As this year comes to a close, its hard not to realize all the amazing projects I’ve been lucky to be a part of, and continue to be. These past few months I’ve been entirely engrossed in my work, and my passion for open source education.

Soon to be posted is a quick-fire video presentation about open-sourcing education and how it revitalizes the importance of creativity. The fact that the education system itself is failing is not a new concept by any means. But rather than focus on that, I’ve been focusing on the specific issues: that students starting at a young age are bored and unenthusiastic by school, and that students have an average of 10-20 minutes of attention during a traditional lecture-style course.

By categorizing learning into closed systems: that history is only history or math is just math, we’ve forgotten the importance of creativity and the breath of impact it can have. We’ve assumed too much that creativity is only for the arts and that only specific gifted people are creative enough at the arts to be successful. We are taught to ostracize and categorize ourselves in a traditional educational system, that crossover is unnecessary, when in fact it is when opposing fields of study clash that true progress is made.

What has been frustrating is that there is a whole field of research on open source education in a digital landscape and how it will, one day, change our value system, when in fact these things are already occurring. Meanwhile there are the grassroots, loose organizations that are unaware of the academic perspective. We’ve tried top-down overtake of the system and grassroots, and neither have been successful. With luck and a bit of encouragement, it is possible to meet in the middle, thanks to the incredible digital progress that has already been made.

While at Maker Faire in New York this fall, I watched Phil McKinney of HP do a presentation on this topic. His observation was simple and incredibly powerful. He argued that if we focus on teaching critical thinking, that the desire to learn the skills will come. No longer is the world about finding the right answer, but about asking the right questions.

I watched Sir Ken Robinson‘s riveting 2006 TED talk a long time before I was seriously involved in this issue. In the past few months I’ve revisited that talk again and again to remind me why it is important. I hope that you will find the same resonance.

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Cloud-Computing Cautions

November 22, 2010

According to Mashable, experts argue that we’ll be working primarily with web and mobile cloud-based applications such as Google Docs or Facebook by 2020, boycotting the majority of desktop software. They argue:

The advantage of instant access to information regardless of device, operating system or location is a huge factor in the dominance of web apps over desktop apps. “The cloud” is accessible from work, from home, from any location with an Internet connection, and increasingly, from our ever-smarter mobile devices.

The term “cloud-computing” has become a vague, all-encompassing definition for the advantages of web 2.0. While it has its obvious advantages, like most technological systems it is important to be cautious. To arguments that we might one day be running soley off the cloud, there is still a long way to go to successfully run large applications on the cloud. While it may get there, there are privacy concerns that would need to be addressed to make it a possibility.

For now, cloud computing provides and excellent backup for files, and sharing. It has been already successful at making it possible to remove the portable USB storage device from daily life. For those of us who are constantly moving and already engrossed in the digital lifestyle, cloud computing in the sense of storage and accessibility means added benefits and ease of life to the everyday.

USB “Dead Drops”

November 16, 2010

Current Eyebeam resident Aram Bartholl’s new project ‘Dead Drops’ has been causing quite a swell in both the technology and arts. From his website, Aram describes the project as:

‘Dead Drops’ is an anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space. USB flash drives are embedded into walls, buildings and curbs accessable to anybody in public space. Everyone is invited to drop or find files on a dead drop. Plug your laptop to a wall, house or pole to share your favorite files and data. Each dead drop is installed empty except a readme.txt file explaining the project.

Despite the possibility of viruses, malware, and booby-trapped USB drops, the project has been received worldwide as an exciting and experimental artistic statement. BoingBoing hailed the project, writing “The furtiveness of squeezing your laptop or mobile against a wall is rather intimate–these may be dead drops, but they’re also data glory holes.” The project has been made easily accessible with a dynamic map of locations of the drops, to the photo pool of installed drops, to tutorials on how and where to install drops.

The original ‘Dead Drops’ are located at:

87 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn, NY (Makerbot)
Empire Fulton Ferry Park, Brooklyn, NY (Dumbo)
235 Bowery, NY (New Museum)
Union Square, NY (Subway Station 14th St)
540 West 21st Street, NY (Eyebeam)

Regardless of the actual security of practical purpose of this project, the fact that it is causing a stir has created a forum of discussion about privacy, connectivity and individualism. The hundreds of comments and amount of drops created is a testament to the viral quality of technology as an art form. Short of some physical damage to several dead drops, there has been little testament that anyone has successfully recreated the many security concerns at this date.

 

Not even a day after Facebook’s release of its new messaging system that left most critics indifferent and only mildly curious, problems have negatively trended the debut. A bug in the Facebook system started disabling user accounts, primarily female, with claims that they were “inauthentic”. This trend was first reported just after midnight PST ironically enough on the other social media powerhouse, Twitter.

Reporters at Read Write Web were able to get this announcement from a Facebook spokesperson:

Earlier today, we discovered a bug in a system designed to detect and disable likely fake accounts. The bug, which was live for a short period of time, caused a very small percentage of Facebook accounts to be mistakenly disabled. Upon discovering the bug, we immediately worked to resolve it. It’s now been fixed, and we’re in the process of reactivating and notifying the people who were affected.

Individuals who had their account disabled reported these suspicious instructions:

Please upload a government-issued ID to this report and make sure that your full name, date of birth, and photo are clear. You should also black out any personal information that is not needed to verify your identity (e.g., social security number).

If you do not have access to a scanner, a digital image of your photo ID will be accepted as well. Rest assured that we will permanently delete your ID from our servers once we have used it to verify the authenticity of your account.”

With so many consecutive Facebook security scares, it is obvious that this bug, though resolved, still has more havoc to reap. After a beautiful introduction to the new messaging concept, a la “Cisco: The Human Network”, it is quite possible the backlash from this bug could cause enough harm to make people all the more hesitant to use the new mail feature. Though it is hard to fathom this being enough to get people to boycott Facebook, as nothing has been successful enough so far, there is certainty a trend towards insecurity and hard questions about how Facebook handles privacy, and how it will up the ante with the advent of @facebook.com. With Facebook already being the fourth largest phishing target, topped only by Paypal, Ebay, and HSBC, consecutively. Reporters at Mashable are keen that the new Facebook messaging will only increase Facebook as a target. They ask several poignant questions:

  • How will Facebook deal with spam messages that are sent from a user you call a friend? As we’ve seen in the past, it’s not difficult for rogue apps to take over your message account and send malware links or spam to people on your friends list.
  • What types of attachments can be sent and received via Facebook.com e-mail addresses? Will these attachments be scanned for malware before being delivered to your inbox?

This is only several of the questions that need to be asked, and will continued to be asked as the new Facebook messaging continues to launch. While the new messaging system could have a lot of potential for those who spend a significant portion of time on Facebook, for the rest we eagerly await the developments and the downfalls as they progress. It is reassuring to see people asking the right questions about Facebook and seeing it more as the for-profit billion-dollar machine that they are, and learn how to adapt properly without risking their information and privacy.

Photo from XKCD under Creative Commons license.

The Psychology of Free

November 9, 2010

The freemium business model has gotten exponentially higher media attention as of late; with many online-based businesses being highly successful with this model, other companies are taking note and trying to discover ways it could apply to other types of businesses.  The freemium model, used by businesses such as Dropbox, Remember the Milk, Pandora, Vimeo, and Evernote follow the 1 percent rule: that 1 percent of paying customers pay for the 99 percent of non-paying customers.

While I admire this concept as a business model, the psychology of what Chris Anderson dubs “freeconomics” in an article for Wired make me nervous when they are no longer applied to computing systems, as it once was. In previous discussions on gaming, the tendency for people to purchase items on a viral basis because it is “free” or virtually free is remarkable. Marketing or humor ploys such as the Case- Mate’s Recession Case, an iPhone case made entirely of cardboard sold for 99 cents last year – and sold out within days. Why? Because people thought it was humorous, and because it was almost free. This applies to viral games and applications on smart phones, such as the popular Angry Birds or Cut the Rope, along with many other salient examples.

Stewart Brand at the Hacker Conference of 1984 made a poignant argument about the concept of free. What has now been tailored to suit discussion about open-source and creative commons by simply being quoted as “Information wants to be free”, the full quote was far more developed:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

From a business standpoint, it would appear that the free and expensive are not fighting against each other, but working together. However, the digital age has created a disparity in definition between cost and value. When asked, a majority of people will say that they are comfortable giving their information to a company in order to receive a monetary gain, such as a free item or a coupon or special discount. With most email inboxes allowing unlimited storage, the fear of junk mail is far less than what it used to be.

However, there are still valid concerns that need to be addressed before a freemium model of economics could actually successfully apply to other aspects of life. As long as we value physical product, or “stuff” over personal information, time, and investment, marketing is still getting the best of us. Besides even the possibility of identity fraud (which is still incredibly prevalent in internet transactions), consumers are not properly valuing the long-lasting impact of their information. We’ve yet to realize that we’re actually giving far more than we’re receiving. Chris Anderson argued in his article:

…a psychological switch should flip as things head toward zero. Even though they may never become entirely free, as the price drops there is great advantage to be had in treating them as if they were free. Not too cheap to meter, as Atomic Energy Commission chief Lewis Strauss said in a different context, but too cheap to matter. Indeed, the history of technological innovation has been marked by people spotting such price and performance trends and getting ahead of them.

If we attempt to implement a true freemium economy while still under the American ideals of materialism, we can’t learn not to waste. On a digital scale, waste is not an issue, as Malcom Gladwell of The New Yorker argues:

Giving something away means that a lot of it will be wasted. But because it costs almost nothing to make things, digitally, we can afford to be wasteful. The elaborate mechanisms we set up to monitor and judge the quality of content are…artifacts of an era of scarcity…

Outside of the digital realm, we are still in a unbalanced world of materials, that can be wasted at a remarkable rate, if given the chance. The fact that the first place outside of the internet we see the most prominent marketing strategies of free product is in food shows you how easily we are willing to waste resources.

Finally, the debate of the professional versus the amateur will continue to stifle much open creativity on a freemium market. Until we can learn to navigate and redefine the nature of authorship and credibility in a changing digital landscape we cannot properly establish guidelines on who to trust, and who not to trust.

The freemium model has worked well, and continues to work well on an online setting, but applying it to other businesses requires serious lifestyle changes to be both effective and not have long-term consequences. Until we can adapt enough to see either the value, or implication of the information age, the results could be devastating at worst, or sub-par at best.

Photos by Flickr users Jeslee Carizon and tantek (respectively) under Creative Commons license.

Navigating SEO Basics

November 2, 2010

SEO, or Search Engine Optimization is one of those tools necessary for anyone wanting to develop an extensive online personality, though it proves to be both a gift and a curse to beginners. While it is excellent for providing feedback on readership and response to content, it is easy to get lost in the numbers and overwhelmed by the process.

To understand SEO requires a more in depth understanding of how the internet functions, something that the general public has a habit of skimming over. Furthermore, simple, easy-to-use information on the functionality of the internet and search engines is few and far between. Search “SEO Basics” online and you’ll get plenty of hits, but most are lengthy, poorly formatted and difficult to read. Often they assume beginners understand the jargon, completely defeating the purpose of the term “basics”.

The best resource I can recommend wholeheartedly is SEOmoz’s Beginners Guide to SEO. It’s buried beneath pro-tools and paid services, but it is by far the most detailed, easy to understand, and engaging free resources on understanding how SEO works. Starting with the basic concepts behind search engines, it starts with a solid foundation of information before ever discussing the optimization. It mentions keywords in ways that make them easy to understand for the general user. Overall, it is successful in decoding the maze of information and recommendations that is SEO. For example, the first chapter discusses “crawling”:

Imagine the World Wide Web as a network of stops in a big city subway system. Each stop is its own unique document (usually a web page, but sometimes a PDF, JPG or other file). The search engines need a way to “crawl” the entire city and find all the stops along the way, so they use the best path available – links.

The tutorial also includes an interesting take on how people interact with search engines, broadening the general interpretation of why SEO is important. They touch on usability and experience in regards to the necessity of search engines. The graphics, graphs and other visual aids in the 10 chapters make it all the more engaging. Plus, you can download the tutorial as a PDF.

If you’re looking for an in-depth tutorial on beginner SEO and why it is important, take some time to read through (and/or download) this educational tool. You will be a better-informed web-user for it, regardless of skill level or interest.

The Art of Mobile Gaming

November 1, 2010

The exponential rise in mobile gaming since the release of iPhone and recent Android phones has shown that perhaps we’re letting art get too much in the way of gaming. The argument still rages on about video games as art, with visually stunning games such as the classic Myst series, or more recently Shadow of Colossus revealing advances in gaming technology that allow for more detailed artistic expression. However, with games like those gathering a following of already-gamers and video game art advocates, the number of players are staggeringly small compared to those who purchase casual mobile games such as the recent sensation Angry Bird .

It should be no surprise that social games have a more drastic sway than the visually appealing works for Xbox and Playstation3, seeing as Myst was the best-selling PC game of all time until The Sims came along in 2002, selling more than 6.3 million copies in two years according to Gamespot. This was only the beginning, with the creating of more advanced mobile devices allowing the gamer to not be confined to a computer or television screen.

Though revenue made on iOS games still has a way to go before overtaking giants such as Nintendo , the addition of Android and Windows phones might be enough to make it much more profitable. That being said, the number of players alone make it a competitive market, with Angry Birds selling 2 million copies on Android in three days according to Joystiq. The new iOS game Cut the Rope recently had 1 million copies in 10 days, says Mashable – and it has yet to branch out to Android.

What the number of players should signal is that mobile gaming has tapped a market forgotten since the days of Tetris and Bejeweled on older Java-based phones. While it is profitiable to continue making big-ticket games for large gaming platforms and continually developing technologies to make them more visually and emotionally appealing, trends in mobile gaming should remind us of the base reason behind gaming: entertainment.

Games like Plants Vs. Zombies have allowed female and male players to game on a level playing field (and at an affordable price), creating a long tail of fans and media buzz. Angry Birds and Cut the Rope have also successfully bridged the age gap, among other factors, providing a product that young children can enjoy just as much as the busy professional, the student, or the elderly. Not all games are art, but it is an art form to create universally engaging and affordable games that are accessible without a game console or computer.

Photos from Flickr users marimoon, walker cleavelands, and Picasa user Jeremy Thornhill (respectively) under Creative Commons license.

Firesheep, a Firefox add-on released on Sunday is attempting to create awareness about current internet privacy issues by allowing the average internet user to abuse insecure networks. According to TechCrunch, Firesheep allows users to use any open Wi-Fi network to capture other users cookies to masquerade as the user when they access unsecured sites. Social networking has become the obvious target, with Facebook and Twitter being the top two. Among others are the popular Gowalla and Foursquare, Amazon.com, bit.ly, CNET, Evernote, Flickr, Github, Google, Windows Live, NY Times, tumblr, WordPress, and Yahoo.

Creator Eric Butler argues he created the plug-in as a way to promote awareness, according to his blog:

Websites have a responsibility to protect the people who depend on their services. They’ve been ignoring this responsibility for too long, and it’s time for everyone to demand a more secure web. My hope is that Firesheep will help the users win.

Unusually, the coverage and uproar about this development has been remarkably understated. The argument has been limited to those who already understand security controls, or the lack thereof, and are therefore unaffected. Social media coverage has been demur, though it has been rumored that Facebook blocked any links referencing Firesheep.

The lack of public interest, even fear about this add-on seems to establish we are either so desensitized that people are unenthusiastic, or that we’ve reached a point that we accept the current lack of privacy on the sites we visit. Neither are production options. Thanks to open accessibility to the code, anyone can modify the extension for other, possibly more sensitive sites such as student accounts or other email accounts. It’s not any more effective for people to be petrified to ever open up a laptop at a Starbucks again, but we still need to be cognizant of the dangers when we do. Awareness is not about having to boycott social media or completely ignore the privacy issues, it’s about what you perceive to be the value of your information. A comment in response to Eric Butler regarding Firesheep put it simply:

Whether you should lock something and how secure you make it isn’t a binary decision – it depends on the value of the thing you’re protecting and the likelihood of an attack.

For those who want to safeguard their information on unsecured networks for the time being, try the Force TLS 2.0 add-on for Firefox to prevent from unknowingly (or knowingly) stumbling upon unsecured sites, and adding additional security protocols on those unsecured sites.

Privacy and the Internet Photo via FlowingData

Net neutrality isn’t a new argument, and neither was this PSA Google put out about the issue. However, it is important to remember how little has been actually been achieved.

Not long ago, it was a battle of Google against Verizon, AT&T and the other big network companies. It seemed that just maybe, in this instance, the actual people could win, thanks to having Google’s protection and support. We were hopeful, inspired, and felt safe. In August of this year, Google changed its tune by creating an agreement with Verizon that underhandedly gives over control of the internet to the major corporations, called the Verizon-Google Legislative Framework Proposal. It’s painfully vague with enough loopholes to make it utterly inefficient. For example, on discrimination:

Non-Discrimination Requirement: In providing broadband Internet access service, a provider would be prohibited from engaging in undue discrimination against any lawful Internet content, 
application, or service in a manner that causes meaningful harm to competition or to users. 
Prioritization of Internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination 
standard, but the presumption could be rebutted.

The whole article is along this grain: that everything will be free and open but they can choose at their own discretion when they don’t want it to be free and open to everyone. The Huffington Post summarized the document most poignantly:

This is the proverbial toll road on the information superhighway, a fast lane reserved for the select few, while the rest of us are stuck on the cyber-equivalent of a winding dirt road.

What is disappointing is how understated the arguments for and against net neutrality actually are. It has become an almost taboo trigger word, a hot button for tech-minded folks but seemingly untouchable and uninteresting for the average internet user. Whether you choose to be for or against net neutrality, without education on the topic we’re unable to actually make any decision on an incredibly important topic. Whether you use the internet for research, pleasure, or business, this argument effects you more than most people realize.

As we wait for the FCC to either hold their ground or bow to the will of the major corporations, make a personal decision, and be part of a solution. As someone who lives and works on the internet, I value the internet as a manifest of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. In August John Stewart of the Daily Show asked Google to stand up for their initial promise to “not be evil” and embrace all the new Amazons and Googles as they emerge, instead of fearing them. In a technological horizon, competition will be what propels us forward, assuming we have the freedom to do so. MC Seigler of TechCrunch agrees:

Net neutrality is great, but the FCC needs to do exactly what the cable and phone companies don’t want them to do: create more competition in the market. If there’s true competition, net neutrality would be less of an issue because people would just switch to a different provider if the one they’re on tries to block certain sites, or throttles others. Unfortunately, right now, consumers can’t do that because ISPs have monopolies in many areas of the country.

We’ve been in a bit of a lull waiting for the FCC to step up the plate. The glimmer of hope in this debate is that Google and Verizon don’t make the laws, they just propose them. There is still opportunity for us to voice our thoughts on the issue and be more active citizens in a digital age.

 

The State of The Internet

October 26, 2010