Archive for the 'Products/Services' Category

The AOL data mess

Monday, August 7th, 2006

Not surprisingly this is the kind of topic that spreads like wildfire across blogland.
AOL search data snippet

AOL Research released (link to Google cache page) the search queries of hundreds of thousands of its users over a three month period. While user IDs are not included in the data set, all the search terms have been left untouched. Needless to say, lots of searches could include all sorts of private information that could identify a user.

The problems in the realm of privacy are obvious and have been discussed by many others so I won’t bother with that part. (See the blog posts linked above.) By not focusing on that aspect I do not mean to diminish its importance. I think it’s very grave. But many others are talking about it so I’ll focus on another aspect of this fiasco.

As someone who has research interests in this area and has been trying to get search companies to release some data for purely academic purposes, needless to say an incident like this is extremely unfortunate. Not that search companies have been particularly cooperative so far – based on this case not surprisingly -, but chances for future cooperation in this realm have just taken a nosedive.

To some extent I understand. No company wants to end up with this kind of a mess on their hands. And it would take way too much work on their part to remove all identifying information from a data set of this sort. I still wonder if there are possible work-arounds though, such as allowing access on the premises or some such solution. But again, that’s a lot of trouble, and why would they want to bother? Researchers like me would like to think we can bring something new to the table, but that may not be worth the risk.

Note, however, that dealing with sensitive data is nothing new in academic research. People are given access to very detailed Census data, for example, and confidentiality is preserved. From what I can tell the problem here did not stem from researchers, it was someone at AOL who was careless with the information. But the outcome will likely be less access to data for all sorts of researchers.

Another question of interest: Now that these data have been made public what are the chances for approval from a university’s institutional review board for work on this data set? (Alex raises related questions as well.) Would an approval be granted? These users did not consent to their data being used for such purposes. But the data have been made public and theoretically do not contain any identifying information. Even if they do, the researcher could promise that results would only be reported in the aggregate leaving out any potentially identifying information. Hmm…

For sure, this will be a great example in class when I teach about the privacy implications of online behavior.

Not surprisingly, people are already crunching the data set, here are some tidbits from it.

A propos the little snippet I grabbed from the data (see image above), see this paper of mine for an exploration of spelling mistakes made while using search engines and browsing the Web. About a third of that sample was AOL users.

The image above is from data in the xxx-01.txt file.

Scrollable ads

Monday, August 7th, 2006

GMail does something very smart with the Sponsored Links it displays in the Webclips area just above the message view area, it lets the user scroll back and forth among the ads.

Maybe I’m an odd one for actually looking at ads on occasion, but sometimes they do tell you about helpful or interesting information and services. So I like to click on them sometimes. However, more often than not, I just glance at them in the corner of my eye as I am about to move to another page. What then happens is that the ad changes. In GMail, I can just click on the back button in Webclips and get the ad (or whatever RSS feed I may have missed).

GMail Webclip

On most sites this is not possible (e.g. Yahoo! Mail). If you click the back button of your browser, chances are that some other ad is dynamically generated on the page you were just viewing by the time you return to it. It’s a bummer as some of those ads could be of interest to users a split second later.

Miles and more

Thursday, June 29th, 2006

The newest photo set in my Flickr stream is called “In Flight“. I have flown 32,773 miles since January 1st this year. I boarded a plane 25 times so far in 2006. (It is not even because I started the year with a flight back to Chicagoland from NYC.) Since you can fly direct almost anywhere I go from Chicago, there has only been one trip that required a layover, when I was going from NYC to Santa Barbara via San Francisco (there) and Los Angeles (back). So I’ve been on 11.5 trips that required flying in less than half a year. Yikes.


Conveniently, I already had Premier status in United’s frequent flyer program even before the year began so I get even more miles in my account than I actually fly. There are additional perks. For example, I just found out on Sunday right before boarding the plane from San Francisco to Chicago, that I now have several e-upgrades, which entitle me to upgrades for no cost. So I conveniently got to spend the redeye in business class. It was great.

I’ve always wanted to fly on the upper deck of a big plane and I got to do it this time. It’s not that special, but it was still fun looking down at everything from even higher up (I don’t mean in flight, but while on the ground).

It’s good to know that San Francisco is another United hub. This means that they have a separate Premier check-in and security area that always cuts down on the wait so this next academic year when that becomes my home base airport, I can still get through check-in quickly.

Annotated maps

Tuesday, June 27th, 2006

As you may have noticed by now, I like maps. In fact, geography was the only elective I took in high school, two optional years in addition to the two required (no, I didn’t go to high school in the U.S. as you are likely able to guess from that info). Those classes included lots of material of less interest to me (e.g. leading mineral producers in the world and what shrubs grow in the tundra), but we also got to look at maps a lot, which was the main reason I was hooked.

Image Hosted by Free image hosting*

Given these interests, I was excited to find Quikmaps this morning, a service that lets you annotate Google Maps, save them, go back and edit them, and in the meantime post them on your Web site. There have been other related services (GMapTrack comes to mind), but none have managed to do this as well as Quikmaps. I have been using Wikimapia for some map annotation purposes, but it’s not so good when the locations you are specifying have limited appeal. The one problem with such independent little upstarts is you never know how long they’ll be around (e.g. GMapTrack is nowhere to be found) so it’s not clear how much time and effort one should spend creating maps.

Nonetheless, if you want to explain to someone how to find you or want to annotate your favorite locations (or just restaurants) in town, this seems like a very helpful service.


[*] I have purposefully avoided embedding a map here. I don’t want CT page loads to be too taxing on the Quikmaps site. It should be busy enough dealing with the digg effect .

Gizmo Project

Monday, June 19th, 2006

I have recommended the following service to a few people already so I thought I’d write a blog entry about it as well. One of the motivating factors is to document how one unsubscribes from the paid service as it took me a while to figure that out and I want to save others time in the future (and myself, in case I ever sign up for it again, which is possible given my good experiences with it).

The Gizmo Project is a Voice-over-IP service like many others such as Skype. There are a few particularly nice features about it, however, that made me pick it over others for a research project I was conducting recently.

First, Gizmo lets you record conversations you are having on the computer with others. This is extremely useful for research purposes. When you press “record”, the service does mention this to the other party so it is not done in secret. Of course, for research purposes, the action of recording a respondent’s comments should be stated up front clearly anyway and permission must be granted by the person who is being recorded. But that part is not up to the technology.

A second nice feature is that it is possible to sign up for a local phone number all over the US (and some other countries). This was very useful recently when I was doing a study in another state and wanted potential respondents to have a local number they could call when trying to reach me. This service is just $4/month.

Once you have the new phone number, you can specify another number to which you would like to have it forwarded. This can be a landline or a cell phone.

The service also comes with the very nice additional feature of having your voice mail messages sent to you on email in small wav files. This is great. First, you get to keep an easily accessible copy of the message (that is, you don’t have to go through the other messages in your voicemail looking for the particular one you need). Second, you can listen to the messages without using up cell phone minutes.

How to unsubscribe from Gizmo Project?

The tricky part came when I wanted to unsubscribe. Since I am done with the project, I no longer need a 609 phone number. I kept looking around in Gizmo to see where I could do that. However, the phone number service was through another company, CallWave. And it turns out that unsurprisingly, it is through that service that one terminates the phone number account. Aha. At that point it was easy. But this one step was not completely straight forward. For future reference, the original email from CallWave Billing did include a link to the site where one logs in and unsubscribes. So the key here was remembering that the service was through CallWave not through the Gizmo Project.

Overall, I had a really good experience with this service and recommend it. (No, I am in no way affiliated with these companies and get no benefit from having others sign up.)

A matching problem

Saturday, April 1st, 2006

This year’s Google April Fool’s joke is Google Romance, a service that will help you find your romantic match. It’s sort of cute, although I think some of their past jokes have been better.

The site does bring up something I have been meaning to blog about so I’ll take this opportunity. It concerns the paradox of matching services such as dating Web sites or job search sites. I haven’t thought about this issue too much, but enough to blog about it. (What’s the threshold for blogability, by the way?:)

Services such as dating and job search sites promise the user to find a perfect match, whether in the realm of romance or the labor market. But deep down, is it really in the interest of these sites to work well? After all, if they do a good job then the seekers are no longer relevant customers and the sites lose their subscribers.

One way to deal with this is to offer additional services that go beyond the matching process. For example, the match-making site eHarmony now has a service for married couples. It is an interesting idea. It seems like a reasonable way to expand their user (subscription!) base so they are not dependent on keeping matchless those whom they promise to connect. Moreover, I can see that they may have quite a loyal user base in those whom they helped find their matches. Job sites can also offer services that go beyond the initial match. Nonetheless, I think there is an interesting tension in all this.

On a not completely unrelated note: Happy Birthday to GMail! Fortunately, that was not an April Fool’s two years ago. I came across the Google Romance notice on Google’s homepage, because I saw the GMail birthday icon and wanted to see if they had it in bigger on the Google homepage (a page I never visit otherwise, because why would I in the age of search toolbars). The birthday image is not reproduced there, but I did see the Romance link. (Yes, I’m obsessed with knowing how people end up on various sites and I’m projecting here by assuming that anyone else cares.)

Travel logistics

Sunday, February 19th, 2006

As you could probably tell from my last non-links post – or from viewing my photos – I have been on the road recently.

I used two helpful Web sites in planning the second part of the trip, the part that required that I make hotel reservations. I browsed and reserved hotels through Hotel Club (I get referral credit if you use this link so it would be great if you did.:) The site has listings for numerous countries and supplies quite a bit of helpful information about the options (e.g. ranking by price, photos, ratings by users) . It also has what seem like very competitive rates. Moreover, every time you use them, you accrue credit toward future reservations, which seems like a nice plus. I recommend it.

To get an idea of where the various hotels are, I recommend the Mappy site. It has the drag option that is so helpful in Google Maps, but it has maps for many many more locations (over two dozen countries to be precise) than GMaps.

With these two sites, I was able to get rooms – with immediate confirmation – very quickly. You do need to have a printed voucher so it’s best to do it when near a printer.

If you haven’t seen my trip photos yet, I have a set for Germany and for Switzerland (I’m still adding to the latter).

Ebay exchange point

Friday, February 17th, 2006
Ebay exchange point

Ebay exchange point,
originally uploaded by eszter.

Train stations often (or sometimes?) have meeting points where people can arrange – surprise-surprise – to meet up with others. This can be helpful if you don’t know the train station at all since you can just decide to meet at the point and then look for it once there. It’s also helpful if you do know the train station since you can avoid having to address the question of specific meeting location every time you’re meeting up with friends.

I was at the Zürich train station last week and noticed an interesting twist on all this: the ebay Xchange point. I had never seen one before. It looks like a really clever way to advertise the service. Not only is it an ad for the auction site, it is also a very helpful place for people to meet up to exchange items bought and sold on ebay. While people could just say “see you at the meeting point” it’s less helpful when you have never met the person before.

Anyone know of other such points elsewhere?

A twist on online communities

Friday, January 20th, 2006

Judging from my posts around here – not to mention my daily browsing habits – I’m obsessed with Flickr. I wanted to take a step back and give a bit of basic info about the site to those who are not that familiar with it. It is my way of trying to spread all that Flickr goodness to more people.

Flickr may seem like no more than a photo-sharing Web site, but it’s actually much more than that. It is a large community of people sharing images, yes, but also learning about a myriad of topics, exploring nearby and distant lands, and communicating with people from all
over the world. In some ways it resembles corners of blogworld. One important difference is that a good chunk of the communicating is done through images rather than text.

Flickr can help you get to know people in all sorts of ways through their photos (and I don’t just mean by looking at what they had for dinner, although frankly, if the cook or restaurant is a good one, that can be interesting as well), you can also get to know cities (e.g. the Guess Where Chicago and Guess Where NYC groups are both fun and informative), learn about healthy foods, read thought-provoking (or not) quotes, and much more.

In case you don’t need these basics, perhaps you’ll find some helpful tips in my guide to finding great photos on Flickr published yesterday on Lifehacker. Consider that the second installment to this post.

Here are some of the basic features of the site. Some of the links below will only work if you are logged in to the system. If you have a Yahoo! account then you are all set. If not, sign up for a free account now, you won’t regret it.*

  • At the most basic level, Flickr is for uploading and sharing your photos. There are several tools available for this from uploading in the browser to stand-alone applications (and even widgets). Or you can forward your cameraphone photos directly to your account.
  • Once you have uploaded your pictures, you can make them completely public, only accessible to contacts designated as family, only accessible to contacts designated as friends, accessible to both family and friends, or completely private.
  • You can post photos under Creative Commons license allowing others to use your images depending on the specifics. You can
    set a default license for all your uploads.
  • You can mark other people’s photos as your Favorites if you want to have easy access to them later. You do this by clicking on the Add to Faves button above the photo.
  • You can organize your photos into Sets. You can create new Sets under Organize. Also, once you have a Set, you can add a picture to it by clicking the Add to Set icon above the image.
  • You can join Groups based on various themes and topics. Click on Groups and then do a search on a topic of interest. Choose the group and join it as a member. Once you are member of a group, you can add photos to it. To add one of your photos to a Group, click on the Send to Group icon above the photo you are viewing. (You can only add your own photos to Groups.)
  • You can create Groups (private, invitation-only or completely public) organized around themes. If public then others can contribute their own photos to your group. Groups can also have ongoing discussions.
  • You can comment on others’ photos. You can also easily follow whether people have commented on or favorited any of your photos. The system also lets you see all the comments you have made on others’ photos and whether photos you have commented on have received additional comments.
  • You can add notes to your photos (or others’ photos if they allow it) by clicking on the Add Note tab above the image. Drag the box to the area on the photo that you want to annotate and add your comment.

As you can tell by this list of features, much of Flickr goodness comes from sharing photos with others in various systematic ways. There is also a lot of communicating that gets done in the comments and on the notes to photos.

Now that you know some of the basics of the site, you may be interested in this guide to finding great photos on the system.

* I am not affiliated with either Flickr or Yahoo!, I just think Flickr is a super service and want to help people understand it better so they become members of the community.

GMail Delete button!

Friday, January 20th, 2006

It looks like the makers of GMail have finally succumbed to pressure and have added a Delete button to all messages and folder views. I think it would be interesting to see all the internal discussions that surrounded the evolution of how one gets rid of messages in GMail: “Move to Trash” -> “Trash this Message” -> “Delete”. Finally.

Disposable email addresses

Wednesday, January 4th, 2006

If you have your own domain name and host it with a service that gives you unlimited email addresses then the following sites won’t be of much help. However, most people don’t have their own domains so these sites may be helpful.

The idea is that at times you may not want to give a site your real email address. These services give you temporary disposable addresses for use with sites that require an address for registration. Many people have junk email accounts that they use for nothing else but such registrations. However, at times it may be easier to cut all links with a site after you try it out.

The following sites help you with this.

Stata pride

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

I was using a computer on Princeton‘s campus earlier today (I’m blogging from the Hungarian Pastry Shop in NYC now though:) and noticed the following on the desktop upon login:

PU Desktop on SPSS vs Stata

In college I was taught statistics on SPSS (isn’t everybody?) and even in the first two years of graduate school I used it including the work for my second-year empirical paper [pdf]. Soon after, however, I started hanging out enough with people in Labor Economics to convert to Stata. And I am so glad I did. Since then, I’m quite sure that Princeton Sociology also uses Stata. So do other programs. (Not to mention some huge fans out there.)

For an inferior product to have the licensing fees that SPSS does, I am not sure how long they will rule all Sociology programs especially since Stata is starting to add some of the menu options that made SPSS more user-friendly for some.

Firefox show and tell

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

Firefox screen

Lifehacker Editor Gina Trapani is hosting a holiday giveaway around the topic of efficient desktop uses. She has created a group on photo-sharing site Flickr for people to post annotated pictures of their desktops: Lifehacker Desktop Show and Tell. The idea is to see how people maximize this work space for productivity. I like the idea, but it seems to me that there are alternative ways of going about this. After all, how often do you even look at your desktop? I don’t look at it much. My default screen is Firefox.

So I propose an alternative: Firefox Show and Tell. Unlike Gina, I don’t have goodies to give away, but if you are interested in taking part regardless then share your annotated screenshots of your Firefox screen in the Firefox Show and Tell Flickr photo pool. I find that most productivity tools I have on my computer are embedded into Firefox anyway so it seems like a more appropriate – or at least as appropriate – focus. Perhaps your reliance on your desktop – or lack thereof – depends on the operating system you use. In any case, I think Gina is right that there is much to learn from how other people have optimized their settings for various applications so sharing could be helpful.

If you don’t have a Flickr account, you can create one for free. To add a photo to a group pool, first visit the group page (here in this case) while logged in as a Flickr user. To the right will be a big bold link “Join this group?”, click on that. On the next page confirm that you want to join the group. Next, head to the photo you want to add to the group. While viewing the photo’s page, click on the “Send to Group” icon toward the left above the image. Then choose the group to which you want to post the picture. This may sound complicated, but it should be pretty painless once you have an account and are looking at actual pages instead of following this abstract description.

Maybe Gina at Lifehacker will consider sending some goodies to helpful screens from this photo pool as well.:)

GMail’s new features

Tuesday, December 13th, 2005

Google’s email application, GMail has added some neat features in the last few days that I thought were worth a comment.

First, they have finally rolled out Web Clips for everyone. These are RSS feeds shown one at a time just above your Inbox. It seems like a helpful way to keep in touch with what is going on in the world (whether political updates, gadget news or whatever your preference). It is completely customizable. They have some preloaded feeds that you can delete (as I did with most of them). You can then add feeds from various sites including blogs. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it to add feeds from certain sites (e.g. I tested Eszter’s Blog, but it didn’t rec0gnize the feed).

One unfortunate aspect of this feature is that it doesn’t seem to recognize when you have followed up on a clip so it keeps showing you feeds that you have already viewed. The clips are sometimes ads, which is fine since this is an ad-supported service. It is surprisingly sophisticated. I entered a subject line of two words in Hungarian without any message body (I was just sending myself an attachment as a backup) and it gave me an ad for something in Hungarian.

Second, GMail now gives you the option of previewing attachments as a simple HTML document. This is less exciting for something like a Word file, but intriguing for something like an Excel file with numerous worksheets. It renders them quite nicely. I recommend trying this out next time you want a quick glance at the contents of an attachment.

Subsidizing your donations

Sunday, December 4th, 2005

In the past couple of weeks I have posted two entries about donating to worthy causes. And this really is the season when you know organizations will be contacting you for money (if they haven’t already). I know I have given more this year than any other year previous. So wouldn’t it be nice to have that offset a little by a third-party?

Here is how this can work. It is not some crazy pyramid scheme, don’t worry. Instead, it is thanks to a bank with a very nice interest rate attached to its savings accounts. The bank is giving this money to people who sign up through referrals. The referrer – in this case hopefully me:) – also gets $10.

The bank is ING DIRECT. I opened my account with them through such a referral over a month ago. Everything went smoothly. They seem to have quite a security system implemented, which should help those who are not yet used to online banking.

Here are the specifics: You have to be a U.S. permanent resident or a citizen to take advantage of this offer. You will have to deposit at least $250.00 in the Orange Savings account to get the $25.00. You earn 3.50% Annual Percentage Yield on an FDIC-insured savings account with no fees, required minimums or service charges. In case you are wondering whether this is a good deal, take a look at what you are earning on your current checking or savings account. I suspect it is not even close to this amount. So with the $25.00 plus the additional money thanks to interest you will definitely come out ahead.

Send me a note if you are interested in receiving a referral from me. As I mentioned, you have to sign up through such a referral to get this deal. Plus that is the only way I will get the $10.00 so if you do pursue this I would appreciate having the opportunity to be your referrer.:) You then get two weeks to use the link in the email to sign up. Please only write if you really will sign up as I only get so many referrals. But yes, the process is completely confidential and I will not know who used the link in the end.

Once you have that extra cash, you can either put in your donations to EFF, Creative Commons or the charity of your choice. Or you can go out and buy some truffles for yourself. It is up to you.

UPDATE: I’ve gotten a few emails about this. People are either telling me that they already have an account (and are happy with it, fyi) or they have requested a referral. I’m posting this just as confirmation that this really is a good way to handle money you don’t have invested otherwise.


Wednesday, November 23rd, 2005

originally uploaded by eszter.

I exited my building unusually early this morning at 6:30am. The first sight: snow-covered cars. Oy. There isn’t much of it so it may not be around by late morning. And to be sure, it’s actually quite warm. But it was still a reality check. Welcome to winter. It is definitely time that I get my car situation in order. Waiting for the bus is looking less and less appealing.

Any suggestions for negotiating car prices from a dealer?:)

All your base really are belong to Google

Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

[Also posted on Crooked Timber.]

(If you don’t get the title of this post, you can read up on the reference here. )

A few months ago I posted an entry called Google World in which I talked about the amount of information Google and other companies such as Yahoo!, MSN and AOL are amassing about their users.

This week’s launch of Google Base is another step in the direction of building elaborate profiles of users. Moreover, it is an interesting move by the company to get users to fill up Google’s own Web property with lots of valuable material for free.

Google Base is a collection of content submitted by users hosted on Google’s site. Let’s say you have some recipes (I mention these as that part of my own Web site seems to be one of its most popular sections and Google Base already in this early stage has a section on that), instead of simply hosting the recipes on your own site and having Google (and other search engines) drive traffic to it, the recipe can now live on Google’s own Web property. Other types of content range from classifieds about housing and jobs to course syllabi. Some have suggested it is like a gigantic expanded version of the popular Craig’s List, which I mention in case that is a service with which you are familiar. Google Base will be a collection of information that users provide for free, but for which Google gets credit when people find it.

It is hard not to wonder how much more prominent Google Base content will be in Google’s search results compared to other content on the Web.

Read the rest of this entry »

My Southpark character

Sunday, October 16th, 2005
My Southpark character

My Southpark character,
originally uploaded by eszter.

A few weeks ago I had Meetro running and communicated with a few folks. One of them created this Southpark character based on the photo of me on my Meetro profile. If you know me you know that this isn’t exactly what I look like. That said, it’s a pretty good rendering of the picture.

FYI, Meetro is an instant messaging application that adds a geographical component to interactions by letting you know who from the network is in your physical proximity.


Friday, October 14th, 2005

[Also posted on CT.]

I am so glad that somebody finally wrote this piece regarding press fascination with iEverything. (The author does acknowledge Slate’s history with Microsoft.) The article also links to this great spoof ad, which summarizes much of the point quite well.

There is absolutely no need to educate me about the merits of Mac products. I used to and still do own several. That’s not the point here, which you’ll understand if you read the article for what it is.

Yahoo! &

Wednesday, October 5th, 2005

I’ve written here about before. It’s a great free online service that helps you organize your upcoming events and also lets you coordinate with others and find additional events of interest by geographical location or types of happenings.

Last night, its creator Andy Baio announced that Yahoo! has bought Upcoming. This is yet another great acquisition by Yahoo! this year. Congrats to Andy!