Category Archives: interesting

The story of Felix Zandman

In the bubble where I live, media, information, and communication technologies (MICTs) are truly ubiquitous.  Most of the time I, and those around me, use these technologies thinking very little about how they were invented and the people who brought them to us.  Yet, the more I learn about MICT the more fascinated I become with the individuals behind some of the major technological breakthroughs and innovations.  I think some of their personal stories are truly fascinating and can give us a really unique perspective on their inventions.

Dr. Felix Zandman My dad sent me a link to a documentary about one such person, Felix Zandman (in the picture).  I have never heard about him before, even though most of my gadgets, and in fact the field of my studies, owe quite a lot to his talent.  If you are using a laptop, a mobile phone, a digital camera or any other piece of electronics, most probably you are enjoying fruits of his work.  Zandman, who is one of the only six recipients of  Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Electronic Distributors Association (and a “few” other awards), is the founder of Vishay Intertechnology – one of the world’s largest manufacturers of discrete semiconductors and passive electronic components.  In fact, many of the innovations in the sphere of minimization of electronic components came from Zandman’s ideas, which I think is amazing.

Even more amazing in my view is Zandmand’s personal story.  His entire family, except for one uncle, was killed in the Holocaust.  He survived through a series of coincidences (or miracles if you want), human compassion, and living in a hole (literally) with 3 (and then 4) more people for 17 months.  He came out of that war with nothing and ended up building a Fortune 1000 company and creating technology that touches lives of billions of people.  I find his personal story truly amazing and inspiring, and my attempt to abbreviate it here does not do it much justice.

If you have an hour to spare, I encourage you to watch the entire documentary.  Someone uploaded it on 56.com (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 – warning: it’s really slow, you need to let it buffer for a while to watch it smoothly) and the first 20 minutes or so are also available on YouTube (part 1, part 2) – all with English subtitles and narration.  Most of what I know about the story of Felix Zandman at this point is from this documentary (the online materials are scarce), but it really got me interested in his personality and now I also intend to read his memoirs, Never The Last Journey.

On discourse and shaping of the information society

There was a very interesting talk at the Berkman Center back in January.  Julie Cohen, a law professor from Georgetown University, talked about her upcoming book “The Networked Self: Copyright, Privacy, and the Production of Networked Space.”

What I found particularly interesting about this talk is her attempt to introduce sociological literature into a predominantly legal debate.  Her point of departure is the gap between the rhetoric of law and policy aimed at shaping the information society and the realities on the ground.  For example, she points at the language of economic liberties as fueling the information society governance debate, but at the same time there are laws and regulations that significantly restrict those liberties being that through strong copyright or weak individual privacy protections.  She also highlights that while the policy discourse is usually abstract, the individual’s interpretation of the law and his or her interaction with information and technology is very concrete and situated in a particular physical reality.  Although she focuses on the policy debate in the US, I think her framework can be helpful in thinking about discourse and policymaking elsewhere.

Reaching across the disciplinary isle is not a trivial task and during Cohen’s talk at Berkman it was interesting to see how, during the Q&A, the lawyers in the room took her presentation to different directions from where I think it would go has she been giving her talk in a Communication or an STS departments.  Yet, I think she did a very good job linking the abstract thinking of sociologists about the concrete actions of people to the concrete thinking of the legal scholars about the abstract concepts of the law.  I view it is a part of a very important interdisciplinary dialogue we should have in the field and on purely selfish grounds it helps me to think about communicating the relevance of my dissertation research to the more “hard core” policy debate.

You are invited to watch the talk as well as to read its coverage on Ethan Zuckerman’s, David Weinberger’s, and John Palfrey’s blogs.  In addition, I found a recent paper written by Julie Cohen, which provides an outline of her book (in case you don’t have the time to watch the video).

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Enjoy!

A glimpse at the Israeli tech

I have recently encountered some news articles discussing Israel and technology, so I thought I’d share a couple of observations: one about where Israelis are spending their time online and another one about the Israeli high-tech industry and its main challenge.

As to the first observations, it turns out that the five most popular websites in Israel are: Google (92.3%), Walla! (67.2%), Facebook (61.2%), Ynet (58.4%), and YouTube (54.9%). This is interesting and slightly surprising at the same time.  It is interesting because Facebook has outperformed Ynet and the Israeli equivalents of YouTube are nowhere near the top runners.  It is also interesting because US brands are occupying three out of top 5 places.  Of course in all of them, the users can do practically everything in Hebrew, but still, the local attempts to offer search, social networking, and online video, are not doing very well.

These statistics are also surprising, because there is an image of Israelis as being obsessed with news, but it seems like the social interactions are currently more interesting to them compared to the biometric database law and such.  Perhaps this is a sign of relative calm in the region.  Also, to me, one of the surprising aspects of the numbers above was that Walla! outperformed Ynet in popularity, because I was under the impression that Ynet is far more popular.  Perhaps that can be explained by the fact that Walla! offers not only news, but also email, shopping, and more (the exclamation mark in the name is there for a reason – they are taking the Yahoo! approach).  This may also be an explanation to why Ynet has recently offered its registered users a free email with unlimited capacity.

Asked explicitly about their browsing habits at work, the respondents to the survey listed the  same five websites at the top, but in a slightly different order: Google (87.8%), Ynet (52.8%), Walla! (47.9%), Facebook (31.2%),  and YouTube (25.3%).  It looks like the working people value news more than socializing and entertainment, but since I don’t have the actual survey in front of me, it hard to tell much.

As to the second observation, there is a new book out there, trying to analyze the success of the Israeli high-tech.  From its description the book sounds a bit too poetic (almost like a marketing brochure), but it cites  some interesting numbers and voices an important warning.  For example, there are around 3,850 start-up companies in Israel today and in 2008 the volume of venture capital investments in Israel was 2.5 higher compared to that in the US.  If you compare the per capita venture capital investment, the volumes in Israel are 30 times higher compared to Europe, 80 times higher compared to India, and 300 times higher compared to China (well, I guess this is one good thing about being a small country).  There are 63 Israeli companies traded on NASDAQ, which is the larger group of foreign companies from a single country on that exchange (the second largest group is Canada with 48 companies).  Finally, it turns out that Israel has one of the highest rates of investment in civil R&D in the world.  According to the article the country invests 4.5% (of its GDP I assume, because the article does not clarify that) in civil R&D, compared to 3.2% in Japan (the second largest) and 2.7% in the US (the third largest).

The book discusses a number of factors that contributed to the entrepreneurial culture and innovation in Israel (such as the immigration and combination of the army service and good higher education) and highlights one factor that endangers it all.  The authors, Dan Senor and Saul Singer, suggest that the state of the K-12 education in Israel is degrading and something needs to be done if Israel wants to maintain its innovative-entrepreneurial advantage – and I tend to agree.  I have not read the actual book, so I am not sure what exactly they are proposing, but I think it is good that this problem is getting attention in something that will probably become a popular read in the industry.

The Israeli TV industry: Some numbers

Israel is debating another reform in its broadcast TV industry, which allows an interesting peek on the numbers constructing the Israeli media market.

Currently there two private broadcast TV channels in Israel, which are supported through advertising (there is a government supported public channel as well).  Channel 2 started operating commercially in 1993 and Channel 10 joined the competition in 2002.  Both channels are operated through permits, which means that they have to be renewed every few years, which in turn is supposed to give the public body that monitors these channels, the Second Authority, the leverage to make demands for quality content.

One can debate whether or not the Authority is successful in imposing content quality standards, but the reform is aimed at moving from the permit regime to a license regime.  According to those pushing for the reform, this will allow to introduce another player to the Israeli broadcasting media market.  Since such a shift requires amending the law, the story starts with discussions in the Economic Committee of Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.

So, what can we learn from these debates?

  • According to Menashe Samir, the CEO of the Second Authority, the annual income of the commercial broadcasting TV stands on NIS 1.2 billion (around US $320 million), while operating a channel costs about NIS 400 million (around US $70 million).  Eran Pollack, from the Ministry of Finance, provided some more specific data, saying that in 2008 the commercial broadcasting channels had incomes of NIS 700 million for Channel 2 (US $187 million) and NIS 400 million for Channel 10 (US $107 million).
  • Eran Polack also said that in 2008 the overall TV industry in Israel had an income of approximately NIS 5.5. billion (US $1.47 billion).   The break down is really interesting.  The commercial broadcasting TV channels account only for a small portion of that pie; the Israeli cable and satellite TV providers account for almost two thirds of it.   HOT, the cable company had an income of NIS 2.085 billion (US $559 million) in 2008, and YES, the satellite company had an income of NIS 1.415 billion (US %378 million).  Also, the public channel accounted for about NIS 350 million of income (US $94 million).
  • As to the viewers, according to Yehuda Saban from the budget department, an average Israeli views 225 minutes of TV a day – over 3 and a half hours.  Children watch TV even more than that.  All this in spite of the fact that the costs of cable/satellite TV in Israel are relatively high; at the bottom 20% of the income group, people spend as much as 1.2% of their monthly income on TV.

It is f course also interesting to see how both supporters and opponents of the reform justify their positions through claims for greater societal benefit, but I won’t torture you with this now :)

Intel is doing it smart

At the last WTPF meeting I learned about the Magellan laptop project of the Portuguese government.  Every participant was provided with such a laptop for the duration of the forum, at the end of which the laptops were supposed to be donated “to children in a developing country.”  I am not sure where exactly they went, but many of the participants got to keep their laptops and were provided with a lot of information about the project.

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The Magellan laptop

The Magellan initiative, named after the 16th century explorer, is a collaboration between Intel and the Portuguese government.  According to Mr. Mario Lino, Minister of Public Works, Transport and Communications, it is part of the government’s commitment to development of the “information society” in Portugal.  The aim is to deliver those laptops to 1.1 million students registered in their e-school program and supposedly 800K have been already deployed.  Moreover, the initiative is looking to expand beyond the Portuguese borders.  A number of times during the forums it was mentioned that a really large shipment of Magellan laptops (if I remember correctly about 200K) went to Columbia and shipments to other corners of the world are on their way.

The project representatives I talked to at the forum were not ready to say how much it would cost if someone wanted to by a batch of these machines.  They sold them on spot for 250 Euro a piece, but told me that the price will be negotiated per project depending on the quantities and the educational needs of the client.  From my neighbor on the flights back to the US, whose kid participates in the program, I learned that in Portugal those laptops are distributed for 50 Euro maximum (if the family is not eligible for any additional subsidies).  If the family falls in certain category, it would get not only the laptop for free, but also an internet connection as long as there are children aged 8-10 in the household and their participate in the program.

Indeed, the program is very well known in Portugal.  I was lucky enough to receive one of those laptops and carrying it around and taking it on the plane attracted both attention and comments of the locals who were really proud about their local laptop traveling to the US.

Digging into it, Magellan laptop is the Classmate PC in a different cover.  I think Intel have handled it really smart with this project.  They gave the Portuguese government the ability to repackage their Classmate PC so that it could be presented to the world as a Portuguese laptop and the Portuguese government could take the credit.  In other words, the Portuguese government rips political dividend while helping Intel disseminating their technology.  Sort of a win-win situation.

The laptops are indeed assembled in Portugal (from parts made in China), which makes it the first European laptop.  My version came with Windows XP in English, but from my neighbor on the flights back I learned that machines distributed in Portugal come with dual boot of XP and Ubuntu.  Moreover, they come with an educational software, which according to my neighbor was rather buggy and not very useful.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the software.

The size, the design, and most importantly the purpose of the laptop (and the entire program), raised an immediate comparison to OLPC and XO, but on that (and more on the specs of the laptop) in a latter post.  In the meantime, here are few more pictures of the machine with some comments.

Just to give you a sense of its size compared to a standard business card; also note the handle to carry it around

Just to give you a sense of its size compared to a standard business card; also note the handle to carry it around

An open laptop: the keybord is pretty small (designed for kids) and my version has Portuguese layout; the touch pad is nice, but I couldn't figure out how to turn off the tapping functionality; note a built-in webcam above the screen

An open laptop: the keybord is pretty small (designed for kids) and my version has Portuguese layout; the touch pad is nice, but I couldn't figure out how to turn off the tapping functionality; note a built-in webcam above the screen

Right side: USB port, SD card reader, LAN, and power

Right side: USB port, SD card reader, LAN, and power

Left side: Another USB port, headphones and microphone jacks

Left side: Another USB port, headphones and microphone jacks

The bottom view of the laptop

The bottom view of the laptop

Another bottom view, this time with the battery out

Another bottom view, this time with the battery out

Cretive Commons Monitor

I think if you are reading this blog, you must be familiar with Creative Commons (CC).  But have you ever wondered how widely spread this license actually is?  Well, there are people who are thinking about it and even started looking into the issue.  Giorgos Cheliotis is one of them.  He is currently a visiting scholar at Berkman and earlier this week he gave a talk about the CC Monitor project.

The project has been out there for three years, but the website is rather new and is still considered under development as the team is figuring out the best way to capture and analyze the use of CC licenses around the world.  They have built an online (wiki-based) platform/repository which presents the raw data and some visualizations for others to use and think about. This is what global distribution of CC licenses looks like.

Number of CC licenses globally
There are overall estimated 170,268,161 CC licenses in the world, but the map refers to a subset of them.  It includes only the ported (i.e. jurisdiction specific) licenses – those that could be linked to a specific geographic location.  Apparently, there are about 50 countries in the world that have strong CC communities who worked on translating and adopting the general licenses to the local jurisdiction.

The darker areas of the map correspond to the higher number of CC licenses in the country.  Here is for example what Europe looks like once we zoom in:

Numbers of CC licenses in Europe
If you go to the website, you can see the actual number once you hover over the map with your mouse.  The way they collect these data is through counting back-links (or in-links) to specific CC deed pages (like this one).  Of course it is not perfect, but it is more than what we had before and it is there for everyone to use.  The idea behind the site is to build a “live data wiki”, which brings its own challenges such as the data being updated constantly, but not the analysis and the explanations.

On the wiki you can find data about the individual countries and also what they call “freedom scores”.  These scores refers to the degree of openness of the licenses used in each place.  As you may know, there are different types of licenses one can give to his or her work.  This blog, for example, is licensed under by-nc-sa license, which would not score very high on the freedom scale (and I also need to fix things, so it would actually show here).  Overall, this is what the world looks like in terms of openness of the CC licenses:

Freedom index of CC licenses global
As before, the darker areas represent higher scores.  You may want to take a look at this table comparing the scores of different countries side by side.

If you have the time, I suggest you watch the talk (I wish it was possible to embed videos from Berkman website :).  Giorgos goes further into a case study, asking whether people utilize the CC licenses and actually work with the open content.  I know that I learned a lot about CC that I did not know about before.

On the importance of being there

With all the beauty of the Internet and the fact that it helps us dealing with distance and phisical presence, there is something really valuable about “being there.”  The Berkman Center places tons of material online and theoretically, nothing stops me from spending hours on their website listening to the talks and reading the reports.  However, for me this rarely happens, unless I have a concrete task in hand and am looking for a specific piece of information.

Now, spending the summer at Berkman, makes me more conscious of the online materials the center is releasing.  For example, about a week ago Jonathan Zittrain (JZ) gave a really interesting talk about the history of the internet through the lens of domain name regulation.  Unfortunately, that one was not documented, but then, when I came across the video below, I did sit down to watch (most of) it.  I don’t think I would do it unless I had the opportunity to listen to JZ “live” just a couple of days before, but now I know that there is a good explanation of the basics of the Internet out there that I can use.

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Same goes for other items, such as the luncheon talks.  For example, this week, Eszter Hargittai presented her new data about disparities in Internet-related skills among college students.  Although I am following Eszter’s blog and try to read what she publishes, I doubt I would have a chance to spare an hour watching her recorder talk.  Now, after actually being there, I would encourage you to watch both, her talk from this week and another one she gave about a year ago (below).

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Of course I am not the first one to think about the importance of being there.  The idea has been around for a while, especially in the business world.  However, it is always fascinating to reach a similar conclusion based on your own observations.  It seems that the ability to attach a “face” to the content has an aura effect, beyond the immediate enhancement of communication between the people involved.  It shifts one’s attention towards other information produced in the same space, and most interestingly, it extends to the online environment.  I think that so far I was paying attention only to the reverse dynamics (when online communication enhances the following offline interaction).  It is interesting to now how it works in the opposite direction as well.  Being there focuses you on the materials produced by the people and institutions invovled, while probably taking away from your attention to informatin produced elswhere, even if that is a place where you have previously spent a lot of time at.  Some food for thought…

Help me realize a dream!

For the first time in my life I am entering this kind of competition and I am really excited about it!

Microsoft and Lenovo have launched “Name Your Dream Assignment” competition.  They are going to give $50K to one of the top 20 photography projects that will win the popular vote on their website.

I just submitted mine and you can find it here (there is also a badge on the main page that is linked to my project).  Since there are space limitations for project descriptions, I also created a page here, on ThinkMacro, that has more details.  Please feel free to explore.

If you are reading this, I would really appreciate if you take a few minutes and vote for my project!

Please PIC IT!

Learning from students

One of the good things of being a teaching assistant (TA) is that I am getting exposed to a great variety of views and opinions of the students I am working with.  It is somewhat scary to think that many of these students are ten years younger than me, but it is often fascinating to learn how they are using MICT and what they are thinking about technology.

So I decided to share a couple of insights I have learned from (and about) my students.

Insight #1: Last semester I TAed for an intro communication class.  At some point (somewhere in late October) we were talking about the upcoming election and the use of MICT in election campaigns.  Specifically, the students were presented with a way of assessing political websites in terms of interactivity, hypertextuality, and social presence.  At the end of the class the 102 students were polled about what aspect of the website would be most important to them.  Thanks Laura and Sue, who agreed to actually count all the votes, I am able to share them with you:

  • Interactivity – 35.3%
  • Hypertextuality – 34.3%
  • Social presence – 27.5%
  • Combination of a number of aspects – 2.9%

If I recall the discussion in class correctly, this means that (1) the students appreciated an ability to “talk” to the candidates, express their opinions, and get involved in discussion, and (2) they appreciated an option to learn more and in depth about the subjects presented on campaign websites.  Needless to say that this is not by any means a rigorous or comprehensive study and we cannot really learn anything substantive from it, but nevertheless I think it is an interesting indicator.

Insight #2: The class I am TAing for this semester has a blog where the students have to post weekly assignments.  In the last assignment they had to observe their own usage of their mobile phones for a couple of days and then discuss issues that bothered them the most.  I have no numbers to provide this time, but here is what I learned from reading their reflections:

  • They are connected! Not that this needed any proof from me reading the blog posts (PDF), but it is really amazing to read about the central role this device is playing in their social life.
  • They are very responsive. One of the most common complains was about phone calls and text messages interrupting their studies, their sleep or their class sessions.  On the face of it, what can be easier than simply turning your phone off, but it turns out that missing phone calls or taking too long to response to text messages is not very socially acceptable.
  • They want control.  As one of the common solutions, many students offered to have an equivalent of tagging so that they could catalog people in order prioritize phone calls and text messages as they arrive (note that this is different from assigning different ring tone to individual contacts).  Another popular feature they have advocated for was an ability to link their calendars to their mobile phones, so that the phones would ring, vibrate, or turn off according to their schedules.
  • They don’t like uncertainty. Another commonly suggested feature was status notifications.  On the one hand, they want to let people know why they are not responsive or signal to people when it is appropriate to contact them.  On the other hand, they want to know why somebody is not answering their calls or text messages.
  • Mobiles are social. Anther common complain was that the phone rings in inappropriate times (class, library, etc.).  It turns out that people really care about this and it is considered very embarrassing even to the digital natives.

Again, none of those observations is subject to any rigour, but I found reading these blog posts really interesting and insightful.  Hope you will find those interesting too and I wonder if any of the mobile industry players is actually working on developing some of the features the students have advocated for.

Visualizing the inauguration

In the spirit of recent days, AKA obsession with the inauguration, I thought to share a couple of visualizations of Obama’s speech.

The first one is using the IBM’s “Many Eyes“:

Obama's inaugurationspeech through Many Eyes

The other one is from NY Times:

Inauguration speech through NY Times

I am not sure what exactly stands behind each one of the visualizations, because the results are slightly different, but I think each one is interesting in its own way.  I think this is probably just the beginning of what we are going to see being done with all the information the new administration is putting out.  As one of my friends said: “Obama is over-communicator and it suits me”.

Also, you may be interested in checking out CNN’s 3D visualization using Microsoft’s Photosynth.  This one requires installation, but once you have it, you will be able to use the tool to view a 3D picture of the inauguration compiled from pictures that regular people have taken and volunteered to CNN/MS.  Unfortunately, there are not that many pictures in the database, so the result is not as smooth as some of the demos they had when the project was still in beta.

That’s it, this is my contribution to the hype at the moment.  Now back to work.