Saturday, February 25, 2012

Magic of Technology

When I saw the iPad, I saw it as a storytelling device. 
So begins Shilo Shiv Suleman’s effort to enable storytelling with technology and thus make it a truly multi-sensorial experience.

From her TED Talk 'Using Tech to Enable Dreaming'
Children love acting out what they read and interacting with other children, and we know that this is a wonderful, effective way for them to learn. We know, too, that many of them already have the best of media sites and cool technology at their disposal. So what Suleman introduces here is not really a new idea.
But what is engaging is the wonder and the fantasy she exudes. She says,
I was terrified by this idea that I would lose the ability to enjoy and appreciate the sunset without having my camera on me, without tweeting it to my friends. It felt like technology should enable magic, not kill it.
To this end, then, her interactive iPad story asks children to go outside, and take photographs of things that they’re naturally keen anyway to look at, play with, and take home.  Then, they can post their photos onto the story, and share them with good friends who live near and far. Facebook, and the new Pinterest, allow such posting and sharing already. But, once again, Suleman helps them experience magic in ways they naturally love.
In the last 10 years, children have been locked inside their rooms, glued to their PCs...  But now with mobile technology, we can actually take our children outside into the natural world with their technology.
Finally, her storytelling speaks both to the locality of the children’s culture, such as in the screen shot from her blog (below), and to the universality of being curious, social and kindly. This way, it’s relevant to them and to friends who hail from different cultures.

(image credit)
Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lost Greek City of Pavlopetri

People on Twitter are not all that interactive or connected, as compared to those on Facebook and YouTube.  Nonetheless, I’ve really liked it at as a news source, not quite on par with Google News, but  second to it and LinkedIn third.

Accordingly, I found this National Geographic article on my Twitter news feed - Extreme Scientific Imaging - which posted a few brilliant images that modern-day technology can now produce.  These are things we would have difficulty seeing otherwise.  Here’s an example:

It’s an image of a Greek City, Pavlopetri, off the southern coast of Greece. It’s about 5000 years old, but sunk about 3000 years ago. The technology was created by a robotics team from the University of Sydney, and this won first prize in an Extreme Imaging Competition.

I never cease to marvel at what some people can conceptualize and create. In key respects, this blog on media, technology, internet and digital is a homage to that. Still, I was keen to hear about this underwater city. But the little write up on this image focused virtually exclusively on the technology and the competition.

Enter Wikipedia. It’s not news that this city was mostly likely a trading port for textile and pottery. But I am eager to hear more about its planning, as researchers so far have noted streets, buildings, and tombs in Pavlopetri. The full research will be published in 2014.

Thankfully, the underwater remains of Pavlopetri are protected by UNESCO - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - which aims to prevent destruction and looting, among other things.

(image credit)
Heaven forbid that millenniums from now, Chicago should sink into Lake Michigan. But if so, generations of our progeny will see its superb planning. Which, sadly, we cannot say for cities like Abu Dhabi or Dubai. In these latter cases, our progeny may marvel at the sophisticated engineering, but turn somber at their Babel-like conceit as well as their circuitous, closed-loop arteries.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ecosystem Watchdogs Holding Feet to the Fire

Google under fire

In its latest ooops, Google had to explain quickly how its DoubleClick ad app managed to slip by the tracking blocks of the Apple Safari browser. It was Stanford University graduate student, Jonathan Mayer, who discovered it, as reported by Inquirer Technology - Google bypassed Apple privacy settings—research.

Google reportedly did not realize that the app opened Safari browser doors to a slew of DoubleClick ad tracking cookies, which would otherwise have been rejected.
“The Safari browser contained functionality that then enabled other Google advertising cookies to be set on the browser,” the California company said in a released statement. 
“We didn’t anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers,” it continued. “It’s important to stress that, just as on other browsers, these advertising cookies do not collect personal information.” 
US legislators and privacy advocates lashed out at Google, accusing the company of trampling on people’s privacy and calling for an investigation.
(image credit)
Path under fire

Similarly, earlier this month, CNN shared a WIRED article - Path CEO: 'We thought we were doing this the right way' - that Arun Thampi from Singapore busted Path, an upstart social media site, for hauling users’ entire address books onto its servers, without an opt-in feature for users. CEO Dave Morin had to do a mea culpa.
“We thought we were doing this the right way. It turns out, we made a mistake.” 
“We used the data for the sake of simplicity,” Morin tells me. “Any time you build a network, you have to help users find their friends. And that entire experience is designed to suggest people who you’re close to.” In other words, it’s the whole point of the app itself.
But that’s not an easy sentiment to convey to users who feel their privacy has been violated. Morin told me he wants to take all measures possible — all explained in a blog post — to prove to users that Path is serious about privacy. “We’ve deleted the entire collection of user contact information from our servers,” Morin says. “Unlike some other companies, we believe that users should have complete control over their data. This is just the right thing to do.”
Carrier IQ under fire

Just two months ago, analytics firm Carrier IQ was in very similar hot water, when security researcher Trevor Eckhart caught them with their pants down, as reported - Carrier IQ 'Vigorously Disagrees' with Critics.  The sleuth in this situation said the firm deployed software that tracked personal information on our mobile phones, unbeknown to users (e.g., texts, calls, and whereabouts). 

Really disturbing, if in fact true.
“While a few individuals have identified that there is a great deal of information available to the Carrier IQ software inside the handset, our software does not record, store or transmit the contents of SMS messages, email, photographs, audio or video,” the company said in a statement released Thursday.
Carrier IQ also said that it “vigorously disagrees” with allegations that the company has violated wiretap laws.
Carrier IQ also quoted Infidel Inc. security analyst Rebecca Bace as saying that “allegations of keystroke collection or other surveillance of mobile device user’s content [by Carrier IQ] are erroneous.”
(image credit)

If this were a US court, the defendants’ responses ranged from swift, apologetic and combative. These allegations prompted would-be prosecutors (i.e., lawmakers) to express diplomatic yet pointed concern. How are we citizens reassured that, at this very moment, our privacy rights are in fact being upheld? Who among this legal dramatis personae is (are) actually telling the truth? What are we indeed to believe?

Of course, we have to be watchful, and take cautious action in our bustling media sites and with our take-for-granted technology devices. I, for one, am so glad that in this dizzying ecosystem, we have the likes of Mayer, Thampi, and Eckhart serving as our watchdogs!

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Music Discoveries on YouTube

When my daughter, Eva, was a little girl, my wife and I would be tickled at the things she’d find on the ground. From dropped, forgotten coins, to colorful, shiny stones. From sweet, tiny flowers, to sometimes mysterious shells at the beach. From her height and vantage point, she saw many of things that we adults had long since overlooked and ignored.

I’m reminded of her, as I think how enthralled I am by what I find on YouTube on a daily basis. Just by keeping an open eye and a sense of wonder.

If you see the glass as half-empty, then you probably think YouTube is just full of crappy, stupid videos. If you see, on the other hand, the proverbial glass as half-full, then there truly are gems to be found and treasured.

So here are three of my favorite recent discoveries in music.

Lindsey Stirling is not just talented but also entertaining. If you think that listening to a violinist play is as much fun as waiting for water to boil or for paint to dry, then you’re in for a treat with this lovely lady. She exudes joy and energy, she hip-hops and shuffles, and she dramatizes her performance. Plus, the filming of her videos is no crude work of an amateur. Imagine her musical range, too. From covering Yiruma’s ‘River Flows In You,’ to performing LMFAO’s ‘Party Rock Anthem’! Go on, explore her YouTube channel and Facebook page. You know how to find her.

Abelardo, Gustavo and Angela Vázquez form a sibling trio from Mexico, called Vázquez Sounds, and they’re 16, 14 and 12, respectively. I didn’t get a chance to watch the Grammys earlier this year, so I didn’t see Adele make a killing with awards.  So YouTubing her, I discovered this lovely brothers-and-sister act. Their cover of ‘Rolling in the Deep’ has nailed down over 96 million views! I believe their father is a music producer, and I bet he helped them make their videos. So what are you waiting for? Go forth into cyberspace and enjoy their videos. Pronto!

Finally, Avivakova is a talented performer and composer. It’s simply not often that we find YouTubers who perform an original composition. This, plus the fact that she plays my favorite instrument, make her quite a pleasure to watch and listen to. This lovely piece is ‘Twilight March,’ and apparently it was difficult to perform. While both hands were occupied with playing the treble, she needed another hand to handle the steady beat of the base. That hand happened to be her foot! So Google her, YouTube her, Facebook her. You know the drill!

So who’s your lovely discovery today? Me (wink)? 

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Spotlight on Bill Clinton

(image credit)
The date was September 16th 1998. It was before the much heralded decade of iWhatevers and Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It was also the day Karen and I welcomed our daughter, Eva, to our world. We saved the Chicago Tribune as a memento of that day. Two copies, in fact.

The thing was, that time was when then-US President Bill Clinton was in a political and personal row over White House intern Monica Lewinsky. That sex scandal and impeachment efforts dominated the front page of the Tribune (sigh). What were we welcoming our daughter to?

Our news consumption was mainly through traditional media: print, TV and radio. It was on TV, for example, that we heard Clinton deny having any sexual relations with ‘that woman’ and insisting on privacy for his family. It was in the Tribune, also, that we read about florid details of the very things he denied. What privacy he called for, he himself indelibly breached with his shenanigans. He was the butt of jokes on radio talk shows, deservedly so.

Now I hardly ever pick up a (print) newspaper anymore.  Instead, it’s Google News where I find out that Lewinsky is back in the spotlight, in a title crafted deliberately by the Los Angeles Times to draw clicks to its article and pages.  It is about a documentary on Clinton, and I watch the trailer on YouTube.

Here’s the lengthy description of the documentary, accompanying this trailer. So, you see, the Los Angeles Times’ trite ploy notwithstanding, Lewinsky occupies only a bit part of the spotlight. Thankfully.
Coming to PBS beginning Monday, Feb. 20. From draft dodging to the Dayton Accords, from Monica Lewinsky to a balanced budget, the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton veered between sordid scandal and grand achievement. In CLINTON, the latest installment in the critically acclaimed and successful series of presidential biographies, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE explores the fascinating story of an American president who rose from a broken childhood in Arkansas to become one of the most successful politicians in modern American history and one of the most complex and conflicted characters to ever stride across the public stage. It recounts a career full of accomplishment and rife with scandal, a marriage that would make history and create controversy and a presidency that would define the crucial and transformative period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. It follows Clinton across his two terms as he confronted some of the key forces that would shape the future, including partisan political warfare and domestic and international terrorism, and struggled, with uneven success, to define the role of American power in a post-Cold War world. Most memorably, it explores how Clinton’s conflicted character made history, even as it enraged his enemies and confounded his friends. The program features unprecedented access to scores of Clinton insiders including White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers, White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, as well as interviews with foreign leaders, members of the Republican opposition, childhood friends, staffers from Clinton’s years as governor of Arkansas, biographers and journalists.
Our daughter is 13 years old now, and our world has been radically changed in her young lifetime. Clinton is quite the elder statesman now, is apparently in high demand for keynote speeches, and travels globally for his philanthropy.  Maybe for ongoing philandering, too.  (Apologies, I couldn't resist the pun.)

Eva is very much a child of the golden decade of media and technology. But it’s no small irony, I suppose, that this documentary, so parsimoniously titled ‘Clinton,’ will be aired on traditional (PBS) TV. I will have to unplug, and watch it on plain old traditional media!

Thank your for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Adjusting Hotel Tower and Pool Table

Heredity provides for the modification of its own machinery.
So said James Mark Baldwin, an experimental biologist and writer.

I am intrigued not so much by how things change in general, but more by how things adjust in particular to their surroundings. We know, for example, that life on earth adapts to survive, in response to changes in climate and terrain, food and water, and threats and disasters. Baldwin’s contention is right-on, and is the underpinning of the evolution of life.

What about non-living things? I’ve consulted quite a bit in the Middle East, and had the pleasure of staying at the best hotels. A few times I was on the Skybridge at the very top of the Four Seasons Hotel in Riyadh, and could feel the swaying of its walkway, as if slow dancing with the wind high above the glittering Saudi Arabian capital.

Four Seasons Hotel, Riyadh
I understand that architects and engineers have to build-in that sway. Otherwise their towering buildings and monuments risk breaking off, or toppling altogether, against stiff winds high above the ground. In this case, adaptation is a technological marvel and, if nothing else, a safety necessity.

Here is another, cool technology:

I traveled on a cruise ship with my family, and it was easily our best vacation. Something relaxing about being at sea, and everything luxurious with all the food, shops and amenities at our disposal. The large Royal Caribbean ship was steady as she went in the Central American waters. Still we felt minute undulations of the waves, which we quickly adapted to and hardly ever noticed throughout our cruise.

A conventional pool table, however, does not adjust. In fact it relies not only on a stable grounding, but also on a level playing surface. On a cruise ship, then, the solution is this gyroscopic self-adjusting pool table.

The seminal notion of evolution, thanks to Charles Darwin, is survival of the fittest. It has two critical implications: One, what defines fit is this innate ability to adjust and adapt. Two, without this innate ability, a species has little chance of survival over time.

There is no question, then, that besides life, the Four Seasons Hotel and the gyroscopic pool table are fit!

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Monday, February 13, 2012

Black History Month and STEM

A recent Google blog spoke about the company’s celebration of Black History Month. I love the fact that they partner with historically Black colleges and universities, partly to move their recruitment efforts along. In this still entrenched economic climate, I’m sure that means a lot to graduates to have opportunities to work for one of the best companies around.

In particular, too, I love their build up of the STEM curricula for students: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. At its essence, for example, technology enables us to do things we otherwise cannot do. From traveling to places, to watching an infinity of programs, to making friends around the globe. Some students, perhaps even teachers, question the value of learning mathematics, when the formulas, problems and calculations they labor through may prove useless in life. At least that’s what they wonder.

To wit, the following image is from a friend on Facebook:

(image credit)
In fact, mathematics underlies many of the simple things we do everyday life. From telling time, to handling money, to baking a cake. At a deeper level, it’s an indispensable companion to science, in the human endeavor to learn more about our physical world, for example.

The US has a shameful blotch in its history, concerning its treatment of Blacks. While its present day culture still harbors racial tensions, it’s come a long way over decades to promote greater harmony among people from all walks of life. Google, of course, being one of those promoters.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Reflections and Rules on Privacy

Earlier this year, the big dog of the internet unified its privacy policy across a vast domain of suburban lawns, tree trunks, and fire hydrants (lol): Gmail, Google+, YouTube, Search, Android, News, Chrome. It didn't matter where we were in all this, if we wanted to stay, we had to play ball with Google.

There was a backlash, of course, as The Washington Post reported. Even the European Union asked for a delay in the implementation of this sweeping policy change, but Google flatly refused.

Privacy is such a precious commodity for many of us that it can be downright frightful for a giant like Google to command that commodity. Or at least seemingly so. Below are some thoughts to consider. 

(image credit)
We are complex beings

Each of us is a complex individual, and no single or simple means will illuminate fully who we really are, what we do, or what we like. While there is such a big hullabaloo about the internet, the two billion people who have access spend just a tiny portion of their time on the internet. So, yes, while the sites we visit can be tracked, the stuff we post can be scoured, and the e-mails we send and receive can be read, there is simply no sophisticated algorithm out there that can fully or truly know us.

I imagine, on the other hand, that Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn don’t really need to know many things about us. They just need to know enough to gird their business model. That is, as long as they can keep selling ad space, and making money, that’s enough for them. To put it more personally, virtually all of YouTube recommendations, Facebook ads, and Google AdSense are irrelevant to me, despite what their algorithms have tracked about me. So I don’t click on them. But there must be hordes of millions of people who do click, and perhaps do so often and buy stuff from those advertisers. These clicks translate into a multi-billion dollar business.

A fair give-and-take policy

Moreover, I see the wide-sweep Google policy as a fair give-and-take. Virtually all of its offerings is free, and extraordinarily vital to me. I depend on my Gmail, for one, as my main address for business, social and family communications. Google search is indispensable for my research and curiosity, and YouTube is so rich with learning and enjoyment for me that I am enthralled on a regular basis!

My simple rules about privacy

Finally, I abide by two simple rules. One, I do my level best to post stuff responsibly and constructively. While I’m not a saint, for example, I avoid writing obscenities. Two, what is truly private for me, I keep off the internet.  The ultimate act of privacy is to keep it to yourself:  Don't post, don't say, don't write.

All told, then, I don’t fret about these issues.  Clearly I’m not the only one who doesn’t, as the Los Angeles Times acknowledged
While many of us (myself included) still take our privacy seriously, it’s clear that an ever-growing number of Net users either don’t fret too much about safeguarding their personal info or see the abandonment of privacy as the price of admission to a bright, shiny theme park of online attractions.
Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Sunday, February 5, 2012

United Breaks Guitars

Word was, United Airlines broke a $3500 guitar while handling passenger baggage. Moreover, they refused to compensate the musician, who tried for months, as Social Media Risk reported.

People say, Get even, not revenge. Dave Carroll was the musician in question, and he is a man of the renaissance decade of social media. He created a complaint music video that went viral on YouTube: over 13 million views, to date.

Social Media Risk said that United Airlines’ stock plunged 10%, after this video, and that it cost shareholders $180 million.   Big numbers, definitely, and it’s nonsense to risk a 9-figure loss for a $3500 guitar.

In actuality, we don’t know for certain how much the video by itself contributed to this stock decline.  But it should serve as a warning to companies:  Don’t neglect, ignore, or otherwise mistreat your customers!

It took United Airlines a week to respond, which is an eternity in the warp-speed universe of social media, and offered to compensate Carroll.  He graciously declined at that point, as it was too late, and encouraged the carrier to donate that money, instead, to a charity of their choice.

The airlines industry in the US, in particular, has had a brutal past decade, so it can ill-afford any bad PR.  This one was a colossal faux pas.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD