Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ihnatko: the loony Zune

(Yes, it's a snow day here, and I'm working on the tail end of what might be URI #4 of the season.)

The title above links to a Chicago Sun-Times review by Andy Ihnatko of Microsoft's new Zune device. Summary: Zune isn't just not user-friendly; it's user-hostile. Here are some choice quotes:

The Zune is a square wheel, a product that's so absurd and so obviously immune to success that it evokes something akin to a sense of pity...
The setup process stands among the very worst experiences I've ever had with digital music players...
And why (for the love of God) doesn't it support podcasts? That's pure insanity...
Oh, and the Zune Marketplace doesn't even take real money, proving that on the Zune Planet there's no operation so simple that it can't be turned into a confusing ordeal...
You'll find that the Zune Planet orbits the music industry's Bizarro World, where users aren't allowed to do anything that isn't in the industry's direct interests.

Update: Here's an almost as scathing review from a Windows-dedicated web site.

Acephalous: Measuring The Speed of Meme

Acephalous is doing an experiment to see how fast a "meme" can travel through the blogosphere. If you're reading this (and have a blog), link to the post I've linked from the title above and ping Technorati.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Academic podcasting

I've been interested for a while now in how "distance learning" technology could be used for something a bit more inventive and valuable than just a hyperlinked textbook, self-grading exercises, and canned lectures. Adrian Miles at vlog 3.0 has an interesting post (linked from title above) about educational podcasting, or "profcasting": use an interview, or conversational, model. I like this; one of my favorite podcasts is In Our Time, from BBC Radio 4.

I suppose I could require each student in a class to prepare for and conduct a high-quality interview of me, or do small-group conversations, on a specific topic in the course. I'd of course have to get everyone's written agreement to use recordings beyond the classroom (i.e., non-commercial distribution rights). OK, time to contact the university lawyers (or get someone else to contact them...).

Topics: , .

Thursday, November 16, 2006

My alma mater

Yes, the UCLA police repeatedly tasered a UCLA student who forgot his student ID and was a little too slow leaving Powell Library. I used to think that cameras and video capability were superfluous on a cell phone, but this YouTube video has convinced me otherwise. The statement from Acting Chancellor Norman Abrams is noncomittal, as might be expected at this stage. But there should be a policy preventing the use of force, not to mention weapons, when police are not themselves threatened.

Watch the video. A nice touch is when an officer threatens to tase a bystander asking for his badge number.

I'll be sending a letter to Chancellor Abrams today. Other UCLA alumni might consider doing the same, or emailing him at chancellor@conet.ucla.edu.

Update: Here's a May 2005 GAO report on the use of tasers by law enforcement, including policies in selected departments. Referring to Figure 3 on page 8, I would classify the student's actions as "Resistant (passive)," which at almost all of the cited departments would not justify the use of a taser.

Update 2: Apparently, the UCPD's meritorious service award is called the Taser Award.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sick day blogging

Upper respiratory infection #2 (since this is the Pacific Northwest, I suppose these should be numbered, rather than named) is blowing through the community and our household, just when I thought I was getting over the first one (I was at the "coughing so much I think I jarred my brain loose" stage). A perfect accompaniment to a dark, overcast, rainy day among a long sequence of such days. So, lacking the energy or mental firepower for complex activities, let's see what's happening in Academia, Blogland:

  • In Knowing and Doing: When Opportunity Knocks, Eugene Wallingford writes about making CS assignments more interesting and relevant to the real world by being more open to opportunities to do cool, fun stuff in class.
  • Michael Bérubé says "I got plenty of nothin'", but I respectfully disagree. What he has is a great post on the value of academic blogs for showing what academics do.
  • Love blooms for FemaleCSGradStudent in a seemingly unlikely place.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

"79 points actually cost 99 cents"

The title above links to a Wall Street Journal review of Microsoft's new Zune player and music store by Walt Mossberg. What struck me was that store customers must pre-pay, buying points which they then in turn use to purchase songs. And songs cost 79 points, which is equivalent to 99 cents. Exactly why did Microsoft choose an "exchange rate" (99/79) that produces a fraction that doesn't repeat until the 14th decimal place? OK, it's true that 79/99 repeats at the third decimal place. Will Microsoft round the number of points up to the nearest point when customers invariably pre-pay with a whole number of dollars? I assume that this is a mechanism for them to decouple song pricing from their payment system; maybe they think that people will view songs as being cheaper than they are because the number of points is less than the number of cents? I would suggest instead that they use an exchange rate similar to what used to exist between the dollar and the Italian Lira: seeing all those zeros (with, say, 7900 points for a song) will make it seem much more like paying with "play money".

Too bad that they need to get the customer to deposit real money to start.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The price paid for wasted cycles

The title above links to a Linux World article on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. That project aims to produce a laptop that is cheap enough to make its way into the hands of schoolchildren around the world. the biggest obstacle is the insatiable need for computer cycles by today's software. As I've written before, a large chunk of these cycles -- if not most -- are burned to make software more profitable for software companies, not to benefit the user.

The OLPC people seem to agree with me:

Today's laptops have become obese. Two-thirds of their software is used to manage the other third, which mostly does the same functions nine different ways.
Fast processors and inexpensive memory have made tidy programming a low priority, Gettys [Jim Gettys, vice president, Software Engineering] said. "A lot of people in the past decade or so have gotten quite sloppy."

Change in the weather

With November comes wet and cold (well, at least coolness) here in the Seattle area. Time to pull the last of the dead tomato plants and dahlias, put some collard green plants in, and watch the fava bean seedlings come up.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

My Erdös number is at most 5

Daniel Lemire sparked my interest in finding this out. The link above is to a page under the Erdös Number Project. Paul Erdös was a prolific mathematician, and an Erdös number is the number of "degrees of separation" one is away from him. As that site says, the vast majority of mathematicians have an Erdös number less than eight. So, one of his co-authors has an Erdös number of 1, a co-author of a co-author has an Erdös number of 2, etc. See this Wikipedia entry for more. You can use MathSciNet to help you computer your Erdös number, but as it focuses on mathematics publications, it only gives an upper bound (for instance, it gives me an Erdös number of 6, but one of the folks along the pathway, listed as a co-author of my PhD advisor, is also one of my co-authors). I can actually trace multiple paths of length 5 to Paul Erdös. And I don't consider myself a mathematician; I just hang out with the wrong people.