MOOC update

Screenshot anime Denki-Gai (ep 1)

I am glad I have lived this long! (Picture from Denki-Gai, which is not really recommended except for the funny screenshots.)

Try if you can to imagine what free university studies at home means to someone who, as a child, would read the phone book for scarcity of non-fiction literature.

I just finished the astrobiology course Super-Earths and Life from HarvardX (via the edX MOOC platform).

MOOC, as we have talked about before, are massive open online courses, at this time mainly university-level courses and frequently coming from some of the most prestigious universities of the world. Harvard, in this case, probably needs no further introduction, at least to readers from the western world. So that is kind of awesome. And it will be available to most of the world, thanks to the Android revolution that (according to my estimate) should start in earnest this year (with $20 – $50 Android tablets being churned out for India and other emerging markets). The $20 tablet has actually arrived just in time. Now just wait until it is in the hands of the global middle class: Those who have food security but not luxury. They are going to embrace education in a way that we cannot even imagine, we who had it stuffed down our throat since early childhood.

Be that as it may, the astrobiology course ends on Sunday. (There will no doubt be new rounds of it.) I got 97%, less than perfect but still respectable for a Harvard course I guess. My brain is still working, long may it last! But I am too old to become an astrobiologist. Not that there is detected any biology among the astra so far, but we keep looking. Because we can! Humans are kind of funny that way. Whether lifeforms on other planets think the same way is an open question.


I am not going to run out of MOOC just because this one course ends. I still have a couple more weeks left of Programming for Everybody (Python), from the University of Michigan, on the Coursera MOOC platform. These are the two platforms I have used so far. Generally I find Coursera easier, a bit more spoon-feeding while my edX courses have required some more work. None of them have been too bad though, except the “Science of Happiness” course that I stopped following because their anti-spiritual crusade was just too grating. With all due respect for evolution, the human race has long ago reached a point where we can no longer hide behind the “we do what we do because those of our ancestors who did so had more surviving offspring”. That is not my form of happiness. In fact, it was quite painful to watch.

Luckily programming is not haunted by that kind of bizarre left-wing flapping. I used to be a rather awesome programmer back in the day, but it came to an abrupt halt after I burned out on the debt collection software project that fed Supergirl’s father and his large family for many years. I don’t regret doing that, but perhaps I regret that I burned out on programming. It is probably too late to get back into that now, at least in the sense of seeking employment. The best I can hope for is to be able to stay employed at the place where I work now, until death or the age of 75. But you never know. The world is a strange place and we live in the strangest time that has ever been. And so, I am learning to program in Python. I am still not entirely sure what the point of that is. The language looks very strange to me, but it is not particularly hard to learn. Well, it will take quite a bit of practice to be able to code without looking up the various features, but the exercises so far have been pretty quick and easy.

So much so, in fact, that I have signed up for two more programming course: One in C# by Microsoft experts (on edX) and a longer on in Java from a university in Madrid (also on edX). Hopefully the Madrid professors will speak English, despite their names. The blurb for the course was certainly in English, so I am hoping for the best.

The C# course starts in early April, the Java course in late April. There will be some overlap, but hopefully it won’t confuse me. I believe the two languages are related, being both inspired by the C programming language.

For May, I have signed up for a more sociological course again, about superheroes in popular culture. This is definitely not career related, I think. Well, not for my day job at least. ^_^

The Dragon Upgraded

Screenshot anime YowaPeda

I feel like I can go anywhere… With Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium, you can dictate anywhere using a USB microphone, wireless microphone, smart phone or dictation device. (Even so, I don’t recommend dictating while biking!)

In the past, Dragon NaturallySpeaking has been available in several different versions, and I have always used the cheapest one, Dragon NaturallySpeaking Home. It usually cost around $100, with the occasional big sale where you might buy it to at half price. As an existing customer, I could also upgrade it to the next version at half price from the start. Last time, two years ago, I also did that; I even preordered it.

This time, there was no question of pre-ordering. Either they didn’t ask me, or I missed it somehow. My first hint that there was a new version available came from a mail that offered to let me upgrade to Dragon NaturallySpeaking 13 Premium for €99. A bit more, but then the Premium version has some unnecessary but nifty features. So instead of being my usual cheapskate, I went for the premium version this time. It was already available for download; there was a link in the mail to the website where I could buy it. I checked the requirements and looked for any traps, but that didn’t seem to be anything suspicious. So I bought it with credit card, and could immediately start downloading.

The installation was easy and trouble-free, although it took some time. I first downloaded a small installer program, which then downloaded the big installer program, which then unpacked to a separate folder, which then installed the program in the default location. It may sound a bit complicated, but it was mostly just pressing the “next” button, although I had to choose a directory for the temporary files. I saved them to the network drive in case I have to reinstall on this machine or another. I would also recommend using an external disk for the temporary folder if you have limited disk space, since at some point there will be three big files and folders taking up space simultaneously: The big installer, the folder with the unpacked files, and the actual installation in your Program Files folder. If you have a reasonably new computer, this would probably not be a problem.

Speaking of new and old computers, the two latest versions have each reduced the computing requirements, so that you can actually run version 13 faster on a weaker computer than version 11. Good work!

After installation, Dragon offered to upgrade existing user profiles. This took surprisingly long, even for the profile that was almost empty. Several times I wondered if it had crashed, but I didn’t need to use it immediately so I just checked in on it from time to time, and eventually completed. If you don’t have an earlier version of Dragon, each with an effort to create a new user profile instead. I believe that in this case, you will also be offered to train the program to recognize your voice and improve its accuracy. At least this happened in the earlier versions. It may be that it is so good right out of the box that they don’t bother with that now?

As far as I remember, version 12 looked very much like version 11. Version 13 has a whole new visual profile, so it is obvious at a glance that you are running the new version. The DragonBar, usually placed at the top of the screen, is now just a small button when not in use. If you move your mouse to it, it expands to become larger than it was in the previous version, and the microphone on/off button also becomes much larger. The “Learning Center” (formerly Dragon Sidebar) still takes up the margin of the screen, but it now has a black and white color scheme and also seems to have larger letters. As always, you can minimize or remove this Learning Center if you don’t want (context dependent) hints about what you can do next. Even the DragonBar itself can be minimized to the system tray, and you can access the most common functions by shortcut keys or by voice commands. But that has always been the case, I just wanted to mention it.

As I mentioned in the previous entry, the first thing I noticed when trying Dragon NaturallySpeaking 13 was the leap in accuracy. I realize that I have praised its leaps in accuracy since at least version 10, but this time the difference seemed to me bigger than the official count of 15% improvement. 15% improvement does not seem a lot when the accuracy is already claimed to be about 99%. To me, it seems more like it has increased from 99% to 99.5%, which would actually be a doubling of the accuracy in the sense that there would be half as many errors. But I admit that in my case this could be because of an improvement in the handling of USB headsets.

(It is unfortunate that I cannot maintain this level of accuracy for longer texts, because my voice becomes hoarse after a few minutes. But this is an affliction that I share with very few humans. One hypothesis is that it comes from my years of almost complete silence, where I only asked a few questions at work and did not speak at all on my free time. If I take breaks and drink a little water between the paragraphs, I can continue for longer.)

The premium version contains some features not found in the home version. For instance, you can now make the program read back your own voice, not just a synthetic text to speech rendition of the text. You can also use a smartphone as a microphone, or even use recording devices and have the program transcribe them later. There is supposedly also an option to create your own voice commands, basically macros, but I haven’t tested that yet.

In conclusion, Dragon NaturallySpeaking 13 is awesome. You can actually speak naturally to it, and with very little training it will put your words on the screen and let you control Windows. Upgrading from version 12 seems to make a big difference for me, but your mileage may vary. Upgrading from Home to Premium is probably not a priority unless you have a USB microphone or some other unorthodox input device, but it adds some fun new features.

(As usual when writing about dictation software, I have dictated this entry in its entirety, except for a few minor corrections.)

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 13

Squeeing girls from anime Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun

This is how I think my readers should react when I write about Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition from Nuance. Somehow that never seems to happen. Let me try again, it’s two years since last time.

I love living in the future. And one of the more futuristic things that I have is the speech recognition software for Windows, Dragon NaturallySpeaking. (Windows also has its own built-in speech recognition, but for those who can afford it, Dragon is definitely the one hardest to distinguish from magic.)

Today I got a mail from Nuance, offering to upgrade my Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Home to Dragon NaturallySpeaking 13 Premium for €99. I immediately grabbed the chance, just as I have done every time there was an upgrade for the last five years at least. Was it worth it? Well, to paraphrase a friend of mine, €99 is a lot of money if you don’t have it. This is obviously not a product for the working classes of the developing world, but for Norwegian office worker the amount is trivial, barely noticeable against the high salaries and the high prices up here. And for me at least the effect of the upgrade was dramatic.

According to their website, version 13 is 15% more accurate than version 12 right out of the box. Evidently this has either crossed some kind of threshold in my case, or there was some bug in the version 12 Home in relation to my Plantronics USB headset. The USB headset worked very poorly with the previous version on my laptop (although it had worked reasonably well on the desktop with version 11). So when I wanted to dictate, I had to take off my USB headset and put on an analog headset for the duration, and even then the accuracy was at most marginally better than in version 11. Today after the upgrade, I can use my USB headset again, and what’s more: The accuracy is more than 99%. It still makes mistakes, but less so than my fingers. (And I have been typing for almost 50 years now.)

Back when I wrote about an early version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking here in the Chaos Node, it had only entertainment value for me, although I realized it could be useful for people who could no longer use their arms at all. Some years later a newer version helped save me from disability when my job caused a serious case of repetitive strain injury. At that time it still made quite a few mistakes, but at least I could correct them with my voice. Since then it has improved even more, and I have given it pretty good reviews each time. But let me tell you something: For me, version 13 is a giant leap.

It still makes mistakes, but so few mistakes that I risk overlooking them in the middle of all the perfect text. We are talking about perhaps one error for each paragraph on the first day. The software gets used to the sound of your voice and your writing style and also learns from all the errors you correct, so it gets better the more you use it. So to pull off this level of accuracy with almost no training is impressive indeed.

For those of you who are still here instead of being busy buying it, my next entry will get into some more detail about the installation and differences from the previous version.

(As usual when writing about dictation software, I have used the program to dictate this entry, except for a couple of minor corrections.)

1988 and no time for books

Cardboard box that once contained monochrome display

This box once contained a monochrome display. Those were the days, when we had time to read books but did not know where to find them. (There are still a few books in this box, though. All non-fiction.)

Using my amazing powers of mind, I recently traveled to the year 1988, in a timeline very close to this one. OK, so it is not some supernatural power that nobody else has – it is just a combination of imagination, memory and Google. (And occasionally dice.) But it works for me.

One thing that struck me was how different 1988 was from now. On the surface of it, things were much the same. Most people had already begun to work in the post-industrial economy, for instance, and the cars did not look all that different from now. It was already common for men and women both to work outside home, and (in sometimes unrelated news) divorce was already common. All significant political parties had the same names, at least in the western world, and the borders between nations were the same as now with a few exceptions (mainly in the communist world). Ordinary people ate pizza, watched TV and occasionally had sex. It does not really look all that different.

But then there are the computers. Oh, we had computers in 1988 too. The IBM Personal Computer was launched in August 1981. I already had one at home, and we had a few at the office too, as had many other offices in the reasonably rich world. But they were not really the same thing as we have today. They were slow and primitive in every way. Their capacity was very small. The pictures on the screen were blocky and usually in monochrome, typically green and black, although by 1988 there were color monitors and color video cards (typically bought extra). They were still blocky though.

The power of computers double roughly once every one and a half year. Let’s see: 3 years = 4 times, 4.5 years = 8 times, 6 years = 16 times, 7.5 years = 32 times, 9 years = 64 times, 10.5 years = 128 times … Conveniently, this means 5 years is approximately 10 times and 10 years approximately 100 times. So the computer 25 years ago was 100*100*10 times weaker than today, overall. 100,000 times. This kind of explains why my smartphone is fantastically more powerful than all the computers of my workplace back in the day.

In 1988, we still had physical file cabinets to store the vast amount of paper required by the bureaucracy. Bored housewives were hired to store and retrieve these papers, and spent much of the day with their butt in the air because some uncharted law of the universe ensures that most of the papers always end up in the two lower drawers, no matter what sorting your choose in advance. Many of these later developed severe back pain and became disabled, although around the time the physical file cabinets disappeared and were replaced by virtual file cabinets which you can still see on your computer screen. Kids these days probably don’t know that the folder icon is actually a picture of something that once existed in the physical world.

There are still books in the physical world, but has for quite a while now sold more ebooks than the sum of paperbacks and hardbacks, and the proportion keeps sliding toward more e and less paper. Of course, there wasn’t an back then. At a time when there were no awesome computer games, no social networks and no YouTube to distract me, I still did not read thousands of interesting books, because I did not know that they existed. And even had I known, I would have had no idea how to get them. Even if I knew the publisher, chances were small that the books were imported to Norway unless they were extremely mainstream (and therefore not all that interesting to me). Although I think I discovered Piers Anthony around that time? That sounds early, but I had read him for several years when someone made a computer game based on one of his Xanth books, and the game was rather bad and mercifully forgotten by most of the world long ago.

Now, I can get almost anything from, and in many cases download the books instantly to my lightweight Samsung tablet. But now I have so many fun things to do that I end up not reading many books. There is never a time for books, it seems.


Galaxy Note 10.1, 2014 edition: First impressions

Galaxy note 10.1, 2014 edition

My black Note 10.1 2014, showing multi-window abilities. In the background there is a full-screen S Note page where I have handwritten something. In the foreground are three smaller windows: YouTube to the left, above it and nearer the top Google Hangouts, and in the foreground to the right an Internet window. Thanks to the sharp screen and the pen, you can actually use those small windows, but you will probably need to keep the tablet a bit closer than what is natural.


Like the Galaxy Note 3, with which it has a lot in common, the Note 10.1 of this year is an evolution rather than a revolution. It is similar to last year’s version, but with better specifications in most ways. And much like its smaller but powerful sibling, the sum of improvements add up to a very impressive total. This time Samsung means business.

This impression is not least because Samsung has improved the Note series where it is most visible: The screen itself, which now sports a resolution of 2560×1600 display on the 10.1. As a result, there is no longer any “pixellation” at any natural viewing distance – we have reached a stage where the human eye can no longer notice that the screen consists of pixels rather than continuous lines drawn on glossy paper. In fact, even uncomfortably close the letters and images are clean and crisp. Samsung has clearly gone for the kill here, if not overkill: It is hard to imagine anyone improving on this screen, as there is little or nothing to win. As usual from Samsung, the screen is also luminous and with strong colors. (A number of different color settings can be chosen in the settings menu for those who find the default too intense.)

When I say “Samsung means business”, there is a double meaning. Not only have they gotten serious about making the best tablet on the market today, but it is clearly a device you are expected to bring to the office. The new Note 10.1 comes preloaded with business-oriented news widgets along with the usual entertainment, and the stylus is as useful for quick notes as it is for artwork. Those who have the 4G version can make calls directly from handwritten numbers, whereas helpful software will fix your handmade charts to make them look fit for presentation. In portrait mode, the size and aspect ratio is similar to a sheet of paper, giving instant familiarity. The white version of the tablet will easily blend with a stack of papers, whether it is displaying a document or lying upside down. The faux leather backside gives a good grip and the black version looks rather natural and more exclusive than it is. (It is still a type of plastic, actually.)

The Note 10.1 has basically the same software as the Note 3, and the stylus is even more useful with the wide open space of the bigger device. The new ability to draw multiple boxes on the screen and use them to run apps was more like a proof of concept on the Note 3 – despite being very large for a smartphone, it simply does not have the screen estate for running multiple tasks on-screen. The full-sized tablet, on the other hand, lends itself quite well to this. There is room for four of these windows at the minimum size, although they can be resized upward, and you can also tile them if you want even more.

It is unfortunate that only half a dozen applications can be run in this windowed mode, and even worse, you cannot have multiple instances of the same application this way. This is just insane: Having multiple browser windows or chat windows open simultaneously is the first thing that comes to mind when seeing this gimmick. Alas, it is little more than a gimmick as long as this limitation prevails. You still have the split-screen functionality from last year, and this has been extended to more programs. So at least you can have two browser windows open side by side, but I was disappointed to see that you cannot add a third (and fourth, and fifth…) with the Pen Window function. Not sure whether I would ever use that, to be honest, but it would sure impress people. Take “note”, Samsung!

The new S-pen is more comfortable and even more precise than the old model, although it is still too small for a grown man, and the function key on the stylus is a little hard to find until you get used to it. Handwriting recognition is excellent, I would say the Note reads my handwriting better than my coworkers do. With a larger surface than the Note 3, the 10.1 invites to handwriting as you can write long flowing strings of words much the same way you would on a sheet of paper. The tablet even ignores your palm if you rest it on the glass surface while writing, something I tend to do.

One thing it does not ignore, alas, is inadvertent touches of the Menu and Back keys when in portrait mode. The keys, on either side of the physical home/wakeup key, are hardwired and stay in the same place even when you turn the device and the picture changes automatically. I find myself reaching for the back key at the bottom of the device in portrait mode, which is what I am used to from the Note 3, but it is not there. Conversely, if I hold the tablet in portrait mode, it is all too easy to hit these keys with my fingers when I simply want to hold the tablet with both hands. Despite being a marvel of lightweight engineering, you don’t really want to hold something this big by just one hand in the long run. And the keys are treacherously close to where one would naturally hold. I am sure this becomes second nature pretty quickly, and I suppose it is the price for having a physical home/wake key, but perhaps some smart engineer comes up with a better solution before the next turning of the wheel.

Battery time is impressive for a device as thin and light as this. Strangely, the device recharges via the usual micro USB rather than an extended USB 3 port as the Note 3 had. I don’t really miss the USB 3 myself, although it supposedly gives higher speed on transfers against a PC or other USB devices. The micro USB is industry standard now and I am OK with that. It also means I can mix and match chargers without having to bring extra cables. Some earlier Samsung tablets used a wider separate charger port, eerily similar to what Apple used. I am not sorry to see that go. The default charger comes with an output of 5.3 volt, 2.0 ampere. In contrast, most PC USB ports deliver 0.5 ampere, which will not go far toward charging any of the Samsung tablets, I’m afraid.

The new Galaxy Note 10.1 is the best a man can get (at least until the 12.2 comes next spring) and it is priced accordingly. Samsung has never really been into the whole “pricing aggressively to get market share”. They seem to do well enough, but I can’t help wondering how the world would have looked today if Samsung had priced their initial Galaxy Tab lower than the first iPad, which came out the same year. (Samsung actually was available first in several countries, including my native Norway.) But with the current generation of tablets, I find myself wondering instead how much more the Note 10.1 would have cost if it came with an Apple logo.

Even so, the 2014 edition of Galaxy Note 10.1 is a pricey beast. If you don’t have an office job or don’t particularly miss handwriting, drawing or multi-window multitasking, or compatibility with the Galaxy Gear “smartwatch”, there is money to save in opting for something cheaper. But if you love living in the future and want to enter your next meeting with a lightweight tablet more powerful than a fairly new PC, the new Note 10.1 is there for you.

Exit from Camelot

My rather defensive paladin in Darkness Falls (an underground realm in Dark Age of Camelot), battling imaginary demonic creatures. Well, at least I was on the right side.

Well, it was kind of fun playing the old game again for a couple weeks. But it was almost a single-player game on the co-op server where I used to play. There were some scattered player on the combined server where all the other old servers had been merged. But over the years they have continued to develop a more and more unique culture and language, so that the public messages were a mixture of names and abbreviations that made no sense to me. I wonder if this would have happened to City of Heroes if it lived for another decade? There was some of it after 8 years, but not so much that you could not get into it pretty quickly, and there were always new people who would ask for advice, and people would answer them politely and quickly.

I guess going back to the ex after the death of your loved one just isn’t very likely to work. Not that I would know except for computer games.

I may still play it as a single-player game occasionally, perhaps. Although this is made unnecessary difficult because the game refuses to acknowledge my mapping of a network drive to store the game files, even though it should normally be transparent to programs outside the operating system. Probably some part of the Electronic Arts paranoia, the same thing that makes The Sims games so hard to run on Linux.

Return to Camelot

Screenshot Dark Age of Camelot: Prydwen Keep

Tinlad, the new overly defensive paladin, at the gates of Prydwen Keep.

It was September 1, 2006. I was writing in my hand-coded on-line journal about leaving my favorite game for several years, Dark Age of Camelot. A new, superior game had taken its place in my heart: City of Heroes. And I wrote: ” I know that unless the game gets an interface as easy and intuitive as City of Heroes, I am not going to return. Probably not even then. Well, unless CoH is closed down for some reason. Perhaps not even then.”

Both of these things came to pass. It is now almost a year since City of Heroes closed down. It is not coming back. A “spiritual successor” is slated for release in 2015. Perhaps I will still be here, and still be interested. But to me it is an ocean of time. And a while ago, I learned that somehow Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) had survived. It was scaled back. Development is slow when it happens at all. The population is low. The subscription fee is still there, in an age of plentiful free massive online games. The servers have been consolidated, there are now 2 of them from what I can see: Gaheris, the no-playerkilling server, and one common server for all the rest.

And so, I have returned. I am not sure for how long: I paid only for 1 month, and I may not stay that long. But I did stop by.

As promised in that entry in 2006, Itlandsen the overly defensive paladin is going to remain retired, although I may visit him for reference perhaps. I have started a brand new paladin, so that I could go through the tutorial quests from the start. It has been some years, after all, and the game has also evolved for a while after I left. So let’s welcome Tinlad, the overly defensive newbie highlander paladin!  (Yes, I have just shifted a couple letters in my last name, but it was unexpectedly descriptive, since paladins spend their days in plate armor.)

The startup zone for highlanders was moved to somewhere that did not even exist when I was there. The tutorial quests were easy and the leveling quite rapid – I got to level 10 and was ready to leave the startup zone in an afternoon. In the olden days, it took days to get someone to level 10, at least alone. And I spent plenty of time getting familiar with the controls again (and changing some of them – the system is now more flexible and it is easy to set up your own keyboard shortcuts and mouse controls, or choose from popular setups.)

Some memories of the early 2000s did come back, though, once I got back to a zone I was familiar with. And when I saw the entrance to Prydwen Keep, I felt a wave of nostalgia. This was where many of my first characters spent their “childhood”, the levels up to 10. I have no count of how many hours I have spent chasing ghosts and spriggans and bandits in the area between Prydwen and Cotswold. It was also on the ramp up to Prydwen Keep that I parked my favorite character when my trial period was over and I was unable to subscribe to the game, a problem which was later fixed.

My online friends from back then are no doubt long gone. I only saw one other playable character during my stay online, but there are probably others since Gaheris is still running. But the game is playable solo, especially during the first part, as long as you don’t go into the borderlands that are designed for large-scale realm war. I wasn’t into that even back then, and I certainly am not now. Knowing that there is a real person playing the character I am killing is a super turnoff for me. Your turnoffs may vary. ^_^

The extreme longevity of DAoC also shows what a big mistake NCSoft made when they closed down City of Heroes. If they had kept the game subscription-based, slowed development to maintenance and consolidated the least populated servers, they could have had a steady income from people who just never got fed up with the game and subscribed year after year. All for the cost of electricity and fiber connection for the servers. CoH had a system for users to create new content, so it could probably have continued to grow for another decade or two or three, until the end of PC gaming as we know it.

Whether DAoC will last that long, is more uncertain. And whether I will be there, even much more uncertain. But I was there today. It was … alright, I guess. ^_^ But I’m impressed that they kept my characters waiting since 2006 for me to return. Perhaps we all have something to learn from that!

Filter bubble and school bubble

Screenshot anime Narue no Sekai (featuring Kanaka)

What is wrong with this country’s education system? Well, first and foremost it is populated with people who are different from me. That can’t possibly be good!

In my previous post, I mentioned the MOOC I am taking from NTNU about technology and social development. Now for the bad part. We got an assignment to write about the Filter Bubble. The text by the professor was a one-sided reference to Eli Pariser and his claims that Google search result are filtered to conform to each person’s ideological and other views, so that a conservative and a liberal would see completely different pages when searching for a politically charged topic, for instance.

The problem with this shocking revelation is that it does not repeat when tested. This is mentioned in the Wikipedia article, and I took the time to test it for myself. At home I tested with one page signed in as myself (an avid Google user over many years, also using other Google services such as Blogger, Google Docs, and not least Google+, their social network.)  But a search for a very “me” topic while logged in to Google gave very nearly the same result as a search from an anonymous Opera window – some sites were a little higher on one than the other, but not so much that one would have noticed without looking for differences.

Now you may counter that both of the browser windows were on the same computer and so had the same IP address, so Google might be able to guess that I was the anonymous browser. (Then again this would not explain the small differences that were, and it would put Google in hot water if spouses, siblings etc borrowed each other’s computer and suddenly found themselves in a different filter bubble.) Just to make sure, however, I ran a new test later at work, using a tablet where I was logged in to Google and a work computer that is not used with my private Google account, is occasionally used with another Google account, and goes through a server farm in which we log on to a different terminal server each time we log on, and of course also has a different IP. Once again, the differences were trivial, with a little more prominence to sites I had visited in the past.

My conclusion is the same as those who have disputed Parisier’s claims. The facts do not even remotely resemble his description, at least in its Internet meme form. (I have not bought the book, so I can’t speak for that, and given the outcome of my tests the book would be a waste of time and money. I would not be shocked to the core of my tender soul if it turns out that selling his book and possibly related goods was the reason for the claims in the first place.)

The rest of the students uncritically accepted the claims and expressed their deep concern. One of them corroborated the claim by mentioning that he had found the answer to an iPad problem in a few seconds by searching on Google, while his friend who had the problem had not found the answer, despite being an educated man and mentally sound. I have no doubt that this is true, but it is not the filter bubble. It is called “Google-fu”, the art of using Google. In order to verify or falsify the claims of a filter bubble, you have to do an identical search, within a reasonable time of each other, and in the same geographical location if geography is involved. (The coverage of Hurricane Sandy is obviously different in New York and Paris, for instance, or even New York and Seattle.)

I was rather discouraged. This is tertiary education. University students were among us. Isn’t questioning at the heart of higher learning? Shouldn’t a university-level student pause in the face of extraordinary claims that can be tested in the convenience of your home, rather than respond emotionally in conformity with the claims? Am I truly the only person down into which the overwhelming brightness of a higher consciousness has shone to endow me with the ability to think twice?

After this, I lost part of my enthusiasm. I still intend to complete the course, though. Probably. Some day.


Screenshot Sims 3, after a high school graduation

Used to be that people my age were worried about their children’s studies, not their own. Not anymore. The age of the MOOC has come!

I signed up for my first MOOC on September 9. (The letters stand for Massive Open Online Course, generally used about university level courses that are distributed over the Internet, usually but not always for free.) This course comes from NTNU, the Norwegian institute of Science and Technology. It is also touted as the first MOOC in Norway, although the College in Molde is supposed to have a full study online this year. I am not sure how to reconcile these claims, but in any case this is the first for me.

Back when I was a teenager, high school was a bit higher than it is now and a high school diploma (Examen Artium) such as I had would have qualified me directly for university studies, I believe. I did take some college-level courses organized and paid for by my employer not many years later. Today you have to have Examen Philosophicum to enter into any further studies, and as I don’t have this, I wouldn’t be able to take an exam anyway. Apart from that however I have followed the course like an ordinary off-site student. The professor and staff have treated us freeloaders like students as well, whereas in larger courses one would obviously not have the capacity for that. (There are American courses with hundreds of thousands of students, if not more.)

In addition to my interest in technology and social development (which the course is about), I also wanted to evaluate the study form as such. I have dabbled in online study on a small scale, improving my extremely rusty little French with Duolingo and my math with Khan Academy, both of which I have written glowing reviews about before, I hope. (Duolingo has later released an Android app which makes it even easier to practice on the go.) But the mainstream MOOC format is one I am not familiar with, and I hope to be in the future, if any.

I generally have a deal with my workplace to not write about my workplace. But that may not last, because my job may not last. It seems more likely than not that my job – and those of my coworkers – will be outsourced sometime over the next four years. I am not particularly worried that I will simply be waved goodbye to by my employer, but what kind of job I will be assigned to could depend quite a bit on my technical competence. Going back to school is not an option at my age, as I would be nearly 60 on my return, and Norwegians have a tendency to retire at 62 (and then be very surprised that they don’t get the same pension as if they had kept working till 75). I hope to work until 75 or until shortly before my untimely death should that happen first, Light send it be not so. But hoping is one thing, doing is another. “Strong souls have will; feeble souls have only wishes.” Which of these categories I fit into should be interesting to find out, at least!

So far, so good. It is not particularly hard, although I have to dodge a few issues as I already have a Twitter account and blog that are … orthogonal in content and atmosphere, let us say, compared to the exercises given. But it is interesting and a convenient study form. I could definitely see myself doing more of this.

Google: Blurry targeting

Screenshot anime GJ-bu

“The evidence will be stored in my digital camera forever.” If this is how you imagine Google, you may not have looked very closely.

For years now, Google has offered a wide range of services to the Internet users for free. They have been able to afford this because advertisers are willing to pay for small, unobtrusive ads associated with many Google services. These advertisements are supposed to be “targeted” so that the people who see them are the people more likely to respond to them.

This works well enough in the case of simple search. If you search for “credit cards”, there is a good chance that the major financing companies and you may have a common interest in the matter, for the time being. Of course, your interest in the matter could be entirely theoretical, but on a larger scale it makes sense to match up search results and advertisements like this.

If Google knows a little bit more about you, they can be even more useful. For instance if you search for “flowers”, your friendly neighborhood florist may want to provide their services, but this would require some knowledge of where you are. If Google is allowed to keep track of where you are – not necessarily to the square foot, but the square mile at least – they could let your local florist advertise rather than one in a different city.

Gmail, another free service from Google, is also financed this way. By showing ads related to the text in your mail, they get money from advertisers and you get a chance to buy something relevant, or at least become aware that it exists. This worries some people, who don’t like that robots are reading their mail. But there is no actual reading involved: The system simply responds mechanically to words in the mail. For instance, when I discussed the author Orson Scott Card with a friend, Gmail started showing ads for credit cards. Card=card!

For the most part, however, I find that the ads are utterly random. For instance, 99.9% of my mail is in English, but almost all the ads are in Norwegian. They seem to be based on the location of my Internet Service Provider and nothing more. I could of course be an exception; perhaps someone at Google has set some kind of flag at my account. But the opposite seems more likely: People see an ad that interests them and thinks it is tailor-made for them, but it is actually just made for ordinary people and they are ordinary people. This is known as the “Forer effect” or “subjective validation”, if you want to read up on it.

There is a certain sense of paranoia, or at least of reason for paranoia, when people speculate that Google will show ads for condoms on their mobile phone when they are on their way to a date. There is no reason to think we are getting anywhere close to that. I have been feeding Google all the information I reasonably could since I discovered them, surely enough to write a biography in several tomes (and a few novels perhaps) but there is no sign that they are using any of that. The location of my Internet Service Provider, my gender (possibly, although I think they default to male if you log on anonymously) and the occasional keyword in the text, but usually just the ISP, which they can extract automatically from my IP address.

Not to make light of the IP address. If they were to target their random customer in Norway with ads for things that can only be bought in America, or in China or India for that matter (far more populous nations than the USA), the ads would be wasted or have entertainment value at best. When showing ads for Norwegian companies, there is at least some theoretical chance that the ad may click. Although this has never happened in all these years. I have only responded positively to two ads, none of which were Norwegian, and only one led to a sale. For the most part the ads either pass by or evoke a mild response of disgust. But then I am not exactly normal. More about that all the time, I guess.

The conclusion so far is that the “targeted advertisements” from Google have a long, long way to go. You may have heard about the retail chain that started sending a young woman ads for baby stuff before she had told her parents that she was pregnant. The fact that I have only ever heard of this one story makes me wonder whether there is even a causal connection at all, or just incidental.

For instance: After buying wedding presents to two of my friends on Amazon, some months passed and I started getting hints about baby stuff from them. Which normally would have been a great idea, I suppose, if I intended to continue giving them gifts, and if they were normal. But even my friends tend to not be entirely normal, and so here too. The point is, if I were a woman and pregnant when the baby recommendations came in, I might have freaked out as well, even though the causal link was actually Not Like That.

As it is, Google at least is far, far, far away from the stalker fantasies of some of its detractors. It is so far away from stalking that it is just barely useful.