January 26, 2007

On vacation

Filed under: rocky's travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:57 pm

I’m on vacation next week and in Dublin the following week.

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Hillary Clinton asks Yahoo! for answers

Filed under: search, social networking, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:54 pm

Last week, we saw the media splash that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama made by announcing their candidacies on their Web sites.

This week, the Clinton camp asked Yahoo! Answers users “Based on your own family’s experience, what do you think we should do to improve health care in America?” Two days later, nearly 36,000 answers had been posted.

I’ve long been skeptical of Yahoo! Answers. Many of the questions are inane. e.g. “Would you rather have Flava Flav cook dinner for you or would you just eat dirt?” (Yes, that’s a real question from the site.) For factual questions, the answers are often incomplete or contradict one another.

The responses to Clinton’s question were a pleasant surprise. There are numerous personal stories about dealing with the American health care system. They are some of best thought out answers I’ve seen on the site.

Clinton is not the only politician looking for answers. India’s president, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, asked “What should we do to free our planet from terrorism?”

January 24, 2007

Custom pictures come to credit cards

Filed under: personal finance — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:57 pm

You can do a lot of things with your pictures these days – turn them into notecards, magnets, calendars, mugs, puzzles, stamps, T-shirts.

With all the gimmicks credit card companies use to try to get you to pick their plastic over others, I’ve often wondered why you can’t put a real picture on your card. Sure, a number of banks let you put your face on your credit card for security purposes. But until today, I haven’t seen one that lets you put a big picture on the card.

Bank of America Photo ExpressionsBank of America’s new Photo Expressions feature lets you do just that. You can put a 2×2 picture on your credit card. The first picture selection is free; if you want to change it later, you have to pay $4.95. If you’re already a Bank of America credit card customer, you can add the feature to your account online.

It took me less than three minutes to upload a picture and order the card. There’s also an option to mail in physical pictures.

It’s a great idea that’s been a long time coming.

January 22, 2007

Fare Guard – a (bad) option on low airfares

Filed under: airlines, personal finance, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:42 pm

Farecast is one of my favorite sites for checking out airfares. It’s a data junkie’s dream – Farecast does for airfares what Zillow does for real estate data.

You can slice and dice airfare data in a number of different ways. Want to go to San Diego for 3 or 4 days, but don’t care when? Farecast will show you the cheapest dates to start your trip. Want to somewhere for 4 days for under $200? Farecast will show you where you can go.

In addition to the usual information that travel sites provide, Farecast shows you a history of the lowest available fare for your trip. It also provides a forecast of whether fares will go up, down or stay the same.

TechCrunch writes about a new feature called Fare Guard that will lock in the fare that you find. They will reimburse you the difference between the fare that you lock in and the lowest fare on the day you buy your ticket. (Within 7 days.) It’s sort of like an option to buy airfare.

Although it’s not quite as bad a deal as an extended warranty, it’s unlikely to be a good deal:

  • The service is only available on fares that predicted to go down. If you believe their predictions are accurate, you shouldn’t be buying anyway.
  • The fare that is “guarded” is only the lowest possible fare for that date, not for specific flights. There is often a lot of variability in fares from flight to flight (even on the same airline) on the same day. Let’s say your ideal flight is at 5 p.m. and priced at $350 on the day you purchase the service, and that’s the lowest fare for the day. Five days later, the 5 p.m. flight is up to $450, but the lowest priced flight is at 9 a.m. and costs $350. You get nothing and you’re out the $10.
  • Fare Guard doesn’t take into account airline preference. You find a United flight today at $350 and the lowest fare, on US Airways is $325. When you book, the United flight is $500 and the lowest fare on US Airways is still $325. Again, you get nothing.
  • Fare Guard doesn’t allow for airport preference. If you’re in a market with multiple airports like New York, DC, San Francisco or Los Angeles, you have to pick an airport to lock in. Just as with specific flights, fares can vary by hundreds of dollars from one airport to another.
  • The regular price for the service is $9.95 and the maximum possible payout is $200. You’re essentially betting $10 that the price of your flight will increase in the next 7 days. If the fare goes up $25, you’re up $15.05 for the hassle of buying the insurance and filing a claim.

If you care about when you fly or what airline you fly, Fare Guard is a waste of money.

As an experienced traveler who has watched the airline industry closely, I wouldn’t buy it. Would I bet against it as a business? Not a chance.

From The Washington Post:

Warranty Week, an industry publication, [in 2005] estimated that of the $15 billion in premiums charged consumers in 2004, $7.5 billion went straight into the pockets of the stores that sell warranties as their cut.

January 21, 2007

Gmail and the geek set

Filed under: email, google — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:49 pm

I’ve noticed lately how many of my friends and colleagues have adopted Gmail addresses. Although Gmail is still a very distant 4th place (after Yahoo!, MSN and AOL) when it comes to the broad Internet audience, it seems to have taken off among the geek set.

I took a look at my LinkedIn contacts. Here are the sources of email addresses among my professional contacts:

  • Employer – 40%
  • Gmail – 15%
  • Yahoo! – 12%
  • AOL – 12%*
  • Vanity (custom domain name) – 8%
  • School alumni association – 4%
  • ISP – 2%
  • Hotmail – 2%

Some things I found interesting in the data:

  • Most people (60%) don’t use their employer’s email address on LinkedIn.
  • Gmail has developed a following, despite having come to the email game much later than the others. This share most likely came at the expense of other providers; it’s unlikely that this group just adopted email when Gmail came out.
  • Hotmail, which was once synonymous with Web mail, is no longer cool.
  • My contacts know better than to tie their email address to their ISP.

Of course, this is all based on a sample of 1.

* Because AOL does not distinguish between employee and non-employee email addresses, I divided the AOL addresses into two groups: those that still work at AOL were counted as employer, the others were counted as AOL. All of the contacts counted as AOL are ex-AOLers who converted their business account.

January 19, 2007

World Explorer: A new way to look at the world

Filed under: city guides, flickr, geotagging, gps, local search, maps, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:35 pm

The folks at Yahoo! Research have used flickr’s APIs to create a new way to look at the world. The TagMaps take tags from flickr and plot them on Yahoo! maps. The current implementation is slow and the display of pictures is not ideal, but it provides a good look at what geotagging can deliver.

As you move the map, you can see key tags in the map area. Tags often reflect major landmarks and neighbords; hovering on the tag shows associated pictures.

You can also limit pictures displayed to those taken at night. (This is based on the timestamps associated with pictures, so it relies on users having set the right time on their cameras.) I’d love to see this expanded to show pictures from a season (e.g. winter pictures) or a time period.

It’s a fun way to explore an area.

It’s also the future of local search – user-generated content combined with maps. One of the big problems I’ve always had with local search is that it requires you to know what you’re looking for. When I’m traveling, I’m not always sure what I’m looking for. Even at home, I often want to do something different. With World Explorer, you can see what others have found interesting.

January 16, 2007

Post on privacy

Filed under: privacy — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:40 pm

The Post’s Ellen Nakashima follows a real estate agent around for a day pointing out all of the times when she’s being tracked – whether it’s by a security camera, email server, electronic toll collector or search engine. (There’s no mention of whether the agent visited and all the tracking there.) Ironically, the story provides a lot of details on the woman’s personal life.

The story does a good job of putting complex technologies into terms the average person can relate to. Unlike most such stories, there’s little fearmongering. It’s worth a read. There’s also a reader chat.

One surprise:

Domino’s, which hopes to have a national database of customers soon, says it does not share or sell customer information. But companies that specialize in providing unlisted and cellphone numbers, among other records, often buy phone numbers from pizza delivery services, according to Merlin Information Services, a data broker.

I’ll have to give my pizza place a different number.

Netflix movies without the red envelope

Filed under: movies, video — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:52 pm

Netflix is beginning to experiment with streaming movies and TV shows on demand to PCs. Customers will soon be able to watch movies and TV shows like “The Office” without having to wait for the red envelope to show up in the mailbox.

The space is already extremely crowded: Amazon, CinemaNow, Movielink and a bunch of startups already offer some form of movie rental on demand. Apple sells digital downloads.

What is Netflix’s core differentiator? In the DVD rental-by-mail business, it’s logistics. They know how to get movies in-and-out of warehouses efficiently; most returns go right back out the same day. 60 Minutes has an interesting clip on Netflix logistics.

In the online world, it’s much harder to pinpoint Netflix’s strength. From a feature standpoint, Netflix brings nothing new to the table:

  • Movies are streamed. You have to be connected to watch movies. Some of the competitors, including Amazon and Movielink, let you download a movie and watch them offline. (For example, on your laptop when you’re on a plane.)
  • Selection is limited. Online movies/TV shows are limited to a selection of about 1,000 titles. Netflix offers more than 65,000 titles by mail.

The twist with Netflix is that online viewing is included with your Netflix subscription, instead of having to pay $2-$5 for each movie viewed. You’re limited in terms of the number of hours you can watch, depending on which subscription plan you buy. It’s an odd way to price them. Vongo offers unlimited downloads for $9.99/month.

The biggest challenge is that most people can’t watch the movies on their TVs. Getting the movies on to the TV is essential to winning in this space. There are a number of companies that are in a better position than Netflix to do this: Apple (with Apple TV), Moviebeam, Tivo and all the cable companies.

Apple will likely get a substantial number of people to buy their box, but it’s harder to get people to spend $10-$13 to buy a movie than $2-$5 to rent one. MovieBeam has a lot of issues. Tivo is probably one of the best positioned companies to provide such a service, but so far hasn’t announced any plans.

The 1,000-lb gorillas are the cable companies. They’ve got many advantages that are going to be tough to overcome:

  • A box already connected to the TV in many homes.
  • Fat pipes (that they own). While the online movie providers are struggling to get sub-VHS quality video to you, Comcast already delivers HD-quality movies. And all that bandwidth costs them a lot less.
  • Established billing relationships. It’s easy to make impulse purchases and have them added to your cable bill.

Yahoo! Search knows what you mean

Filed under: aol, google, search, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:12 pm

I was looking through the referrer data for this blog and noticed an entry from Yahoo search for “redisgn my screen on yahoo”. I tried the search to see why the blog would come up – it looks like Yahoo! automatically runs spell correction on queries. (The searcher misspelled redesign.)

There’s a note on the bottom of the results page that vaguely explains this. It doesn’t tell you what it actually searched on.

Yahoo! Search spell correction

If you the same search on Google, AOL Search or MSN, you’ll get the results for the term you searched on with a “Did you mean: redesign my screen on yahoo”. Clicking again will take you to the results for the corrected term.

It’s debatable which is the better experience; I can think of good reasons for both.

But it doesn’t point out a problem in search: spellchecking is unidirectional. Search engines only correct the searcher’s spelling. If the author of the Web page misspells what you’re looking for, you will have a hard time finding it.

Misspellings aren’t uncommon. Take a look at the hit counts for variations on Arnold’s name:

arnold schwarzenagger – 3,210
arnold shwartzenager – 1,070
arnold shwartzenagger – 276

The correct spelling is “arnold schwarzenegger”. Thanks to “did you mean?”, I never have to learn that.

Using the Web to shame

Filed under: flickr, web 2.0, YouTube — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:43 pm

The WSJ has a fun story (subscription required) about using the Web to shame people who do bad things like cut you off in traffic, park in handicapped spots and talk too loudly on cell phones.

The digital age allows critics to quickly find a fair amount of information about their targets. One day last November, at about 11:30 a.m., a blog focused on making New York streets more bike-friendly posted the license plate number of an SUV driver who allegedly accelerated from a dead stop to hit a bicycle blocking his way.

At 1:16 p.m., someone posted the registration information for the license plate, including the SUV owner’s name and address. (The editor of the blog thinks the poster got the information from someone who had access to a license-plate look-up service, available to lawyers, private investigators and police.) At 1:31 p.m., another person added the owner’s occupation, his business’s name and his title. Ten minutes later, a user posted a link to an aerial photo of the owner’s house. Within another hour, the posting also included the accused’s picture and email address.

The combination of camera-equipped cellphones and distribution provided by flickr and YouTube make it easy for anyone to have a macaca moment.

The story also includes a case where net vigilantes have found the offender’s MySpace page and left derogatory comments.

Could you turn this around and use it to encourage desirable behavior? Maybe you could get gold stars next to your Buddy Icon for doing socially desirable things like contributing to charity, carpooling or voting.

The full story is available below.


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