My shortest paths app for Vassar College

I’ve finished the first online version of my application which finds shortest walking paths on the Vassar campus. It uses Dijkstra and the Google Maps Javascript API to find and plot the shortest route between dorms, academic buildings, and student centers. I’m hoping for some feedback from online testing before I submit the final version as part of my senior research project. I’ve solved a lot of arguments about quickest ways to class already!

How to predict a successful Google product (Hint: it’s the name)

Google announced last week that it will discontinue support for Wave, and I’m not surprised. At launch, the hype was huge and everyone was excited to bother their friends for Wave invites. But when I finally got mine, I opened Wave and thought, “What’s this? What am I supposed to do with this?”

The Wave interface is not as intuitive as what I had hoped for in a Google product. When I’m conversing in a wave, I’m never sure where I’m supposed to click or what I’m supposed to select. Judging by popularity, I don’t think I was the only one who thought so.
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Handling a busy schedule with Google and without Reddit

My spring semester started two weeks ago and already I feel swamped. I’ve entered a semester-long robot competition in addition to having a normal course load, and I have summer internship applications and club responsibilities to juggle. The hardest part is that whenever I have a free moment and I just have to take a break, I can’t relax without thinking to myself that I have a full to-do list, and I don’t have any excuse for not doing those things that have to get done.

I’m doing two things differently this semester to organize the deluge of work, and it has worked well so far.

Google Calendar and Tasks

I discovered this semester that if you turn on Tasks in Google Calendar and assign due dates to them, they show up on the calendar with little checkboxes. When you check an item, it draws a satisfying little line through the title of the task. I use tasks for my things to do outside of class, like club duties and internship deadlines. Those show up in orange. I have a seperate green calendar for homework, so I can see at a glance what has an academic deadline and what might be put off until tomorrow. I also have calendars for class times and general events.

In the past, I’ve kept track of homework assignments in my head. It worked well throughout high school and had worked out all right until now. But without my calendars, I don’t think I could keep up this semester. It’s amazing how many times I’ve thought to myself, “I feel like I have nothing to do; there must be something!” at which point I check the calendar and find that yes, there are at least five or six things I should be doing. Having a ready list keeps me on task. Just having everything on the calendar also helps me realize how little time I actually have and how important it is to schedule well.

Avoiding Reddit

I’m a big fan of Reddit.com. I like the community, and I always find interesting articles to read. I even participated in the first Reddit Secret Santa last year. The problem with it for me is that once I click a link or two, I find myself clicking more, and I can never get away from it.

At some point over winter break, I decided that although I was having a very relaxing vacation spending hours a day on Reddit and never getting out of bed, not being productive was getting on my nerves. I’d think of lots of projects I wanted to work on, and at the end of the day, nothing happened. To break that pattern, I decided that for my new year’s resolution I would remove the Reddit link on my browser toolbar and abstain from the site altogether. I didn’t think I could handle never visiting Reddit again, so I decided to stay away until February and reevaluate my decision at that time. Well, it has been a month, and even though I miss keeping up with news and memes, avoiding Reddit has been wonderful for my productivity. I’m a little sad to say that for the sake of my classes I’m going to have to continue my resolution into the rest of the spring semester.

Google Student Blog misses the mark

I subscribe to the Google Student Blog primarily for scholarship announcements, but the majority of posts are ideas on how students can use Google Docs to simplify their lives. Sometimes the suggestions are good, but most of the time the ideas are too mundane to be of much use. The most recent post, however, is just patronizing. Apparently the Google Docs help site has set up a new Docs for Students page, designed to “highlight how various student populations can use Google Docs in their daily life.” Unfortunately, rather than sort tips and tricks by document type or class subject, the content is distributed among five stories of fictional students using Docs to accomplish tasks that might be better accomplished though other means. For example,

Lisa is a French major and very excited about starting her classes. On the first day of class, the French teacher doesn’t speak a word of English. Lisa’s French is good but she realizes she needs some help. To test her ability, she pastes an article about soccer from a French newspaper in a Google Docs document and tries to understand what it says. Then, she uses the Translate document feature to test her knowledge. Turns out, she doesn’t know as many French words as she’d like to, but this helps her improve her vocabulary.

Granted, I appreciate being able to translate chunks of foreign-language text into English. I am just amazed that Google thinks that it isn’t enough to inform me of the feature, and that it would be better to frame a story of a French major around the feature so that I might better relate to her. It sounds as though it is supposed to appeal to a middle school student, rather than a college student. (A college student should at least know that Lisa would learn more effectively if she looked up the unknown words herself, rather than translating the document all in one go.)

Sadly, it gets worse.

Lisa’s life long dream is to study abroad in Paris. She applies for a study abroad program during her Sophomore year. To help her gain an edge on the competition, she decides to use one of the many professional looking resume templates in the Google Docs template gallery and picks one particular template called Blue Rays Resume. Between the styles on the template and her well written essay in French, she impresses the judges and is selected to go to Paris.

I’m no human resources expert, but I shudder at the thought of sending out my resume using that template. Google does have a few nice resume templates, but that isn’t one of them. What is Google trying to tell me here? If I use Google Docs, I could be chosen to go to Paris like Lisa?

Google could have made a well-organized list of reasons why college students should use Docs. There really are some compelling reasons, including no cost, ease of collaboration, and the ability to back up documents and access them from any browser. Instead, they wrote success stories for us to relate to. I’m just not impressed.

A group project actually taught me something

One of my favorite classes this semester has been Intro to Cognitive Science. I took the class because more than a few of my friends who think the same way I do are Cognitive Science majors, and this semester the class was taught by one of the rock-star professors in the department. He’s a great lecturer, and I think I’ve learned a lot from the class about cognitive function, as well as the crossover between cognitive science and computer science. I might even get more into studying artificial intelligence before I graduate.

That said, while I think very highly of this professor, he did something I thought to be ridiculous this past week: he assigned a group essay.

I dislike group projects as much as the next person, because I worry that my group members will slack off and leave me with the brunt of the work. But even if they’re all hard workers, it still doesn’t feel fair to me that my grade will be partially determined by the efforts of people I have no control over. So to take control and ensure a good project, I feel pressured to take extra time and help the group members who need extra coaching to produce a decent piece of writing, which still does not seem fair.

Just having a group project is one thing, and I probably would have been okay with a different kind of project. Usually in these sorts of situations the group members can divvy up the work and put it all together close to the due date, spending minimal time consulting with other group members. But this assignment was a group essay. Essays, as I know them, are supposed to have a single point of view throughout to create coherence. How were we supposed to write the paper, I thought, without sitting together the whole time so that the person who wrote the conclusion knew what the person who who wrote the introduction had written? How was one paragraph supposed to follow smoothly to the next when the next paragraph had not been written yet?

The worst part, I felt, was that this was the last assignment in the class before finals season, meaning that during the time everyone was rushing to finish final class projects and study for finals, we also had to find time to meet as a group. It would have been more courteous, I thought, for the professor to have assigned this project much earlier in the semester.

Despite the fact that I spent a significantly larger amount of time worrying about the paper than actually writing it, the method we used to divide the work actually worked fairly well. Everyone did their research and came up with topics for the essay independently, and we went with the best idea among the four of us. The essay prompt came with 8 questions that had to be answered, so we divvied up the questions and answered them each in a paragraph or two. To put the whole thing together, we used Google Docs to compile our sections into one document, then sat around a table for a couple hours, each on our own laptops, reading through the paper, asking each other questions about what we had written, and editing simultaneously (Google Docs is cool with simultaneous editing like that). The end result did not flow as a paper written by one person might have, but it was at least coherent. My fellow group members really liked the simultaneous editing idea, and they had fun watching comments and corrections appear spontaneously in their writing.

I understand why students have to complete group projects: working in groups doesn’t stop in school, and we’ll probably be doing collaborative work the rest of our lives. For this paper specifically, the professor told us outright that the reason he assigned it was that no one researcher writes a scientific paper alone anymore, and that articles are now expected to include descriptions of how each author contributed. However, the difference between group projects in business and in schools is that in business there is usually a designated group leader, whereas in school the group members are expected to agree on everything democratically. This slows down the group’s progress and increases the need for constant consultation, which is the part that bothers me the most.

In retrospect, I guess assigning a group essay was not all that silly. I did learn some cool stuff about how the brain processes vision, and I did introduce my groupmates to the wonders of Google Docs. But the experience was still stressful, and like most students, I wish my professors would refrain from assigning group projects altogether!

The highs and lows of cloud computing

Cloud computing, with services such as Salesforce and Google Mail and Docs, is easily my favorite internet technology. The potential for scalable, affordable services online really excites me, and I definitely plan to enter that sector of industry when I get my degree. But cloud computing is fraught with pitfalls, too, as a few recent data disasters have shown.

Upsides:

  • When my data is in the cloud, I can access it from everywhere. This becomes increasingly important the more devices you have. When I want to see my email from my personal computer, my iPod Touch, netbook, my lab computer, my eReader, and my phone, it’s a lot more convenient to keep that data in the cloud, rather than having to manually sync each device. This property has saved me more than once, too. When I took a train to New York City last spring and found that I had forgotten my ticket confirmation number in the rush to get out the door, I was able to pull it up on a public internet terminal and still catch my train.
  • Cloud data is more secure than local data because it is backed up on someone else’s servers. If my office burns down, I’m still going to be able to access my email, and if the server goes down, there will be a dedicated team to fix the problem.
  • Cloud computing is necessary for software as a service (SAAS) products, which can be very scalable and very profitable. When Salesforce gains a new client, they don’t have to come out and do a complicated database installation or train local IT on how to implement their product on local servers, or even make sure all the users’ terminals have the same operating system. The software is in the cloud and ready to go; all the local users need is a browser to access the database.
  • The cloud has also ushered in an era of free applications such as Google Docs, which not only competes with expensive office suites but also enables easy document sharing: you don’t have to upload your presentation to send to your coworkers if your presentation already exists online. These programs are easy to use because there is no installation, and they’re compatible with almost all computers because they work through a browser.

Downsides:

  • Your data might not be as safe as it sounds. Last month, as Microsoft performed an update on the servers that host data for T-Mobile Sidekick users, something went horribly wrong and all data in the cloud was lost. I don’t own a Sidekick, but I would have been outraged if this happened to me. The worst part is that there really wasn’t anything Sidekick users could do about it. While Microsoft “worked round the clock” to restore the lost information, they couldn’t possibly restore everything. Backups can fail. No server is 100% safe. So while your data might stand a better chance in the cloud, the more backups you have, including local backups, the safer you are.
  • If the company you trust with your data goes down, you might lose it. Yahoo announced in April that it would close its free web-hosting site, Geocities. Last week every Geocities site officially became unavailable. While Yahoo gave plenty of warning in advance, it still hurts to find out that your website, something you consider your property, is going to be shut down no matter what you do. I’m sure plenty of Geocities users never had the chance to save their data. Whenever you upload content to 3rd party servers, you put your data in their hands, and there is always a danger that they will delete it without your permission.
  • The flip side to the argument that 3rd parties will ignore your data is that they will pay attention to your data. Online banking is a form of cloud computing, because the bank offers a virtualized resource as a service over the internet. That’s great, but there is huge pressure on the bank to make  sure I’m the only one who can see that data and manipulate it. Likewise, if I send confidential email, I trust Google Mail not to let its employees or anyone else read it without my permission, but neither I nor they can absolutely guarantee it will never happen. There is always a danger of unsecured data with cloud computing.
  • Cloud applications are primarily accessed through browsers, but browsers vary in terms of what technologies they support. While modern browsers like Firefox and Google Chrome adhere to web standards, the browser that dominates the market, Internet Explorer, sometimes makes its own rules, which web developers spend lots of time and money trying to stay ahead of. SAAS companies take a risk because they cannot guarantee the browser their client uses will be compatible with their software. Even scarier is the idea that Microsoft might decide that it doesn’t like the idea of Google Docs competing with its office suite and makes Internet Explorer incompatible with Google’s product.

So while cloud computing is exciting because of its scalability and versatility, it is also dangerous because it puts personal data into the hands of 3rd parties. I still think, however, that as people start using more and more devices in addition to personal computers on a regular basis, companies that utilize a cloud architecture to deliver their products will be the most successful.