Library research does not need to be taught in every introductory course.

In four years of college, I’ve tried to get both depth and breadth into my class schedule, as a good liberal arts student should. In addition to computer science classes (my major) and Japanese classes (my minor), I’ve taken introductory classes in philosophy, math, cognitive science, history, English, and physics. However, taking a breadth of classes has led to an unintended consequence: I’ve had to endure four or five different introductions scholarly research.

The format is always the same: a research librarian comes to class, loads the PowerPoint deck, and proceeds to tell us how to search the library catalogue, order books from Interlibrary Loan, cite a source, and use Google Advanced Search. They’ll probably throw in a few slides on why Wikipedia is unreliable as a scholarly resource. Continue reading

Your laptop in class is distracting me, too.

In December I posted my thoughts on whether professors should allow students to use laptops in class. My main point was that regardless of whether it’s okay for students to distract themselves, their laptops are also distracting and disrespectful to the rest of the class and the professor. Most of the commenters disagreed with me, but my classmate Cordelia feels the same way. She posted this morning on her blog, One Two Six Oh Four, an illustrated example of how frustrating it can be.


Find the rest of the comic here.

Twitter and chat in class are signs of bigger problems

Last month I attended a “Technology in Education” panel in which one of the student panelists described a class she took while studying abroad. She praised the professor’s idea of creating a Twitter hashtag for the class. He would project the twitterstream containing the tag onto the screen during class, so the students could see what the others were tweeting, share links, and ask questions.

On Reddit two days ago, an education professor bemoaned his university’s chatroom system. His class is conducted in a computer lab, where all the students have access to a shared chatroom (which the professor cannot disable). The professor does not watch the chatroom while he lectures, but he can see afterward that a bunch of students use the chat to post about how bored they are.

Plenty of sites claim that Twitter and other chat services are great tools that improve in-class student engagement. I disagree; I think these tools are half measures that imply there are bigger problems in the class.

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New year’s resolution: stronger passwords

I’ve liked to think my password is pretty strong. It has a good mix of symbols, lowercase letters, capital letters, and numbers. However, you’ve probably already picked up on the biggest problem: like most, I have one password I use for everything. XKCD has a great explanation of why this is a problem. For example, If I’d had an account with Gawker when its servers were compromised last month, I might have been in trouble. For all I know, I already am in trouble from a different site I use having been hacked.

For the new year, no more! My new year’s resolution is to use only unique passwords for all my different accounts online. Continue reading

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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Should kids be building their brand already?

My first homepage - names and images blurred to protect the innocent and embarrassed.

Last month, Fred Wilson wrote an article on the importance of online branding for young people, especially those of us prying our way into the job market. He agrees with David Karp that the best way to secure a positive online presence is to sell yourself well and market yourself frequently. Examples include posting copious flattering pictures on Facebook to overwhelm the unflattering shots and spreading links to your LinkedIn profile so that unrelated flotsam doesn’t get a higher search ranking than your professional profile does.

I completely agree that pains should be taken such that when the prospective employers google your name, they never find unmentionable content before they find your homepage. When I google my own name, at least the top four results and two more of the top ten are actually about me, and moreover are pages I’d be comfortable letting a recruiter see. While I haven’t secured the domain for my full name, I do have a versatile domain that I like and that I’ll be able to use for my future portfolio.

I didn’t go about domain shopping until halfway through college. Wilson, on the other hand, brags that he bought the domains for his children’s full names a few years ago, and his daughters maintain photo blogs under theirs. He doesn’t mention how old his children are, and while a quick scan of the girls’ blogs shows that they’re probably college students, one might get the impression from Wilson’s article that he advocates kids begin to build their brand as soon as their early teens.

I’m all for building positive content, but I remember the kind of content I created when I was a teenager. No, I wasn’t a wild party girl, but in high school I did have a website dedicated to obscure and decidedly dorky interests. Sure it helped me learn HTML and CSS, but it’s far too embarrassing to showcase to potential employers. While I was proud of it at the time, I’m very glad I never promoted that website under my real name. Kids who start branding in their teens will be stuck with cached content that they probably won’t want associated with their names when they want to impress someone with their online presence. For this reason, I disagree with Wilson that kids need to start their branding early. I don’t think kids need to worry about self-branding until they know what they want to showcase. Until then, anonymity is a kid’s best Facebook friend.

Found key item: Readability

In response to cluttered news sites that contain far more flotsam than actual news, Arc90 Laboratory has created a browser tool called Readability which restyles articles from busy pages into something a little easier on the eyes. After you choose how you want your articles to look, Readability installs as a bookmarklet in your browser toolbar. As you come across an illegible article, click the bookmark; Readability pulls only the text of the article and relevant pictures into one clean, neat page, styled as you chose in setup.

For my bookmarklet, I chose Newspaper style with medium size font and medium margins, and I’m very impressed so far. I would strongly recommend Readability to anyone who peruses any amount of articles.

Readability transforms articles from this,

Into this,

I’ve only had a couple problems so far. Readability identifies the longest chunk of text on the page as the article, so if the article is very short, Readability either might not find it, or may substitute something else (I once ended up with a very readable set of Google text ads). Still, I anticipate that the demand for this sort of service is strong, and will continue to grow especially as screens become smaller and more cluttered.

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.

Twitter’s assault on the English language

Twitter is one of those double-edged swords of the internet community. While it can be a powerful tool for good, such when Iranian protesters tweeted their unrest in June, it can also be a tool for evil, judging by the amount of spam Twitter sends out. Still, I think one of the worst crimes Twitter and its users have committed is the way they butcher the English language with spinoffs and spoofs of the word twitter in terms for its users and companies who utilize it. I shall attempt to catalogue the some of the worst offenders:

Words that describe the Twitter service and those who use it: I swear I did not coin any of these terms:

It all started out very innocently. There was a website called Twitter, on which tweeters could post a tweet. Then the service expanded enough that it became a twittersphere, on which twitterites posted their twitworthy musings. When power-users entered the scene, they became the twitterati whose twitticism reached twitical mass. Now if you desire to be a twittizen of the twitterspace, you must follow proper twittiquette, lest you be deemed a twittiot.

It’s getting to the point where the vocabulary of social networking overlaps with that of Elmer Fudd. I’ll admit it was funny when Stephen Colbert made Meredith Vieira lol on the Today Show when she asked him if he used Twitter. He answered, “I have twatted” on national television; I’m sure the NBC producers loved that. And I’m sure if Randall Munroe had drawn XKCD #181 “Interblag” in 2009 instead of 2006, he would have included “tweeto” in his column of internet nickname prefixes. (I blog on the tweetotubes, myself.)

Companies that use Twitter for advertising or part of their service: This was really bad in the days when people didn’t know what Twitter was, and companies had to include plays on tweet or twitter in their names to denote that they utilized the website. There are still some bad ones out there:

  • Best Buy’s @Twelpforce: Best Buy rolled out this service in July of this year when users like @ComcastCares were starting to become popular. They even put out a couple of corny videos to advertise it. No matter how useful they may be, I just can’t forgive them for their name.
  • Twaitter: Twaitter.com is a service that times your tweets for you so that advertisers can reach the widest audience. I keep thinking it has to be a group for out-of-work busboys.
  • Twinester: Twinester.com organizes groups and communities of Twitter users. You wouldn’t know it from their name, though. My first thought was that it was a club for fans of a strong thread or string composed of two or more smaller strands or yarns twisted together. Their logo’s coloring suggests that they intend their name to be pronounced “twi-nest-er,” rather than “twine-ster,” unfortunately.
  • Twetris: Despite the corny title, this flash game turned out to be a decent representation of Tetris, using recent updates organized into blocks of varying sizes and colors. I approve of the game, though not the name.

What Twitter-related names make you cringe? Leave a comment, or (heaven forbid), tweet me about it.

Cool airport stuff found

While on my way home from my trip to the Grace Hopper Conference in Tucson this year, I got to spend plenty of time in a few different airports. While in Dallas on a layover, I saw a couple uses of technology that I thought were particularly clever.

ipod_vending_machine• Gadget Vending Machines: I know these devices are not new. I’ve gotten used to seeing iPod vending machines in shopping malls; my local Macy’s has at least one. I had never understood the appeal, though. Gadgets costing over $100 tend not to be spur-of-the-moment purchases, so why would anyone buy an iPod or a digital camera from a vending machine? I’m sure better deals can be had online. When I saw one of these machines in the airport, however, it suddenly all made sense. Considering how easy it is to lose your gadgets when schlepping through security and such, an airport is one of the few places when you might suddenly decide that you needs a new digital camera or high-end pair of headphones. (I’m not sure about the iPods, because a factory-fresh iPod wouldn’t have any music on it, making it less than useful as entertainment on a plane.) The airport creates the perfect environment of hectic transportation and emergency purchases to support these machines, and I’d never thought of that before.

Ad-Supported Public Internet: As I walked down the terminal, lamenting the lack of free wifi, I passed a kiosk offering free public internet. I thought this was strange, considering that when customers are trapped in a closed environment, like an airport (or a plane, for that matter), they usually have to pay through the nose for basics like food and internet. Intrigued, I took a closer look. It turned out this kiosk did indeed offer free internet access, and it prompted the customer to click on one of three ads on the screen to continue. It turned out that clicking on an ad started a short video, and after that, there was internet access. I didn’t test out the machine much farther than that, because who knows what kind of tracking software could have been installed. Still, I’m a fan of ad-supported services (Gmail, anyone?), and I think it’s a step in the right direction for airports to offer ad-based services rather than the digital equivalent of the $10 ham sandwich.