skills and techniques people can learn to improve their ability to construct and filter searches, and to organize and index information they encounter. Google and other services cannot automatically find the best result for the exact thing a person is looking for, so people need to learn the skill of good searching and organizing.

Currently, high-schools force students to learn many difficult subjects in the math-logic realm, such as trigonometry and geometry, which they may never use. Yet there is a basic logic-based skill that would be of more interest and relevance to all: programming. Instead of learning so many details of math, students could learn programming, which can be used to do math and much more. While many people will not have any interest in programming full-time, most people will get some benefit form learning the basics of programming. This will enable them to do many tasks in the modern age, such as creating simple apps or websites, using macros in Excel, performing simple manipulations of text, or writing simple scripts for various scientific or business applications. Programming can be considered one of the basic skills that people should know in modern times.

Some may fear that adding these computer subjects to the curriculum may cause other subjects to be de-emphasized. In some cases, it may be possible to use more effective educational methods so students can learn both the old and the new subjects. However, people may need to choose which subjects have priority. Perhaps subjects should be empirically evaluated for what actual benefits they provide for the students. Studies have shown that most students do not actually improve their critical thinking skills over the course of the time in college. In a struggling economic climate and with extremely high prices for tuition, perhaps it may be time for the curriculum to focus on practical skills that students will actually use throughout their life.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Link: New interactive teaching techniques

Excellent article on "active learning" from Harvard Magazine. As I discussed in a previous post, it is hard to justify the traditional lecture-style of education that has been dominant for so long. This article discusses the advantages to having students participate in the learning and teaching of the material. This is similar to the traditional "chavrusa" style that is common in Jewish Yeshivot.

“The person who learns the most in any classroom,” Mazur declares, “is the teacher.”

Compare the above quote from the article with this one from a Talmudic sage:
הרבה למדתי מרבותי ומחבירי יותר מרבותי ומתלמידי יותר מכולן
I learned much from my teachers, but more from my friends, and more than both from my students

Eric Mazur on new interactive teaching techniques

Stay tuned for the next article on technology and education...



Friday, February 3, 2012

Apple's Patent Lawsuits, Big 3 Revenue

Apple faces setback in Europe over their fight with Motorola: apple-on-motorola-ip-claims-in-germany-this-old-pager-patent-is-invalid

Basically, Apple is waging a worldwide patent war against many other phone-makers, which seems strange. Patents are supposed to be used like nukes - Don't sue me, or I'll sue you, and we'll both lose tons of money. What is Apple's strategy? Probably they figure they have enough money that lawsuits cannot threaten them too much, but other companies might run out and be forced to give in to Apple.

Also, in case you were wondering where Apple, Google, and Microsoft get all their revenue, here's some simple charts:
Google makes all of their money from advertising, one wonders if maybe they should diversify. It's also interesting how much Apple makes from the iPhone and how Microsoft makes a significant chunk from server software, which most people haven't heard of.

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.