Wednesday, November 29, 2006

iTunes, Comics, Porn, Brands, and Jobs

There will always be something about technology that is new to us. Blogs like these could go on forever, writing about new discoveries or explaining new ideas in the tech field. I've been given the opportunity to do this for a couple weeks, and I hope you all have enjoyed what I've had to say. Although Thanksgiving was almost a week ago, today's post is a veritable cornucopia of topics. Let's get to it.

C-town kid wonders about the pricing of iTunes songs, and if they should be lower to attract more sales. The timing of this question couldn't be better, because I just turned in a term paper exploring the effect of iTunes and similar stores on CD sales. Here's the abridged version: CD sales have been decreasing since 1999, the year Napster was released. Coincidence? Probably not. However, legal downloads, such as purchases from iTunes, are also taking away from CD sales. 99¢ is actually a sweet spot price for a song. Wal-Mart has its own store that (of course) undercuts the competition, but 99¢ gives the music consumer the opportunity to own music for less than a dollar. This is a powerful option when compared to a $15 CD with only one or two good songs.

iTunes provides a nice alternative to illegal downloads in that it guarantees a certain quality, album artwork, ease of use, and correct labeling. (Have you ever downloaded a song, only to find it was mislabeled and definitely not what you wanted?) The convenience of these services may be worth a dollar to some consumers. Also, it's important to note that at this price level, artists make only 8 to 14 cents per song (source) and lowering the price would probably hurt them. Still, iTunes remains a powerful alternative to both stealing music and buying a CD only to rip to your computer.

Anonymous readers asked for my opinion on web comics and pornography. The good point was made that anyone could create and post a web comic, which could devalue them all as a group. I think there are a couple which are updated almost everyday, and that shows a degree of dedication. I don't read them myself, but I've heard that Sluggy Freelance and Penny Arcade are good. I used to read Friend Bear back in middle school, but be warned, it stoops to certain levels of weird to get a laugh.

As far as the economic implications of Internet pornography, it was recently published that 1 out of every 100 web pages contains porn (source). I have to think that not all of those are just free sites, so given the huge size of the Internet, it's safe to say that porn is a significant business. If porn was suddenly blocked by the government, I don't think our economy would necessarily crash, however.

PJ asked about the implications of branding on new technology. The question is, does a good name make the product? In an earlier post, I mentioned the current Web 2.0 trend and some of the major players (Digg, Flickr, Facebook, and YouTube). For companies looking to ride this trend, a good name is as important as the product. What makes a name good? As far as Web 2.0 is concerned, it must have an obvious pronunciation, a relatively short length, and unique enough that its .com domain is still available (more here, scroll down the page to "Enough doom and gloom..."). Bonus points if your brand can be turned into a verb, as with Google and Digg.

This allows for a segue to Nintendo's recently released Wii video game console. For some time, it was referred to as the "Nintendo Revolution," which isn't as immature-sounding and is actually descriptive. However, the Wii name is certainly a popular topic, and it acts as word-of-mouth advertising (for better or for worse). I own a Wii, but I can't say anything new about it, because people are going wild over this thing. The controller, which eschews rows of buttons for intuitive gesture-based input, is easy to pick up and hard to put down. The Wii's ability to play (and store) games from every one of Nintendo's previous consoles increases its value tremendously. But most of all, the Wii captures fun like no other video game I've experienced. If you buy one, make sure to buy at least one extra controller. The best part about it is playing with friends and family.

My helpful friends at Pomona College CDO asked if I could write a little bit about online job-hunting tools. There are dozens of sites that offer this service, and I'm sure it has become the favored tool of choice for this generation (I wonder how often a twenty-year-old with an Internet connection glances at the want ads of their local paper). More specifically, does the process work in the opposite direction -- do employers search for information on their potential hirees? Another student blogger involved in this contest, Nicole, has actually written a post on this topic and I don't want to tread on her toes. (Yes, I read the other blogs. If you can spare a hit for my competition, check out Nicole's post for a complete discussion). The short story is, yes, companies can and do run background checks. As Carl from the CDO mentioned just last night at a Financial Planning seminar, the Internet is being constantly archived. Just removing information from a Facebook or Myspace profile isn't enough; it's wise to never post anything incriminating in the first place.

Will asked about Amazon's new Mechanical Turk program, which allows users to complete tasks for pay, over the Internet. As Will put it, this basically allows anyone to outsource their work. It works in a similar manner to Google Answers or Ask Metafilter, where a question or task is posed that a computer cannot answer. Mechanical Turk often pays users only a few cents per task, which raises concerns of creating a "virtual sweatshop" (source). It is interesting to see the significant demand for tasks, however. It shows that there still are things that a computer cannot do, things which are easy for humans. Mechanical Turk represents, in a way, the limits of technology, and it will be intriguing to see how it fares as we continue to develop artificial intelligence.


Saturday, November 25, 2006

Give Me Your Feedback

The time left in this contest is running out, so now would be a good time to bring out the content that readers would like to see. Are there any ideas or concepts that you'd like me to write about, or at least look up and consider? You can let me know by leaving a comment (there is a link for comments at the end of this post). Or, if you'd just like to say that I'm doing a good/bad job, you can do that too.

One of the main concepts that provided the inspiration for this contest is the website In my first post, reader PJ asked why I labeled Digg as "brilliant." I think Digg is brilliant because, for its target audience, it's the most up-to-date source of the most important news. Of course, its target audience is tech-oriented and web-savvy. If there were Diggs for movie-watchers, gardeners, or sports fanatics, they would each become the most popular source for information. Digg lets users submit news as it happens, and if their peers deem it important, they can vote it up to share it with everybody.

This blog contest is for the opportunity to peek into Digg's headquarters for a day. I'd love to eventually get a job at a place like Digg, a place where the product or service offered is based around a core idea (like reader-edited news content). That's why I've focused each blog post around a different idea, and often a company who bases their products around it. So, let me know if there are any other topics you'd like to see featured here and I'd be happy to oblige.

I apologize if some of the posts show up late or with weird time stamps - the blog is powered by Blogger and sometimes their system is a little funky. Also, all of the images I use are gathered from Google's image search and are the property of their respective owners.

Sometimes There's An Easier Way

One of the great things about technology is how it always seems to solve our problems. Science-fiction movies often show a future world where robots do all of our hard work for us. This may not turn out to be the case: a computer with a monotone voice doesn't have to be part of the solution. Sometimes the technology behind improving a way of life is just a simple trick that plays off our instincts.

One way to improve traffic flow at a busy intersection could be the addition of new lane. Maybe a detour for one direction or even a big old bridge that elevates one lane above the others! The great northern state of Minnesota is trying a new implementation of a technology that already exists. When we pull up to a flashing yellow light, we've learned to look around before continuing. Some traffic lights in Minnesota now have flashing yellow left-turn signals that allow a turn lane to go even when the opposite direction has a green light. It increases traffic flow while keeping a safety measure in place, and only from adding one extra light to each traffic signal.

Sometimes making it simple means introducing big, colorful buttons. This is true for pumps at a national gas station chain, which include printed instructions for their pay-at-the-pump service. The problem is, pictures of the buttons are printed in the directions. The end result? Customers try to press the colorful text in the instructions, rather than the actual buttons. (from Cabel Sasser) So when trying to simplify, remember that the end result might just be confusion.

Perhaps the most famous examples of a simple way to solve a problem are the flies in Amsterdam's urinals. I don't need to go into the problem faced by most urinals, so I'll just leave it at "splashing." Instead of building barriers around each urinal or installing mats on the floor, a little fly is painted inside each urinal and it fixes the problem. (from Reading Eagle) The fly taps into every man's deepest instinct of, well, peeing on a target. So with each fly strategically placed to minimize splashback, the job of keeping the restrooms clean is done by the restroom-goers themselves.

So what's the story? Sometimes technology doesn't mean introducing electronic gizmos to the scene. Sometimes all it takes is a little graphic or sound to augment an experience, rather than a complete overhaul. Whether it's managing cars at an intersection or controlling for some men in a hurry, it's worth the while to consider a simple solution.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Google Finds God

I know I'm not the first person to write enthusiastically about Google Earth. It gives the user a bird's eye view of just about any location in the world; some places with enough detail to pick out individual people. I'm pretty sure that one of the first things someone does when they fire up Google Earth is to look for their house and their surroundings. Maybe next they look for some famous locations, like a monument or tall building. If you're a budding explorer, geologist, or even theologian, Google Earth may be a useful tool.

One user was browsing around his hometown in Italy when he saw some unusual markings on the ground. He did a little exploring and concluded that he had found something big, most likely subterranean ancient ruins. The National Archaeological Museum of Parma confirmed it to be an old Roman villa, and now a dig is being commissioned to see what lies beneath the soil. (from

A geologist was examining a recently discovered impact crater in Egypt when, on his zoom out, more circular structures came into view. Huge craters, over 20 km in diameter, that had never been reported as discovered! Yet a satellite orbiting the Earth and taking pictures was able to see them, and broadcast images for the world to uncover. (from

The title of this post is a bit of a stretch. Certain individuals have claimed that, using satellite photography (but not necessarily Google's), they have been able to locate the remains of Noah's Ark, providing proof of the Old Testament and restoring faith in God. This claim is far more susceptible to doubts and criticism than the first two, but it adds to my point.

So what's the story? In one of my first posts, I outlined why might provide a better search experience than Google. This was not meant to discount Google in any way. One of their philosophies is to provide the world with free access to information. They are scanning and archiving thousands of books and papers, compiling news reports, and now presenting glimpses of the world we may never get the chance to see in real life. Technology growth brings wonderful opportunities, and allows anyone to make important discoveries. The idea of technology interacting with religion, well, that's another topic for another day.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Grandpa Needs His Media Email

Email is a pretty convenient way to keep in touch with folks who are far away. Sending messages couldn't be much easier. Sending various multimedia attachments is a little trickier. Sure, a couple photos here and there don't take too long to download, but sending Grandpa your latest home video of the little one burping up peas becomes a complicated affair. Many email providers won't even handle large attachments, and movies and music have the tendency to get quite large.

BitTorrent is an Internet protocol that has filled the void that Napster and Kazaa left behind. Enterprising cyber-pirates use BitTorrent to download last night's TV episode or the latest album from their favorite blinging pop star. It's popular because it's fast, and it's fast because it's popular: the more people using BitTorrent to download a file, the faster that file will transfer.

How can Email harness the speed of BitTorrent? That's the question a couple start-up companies are trying to solve. As it stands, downloading using BitTorrent is easy, but uploading is not. It would sure be great to be able to use such a technology to send Grandpa your latest clips of the family, but it has to remain as easy as email on both ends. Pando is one such company that has come up with a way to make sending large files easy.
Here's how it works: (1) Send your media to Pando (via the fast BitTorrent). (2) Send an email to Grandpa with a link to your Pando file (not a problem for any email provider). (3) Grandpa reads his email, clicks the link, and begins downloading your media at high speeds.

So what's the story? BitTorrent and similar technologies don't need to be used purely for illegal activity. As the Internet expands to provide larger and larger files, such as TV shows, entire music albums and feature films, download speeds should increase as well to maintain a comparable downloading experience. Pando and its peers (from TechCrunch) have led the way in harnessing the speed of BitTorrent for communications purposes. As big players like Apple and Microsoft bolster their online media outlets (i.e. iTunes and Zune Marketplace), incorporating BitTorrent to distribute their content would be a smart move.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Tiny Is The New Huge

When I was a kid, all of the coolest toys had a prefix like "MEGA" or "SUPER," suggesting that the bigger the toy, the better it was. Today's "toys" are going in the other direction, with descriptors like "nano" and "mini," the former of which suggests a size that the naked eye would have serious trouble finding. Cell phones are following this trend, too: it seems all our electronic devices seem to be shrinking by the day.

These devices hold important visual data. Phones have contact numbers, PDAs have email addresses and appointments, BlackBerrys have email. As the size of the devices decreases, so does the size of the font with which they display this data. If my father is any indication then, little by little, these devices and their small type will begin to alienate their users. He has me read him the song currently playing on his full-size iPod, for goodness' sake. If it's hard for people with reading glasses to use these devices, think of how a blind person must cope with our gadget-crazy society.

What if gadget displays could communicate in Braille? That's the idea behind a prototype technology being developed at the University of Tokyo. Without going into techno-details, the idea is to create a display that can dynamically create an array of tiny raised bumps much like pixels in a computer screen. Writing in Braille and even 3-D pictures would be possible in devices not much bigger than a PDA from today. (from New Scientist Tech) This would allow the blind to join the rest of us with pocket-size cell phones, digital organizers, and even portable music players.

So what's the story? We develop these technological devices to simplify everyday tasks, like communicating. Sometimes real functionality is sacrificed for good looks, or popular form factors. Tiny devices may be all the rage, but at some point they lose their usability. Developing technology that brings an entire new dimension (literally) to accessibility is a direction the industry needs to follow.

iPods for the deaf are a little farther away.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Internet Turns 3

The first years of the World Wide Web were awkward. People were more excited to show off their "under construction" animations than to add real content. Pages were static pieces to be read, bookmarked, and read again later. Unappealing GeoCities sites (remember those?) dominated the social scene. This period was dubbed "Web 1.0," well after the fact.

Now in its adolescence, the Web is a social community. Users are encouraged to post their pictures, videos, and thoughts on a variety of modifiable sites. This is Web 2.0, the biggest buzzword in the industry. A site is "Web 2.0" if it is able to be edited by its readers as well as its authors. Web 2.0 also has a distinct aesthetic style, full of gradients, round corners, and large sans-serif fonts.

What will Web 3.0 look like? If we are to follow the analogy between the age of a growing kid and the age of the Internet, Web 3.0 will arrive at the time when most of us have to finally enter the real world and get a job. Does this mean no more playing around with media clips? Not quite yet. Stephen Braker proposes that Web 3.0 will be, among other things, "always on" and "cheaper." (source) I agree with this, and can elaborate on it.

Look at Google. They're expanding to offer a range of programs that replace traditional software applications, and these web-offered solutions will be always available to anybody with an Internet connection. Web 3.0 will be taking on the responsibilities of non-Web tasks; essentially, the Internet has finally gotten a job, and it's the job of our old software. This won't stop at Microsoft Office-like programs; the Internet will also pick up the job of the TV networks. Popular network shows are already available to watch for free on certain sites, and this idea will only gain steam as internet connections get faster.

What won't Web 3.0 do? Web 3.0 is not going to be the backend to the Jetsons home we've been anticipating. Our refrigerators will not order milk from the supermarket when someone puts an empty carton back on the shelf. Web 3.0 will not babysit your sleeping infant. Web 3.0 will not dropkick your geography teacher out of the classroom. The time of the flying car is still off in the future.

So what's the story? Web developers are working on Internet applications that will slowly bring your computing experience from the hard drive in your desktop to web site interfaces everywhere. Creative implementations that retain the familiarity of Word and Excel, but gain the efficiency of the Internet, will be the ones that capture the market and lead businesses into the future. Start your engines.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Al Gore Unplugged

I'm not exactly talking about an acoustic album from our country's exuberant ex-vice president, but it would certainly be a best seller if it ever came into fruition. I'm sure you've at least heard of his PowerPoint presentation-cum-documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which was a certified success (due to his bright, sparkling voice no doubt). The documentary hits on the negative effects of carbon emissions on our environment, and ways to cut down on said emissions.

Our technological devices need power, and creating this power releases carbon dioxide. There are times when our devices are plugged in, not doing anything, yet still drawing power. One major offender is cell phones: a recent study reported that if 10% of the world's cell phone users unplugged their chargers when their batteries were full, the amount of electricity saved could power 60,000 homes (from Treehugger). Televisions and related electronics are also under fire for their "standby" modes where the device uses power in order to interpret signals from a remote control, even when it's been turned off.

What would Al Gore do? I haven't met him, but I'd guess that he'd unplug a lot of his devices when not actively using them. Take Nintendo's upcoming Wii video game console. It boasts a 24 hour Internet connection that will download little Pokemon goodies even when it appears to be turned off. Mr. Gore would most likely instead shut off his console and walk / swim to Japan and obtain said Pokemon by hand. He's an outdoorsman. No big deal.

So what's the story? Tech products usually improve our way of life in some fashion. It's worth considering their total impact on our lives, and weighing their convenience with their disadvantages. The "green market" will be fascinating to watch in the coming years, to see how ideas are implemented with environmental concerns.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Where's Jeeves?

Search engines are not a new development. "Google" has become part of everyday vocabulary, both in usage as a brand and a verb. Despite its market share of 5.8%, offers an (arguably) better search experience than Google. The site dropped its charming butler Jeeves from its title (more on this below) in March 2005, when Ask was acquired by IAC/InterActive Corp. A complete site overhaul began soon after, and culminated into today's set of unique search features. Say you search on Ask for a concert date. "Band reviews from Citysearch and ticket-buying opportunities from Ticketmaster pop up at the top of the results; concert venues also appear pinpointed next to the results on an map." Or, if you search for a local plumber, "reviews and booking opportunities for local plumbers appear courtesy of another IAC company," (from Newsweek)

What else makes Ask special? Compare similar searches from Ask with Google, and you may be surprised which site brings up more ads. For a company whose (very public) motto is "Do No Evil," Google pushes advertisements upon its users more than twice as much as Ask (from CNN). Google offers a wide range of internet services, like their popular email client GMail and an Excel-competitor Spreadsheets. However, these services all contain text-based ads. The difference here between Google and Ask is that Google wants to keep users on its site to increase the amount of ads they can publish. Ask directs its users straight to the content. Or, to hear it from Ask CEO Jim Lanzone, "Our approach, to make an analogy, is to sell more copies of the magazine, rather than try to stuff more ads in each copy. That's working for us." (from CNet)

So what's the story here? There's always more than one way to execute an idea, no matter how simple its basis may be. Providing internet search results is a service we can no longer do without; the company who develops the user-friendliest way of doing this may eventually rise to the top.

But where did Jeeves go? Ask's website says that Jeeves "decided to step down, and retire in style." I happen to have a record of search requests and Jeeves' subsequent answers that prove otherwise: if I ever treated my clients like this, I would be fired too.*

Search: What is the cure for the common cold?
Jeeves: Common sense. Put on a jacket, moron.

Search: What does God look like?
Jeeves: Did you mean, "What does Dog look like?" Huh? What type of dog? Throw me a bone here.

Search: What is the address of the Dunkin Donuts in Chesterfield?
Jeeves: It's right next to the Police Station. GET IT??? LOL

Search: What's the difference between saturated fats and trans fats?
Jeeves: Your mother is fat.

* Come on, of course these are completely made up.

Friday, November 03, 2006

It Begins

Hello everyone! My name is Brian, and I'm a 21-year-old senior Mathematical Economics major at Pomona College in Claremont, California. This is the beginning of my technology-oriented blog, and if I had to credit one public figure for getting me interested in technology, it would have to be Reader Rabbit. I spent a lot of time before kindergarten sounding out the vowels on his carrots, and when my vocabulary had finally bested his, I wanted more. Reader Rabbit got me hooked on "edu-tainment" games, and from there it progressed to dingy HyperCard animations and finally creating websites featuring movies of me wearing a fat suit.

From working for a couple years in IT, I've learned that there are times when you begin to feel boxed in by error messages, standard troubleshooting procedures, and hours of watching progress bars fill up. There is so much creativity to be expressed in the technology arena; not just in terms of aesthetics, but in breaking the mold and putting a new idea out there. I hope that my blog will inspire the latter; I plan on my entries being light and funny, but each with a fresh idea that's easy to understand.

Part of the reason I applied for this opportunity is to see for myself how tech ideas come to life. Obviously, Digg's idea of viewer-controlled content was a brilliant one even if only evidenced by the number of imitators it spawned. Tech is an ever-expanding market and while it shouldn't be impossible to get a tech-related job out of college, finding and landing one that really meshes with your ideals is tough. I hope that my blog entries strike a chord with many of you (and that one of you powerful types send me a job offer).

I maintain a personal website at, and yes it contains a video of me in an inflatable sumo suit, set to a piano rag.