Monday, March 31, 2008

Flip Camcorder has real potential for student use

At only $180 and with its astonishing ease of use, the Flip camcorder sounds like something that would be a good "check out" device for the lab. Although it has only a 2X digital zoom, the video quality looked good and I think the Flip camcorder would work well for small group classroom applications.

By the way, I really enjoy David Pogue's videos and get as much information out of these short entertaining videos as I do plowing through a two page article.

But you can read the full article too. Here's a snippet:

"Now, understanding the appeal of this machine will require you not just to open your mind, but to practically empty it. Because on paper, the Flip looks like a cheesy toy that no self-respecting geek would fool with, let alone a technology columnist.

The screen is tiny (1.5 inches) and doesn't swing out for self-portraits. You can't snap still photos. There are no tapes or discs, so you must offload the videos to a computer when the memory is full (30 or 60 minutes of footage, depending on whether you buy the $150 or $180 model). There are no menus, no settings, no video light, no optical viewfinder, no special effects, no headphone jack, no high definition, no lens cap, no memory card. And there's no optical zoom -- only a 2X digital zoom that blows up and degrades the picture. Ouch.

Instead, the Flip has been reduced to the purest essence of video capture. You turn it on, and it's ready to start filming in two seconds. You press the red button once to record (press hard -- it's a little balky) and once to stop. You press Play to review the video, and the Trash button to delete a clip.

There it is: the entire user's manual.

But come on -- 13 percent of the camcorder market? This limited little thing? What's going on here? Having finally lived with the Flip, I finally know the answer: it's a blast. It's always ready, always with you, always trustworthy. Instead of crippling this "camcorder," the simplicity elevates it. Comparisons with a real camcorder are nonsensical, because the Flip is something else altogether: it's the video equivalent of a Kodak point-and-shoot camera. It's the very definition of "less is more."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

MailShadow offers Outlook and GMail Integration

MailShadow is a product that has real potential since it synchronizes calendaring information as well as email. The University has been struggling with trying to decide if central IT should adopt a centralized calendaring system for the entire university but has met resistance from Academic Affairs and the executive administration office that has Microsoft Exchange deployed there as well as the inhouse administrators of the open standards mail system deployed University-wide that does not play well with Exchange. I served on the committee looking at calendaring alternatives and no product handled an environment where different mail and calendar platforms were operating simultaneously very well. Microsoft offers a very competitive price on their client software but Exchange requires a hefty investment in server hardware and administration. At the College of Education we are not staffed to maintain our own mail system either. So, outsourcing the mail and calendaring services to Google and using MailShadow to integrate with Outlook is a very attractive option.

"Cemaphore Systems, a company that specializes in e-mail backup services, announced Wednesday a new product that allows people to automatically synchronize their e-mail, calendar and address books between Microsoft’s Outlook and Google’s Gmail. The service, called MailShadow for Google Apps, is being pitched as a “email continuity and disaster recovery solution.” In other words, it is intended to provide users of Outlook and Exchange, Microsoft’s mail server, with a secure backup. As such, it represents an interesting use of the Google computing “cloud” to provide a service for Microsoft users.

But the technology also would allow businesses to rip out their Exchange servers and run Outlook, which millions of users are familiar with, directly from the Google servers.

“If you are an I.T. guy and you can change the back end from Exchange to Google, and keep Outlook for your users, that’s a really interesting proposition,” said Matt Cain, an analyst with Gartner. “We’ll have to see if it works.”

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Text Generation Gap - R We Really 2 Old?

This article in the New York Times confirmed what I have personally observed about technology use by teens for some time. As an older boomer who is not digitally challenged, however, I cannot help but think some of these developments are disturbing. I recoil at the thought of how much bandwidth is wasted every day by teens and even many adults who somehow think their every thought is worth sharing with someone. The NSA must get really tired of trying to sift through so much drivel looking for suspicious communications. I also find it irritating that today's youth arrogantly stereotype all older adults as "clueless" when many of us are the ones who actually developed the technology they are so blithely using. I guess most of all I wish people would use this technology for more meaningful applications. I'm glad some families think cellphone use keeps them in closer communication with each other but I can't help but wonder if their virtual lives based on these shallow exchanges are supplanting the more intimate relationships that develop with face-to-face conversations.

"Children increasingly rely on personal technological devices like cellphones to define themselves and create social circles apart from their families, changing the way they communicate with their parents.

Innovation, of course, has always spurred broad societal changes. As telephones became ubiquitous in the last century, users — adults and teenagers alike — found a form of privacy and easy communication unknown to Alexander Graham Bell or his daughters.

The automobile ultimately shuttled in an era when teenagers could go on dates far from watchful chaperones. And the computer, along with the Internet, has given even very young children virtual lives distinctly separate from those of their parents and siblings.

Business analysts and other researchers expect the popularity of the cellphone — along with the mobility and intimacy it affords — to further exploit and accelerate these trends. By 2010, 81 percent of Americans ages 5 to 24 will own a cellphone, up from 53 percent in 2005, according to IDC, a research company in Framingham, Mass., that tracks technology and consumer research.

Social psychologists like Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the social impact of mobile communications, say these trends are likely to continue as cellphones morph into mini hand-held computers, social networking devices and pint-size movie screens.

“For kids it has become an identity-shaping and psyche-changing object,” Ms. Turkle said. “No one creates a new technology really understanding how it will be used or how it can change a society.”

Thursday, March 06, 2008

US Army and Alaska Air Turn to Virtual Agents for Website Interactions

I am always interested in implementations of artificial intelligence and natural language query systems so I was pleased to read that both Alaska Air and the US Army have turned to virtual website agents to provide answers to queries from website visitors. The New York Times author chose to test Alaska Air's congenial "Jenn" (I wonder if she is related to Jenn Air ranges - Ha!) but I thought I would try out the more serious Sgt Star:

What are the odds of a new male recruit being sent to Iraq in the first year of enlistment?

In times of war, deployment is likely. The possibility of deployment depends on your MOS and unit of assignment. All Soldiers must be strong, trained and ready upon assignment to a unit and prior to any deployment, including training exercises, humanitarian missions or combat operations. In general, deployments can last about a year, more or less.

I was actually very impressed with this response to a fairly complex question. Obviously the good Sgt was able to recognize the relationship between my use of the word "odds" and "possibility" and "sent" with "deployment". He must have also associated "Iraq" with "current war". Although he did not totally understand my time frame parameter, he did explain that soldiers must be trained prior to any deployment leaving me with at least some idea of a passage of time before deployment would take place.

Although NYT's Joe Sharkey's interaction with Alaska Air's Jenn was not specifically analyzed, he apparently had an equally satisfying experience with her:

"Alaska Airlines and its subsidiary, Horizon Air, had introduced on the Web site a “virtual assistant named Jenn.” Jenn, it said, responds orally to typed questions, “asks follow-up questions when needed” and also provides a written response and displays the site’s relevant page. Jenn also has a personality, it said, and “answers many personal questions.”

Jenn is not annoying. She is depicted on the Web site as a young brunette with a nice smile. Her voice has proper inflections. Type in a question, and she replies intelligently. (And for wise guys fooling around with the site who will inevitably try to trip her up with, say, a clumsy bar pickup line, she politely suggests getting back to business.)

I like Jenn. Airline Web sites, which often have clumsy drop-down menus, can be difficult to maneuver, even for simple things like trying to determine what kind of a plane you will be on. But ask Jenn a question on a wide range of topics, and you will get a fast, sensible response that saves you time.

Airlines are becoming more dependent on their Web sites, not just for direct booking, but also for ancillary revenue from bookings for hotels and tours and for retail sales.

Jenn was designed by a technology company in Spokane, Wash., the Next IT Corporation (, which has a goal of simplifying interaction between people and computers, using natural-language communications to retrieve information and even ask follow-up questions to clarify intent.

While the Next IT voice technology depends on typed questions to elicit oral responses, the field is evolving. In a recent speech at Carnegie Mellon University, Bill Gates said that Microsoft was committed to developing more sophisticated methods that used two-way speech technology to improve the give and take between users and databases."

I also visited NextIT's website to check out the developers and see that the technology consultant is Dr. George Luger of the University of New Mexico. His AI book, Artificial Intelligence: Structures and Strategies for Complex Problem Solving (Addison-Wesley 2005) is now into its fifth edition.