U.S. loses innovation crown to … Iceland?

Once upon a time—actually, it was just last year—the U.S. was the world innovation champion, according to an annual report by INSEAD and the Confederation of Indian Industry. In this year’s study, however, the U.S. slumps to 11th place. Perhaps even more surprising, BusinessWeek reports, is the new No. 1: Iceland. Soumitra Dutta, an INSEAD professor of business and technology, who oversaw the survey, theorizes that size matters—but in this case, it’s the smaller, the better. It appears that smaller, homogeneous developed countries can more easily unite to support policies, institutions, and infrastructure that promote innovation. The report, financed by Canon India and released on March 3, evaluates 132 countries. Researchers used data from a number of sources, including the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, and the UN, to gauge innovation inputs—things such as education and business climate—as well as outputs to quantify scientific and creative advances. The U.S. drops out of the top 10 because it isn’t sufficiently providing many of the inputs, or what the study calls “pillars of innovation.” It ranks 22 in political environment, 21 in regulatory environment, 22 in K-12 education, 22 in technology infrastructure, and 24 in exports and employment. “The U.S. is unable to create a coherent public agenda,” Dutta says…

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Technology makes student aid more accessible

Students have increasingly looked to the web for financial aid.

Students have increasingly looked to the web for financial aid.

Over the past decade and a half, the internet has made it easier for families to learn about, find, and apply for college scholarships, government grants, and other types of student financial aid. This transformation of the financial aid industry continues even today with a simplified federal aid form and a new XML data standard that will make applying for scholarships easier than ever.

I have acted as a catalyst for some of these major developments and have a unique perspective on the role of the internet in paying for college.

I founded the FinAid web site in the early 1990s to help people plan for and pay for college by making the process easier to understand and more efficient. FinAid was one of the internet’s first web sites, not just one of the first web sites about student financial aid. It is also one of the oldest web sites still in existence.

The FinAid site started as a collection of answers to frequently-asked questions about paying for college. I published a book about scholarships and fellowships for math and science students with Prentice Hall in July 1993 and received questions by eMail. Rather than answer the same questions again and again, I posted the answers to a web page and responded with instructions on how to access the web.

A few months later I started proactively answering questions before they were asked, and then the web site took on a life of its own. Today the FinAid site has more than 100,000 new unique visitors a week and is still the most popular web site for student financial aid information, advice, and tools. Since the site’s inception, it has helped more than 50 million people figure out how to pay for college.

Before the advent of the web, there were dozens of fee-based scholarship matching services. Students would complete a paper profile with details of their academic, extracurricular, and personal backgrounds and mail it with payment to the scholarship matching service. The scholarship matching services would compare the profile with a database of scholarships and respond to the student a few weeks later with a printout of all the matching awards.

In 1994 I approached each of the major scholarship databases with an offer to help them put their database up on the web and to add a link to their web site from the front door of the FinAid site, for free, if they would agree to make their database available for free on the web.

The self-service nature of the web site would enable them to serve many more students, and the greater traffic would make the web site attractive to advertisers. Students could get their scholarship matches in less than an hour instead of weeks, and they could use tools provided by the site to manage their matches.

The profile data also would permit more effective targeting of advertisements so that students would see only advertisements of interest to them, in effect making the advertisements part of the site content. The advertising revenue eventually would exceed the fee revenue they were collecting from students and would permit improvements in the size and quality of the database. I demonstrated a small online scholarship database I had implemented to illustrate how this might work.

At the time, only one company—the predecessor of FastWeb—took me up on the offer.

But one was enough.

It was and remains very difficult for paid services to compete with a free service. A year later, several other scholarship databases took me up on my offer and became available online for free. With several high-quality scholarship databases available online for free, there was no going back to a paid service.


MeriTalk tech conference brings public and private sectors together

Government geeks and private-sector geeks will get a chance to rub elbows at a brand-new technology conference taking place March 4, the Washington Post reports. But beware of the buzzwords, because there will be plenty flying as panel discussions address how Uncle Sam should move onto the computing “cloud” while turning “green.” Please don’t bring up “Web 2.0,” because it’s “Web 10.0” that will be one of the topics at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. (And if you bring or use your smartphone while there, congratulations for being an “Edge Warrior.”) Called MeriTalk, the event is the first of what organizers hope will become an annual gathering that brings public- and private-sector tech thinkers together and sparks fresh conversations between the two. About 1,300 people have registered to attend the free conference, which will feature speakers and panel moderators hailing from outfits as far afield as Google and the U.S. Postal Service… 

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At Singularity University, blowing minds and taking meetings

For Rob Nail, Feb. 27 was a bonanza of opportunity, CNET reports. Over dinner that night in building 20 at the NASA Ames Research Center here, Nail found himself discussing 3D printing and housing with X Prize CEO Peter Diamandis. Already, Nail had been considering buying some farming land in Northern California and had been interested in the nascent concept of 3D printed buildings. He told Diamandis that he wanted to try that on the land. “He says,” Nail recalled, “I want to make this introduction,” and grabbed Nail, pulling him a few tables over to the side where the two put their heads together with one of the founders of a start-up that recently began working on building 3D printed housing for developing nations. 

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Microsoft warns of zero-day hole for older Windows

Microsoft warned of a new hole that could be exploited by attackers to take control of older Windows systems running Internet Explorer and for which proof-of-concept exploit code has been released publicly, CNET reports. The vulnerability affects Windows 2000-, XP- and Server 2003-based systems. It exists in the way that Visual Basic Scripting, or VBScript, interacts with Windows Help files, Microsoft said in its security advisory. VBScript is an Active Scripting language for executing functions embedded in web pages… 

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University library sees demand for Kindles soar

Oregon State undergraduates have flocked to the library's Kindle rental program.

Oregon State undergraduates have flocked to the library's Kindle loaner program.

For students looking to temper sober textbook readings with a literary escape into the world of vampires and zombies, Oregon State University is loaning out Amazon Kindle electronic readers stocked with the latest in popular books.

The Corvallis, Ore.-based university has found it too expensive to fill its Valley Library shelves with fiction and nonfiction books that students would read for fun, not homework assignments or upcoming exams. So in November, the university began lending Kindle eReaders to students and faculty willing to part from traditional page flipping and embrace a technology being tested on campuses nationwide.

The immediate demand for the electronic books forced Valley Library officials to alter Kindle policies created by a campus task force last summer.

Because the library sign-up sheet now includes 189 students and faculty members waiting for their turn to use the Kindle, officials shortened the borrowing period from three weeks to two, and they bought 12 more Kindles in February to add to the original stock of six eReaders.

“Students used to approach us and say, ‘I’m just looking for a book to read,’” said Loretta Rielly, interim head of collections at the Oregon State library, adding that Pride, Prejudice and Zombies and books from the Twilight series were popular choices among students using the Kindle. “But we’ve never had Stephen King, we’ve never had those kind of books … so we’re glad to provide a popular reading collection now. It’s a way of investigating new technologies and trying to keep up with the devices students are using.”

Students and faculty sign up to use a Kindle, then buy up to $20 in eBooks to read when it’s their turn to borrow the device. Oregon State covers these costs, and the electronic books remain as part of the library’s eBook collection.

The eBook loaner program costs the university about $2,000 this year, Rielly said, adding that the school would pay for the program with “gift money” donated to Valley Library.

Anne Marie Kornelis, an Oregon State senior who works at the library’s circulation desk and borrowed a Kindle last weekend, said she overcame initial frustration with the unfamiliar layout of eBooks on the device and eventually found the format convenient.

“At first, I thought, ‘This was so not worth it,’” said Kornelis, 22, a nutrition science major. “It took me a while to sit down with it and really get the hang of it.”

Kornelis said she didn’t know the Kindle picked up on the electronic page the reader last read, and she couldn’t navigate back to the table of contents without fiddling with the device’s scrolling and page flipping buttons.

But the eReader simplified the tricky balance of reading during a meal, she said.

“It was definitely different, but it was really nice to eat with,” Kornelis said. “My hands were free because I never had to turn the pages, and if you make the font large, you can read it from far away. … I found out why there was so much enthusiasm from students about [the Kindle loaner program].”

College students have had a tepid response to the Kindle as some education technology advocates have hoped the device and other eReaders would revolutionize how textbooks are distributed and read on campuses.


Math of publishing meets the eBook

In the emerging world of e-books, many consumers assume it is only logical that publishers are saving vast amounts by not having to print or distribute paper books, leaving room to pass along those savings to their customers, reports the New York Times. Publishers largely agree, which is why in negotiations with Apple, five of the six largest publishers of trade books have said they would price most digital editions of new fiction and nonfiction books from $12.99 to $14.99 on the forthcoming iPad tablet — significantly lower than the average $26 price for a hardcover book. But publishers also say consumers exaggerate the savings and have developed unrealistic expectations about how low the prices of e-books can go. Yes, they say, printing costs may vanish, but a raft of expenses that apply to all books, like overhead, marketing and royalties, are still in effect.

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Apple: Underage workers may have built your iPhone

That iPhone you adore may have been built by a child. Nearly a dozen underage teens were working for Apple-contracted facilities in 2009, the company has revealed, PCWorld reports. The news was posted to Apple’s web site under a section labeled “Supplier Responsibility.” The underage workers, Apple says, were at three different suppliers’ facilities. Though the specific locations aren’t disclosed, the report says inspectors visited facilities in China, the Czech Republic, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States. The factories in question built iPhones, iPods, and various Apple computers. “Across the three facilities, our auditors found records of 11 workers who had been hired prior to reaching the legal age, although the workers were no longer underage or no longer in active employment at the time of our audit,” the report says. The legal age in the facilities’ countries, according to Apple’s report, is 16. The workers in question were only 15 when they were hired.

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Redrawing the route to online privacy

On the Internet, things get old fast. One prime candidate for the digital dustbin, it seems, is the current approach to protecting privacy on the internet, according to the New York Times. It is an artifact of the 1990s, intended as a light-touch policy to nurture innovation in an emerging industry. And its central concept is “notice and choice,” in which Web sites post notices of their privacy policies and users can then make choices about sites they frequent and the levels of privacy they prefer. But policy and privacy experts agree that the relentless rise of Internet data harvesting has overrun the old approach of using lengthy written notices to safeguard privacy. These statements are rarely read, are often confusing and can’t hope to capture the complexity of modern data-handling practices. As a result, experts say, consumers typically have little meaningful choice about the online use of their personal information — whether their birth dates, addresses, credit card numbers or web-browsing habits.

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Site asks social networkers to rethink revelations

Frequent updates on web sites like Twitter could make users vulnerable.

Frequent updates on web sites like Twitter could make users vulnerable.

As more people reveal their whereabouts on social networks, a new site has sprung up to remind students and others that letting everyone know where you are — and, by extension, where you’re not — could leave you vulnerable to those with less-than-friendly intentions. The site’s name says it all: Please Rob Me.

Launched last week, Please Rob Me is exceptionally straightforward. Pretty much all it does is show posts that appear on Twitter from a location-sharing service, Foursquare, that has become popular on college campuses. Please Rob Me puts these posts into a long, chronological list it refers to as ”Recent Empty Homes.”

Please Rob Me assembles its list by taking information that Twitter makes freely available so that many web sites can show tweets. But the point of Please Rob Me could be made with data that flows on dozens of other sites as well.

People are comfortable sharing all kinds of personal details on social sites such as Facebook. And now people are flocking to location-based web services, such as Foursquare, Gowalla, or Loopt, that let them use their cell phones to alert friends to where they are.

Some people choose to show their whereabouts only to approved buddies. But plenty push these very specific updates through public Twitter profiles that anyone can see.

This phenomenon is what motivated the creators of Please Rob Me, according to one of them, Boy Van Amstel, 25.

Van Amstel said in a phone interview from Holland, where the site is based, that technology has become so easy to use that people are sharing too much online without even realizing it. He and his co-founders want people to think twice about the information they share — and with whom.

To drive the point home, Please Rob Me’s web page shows a scruffy-looking, loot-lugging burglar. Below that, it indicates that the site is ”listing all those empty homes out there.”

It doesn’t really show empty houses, or even people’s home addresses. Instead, the posts on the list show Twitter users’ photos, their Twitter usernames, how long ago they “left home” (which is determined by when they checked in with Foursquare), and where they went, along with a link to their destination on Foursquare’s web site.

Some of the posts on Please Rob Me have come from Christopher Lynn, who often publishes his Foursquare updates on his Twitter feed.

Lynn, director of sales and marketing for the Colonnade Hotel in Boston, was a little unnerved to realize his location also was being shared on Please Rob Me as it automatically captured the data. He said knowing that would make him more cautious about posting on Foursquare when he’s far from home. He also plans to keep details about where he lives off the web.

But Lynn doesn’t think Please Rob Me — or the second thoughts it is trying to spark — will hamper the rise of location-based services.