Friday, March 24, 2006

Ripping DVDs to iPods not foolproof

With the introduction of the video iPod, I have turned my attention to the production of downloadable educational material such as Podguides for museum and educational sites and exhibits that conforms to the iPod format. I began my exploration of the technologies used for iPod content development by familiarizing myself with the iPod itself and content delivery systems such as iTunes. After downloading a trailer for Battlestar Gallactica I was even more excited about the feasibility of video content delivery for this wildly popular device. So, I began investigating conversion tools. I learned that the most popular tool for the Mac was a freeware product called HandBrake. However, I could not find any free Windows utilities. I did find several low cost Windows products and downloaded one with a good review rating.

My first evaluation was a DVD Ripper utility named Jesterware. It was written by developers in the UK for the Windows platform. Installation of the product went well but when I ripped a commercial 2.5 hour DVD I discovered the process took over five hours. I consulted with a Mac-savy friend and he said the Mac tool could rip an entire DVD in a fraction of the time that it takes to actually watch the DVD. So, I continued my search for a comparable product for Windows and discovered Super iPod Video Converter 3.5. I tried using the trial product but it would not rip an entire DVD so I ponied up the $29.95. I was not disappointed. The product was easy to install and easy to use and ripped a 2 hr DVD in about 1.5 hours - much better than 5 hours using Jesterware.

Monday, March 13, 2006

More from the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference

Well, I sat in on some more eye-opening sessions again today. I began my day with a session on making online communities more productive. It wasn't exactly what I was expecting but it was still interesting. The presenter focused on the new emerging phenomenon of microwork and how organizations with online components can tap into this new type of outsourcing to get tasks done. Here at the conference a symbol that has been used over and over again is a device that was invented in the 18th century called the mechanical turk. The mechanical turk was promoted as an automated machine that could beat anyone at chess. The promoter (con artist) would open up the cabinet to the crowd and show an impressive complex array of gears and pulleys then close the doors and challenge all comers to a chess match. The mechanical turk would win every time. However, it was all a sham. Like the cabinet used by magicians for sawing people in half, the mechanical turk actually concealed a re! al human chess master that was secretly manipulating the chess pieces to win the games.

The reason this symbol is so significant is that now Web 2.0 companies are discovering that many tasks that complement their web services are best done by real humans instead of trying to develop pure software solutions to handle all their data needs. In many cases, their own site visitors can supply the labor, either as volunteers or paid "turkers".

One of the tasks that is particularly suitable for human intervention and can be parsed out to thousands of people as small incremental tasks is the categorization and tagging of data to make it more searchable. This is being accomplished by the implementation of tagging features in many Web 2.0 applications like Flickr, Delicious, Wordpress blogs (via Sxore), and social applications developed with such tools as Ning.

Because users of such services as Flickr and Delicious directly derive a benefit from properly categorized images, their microworkers are performing this service as volunteer users of these sites. Although people willingly perform this task as part of their use of these sites, the presenter also explained how a group funded by the National Science Foundation had used an online game tied to its database of images to obtain the free human labor of identification that it needed. In the ESP game,, players login and are connected to other players (anonymously) and shown images. Each player types in single words to describe the image as fast as they can. When one player enters a word that matches the other player, the match word is assigned as a tag to the image and the players are shown a new image. This simple fun activity has served to tag millions of images to date.

Amazon has implemented a more commercial approach to jobbing out its microtasks. Amazon launched a beta site called Amazon Mechanical Turk ( There they explain to visitors that they need real people to perform Hits:

"HIT stands for Human Intelligence Task. These are tasks that people are willing to pay you to complete. For example a HIT might ask: "Is there a pizza parlour in this photograph?" Typically these tasks are extraordinarily difficult for computers, but simple for humans to answer.

How do I find HITs to work on?
Just click the "Get Started Now" button to browse thousands of available HITs, without any obligation."

Hits can pay as little as $.01 or $.02 or quite a bit more for more complex tasks.

Here is an example from one HIT request posed by Amazon itself:

"We are developing a new application for bloggers and their readers. For this HIT we want you to simply think about your daily experience as an author and/or reader of blogs. What is most annoying in this experience? What is most lacking? If you were to create the dream feature that would be so cool, and would so improve this experience, that you would use it everyday, what would it be? The successful HIT will describe the feature, the problem it solves, and the circumstances in which it would be used.

Approved answers will receive $0.02. Answers will be rated and the top 70 selected. An answer in the top 70 will receive $5. The top answer will receive $100."

Apparently, some people do these tasks for fun but others are using this new online opportunity to make money to supplement poor job markets in economically depressed areas. The presenter mentioned that some seniors now armed with computers are supplementing their retirement income this way. (Maybe I should write an article about it for Modern Maturity!)

Although at present this new employment model is in its infancy, the presenter said this type of contracting has enormous potential as a huge money saver for the requesting companies. This employment model is particularly suited for such tasks as transcription and translation. Companies are starting to offer a service where a user can request a human translation of a document with a click of an embedded web application for something like $.50. The work is performed by a turker and the web service company gets its share too (naturally). The presenter mentioned an interesting accessability application that would combine cell phone GPS capability with paid turkers. Theoretically, a visually impaired individual could travel around the world and call a turker to obtain a detailed descrption of the site he/she is visiting based on the GPS coordinates relayed by the cell phone - sort of like a cable channel's SAP for the real world.

The next session I attended dovetailed nicely with the previous one. Again, it wasn't exactly what I was expecting from the title but it was very interesting none the less. The topic of the presentation was pervasive gaming research conducted by the University of California. But pervasive games are not your typical video game. Pervasive games involve using technologies to enhance human interaction with the real physical world. One example is geocaching. However, it was an epiphany to see how this type of gaming could be used to promote a positive behavior to improve the health of children. I don't know whether the product has really been deployed or not or if it is still in development because now that my kids are grown and living clear across the country I don't have too many opportunities anymore to buy happy meals. Anyway, as an experiment to address the problem of the alarming rise in child obesity, a researcher suggested combining a USB-equipped pedometer with!
a virtual pet. The pedometer and special website code to access a specific virtual pet is included with happy meals. The kids then go out with their pedometer and run and play. Then they go home and connect their pedometer to their computer and login to the website to access their virtual pet. The pedometer uploads its accumulated data to the special pet that then grows and gets stronger with the more data it gets from the pedometer with the goal being to produce a pedomonster! I thought it was a wonderfully inspired application!

Another example is a game where players travel around leaving virtual birdseed at different locations based on GPS data from their cellphones. The web service company then sends out a virtual bird that targets different coordinates based on uploaded GPS data. If the bird targets your birdseed, you receive an animated message that you have "captured" a peacock or something. Then, of course, the bird is added to your birder inventory. Remember the power of the human desire to collect things that we learned about in our presentation on using game mechanics to enhance functional websites? Bingo! However, a few alterations could make this a fun educational activity. Instead of leaving your virtual birdseed anywhere, lets say that students study about bird habitat then travel to sites with the proper environment to attract particular bird species and leave their virtual birdseed there. If the students have studied their homework, their efforts will be rewarded by the "capt! ure" of an appropriate bird species.

I was sitting next to a researcher from New York University and he and I were talking about developing these types of experiences to introduce incoming students to particular disciplines either during IntroDucktion or as a freshman seminar. Although SSIL lab has a number of GPS devices, most students will have GPS-equipped cellphones in just a few years. A virtual geocaching exercise could be a fun introduction to GIS and technology literacy.

Next up was a presentation by a Yahoo research team leader on the importance of web-based social applications to promote communication, collaboration (and repeat site visits!). Yahoo jumped into the social web application delivery business just a year ago with its purchase of Flickr - touted at this conference as the model of a useful, valued, and successful social application. This was followed up by the purchase of del.i.cious. Now Yahoo has launched Yahoo answers ( to tap into the vast knowledge base of users around the world to help other users with problems. This is yet another example of microtasks that are being performed by users of the site itself. Yahoo says this is their effort to provide "Better Search through People".

Another presentation I was particularly interested in was delivered by the developers of Ning ( I had tried out their rapid development tool for web social applications as a pre-conference exercise before I flew down here and found it very compelling. Ning has developed a website that provides modularlized tools to quickly develop collaborative web-based social applications like:

* Map Mash-Ups
* Media Sharing Apps
* Marketplaces
* Rating & Reviews
* Lists & Listings
* Social Networking
* Blogging & Discussion
* Fun & Games
* Web Services Skeletons

For example, they have a tool to develop a review site to collaboratively review anything specified by the application developer (you). In less than ten minutes of simply choosing feature options I wanted to include and uploading image and text to customize the look and feel I wanted, I created a website called Mary's Bookshelf ( where I have begun to input the names of books I have read, the application makes a call to the Amazon API and returns a picture of the book and a synopsis, and provides a radio button for me to rate the book with the appropriate number of stars and enter a comment. I can then send the link to a select group (friends, discussion group members, etc.) who can register their own rating for the book and make a comment if they wish.

Ning also provides access to the source code to each application so you can custom script new features if you wish. All scripting is standard php. Ning is planning to provide the ability for user-developed additions to basic applications flagged as public to be then made available to other users of the site sort of like Firefox extensions or Greasemonkey scripts.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference Focuses on the Attention Economy

I'm getting some good leads on some new web applications here at O'Reilly's Emerging Technologies Conference in San Diego . I saw a demonstration by Ray Ozzie of Microsoft of a new web app that creates a "clipboard" for use with a web browser so you can copy and paste things like contact information presented on a web page into your Outlook address book or a schedule of events into your calendar of choice. It also has a secured items feature that lets you paste things like your mailing address or credit card information into a web page from your own personalized encrypted object library.

I also saw a demonstration of a touch screen input panel that can use multiple points of stimulation to manipulate objects. For example, you can have a screen full of images and you can rearrange them and size them by grasping the image with both hands and stretching it out to the size that you want. Very intuitive. It had the look and feel of sorting pictures on a real desktop. They also showed a mapping application where you have a globe of the earth and you use your hands to spin the globe around to the point you wish to see then zoom in moving your fingers in a "brushing sand away motion". You can even tilt it by using three fingers so you can get a topographical view.

Another synopsis of the presentation: "Jeff Han, a consulting research scientist, give a demonstration of his Multi-Touch display screen. Developed at NYU's Department of Computer Science as a part time project, this display screen allows users to control the computer by touching the screen. Unlike old single point touch-screens that we know now, the multi-touch interface allows the user to touch the screen at multiple points at the same time. Multiple touch points on the screen surface open up a world of possibilities where the user can manipulate objects with multiple fingers, and these can map to many more operations that a single point interface can. This new interface will require rethinking of many of the common user interface concepts that we all take for granted today.

Supporting multiple points at the same time allows the developers to break out of the current UI box and start thinking in new ways. For instance, using this screen with a new desktop system a user can control the desktop using simple hand motions to pan and zoom. With beautiful and smooth graphics we watched as Jeff dragged and zoomed dozens of pictures on a desktop, as if we were watching Apple's Expose features on steroids. If there wasn't enough space on the desktop, simply zoom out and find more space on the edge of the desktop and then move windows there. " - Robert Kaye

Of course the theme of the conference is the new attention economy so there is a lot of discussion on ways to datamine attention information. One company named offers: "You get your own online music profile that you can fill up with the music you like. This information is used to create a personal radio station and to find users who are similar to you. can even play you new artists and songs you might like. It's addictive, it's growing, it's free, it's music." The company's web app actually runs as a background process with API hooks into your audio player (iTunes, RealPlayer, etc.) and invisibly records what songs you are listening to and how many times you listen to a particular song or artist. It not only uses this information to recommend new music but aggregates your information with the data from other lastFM users to provide data on the most popular music, artists, genres, etc.

At a presentation on Greasemonkey, a great Firefox extension that enables you to modify or augment your personal view of existing websites, I learned about another neat Greasemonkey script that automatically links any text on a website that has an entry in Wikipedia to the appropriate Wikipedia article.

I also saw an interesting presentation on a virtual world called SecondLife where users actually buy, develop, and sell virtual land and businesses for real money. I had a bit of trouble understanding what they meant so I went up to my room on the break and logged in and checked it out. Apparently, subscribers are given space on a server and tools to create virtual objects and services in their virtual world. Other users living in the virtual world then pay real money to obtain the virtual objects that have been created. I couldn't believe this would really work but at another presentation I attended, the speaker mentioned that secondary income derived from the sale of objects and services for use in virtual worlds is a multibillion dollar business. I went up on the site and looked at the type of services that are being sold and found things as diverse as a virtual pet groomer, a custom avatar creator, an interior decorator, a fashion designer, etc. What is really amazing is that some of these virtual providers have gone on to sell their creations to real world companies like clothing manufacturers, etc. I can usually get my mind around most concepts but this one is a bit mind boggling so I'm obviously going to have to do some more research.

I went to another presentation about using game theory mechanics to make functional services more engaging and satisfying. One of the strategies recommended is implementing a collection aspect to your online experience. The presenter, Amy Jo Kim, founder of said that one GPS company in Japan has a website feature that enables users to run around Tokyo and "find" virtual objects by uploading their current location to the company website. The web application then populates their virtual collection exhibit with a picture of the virtual object "present" at that location - sort of like virtual geocaching. Another top strategy is to implement a means to rate things and gain points. The points could be redeemed for "easter egg" services that are not normally provided to less frequent visitors/users. One of the most important strategies she mentioned is to use feedback in some form to create positive reinforcement for the use of your web service. She mentioned a game that is extremely popular in Japan called BrainAge. The users login and perform a variety of mental exercises (math problems, etc) that stimulate different parts of your brain. The user has a profile that, based on how many brain exercises they do, keeps track of the age of their brain. The more mental exercises you do the younger your brain supposedly becomes. Health conscious users are now making a visit to the site part of their daily exercise routine!

A really interesting product I checked out at the exhibitors' fair was a free product called RSSBus. The RSSBus engine has the ability to essentially "scrape" XML namespaces for attributes then enable the user to specify search criteria in the attributes and convert the query response to an RSS feed that is then formatted as a constantly updated web page to display the results. For example, the developer demonstrated how to use RSSBus to create a live RSS feed of the traffic conditions for a particular location using Yahoo Traffic. RSSBus can detect the XML attributes of location and route on the Yahoo Traffic website and provides a popup box asking you for your criteria. When you submit your criteria, it performs the query and formats the results as an RSS feed. This feed is then incorporated into your RSS aggregator. Then each day when you get ready to leave work you glance at your news aggregator and quickly check the traffic conditions without having to go to Yahoo traffic and manually conduct a search.

I also learned about a search engine for open source developers named Krugle. "Krugle makes it easy for developers to find source code and technical information—fast! Krugle enables you to quickly find and review source code, find code related technical information, save, annotate and share your search results with others...all from within a single, easy-to-use, web application."

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Could I Call You Later? My Trainer's on the Phone - New York Times

Who knows? Maybe we'll start having asynchronous marathons?

The New York Times:"If you have a cellphone with a Global Positioning System receiver, BiM Active, a new service from Bones in Motion, can turn the phone into a pocket-size personal trainer. BiM Active uses data from G.P.S. satellites and local cellphone towers to plot your location during a walk, jog or bicycle ride. With that data, it generates highly accurate route maps, speed calculations, changes in elevation and other information.

The software can also combine elevation data with local weather conditions to calculate the level of difficulty for each trip - enabling competitions among far-flung athletes.

All the data appears on the phone and can be uploaded to a Web site. Athletes can even publish Web logs with detailed statistics on each trip."

From Blogger to Published Author, for $30 and Up - New York Times

Now this is an interesting development in the blogsphere! I doubt at $33 per volume or thereabouts, the average author is going to start using a blog for a novel or textbook development environment to access publication services, however.

New York Times: "Though not all blogs may aspire to literary permanence, they can achieve it through the new Book-Smart software from Blurb, a publish-your-own-book service. The software, which is expected to be available free later this month at, features a 'Slurper' tool that automatically downloads and reformats the contents of a Web log into a book that bloggers and their admirers can purchase online.

Slurping is not all BookSmart has to offer. It simplifies the layout process by providing design templates for various kinds of books, including cookbooks, photo books, portfolios and volumes dedicated to pets and babies. The software guides users through design decisions like choosing text styles and how many photos will appear on each page.

Pricing for printed versions of your book from Blurb starts at $30 for an 8-by-10-inch full-color hardcover volume with dust jacket and up to 40 pages. A book of up to 80 pages is $3 more. (Blurb plans to eventually offer paperback editions selling for about 30 percent less than hardcover.) Authors will also be able to set up online bookstores through Blurb's Web site."