Actions in Gmail

gmail actions

I think this is the greatest innovation in web-based email since Gmail’s own release of large mailboxes (what was it? 1 GB?).   Web mail has all the benefits of a website, but offers greater contextual focus.   Adding specific actions to message has been a possible with extensions and plugins for a long time, but those were traditionally added by the recipient.  Giving such power to the sender is quite interesting.

Of course, there will be a variety of misuses – spam, phishing, etc – but, I’m sure there will be an even greater variety of useful functionality.  Like this “Send money with Gmail” example.  Here is more information on what’s possible.

Black people in science and innovation

It’s been a few times already that I heard the argument that “black people made no contribution to computer science“.  I’ve also heard a few alternative versions, which were less or more specific, varying from “African blacks” and “no innovations“, to “black women” and “no contribution to science“.

Depending on the overall direction of the discussion, variation of the argument, and sensibility of the opponent, it can be very easy or rather impossible to reason. For example, an argument like “there is not one black programmer in the world” is pretty trivial to destroy.  There are at least a few respectable Perl Monks of the black race.  Over the last few years, I personally have been in contact (IM, email, phone) with a few black programmers and system administrators.  On the other hand, a request for a name or a biography of a black computer scientist might be much harder.  I am not very good with names and biographies, and I don’t know many scientist by name at all.  Picking representatives of a certain race using my own memory is close to impossible.

So, I asked The Mighty Google for a few names and biographies, and it replied.  Here are a few links that I picked from the results:

I have to admit that I was a little bit surprised by the low number of results.  Finding the above weren’t very easy.  Also, many links were very outdated.  Sometimes I’d come across a quote that slowed me down before I could “sink it in”.  Here are a couple of such examples:

one quarter of one percent (.25%) of computer scientists are black

from the “Computer Scientists of the African Diaspora” page, which seems to be from the 1990s.

Throughout the United States, there are only 32 African-American computer science (CS) professors.

from the “A Model for Department Diversity” article, which was posted in 2004.

I think that the above references are enough to convince any sane person that both science and innovation have benefited from black people.  Whether the benefits were to the same degree as those of the other races is a totally different question.  I am not going to debate it now, but perhaps I will come back to it later.

(NOTE TO MYSELF for when and if I do: consider that most computer science innovation is happening in the USA [obviuos, but citation needed], and that black people make only about 12% of the USA population [Wikipedia]. )

On open source and innovation

OK, open source innovation might be chaotic because it lacks direction. There’s no PR-department at ‘the Linux community office’ to ask what the current innovations are, what’s going on and what’s new. Instead of being lazy you have to find it out for yourself. Even someone who spends a part of the day reading news stories about open source software, finds at least ten innovative new programs he has never heard of in a list of 100 recommended open source programs (that’s what happened to me today). No, I’m afraid people who think open source doesn’t bring innovation and don’t see how the closed source model hinders innovation just failed their trendwatcher exam. Wake up, it’s 2008!

Here is an excellent post on how open source helps the innovation.

Traces of digital revolution

The digital world is upon us.  Everybody knows it and nobody ever argues with it anymore.  But that’s too general.  What is actually changing?  What are the specific examples?   Today I came across one, while catching up with Slashdot news.  Here is a quote from the post:

 “An inspired professor at University of Washington-Bothell, Martha Groom, made an interesting pedagogical experiment. Instead of vilifying Wikipedia as some academics are prone to do, she assigned the students enrolled in her environmental history course to contribute articles. The result has proven “transformative” to her students. They were no longer spending their time writing for one reader, says Groom, but were doing work of consequence in a “peer reviewed” environment, which enhanced the quality of their output.”

If you read through the comments to the post, there are many insightful thoughts too.  Here is one of those that I liked (apart from the age criteria):

Wikipedia should be output, not input, for students past a certain age. It gets them used to writing for real people as opposed to just for getting graded, it gives them the experience of having their writing edited by people of varying abilities, and it gives them motivation for doing research. Another, easier, option would be to assign students to correct Wikipedia articles.

Another comment mentions that this is not by far the first time that this happens.  It conveniently links to the page with more examples of school and university projects.