Friday, August 31, 2007

Beyond Online Travel Services

I am experiencing a quick turnaround, as I just returned from Sunriver, OR and am heading back out to Syracuse, NY. It was a spur of the moment decision to visit my younger sister and I booked the flight the same day that my wife gave me the OK to do so. I did my normal online sleuthing until I came up with the best combination of flight times and lowest price.

The next day, I told one of my older sisters what I was up to and she considered going as well. I did a quick check on flight availability and figured that something was wrong, as the price she was quoted from the same airports was less than half of the price that I had paid upon booking the flight. Two Hundred and Twenty Four dollars on the shortest flight time round trip ticket from Seattle to Syracuse, NY.

She talked to her hubby and in the end decided not to leave the family on two days notice. By the time that decision was made, 24 hours after checking on her flights, the price was back to what I was paying.

That may not be surprising to anyone, as prices fluctuate on demand and availability. But I wondered what patterns might help in deciding when it was best to buy.

I don't need to think any more, as Dr. Oren Etzioni, a professor at the University of Washington and Director of the Turing Center, has addressed the issue with Farecast. Farecast is a intelligent search engine that uses patterns and algorithms to help predict when it is the best time to buy tickets. Given he was also involved with Netbot, MetaCrawler and sits on the board of Zillow, it is probably worth checking out.

I am running off now to catch my flight. Next time I will add a dimension to my search for tickets.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Care and Maintenance of a Blog

Being away from the blog for while, even a short while, gives you a strange feeling.

It is like going away for a couple of weeks and not lining up someone to come by and water the plants. The house has a stillness to it when you open the door and even though you watered the ficus trees before you left, there is still tinge of guilt and a sense that you were neglectful.

Well, I am back, and ready to resume my commitment to bringing up topics and providing information centered around the world of technology, living and art.

Sometimes I pull out the evolving outline of a book I am preparing to write on “Your Digital Double” and riff on an item from that. You know, kill two birds with one stone stuff where I post a blog entry and create book material at the same time. Or I look at the most recent news and try to dig deeper or provide my perspective on it. The iPhone hack came close. But there is an article that I came across that does such a thorough job of discussing the importance of blogs that I thought I would link to it. What is funny to me is that it is a Business Week cover story from May of 2005, over two years ago. It talks about how “Blogs Will Change Your Business”. Well, they were spot on in many respects.

At the end of the article is, in my opinion, a bit of a clunky segue to the announcement of their blog. I clicked on the link from the 2.25 year old article and wondered how lively the announced blog would be. I was pleased to discover that it is still going strong at www.blogspotting.net.

It is actually quite good, and from their recent postings it looks as though noone is neglecting the plants.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

MSL Camp at the Institute



For four weeks in August, selected students from around the South Sound participate in a four week summer camp with an important focus. The Math, Science & Leadership (MSL) program at the Institute of Technology is a multi-year program that begins with a summer camp for students who will be entering 7th - 11th grades here in the South Sound.

The goals of the program are to help students recognize and develop their potential to excel in math and science, ease the transition from middle school to high school and high school to college, encourage the pursuit of math and science electives at the high school level and to pursue postsecondary degrees in these fields.

Believe me, we need more scientists and engineers.



I spoke to a class of eighth graders in during the second week and enjoyed myself greatly. They were outgoing, respectful and interested in the discussion. My focus was on origami and its relation to mathematics. In particular I highlighted Robert Lang, a noted physicist and engineer, who has authored or co-authored over 80 technical publications and 40 patents on semiconductor lasers, optics, and integrated optoelectronics.


He has also presented several refereed technical papers on origami-math at mathematical and computer science professional meetings. His profile on CBS 60 minutes was shown during the discussion via the web in a smart classroom, and the feature noted the applications of origami to engineering problems ranging from air-bag design to expandable space telescopes.

And then of course we made cranes.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Live Chat a Great Option for Tech Support

I am very pleased with my experiences with live chat support, and after a multitude of times being left in phone hold limbo, I prefer this method of communication when trying to solve a technical problem. The Earthlink chat support system has always been of help to me.

In dealing with AT&T/Cingular Wireless, it has been more of a mixed bag. Though I have found help there, I have had to in the past thank the support personnel, log off, then log on again to obtain someone whose communication style better suits mine.

Helpful hint. If the support person you’re chatting with is frustrating you, say thank you and goodbye and connect right back up again. The new support person may be better able to help you.

Let’s look at the two chat clients and pick the good and the bad.

First Earthlink:
I was looking for information over the weekend and was puttering around their online help system. After a few minutes of poking around, a dialog popped up and asked me if I needed live help. This is akin to struggling in the electronics department and having a helpful representative of the store ask you if you need assistance. I did, and in moments I was chatting live with someone far more knowledgeable about networking than myself.



Two things that I really like about the discussion, is that you are automatically writing down the necessary information that you can then refer back to during the troubleshooting. I also like that a record of the conversation is reviewed for service improvements.



Now Cingular:
This is a different chat service than I have used before. I would prefer individual attention as opposed to the swarm of comments that scroll by. I feel like I am being forced to ask directions on a busy New York street and am straining to hear the information I’ve asked for.



I do think it is interesting that they list out all the agents online at that time and also give a wait estimate. To much of a phone hold time reminder, but it does seem useful.



There are chat support services in a multitude of instances. Tacoma Community College provides chat support between faculty and students for their online classes, as an example.
__________________________

Side note. Earthlink recommends Netscape as a browser as opposed to Firefox.

“Please note: Our email and chat forms currently work best with Internet Explorer and Netscape. If you are using a different browser and experiencing difficulties, please open this page in a new window using Internet Explorer or Netscape to complete your request.”

Seems like the website is a little due for a page update.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Escaping Cranes Two: Red Version

I had a number of positive responses to my display of escaping cranes. One person convinced me to make another with their selected color scheme so that it would look good in their home.

The colors are red, gray, white and black, and though I wasn’t thrilled with the way they filled the glass container, I really like how they look escaping up into the sky.

With the first one I used about 80 or so cranes but with this one, given the container was slightly smaller I ended up using closer to 60 or so.


Cool Web Specialty Sites! Online NOW!

It is late at night and you are watching an X-Files marathon on the Sci-Fi channel. The commercials are frequent, and are for products that are so simple or specific that the pitchman seems like a carnival barker. You are intrigued, and not just because you should have gone to bed three hours ago. There may even be times when you say to yourself, “I could really use that specialty cookware, or sonic fish lure, or folding bicycle, or (insert some really obscure or fascinating product here).

BEGIN FAKE WEBSITE COMMERCIAL
“Hello out there!”

“Are you sick of posting URLs in emails only to have it break when sent causing the recipient to have to cut and paste it back together?”

“Have you ever wanted to convert files without the need to download software?”

“Want to know how to say, “You have beautiful eyes in more than eight different languages?”

“Well are these services are available for absolutely free on the internet. Don’t delay, surf by now and take advantage of these mind boggling offers.”

END COMMERCIAL

One thing I do love about the web is the untold helpful web sites that let you do all of the above and more for free. How do these sites make money when their services are free? With volume! Of traffic that is. Advertising and donations for the most part fuel these specialized sites. If the service is good, even if it is small, it can generate enough users to make it a practical business. Many of these companies get bought up into larger services or products, but many are just helpful tools for everyday tasks.

Here are the web sites that provide the services mentioned above.

www.tinyurl.com (helpful as an alternative to sending those ridiculously long links in email.)

www.zamzar.com (I used this just yesterday to convert a couple of files to PDF)

http://world.altavista.com/tr (Esto es un Web site muy fresco para la traducción rápida de la frase.)

If you know if any other site that is quick and does a specialized service, send the URL my way and I'll check it out. Hurry! This offer won't last much longer!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Journalism 2.0 in a Web 2.0 World

Mark Briggs, Assistant Managing Editor for Interactive News at The News Tribune, is a man who is on top of changes in the world of newspapers and news reporting. Yesterday an article came out through Reuters that states consumers will spend more time surfing the Internet than reading newspapers, going to the movies or listening to music. The day before that, a BizReport research paper came out that examines different ways newspapers are expanding their reach online.

Anyone with a vested interest in these reports would do well to read Mark Briggs book, Journalism 2.0: How to Survive and Thrive (and then of course, the third subtitle “A digital literacy guide for the information age”). Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and an initiative of J-Lab and the Knight Citizen News Network, the book is a crash course in Web 2.0 technologies and toys that can help even the most old school rooted reporter enter the new world of online journalism, or enhance their print side activities.

There are many aspects of this book that appealed to me, but I will focus on only three off the top in order to maintain a reasonable length to this post.

First, even for someone who is already familiar with many elements of the web, it is an interesting peek inside the reporter’s life and mind. Newspapers once owned the nexus of information about their communities, and until the last decade were in no danger of losing that place. Some journalists steadfastly refused to acknowledge the change in information distribution and consumption that has revolutionized how we take in our news and interact with our neighbors. Mark sees these changes as an opportunity for journalists to continue to do what they do well, using new tools, a greater potential for reporting and enhanced community interaction.

An interesting quote by Phil Meyer, taken from the forward, says that “The old adage, “A good reporter is good anywhere” is no longer convincing. We need good reporters who can bring appropriate tools to bear on constantly changing situations.” That speaks well to the overall theme of the book.

Second, he doesn’t just deal with writing and reporting with words. Mark speaks to how multiple media are being integrated into the story. Not just as a whole multimedia piece either. When audio is available, even in raw form, it may be posted with the thoughtful analysis and synthesis to come in a more complete and digested piece later. He speaks to the power of community and community generated media and discusses a variety of open source tools that can help with distribution and syndication.

Third, it is available for you to download and read. It is a quick read at 128 pages, but it has many assignments at the end of each chapter which could keep you busy for awhile. So if you are a reporter, want to be a reporter, or want to bring a bit more professionalism to your blogging, then this book is well worth the time to order or print out and then study.

One minor disagreement I have involves blog writing, though admittedly his suggestion is aimed at reporters. He suggests short entries every day, while I like mine at about 400 words or so per post, two to three times a week as opposed to shorter bursts.

(Shoot, I’m over by more than 100 words. Where’s an editor when you need one.)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Stephen King, On Writing

One of the nice things about getting away to the ocean or camping is that you have the chance to be out in the open air, so you can read. It is an obvious consequence of getting more exercise than the normal work week would allow, combined with the elimination of electronic distractions, but I always get more reading and writing in when I am vacationing. Last year, while in Sunriver, Oregon, I managed to write a chapter for Mitch Ratcliffe and Steve Mack's The Podcasting Bible. That is something I wouldn't have gotten done without removing the distractions of the everyday.

This long weekend I reread for the (place unremembered number here) time Stephen King's non-fiction book, On Writing. This book is a combination memoir, how to, inside look, inspirational, frequently asked of Stephen, self assessment book that both fans and non fans would enjoy and learn from.

I read it alongside another good book, The Writing Life, which is a collection of essays and articles from many solid and successful authors. I still like King's book much better. It reads truer and stays with you longer.

It is one thing to repeat the mantra that "Writers write", but it is another to read that writers write because that have too, even after being broken into little pieces by a van which strikes you so hard that your bloody glasses end up on the passenger seat while you fly 14 feet into the air. Mr. King finished writing this book after nearly being killed and suffering through months of physical therapy and as many operations as there were pins and bolts placed in his body.

It comes across as akin to the hero in a movie who is besieged by countless enemies, monsters and setbacks of all manner. He drags himself, bleeding and broken, across the final expanse of the (castle, battlefield, urban war zone, zombie infested science laboratory, bureaucratic office stronghold) and lifts himself, straining with everything that is left physically and emotionally, to prop himself up in the sitting position at the old desk with pen in hand. The hero has won.

Besides the inspirational, it is also full of many helpful suggestions as to how to APPROACH better writing. It isn't a grammar guide, but it points to some good ones. It isn't a get rich writing book, it dispels those ideas quickly. What it is is a no nonsense one way discussion as to how to go about getting better at what, as a writer, you love to do.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

What's the Weather Forecast, Tacoma?

So what’s the weather in Tacoma like? Part of the beauty (and danger) of the web is that I can treat my weather questions like my doctor visits. If I don’t like what I’m being told, I can go get a second opinion.

I am going to be heading to Long Beach with the family and my wife told me the weather forecast was awful. Well, sure, if you looked at the weather report she was referring to. I had to dig around, but found a weather forecast for the days we planned on being there that was a bit more to my liking. That may defeat the planning purposes for these reports, but I like to look at the sunny side of life, literally. You may be thinking that these reports are all alike, but nope, not the case.

So where do I look. First stop of course is our good friends at the News Tribune. No doubt where many turn when looking for immediate forecast gratification.



Nice, but I'm not sure I like the partly cloudy business.

How about Weather.com?



Now that's more like it. Not only do I get another day in the low 80's, but Sunday is Sunny (Yay!) instead of Cloudy (Boo!).

What I really love about weather.com is they give you the forecast HOUR BY HOUR. This is particularly helpful in the winter when you want to know exactly when the snow is going to fall. "I'm setting the alarm for 3:00am to watch the snow start falling."

But let's check Accuweather. These guys also do the hourly, but in a not as precise 3 hour increment.



Given the temperatures listed are in line with the Tribs, I am thinking this may be the newspapers source of information. However, the bonus of going out to Accuweather is the "RealFeel" temperature. Hey, it's not what the temperature is, it's what the temperature feeels like that counts.

What I didn't like was Sunday's forecast for drizzle. Yuck. I therefore chose not to even show it and ignore the idea entirely.

Now Google gives the quick fix. Just type in Weather Forecast Tacoma and there you are. (As an aside, do you get the impression that Google wants to be the omnipresent solution?)



Following the Google information was a long list of forecasts to choose from. I am certain if I looked through them all, and treated my weather forecasts like a chinese menu, I could prepare the exact week I am looking for. "Let's see, for Friday I'll take the sunny and clear, but I really like the Sunday weather over on this one."

I don't know about you, but the week ahead looks like smooth sailing weatherwise to me.

FYI, If you are looking for accuracy in your weather forecast disregard the above advice and stick with the source that works for you.