Sunday, May 31, 2009

Robots with fins, tails demonstrate evolution

Robots wag their tail fins and bob along like bathtub toys in a pool at a Vassar College lab. Their actions are dictated by microprocessors housed in round plastic containers, the sort you'd store soup in.

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It hardly looks like it, but the two swimming robots were set loose in the little pool to study evolution, acting out predator-prey encounters from roughly 540 million years ago.

The prey robot, dubbed Preyro, can simulate evolution.

This is not like robot evolution in the "Terminator" movie sense of machines turning on their human masters. Instead, Vassar biology and cognitive science professor John Long and his students can make changes to the tail of Preyro to see which designs help it avoid the predator robot.

"We're applying selection," Long explains, "just like natural selection."

Long is among a small group of researchers worldwide studying biology and evolution with the help of robots that can do things like shimmy through water or slither up shores. Long's robots, for instance, test theories on the development of stiffer backbones. The researchers believe the machines will catch on as technological advances allow robots to mimic animals far better than before.

Microprocessors are now tinier and more sophisticated. Building materials are more pliable. The same technology driving the use of electronic prosthetic limbs and vacuuming robots also is giving scientists a sophisticated tool to study biology.

"In the past, if you think about it, robots wouldn't work because we could only make these big metal things with rotating joints that were really stiff ... and that's not how nature is," said Robert J. Full, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Full's lab at Berkeley has built robots that can creep like cockroaches or climb like geckos. In Switzerland, researchers built a bright yellow salamander robot a few years ago that can swim and walk to investigate vertebrates' transition from water to land. They posted a Web video of the robot squirming out of Lake Geneva.

At Harvard University, George Lauder, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology, studies fish locomotion with the aid of robotic fins. He says scientists are not trying to build spitting images of animals, but rather to mimic certain characteristics — a fin or a spinal column — to study how they work. Scientists then alter that characteristic to see how it affects performance.

The small amount of robot research performed so far has yet to dramatically alter evolutionary studies, but it has helped researchers evolve their understanding of some animals.

Consider Madeleine the swimming robot. Madeleine is roughly the size and shape of a big bed pillow with four flippers sticking from its sides, but it was used to study a 45-ton marine reptile that patrolled the seas in the Jurassic Period.

Fossil records show that the massive pliosaur, dubbed Predator X, had two sets of largely symmetrical flippers, indicating the animal used all four to swim. Long said that sets Predator X apart from modern animals like otters, sea lions and turtles, which tend to use one set of flippers for propulsion and the other for steering.

Researchers studying Predator X asked Long to investigate why the creature used all four flippers for swimming. Madeleine was programmed to swim with two flippers, then all four. The robot demonstrated that using four flippers to swim could be a bad proposition, energy-wise. But they do provide a sort of turbo-boost for quick accelerations — handy for catching dinner.

"The otter and the pliosaur both swim the same speed," Long said, "but, man, that pliosaur can really take off."

The Preyro robot experiment allows Long to take his evolutionary studies a step further.

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By setting up Preyro in a pool with another autonomous robot — a predator named Tadiator — Long and his students simulated an evolutionary scenario. They wanted to examine qualities that would help vertebrate sea creatures of the Cambrian Period forage for food without becoming lunch for predators. Specifically, they wanted to test the hypothesis that the ancient creatures' need to scoot away fast from predators drove the evolution of stiffer tails.

Students could stiffen Preyro's backbone by fitting plastic rings (representing vertebrae) over a jelly-like column running down the tail designed to simulate the biological structures of ancient sea creatures. More rings made for a stiffer tail.

They found that changing the size of Preyro's tail fin had no effect, but that backbones stiffened with vertebrae helped Preyro swim away from danger faster. Seven vertebra worked the best; any more made the tail too stiff. They concluded that the evolution of multiple vertebrae could have been influenced by the need to avoid predators while foraging.

Robot builders like Long still use computer simulations to complement their work. But Long says swimming robots like Madeleine and Preyro have advantages over computer simulations because it is extremely difficult to simulate the interaction between a flexible solid — like an animal's tail — and a liquid.

"The thing about robots is, robots can't violate the laws of physics," he said. "A computer program can."

Lauder said there's no substitute for building a device that can replicate the minutely complex features of an animal. He expects the rise of robots in biological research to accelerate as more advances are made.

"The next 20 years are going to be amazing, I think," Lauder said.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Iran cuts access to Facebook as election looms

The blocking of the popular social networking site Facebook in Iran has prompted critics of the president to condemn it on Sunday as an apparent attempt to muzzle the opposition ahead of next month's election. - Spring 09 Coupon

Blogs and web sites such as Facebook have become important campaign tool for the leading reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, to mobilize Iran's critical youth vote before the June 12 balloting.

Iranian authorities often block specific web sites and blogs considered critical of the Islamic regime, but the timing of the latest clampdown suggested it was done to hobble opponents of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Facebook is one of the only independent sources that the Iranian youth could use to communicate," said Mohammed Ali Abtahi, a former vice president and now adviser to another pro-reform candidate, Mahdi Karroubi, a former parliament speaker.

Abtahi said the loss of Facebook — and possibly other web sites popular with reformists — will leave Iranians "forced to rely on government sources" such as state-run media before the election.

Ahmadinejad is in a four-way race for re-election against the two pro-reform candidates and fellow conservative Mohsen Rezaei.

The Internet and other technology have increasingly become part of Iranian political movements in the past decade.

During the last presidential race in 2005, information about rallies and campaign updates were sent by text message. In recent years, political blogs by Iranians in the country and abroad have grown sharply. Newcomers such as Twitter also are gaining in popularity.

Iranian officials did not comment on the reported block, while representatives for Facebook had no immediate response to queries either.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Yahoo eyes acquisitions, social media

Yahoo Inc is looking to buy companies that will allow it to become a bigger player in social networking and revamp its family of products, Chief Technology Officer Ari Balogh said on Wednesday.

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"It's a good time to be buying now," he told the Reuters Global Technology Summit, pointing to valuations that have come down from levels six to nine months ago.

While declining to give specific names, Balogh said Yahoo has had conversations with companies about partnerships and "more interesting" possibilities, such as on building out its platform and basic computing in addition to search.

"I can guarantee you there will be some acquisitions, and we will do some stuff in-house," Balogh, who is executive vice president of products at Yahoo, said by videolink.

Yahoo will introduce new products this fall that will give users a more unified experience across its network of websites and showcase the company's strategy to grow again, after much of 2008 was marred by the failed deal talks with Microsoft Corp.

Yahoo is striving to revive its fortunes as sales decline because of the recession and competition from other Web heavyweights, including Google Inc and Facebook.

While conceding that Google has "won the game" of search as we know it today, Balogh says search will be about much more than "10 blue links" in the future.

"The thing I will tell you is that, core to great experiences for people online may not necessarily be this version of search," Balogh said. "I believe search is going to be far richer ... there's a whole other round or two to go in the search game and that's where we intend on playing.

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The future of Yahoo's Internet search business is a big question for investors. Yahoo Chief Executive Carol Bartz and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer have talked about partnering on search, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Balogh said any decision about a search deal was up to Bartz and Yahoo's board. But he said that whatever happens, Yahoo will continue to invest in its own search capabilities.

Balogh said search technology is a vital part of the consumer experience that Yahoo delivers, "and having leading edge scientists and technologists who understand search technology and where search is going is critical to Yahoo."


Yahoo is the No. 2 U.S. search engine, with 20.4 percent market share in April, according to comScore. Google increased its share by half a percentage point in April to 64.2 percent of the U.S. market, its highest level ever.

Yahoo earned $118 million in the first quarter, while its sales declined 13 percent year-over-year to $1.58 billion.

While advertising spending is down industrywide due to the weak economy, Balogh said Yahoo was seeing strong interest from advertisers for new ways to promote their brands online.

The recent management reorganization, which combined the engineering and product development staff, is allowing the company to create better cell phone products that take advantage of Yahoo's strengths, Balogh said.

"For how many incredible applications we could have and should have, for all the experience on Yahoo, we are terribly under-represented," Balogh said about Yahoo's smartphone applications.

He said Yahoo would release a fantasy sports application for Apple Inc's iPhone this year.

And he said the company would introduce features that tie together a user's personal settings and preferences for Yahoo products between a PC and a cell phone.

The new generation of social networking products is one area where Yahoo needs to "drive harder," said Balogh. He cited new status update features that will be introduced across Yahoo sites in the coming months as an important part of Yahoo's social strategy.

Yahoo's vast number of users give the company an extensive social networking backbone. That means Yahoo can quickly build-out its social infrastructure with "tuck-ins" of interesting products being developed by other companies, Balogh said.

"We're getting the pulse of companies you might not know about as well as interacting much more aggressively with companies you do," Balogh said.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Got an unusual name? Facebook may think it's fake

Alicia Istanbul woke up one recent Wednesday to find herself locked out of the Facebook account she opened in 2007, one Facebook suddenly deemed fake.

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The stay-at-home mom was cut off not only from her 330 friends, including many she had no other way of contacting, but also from the pages she had set up for the jewelry design business she runs from her Atlanta-area home.

Although Istanbul understands why Facebook insists on having real people behind real names for every account, she wonders why the online hangout didn't simply ask before acting.

"They should at least give you a warning, or at least give you the benefit of the doubt," she said. "I was on it all day. I had built my entire social network around it. That's what Facebook wants you to do."

Facebook's effort to purge its site of fake accounts, in the process knocking out some real people with unusual names, marks yet another challenge for the 5-year-old social network.

As Facebook becomes a bigger part of the lives of its more than 200 million users, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company is finding that the huge diversity and the vast size of its audience are making it increasingly difficult to enforce rules it set when its membership was smaller and more homogenous.

Having grown from a closed network available only to college students to a global social hub used by multiple generations, Facebook has worked over the years to shape its guidelines and features to fit its changing audience. But requiring people to sign up under their real name is part of what makes Facebook Facebook.

To make sure people can't set up accounts with fake names, the site has a long, constantly updated "blacklist" of names that people can't use.

Those could either be ones that sound fake, like Batman, or names tied to current events, like Susan Boyle. While there are dozens of Susan Boyles on Facebook already, people who tried to sign up with that name after the 47-year-old woman became an unlikely singing sensation had more difficulty doing so.

Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt acknowledged that Facebook does make mistakes on occasion, and he apologized for "any inconvenience." But he said situations like Istanbul's are very rare, and most accounts that are disabled for being fake really are.

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"The vast, vast, vast majority of people we disable we never hear from again," he said. Because the exceptions are so rare, he said, prior notification is "not something we are doing right now."

Facebook is available in more than 40 languages — and growing — and its user base is larger than Brazil's population.

But financially it is still a startup.

Although the Internet research firm eMarketer estimates that Facebook generated about $210 million in U.S. advertising revenue last year, that's well below the $585 million estimated for the News Corp.-owned rival, MySpace.

Facebook is still looking for ways to become self-sustaining and reduce its reliance on outside investors. In 2007, Microsoft Corp. bought a 1.6 percent stake in the company for $240 million, though Facebook later concluded it wasn't worth anywhere close to the $15 billion market value implied in that investment.

Because Facebook has only about 850 employees worldwide, getting complaints answered can take a long time. Istanbul, whose father is from the city of Istanbul in Turkey, said it took three weeks to get her account reinstated.

Without being able to log in for that time, she said she felt "completely cut off" from her contacts. Frustrated, she wrote e-mails, then mailed letters to 12 Facebook executives. To keep in touch with her friends and monitor her business pages, Istanbul said she sort of "hijacked" her husband's account.

"I think they just assume you can't have an interesting name," she said of Facebook. "I kept my maiden name because it's such an interesting name, I didn't want to give it up. And now I am having to defend my name."

The suspension of Robin Kills The Enemy's account inspired a friend to create the group "Facebook: don't discriminate against Native surnames!!!" on the site. The group has more than 3,200 members, including some with Native last names who've had their account disabled.

"If you deal with this kind of thing all the time, and on top of that Facebook wants you to prove your identity, ... it's adding insult to injury," said Nancy Kelsey, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, who started the Facebook group. She said Facebook should remedy the problem so that it "wouldn't be so offensive" each time a real name is deemed fake.

"Native American surnames mean something," she said. "They are points of pride, points of identity. It's not someone trying to make up a fake name."

Istanbul's sister, Lisa Istanbul Krikorian, also got locked out of her Facebook account, which she opened a year and a half ago. So she opened another one that omits her maiden name. Their mother and their cousin, who both joined the social network more recently, were not even allowed to sign up under their real names.

"They had to misspell their last names," Alicia Istanbul said, so that Facebook's system of weeding out fake accounts wouldn't recognize them. Her mom added an extra "n" to spell "Istannbul," and her cousin added an "e" to become "Istanbule."

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The last name Strawberry also raises a red flag with Facebook, so to get around the namebots many Strawberrys have resorted to misspelling their names — to "Strawberri," "Sstrawberry" or "Strawberrii."

But that makes it difficult to reconnect with old classmates and long-lost friends, something Facebook prides itself in helping facilitate.

"No one is going to find you if your last name is spelled wrong," Istanbul said.

Unlike many other social networks, Facebook wants a real name behind each person's account. Bands, brands and businesses are supposed to use fan pages and groups; regular accounts are for real people.

Facebook says its "real name culture" is one of the site's founding principles. It creates "accountability and, ultimately, creates a safer and more trusted environment for all of our users," Schnitt said. "We require people to be who they are."

Once the site disables an account it deems fake, its holder has to contact Facebook to prove it is real. In some cases, the company may require that the person fax a copy of a government-issued ID, which Facebook says it destroys as soon as the account is verified.

Yet an informal search on Facebook shows that efforts to weed out fake names may be a Sisyphean task. A recent search for "stupid," for example, turned up more than 27 people matches, most looking dubious at best. They join some 20 "I.P. Freely" accounts and 13 "Seymour Butts."

Although many of the fake accounts are created as sophomoric humor or as a vehicle for malicious activity, others are to protect users from having their postings create problems when they later look for jobs or apply to school. Facebook has extensive privacy settings, but they are complicated and many people don't know how to properly use them.

Steve Jones, professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said having real people behind personal accounts helps Facebook maintain credibility.

"If they let fake names and accounts proliferate people are going to take it less seriously," he said.

Still, he believes that Facebook should notify the holders of purportedly fake accounts.

"The first step in any sort of takedown action is to notify," he said. "What's the rush? Why not give somebody 24, 48 hours?"

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Foodies flock to Twitter-savvy food trucks

Twitter recently became the communique of choice for the almost cultishly popular Kogi BBQ trucks, roving Korean-style taco vendors in Los Angeles that use the 140-character, cell phone-friendly missives to alert customers to their whereabouts and menu item.

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And the trend is spreading to other wheel meals as more food trucks — a fast-growing food phenomenon in major cities, especially in the West — are using the social networking site to draw customers.

While it's not clear which truck Tweeted first, the Kogi folks have shown themselves to be adept at turning those mini missives into a hugely successful marketing machine, says Jane Goldman, editor-in-chief of CHOW Magazine.

"Kogi special at the trucks and the Alibi! Grilled asparagus with Yellow Nectarines and Sesame Seeds!" read one recent Kogi Tweet.

The decision to Twitter was a practical one, says Kogi brand manager Mike Prasad. He says Kogi — which has become famous for its Korean-Mexican fusion — needed a way to inspire repeat business while solving "the problems of being a moveable venue."

"Then they find Twitter, something that's separate from the venue itself that creates a virtual home," says Prasad. "It was perfect."

Kogi's food is cheap and unique, but there's another payoff to securing this moving meal: the thrill of the chase.

Since Kogi's launch in November, hungry herds of have been following the pair of white trucks that rove the city selling tacos, burritos and other gourmet tidbits steeped in traditional Korean flavors.

In short order, the Kogi name has become recognizable to foodies around the country. No small accomplishment for a pair of taco trucks, says Kate Krader, restaurant editor for Food & Wine magazine. "That's 90 percent thanks to Twitter."

And she thinks the success of food truck Tweets likely will inspire a broader use of Twitter across the food world.

"Chefs will be Tweeting from the farmers market about the mushrooms they just picked up and will be part of their mushroom pasta that evening," she says.

For diners, there are benefits to the Tweets beyond just knowing where to find the eats.

Kogi is using the service to maintain the Californian tradition of restaurants having secret menus one must be in-the-know to order from (such as the hamburger joint In-N-Out). On the side of the truck, Kogi's menu lists a few items, including tacos and burritos stuffed with Korean short ribs, spicy pork, chicken and tofu. But keep up with Kogi's Twitter feed and the options multiply.

"We do that because it's fun to have something different and experimental available every day," says Prasad, adding that the truck wouldn't have as many followers if it didn't provide new options.

Some recent specials that weren't on the menu featured kimchee (a spicy pickled cabbage traditionally eaten as a condiment in Korean dining) stuffed into quesadillas and as a topping for Spam sliders.

"There's some really high end food coming out of food trucks," says Goldman, making them a natural place for Twitter to gain ground. "This type of immediate information and constant update is going to increase."

Last month, for example, a truck called Calbi BBQ announced its grand opening on the Web, and began Tweeting its way to roadside stops to hawk tacos and burritos with Korean flavors.

And a Web site featuring a Twitter feed of locations for the Yuri Truck, which peddles sushi rolls and rice bowls, posted its first entry.

And this month, was launched (complete with Twitter feeds) for a truck that sells Chinese-Mexican fusion — such as "chimales," Chinese-Mexican tamales stuffed with kung pao chicken or Chinese barbecue pork.

Elsewhere, it's the diners who are Twittering about truck food. In Portland, Ore. — home to food carts offering dishes from Bosnia, Iraq, Peru, Thailand and many points between — fans use the high tech tool to track the low-tech vendors.

Portland Twitter users, such as PDXfoodcarts, track the arrival of new trucks, which have exploded from just a few in 2006 to more than 170 this year, representing 24 national cuisines.

"OK, Poompui, a new Thai cart on 8th and Couch is PHENOMENAL," read a recent Tweet by PDXfoodcarts. "Like Thai food in Thailand. GO, JUST GO."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Google digging deeper to improve search results

Google Inc. is about to add more features to its already dominant Internet search engine — and some of the changes could give Web surfers less reason to click through to other sites. That scenario might upset the creators of the material highlighted in Google's results.

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For instance, one of Google's new tools will assemble the work of other Web sites into a spreadsheet-style format.

Unlike Google's traditional search results, the spreadsheet experiment, called "Google Squared," doesn't simply show a set of Web links related to a search request. Instead, it fishes through Google's massive database to organize pertinent facts and other content in rows and columns.

In a Tuesday demonstration that was webcast, Google showed how a search request made about small dogs through the Squared tool will display pictures next to extensive descriptions about different breeds, on Google's own site. The content was imported from other Internet destinations.

The Squared results show where the information originated, so people can still quickly go to the original source, said Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products. She emphasized Google is trying to keep its millions of users happy by helping them make more "informed clicks."

Google already is under attack by newspaper publishers who contend the company unfairly profits by showing headlines and story snippets pulled from their sites. Mountain View, Calif.-based Google maintains that its practices adhere to copyright laws and that it provides ways for newspapers to block their content from being indexed by its search engine.

Other revisions coming to Google will include more details, or "snippets," posted under Web links in the search results. And there will be new options that will enable users to confine the results to a specific time period or category, such as product reviews.

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The changes are expected to roll out in phases during the next few weeks.

Although Google sells ads all over the Web, the company rakes in its largest profits when people click on the marketing messages that appear alongside its search results. That is one reason Google is still trying to widen its lead in Internet search, even though it already processes nearly two-thirds of all U.S. queries, according to comScore Inc.

Even as it has laid off workers, cut back perquisites and closed unpopular services to help boost its profits during the recession, Google has vowed to keep investing in research and development.

"We are always striving for the ideal or perfect search engine," Mayer said. She believes Google is about 90 percent toward its objective, but expects the final 10 percent to be the most difficult.

The technology does misfire, as Google readily acknowledged Tuesday. As part of the sneak peek at Squared, Google showed how a request for information about vegetables returned a spreadsheet that included a row for the sport of squash.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Obama changes office name, pushes Web work

Someone really is reading those comments left on Barack Obama's Web sites: the president himself.

The White House on Monday changed the name of a major office to reflect how much the administration is using the Internet to sell its agenda and communicate directly with voters. For a candidate who harnessed the Internet to win the presidency, the move — announced on the White House Web site, naturally — underscores Obama's understanding of new media's power.

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"This office will seek to engage as many Americans as possible in the difficult work of changing this country, through meetings and conversations with groups and individuals held in Washington and across the country," Obama said in a video message posted to the Web.

Coupled with that, Obama read a 33-page report with comments from his pre-presidency Web site, letting him know his supporters' single top priority for the new administration: changing the nation's policy banning marijuana.

The report also included affirmation for his campaign promises to improve care for veterans, invest in environmentally friendly jobs and end abstinence-only education.

"The longer we keep our children in the dark about their bodies, the longer these facts will continue to be true. The longer we endanger the very children we seek to protect," read one comment included in the report. "Sex WILL happen."

White House officials said the report was not edited and reflected popular sentiment on the Web, a strategy that let Obama's supporters harness a populist appeal and believe they had ownership of his campaign.

The administrative change from the "Office of Public Liaison" to the "Office of Public Engagement" shifted only a few words, but it was a difference that represents a fundamental retooling of how the White House deals with residents.

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So far, millions of people have sent e-mails or left comments on the White House's Web site, Each eventually gets a response, aides say.

The White House also hosted an online town hall, which drew 100,000 participants to hear Obama take questions chosen by visitors. Some 3.5 million clicks determined which questions the president answered, including one on marijuana policy.

At other times, Kareem Dale, who advises Obama on disability policy, economic adviser Jason Furman and other top officials have taken questions on the Internet.

The approach to the Internet has been a staple of Obama's political approach since the beginning. During his upstart campaign, Obama used a grass roots approach that let supporters organize online — and later in person at massive rallies — to help him win the nomination.

The Internet also raised millions for him in campaign contributions, mostly in small denominations.

During his transition from candidate to president, advisers invited comments from the Web. The White House says 125,000 users submitted some 44,000 ideas. More than 1.4 million votes were cast and summarized in the report to Obama.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Mom blogs dole out advice — with corporate backing

Bedtime stories and beloved teddy bears? Snack-time silliness and bath-time hijinks? For "mommy bloggers" across the country, the rules are clear: If it relates to your kid, go ahead and blog about it.

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But when Christine Young does it — when she writes, say, about how adorably orange her children's fingers get when they gobble down handfuls of yummy Cheetos — things get a bit more complicated.

Young has, in her words, a "relationship" with Frito-Lay, the maker of Cheetos. She isn't paid a salary, but the perks include free snack food for her family of eight and a recent trip to Los Angeles, complete with parties and pampering at a ritzy hotel.

Like many mom bloggers, Young originally wrote about products she bought. Then companies came calling. They asked her, "to test products in exchange for a little bit of buzz on my site," she says, and she happily obliged. Raising six kids, she's grateful for the flow of free products, including a Nintendo Wii and other pricey items. She hopes to keep them coming.

It's become the standard model for successful parenting blogs: Women review products on their Web sites, sometimes mentioning that they've received the items for free. But products also pop up conversationally, amid anecdotes about family life.

"I try to be very natural with my reviews and when I talk about companies and products," Young says. "I don't want it to look like one big commercial."

Readers flock to these blogs for real opinions from real moms whose lives appear to resemble their own. Marie Hulquest, a mother of two who lives near Boulder, Colo., and Stephanie Joynes, a mother of one in suburban Washington, D.C., say they've bought products specifically because they were recommended by mom bloggers.

But can mothers who have relationships with corporate sponsors, formal or informal, really speak without any agenda about these products, unaffected by the flow of freebies?

The Federal Trade Commission has begun reviewing their advertising guidelines with mom bloggers in mind.

"Those who are compensated to promote or review a product" on their personal Web sites "are not exempt from the laws governing truthful advertising," said Richard Cleland, the FTC's assistant director of advertising practices, in a recent statement.

Traditional journalists are expected to refuse freebies to avoid any conflict of interest. Magazines and large parenting Web sites do receive product samples for review. But for an individual woman writing a blog from home, a free shipment of diapers represents a huge savings in her monthly budget. It's hard not to get excited about that.

At, mothers are invited to join the site's Influencer program. If chosen, they receive products to try out and write about, sharing their thoughts with other moms.

Participants aren't required to say anything positive about the products, says CafeMom marketing executive Laura Fortner. But the experience clearly delights many of them.

Tonya Smith-Baker was chosen three times as an Influencer, once receiving a free HP TouchSmart laptop to review and keep. She was informed each time that her review should be unbiased. Her post about the product, which she said her kids loved, is glowing. The page is filled with exclamation points and smiley emoticons.

Getting something so valuable for free was a fantastic experience, she says, and she'd love to participate in more Influencer giveaways. "I'd never had it happen before," she says of receiving a free computer. "It is just so cool."

Even with lower priced items, there's a clear excitement at receiving something for free. In 31 posts about the Influencer program for Hot Pockets microwavable meals, only one included a mildly negative sentence. It was nestled between words of praise: "The kids loved them," one mom wrote, "me not so fond, but i would buy for the kids!!!"

The rest were effusive comments from those who'd gotten free Hot Pockets or hopeful queries from moms praising Hot Pockets and asking how they, too, could qualify for a free box.

Despite the flow of freebies, mothers say they trust that mom bloggers speak from the heart. "There is a loyalty amongst parents," Joynes says via e-mail, "that we have a duty to each other to be straight about how to spend their hard earned money and whether something is worth it or not."

Beth Feldman, who blogs at and has received products and free travel from Frito-Lay and many other companies, says transparency is the key issue. It's crucial, she says, that bloggers reveal their relationships with retailers and make clear which items they've been given for free. Most mom bloggers do just that, she says.

The FTC's commissioners are expected to vote on their new guidelines this summer. In the meantime, the marketing juggernaut continues. Next month, Christine Young will be flown to Nestle's headquarters in Ohio and days later to Disney World.

Lavish gifts baskets, she says, will be waiting in each hotel room.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Recession forces new focus in e-commerce marketing

Online retailers are shifting their marketing from traditional advertising to less expensive tools like and Twitter and e-mail as they seek market share or just work to retain customers, according to an industry study being released Tuesday.

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Conducted by Internet analysis firm Forrester Research for — the online arm of the trade group National Retail Federation — the survey found that merchants believe online business is better suited to withstand an economic downturn than physical stores or catalogs, though they acknowledge challenges for both.

The study involved 117 online retailers polled between Feb. 18 and April 1.

The companies, which didn't name, reported scaling back hiring and their increasingly expensive search marketing programs, which include paying for top billing in the results consumers see for their Web searches. Online merchants whose business is beating expectations will likely fuel much of the e-commerce investments in the coming months, the survey found.

"Online retailers want ... to be more efficient in getting a bigger bang for the buck," said Scott Silverman, executive director of

Developing social media marketing requires some investment in personnel, he said, but many merchants see big opportunities to spread a positive message about their brand for relatively low cost.

A growing number of stores and manufacturers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and General Mills Inc., for example, are encouraging bloggers to test their products and write about them on their sites.

"They're like ambassadors," Silverman said.

Silverman said businesses active online remain optimistic.

"It's safe to say that it continues to be a bright spot in the economy," he said.

They have seen their average total purchase decline, he said, but shoppers are increasingly turning to the Internet for deals.

Forrester Research forecast in January that total U.S. online sales, where growth has been slowing for a few years, will increase 11 percent to $156.1 billion in 2009, compared with a 13 percent gain in 2008.

For 2010, Forrester projects 13 percent growth, and then 10 percent growth in 2011, 9 percent in 2012 and 8 percent in 2013. The figures exclude online travel sales.


About 30 percent of the surveyed retailers expect to cut their spending on Web operations for the year, while 24 percent said they would increase it and 46 percent said they would spend as planned, according to the study.

Online retailers said they are focused on e-mail marketing, which almost 90 percent listed as a top priority. But that doesn't mean shoppers should expect to be bombarded with even more spam in coming months.

Silverman said retailers are getting more sophisticated about using e-mail to attract and retain specific customers already known to them. Almost three-fourths of the surveyed retailers plan to send targeted e-mails based on customers' stated preferences or past purchases.

With questions lingering about the sales potential for marketing in social media like blogs and social networks, the study found that companies that are growing faster than expected are more likely to embrace such initiatives. Of 20 retailers whose business has beat expectations, 12 said they were going to invest more in social marketing initiatives this year.

Among retailers that expect to cut spending on their online business this year, only 24 percent plan to cut spending on social media, indicating a willingness to experiment in this emerging area, the study says.

"Everyone feels that there is a lot of potential, and they want to be in the game," he added.

As for overhauling technology or developing programs where customers can pick up items ordered online from stores, half the retailers faring well said they would pursue such large initiatives this year.

Retailers faring less well said they plan to seek "quick wins" instead and delay large initiatives, according to the study.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Pulling the Plug on Plasma

A superior technology that offers higher quality, an enhanced user experience, and better value gets killed off by a technologically inferior rival. VHS killed Betamax. Plain old CDs outlasted Super Audio CDs. Vista wiped out Mac OS X. Wait. There are exceptions to the rule. Still, there's every reason to think it's happening again.

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The current economic crisis is hurting the entire electronics industry, but television manufacturers are literally running away from plasma HDTVs. A research report released by DisplaySearch this week showed plasma shipments in the first quarter are down 22 percent from last year, and few industry analysts think plasma will rebound. And that's a shame.

Plasma technology has a lot of advantages. Its fast-motion performance is perfect for watching sports, its darker black levels are great for watching movies, and in larger sizes (think 50 inches and up), plasma sets have typically offered more competitive prices. Yes, they use more power than LCDs of similar size, but this is hardly a key factor for most HDTV buyers. Despite the best efforts of the editors at and, most people don't know or even care how much power a prospective HDTV uses. Yet vendor after vendor is pulling the plasma plug.

Just look at the last few months. Vizio, the number two flat-panel television vendor in the U.S., decided it was ending its plasma production to focus exclusively on LCD HDTVs. Vizio made its mark selling affordable sets direct and at retail, so perhaps it's to be expected that the company wouldn't hang in with premium plasmas, which tend to come in very large sizes. For sets under 42 inches, LCD TVs have always had an edge in terms of price, so it makes sense that a value player would choose to focus on that segment of the market. But that doesn't explain Pioneer.

A couple of years ago, Pioneer released its KURO line of plasmas, probably the most advanced HDTVs ever made. Last year's Pioneer KURO PDP-5020FD has a contrast ratio of 8,809:1, and our review included the terms "flawless" and "utterly stunning." It was the best 50-inch HDTV you could buy, and it still is. But earlier this year, Pioneer decided it would stop making KUROs. Or any other plasma HDTVs, for that matter.

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So if plasma HDTVs can't find a market on the low end, and they can't find a market at the high end, where do they fit in? The answer seems to be nowhere. The technology is simply losing steam. How did this happen?

First of all, LCD panels got larger. Plasmas used to have a size advantage over LCD TVs, but now LCD owns the 40-to-42-inch sweet spot, dominates all sizes under 50 inches, and seems poised to compete even at 60 inches in 2009. Second, growing LCD volume has meant there's a lot more manufacturing capacity, which has kept prices down. Finally, plasmas in the segment where the technology still have an advantage, massive 60-inch-or-larger HDTVs, are just too damn expensive when your 401K looks like a 16K.

Declaring plasma dead may seem a bit premature. To be fair, you can still walk into a Best Buy, CompUSA, or Fry's or hop online to buy a plasma HDTV. As I mentioned earlier, some manufacturers, among them LG, Hitachi, Panasonic, and Samsung, are sticking with plasma, and sets will be available for a while. And we'll keep reviewing them. Still, these companies all make LCDs too, and I have to wonder how long it will be before more of them give up on plasma. My bet is at least one will be out by the end of the year.

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Finally, let me say a few words about OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology. To read the gushing prose of the technical press, you would think that OLEDs will rise up to replace every existing screen technology as early as end of the year—that OLEDs will appear on everything from your cell phone to giant wall-size HDTVs. There are just two problems with that. First, OLEDs are still years away from practical, affordable commercialization. Second, the largest OLED display available today measures 11 inches diagonal. As we saw with Sony's OLED-based XEL-1, picture quality is superb, but you shouldn't plan on watching the big game on an OLED set anytime soon.

Now, I'm not saying I wouldn't buy a plasma right now. HDTVs last for years, and bargains abound. The Pioneer KURO PDP-5020FD, arguably one of best HDTVs ever, cost $4K when it launched six months ago and is now selling for less than $2,000 online. An amazing deal on an amazing TV; but you have to act quickly, because this plasma, like all the rest, isn't long for this world.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Old Japanese maps on Google Earth unveil secrets

When Google Earth added historical maps of Japan to its online collection last year, the search giant didn't expect a backlash. The finely detailed woodblock prints have been around for centuries, they were already posted on another Web site, and a historical map of Tokyo put up in 2006 hadn't caused any problems.


But Google failed to judge how its offering would be received, as it has often done in Japan. The company is now facing inquiries from the Justice Ministry and angry accusations of prejudice because its maps detailed the locations of former low-caste communities.

The maps date back to the country's feudal era, when shoguns ruled and a strict caste system was in place. At the bottom of the hierarchy were a class called the "burakumin," ethnically identical to other Japanese but forced to live in isolation because they did jobs associated with death, such as working with leather, butchering animals and digging graves.

Castes have long since been abolished, and the old buraku villages have largely faded away or been swallowed by Japan's sprawling metropolises. Today, rights groups say the descendants of burakumin make up about 3 million of the country's 127 million people.

But they still face prejudice, based almost entirely on where they live or their ancestors lived. Moving is little help, because employers or parents of potential spouses can hire agencies to check for buraku ancestry through Japan's elaborate family records, which can span back over a hundred years.

An employee at a large, well-known Japanese company, who works in personnel and has direct knowledge of its hiring practices, said the company actively screens out burakumin job seekers.

"If we suspect that an applicant is a burakumin, we always do a background check to find out," she said. She agreed to discuss the practice only on condition that neither she nor her company be identified.

Lists of "dirty" addresses circulate on Internet bulletin boards. Some surveys have shown that such neighborhoods have lower property values than surrounding areas, and residents have been the target of racial taunts and graffiti. But the modern locations of the old villages are largely unknown to the general public, and many burakumin prefer it that way.

Google Earth's maps pinpointed several such areas. One village in Tokyo was clearly labeled "eta," a now strongly derogatory word for burakumin that literally means "filthy mass." A single click showed the streets and buildings that are currently in the same area.

Google posted the maps as one of many "layers" available via its mapping software, each of which can be easily matched up with modern satellite imagery. The company provided no explanation or historical context, as is common practice in Japan. Its basic stance is that its actions are acceptable because they are legal, one that has angered burakumin leaders.

"If there is an incident because of these maps, and Google is just going to say 'it's not our fault' or 'it's down to the user,' then we have no choice but to conclude that Google's system itself is a form of prejudice," said Toru Matsuoka, a member of Japan's upper house of parliament.

Asked about its stance on the issue, Google responded with a formal statement that "we deeply care about human rights and have no intention to violate them."

Google spokesman Yoshito Funabashi points out that the company doesn't own the maps in question, it simply provides them to users. Critics argue they come packaged in its software, and the distinction is not immediately clear.

Printing such maps is legal in Japan. But it is an area where publishers and museums tread carefully, as the burakumin leadership is highly organized and has offices throughout the country. Public showings or publications are nearly always accompanied by a historical explanation, a step Google failed to take.

Matsuoka, whose Osaka office borders one of the areas shown, also serves as secretary general of the Buraku Liberation League, Japan's largest such group. After discovering the maps last month, he raised the issue to Justice Minister Eisuke Mori at a public legal affairs meeting on March 17.

Two weeks later, after the public comments and at least one reporter contacted Google, the old Japanese maps were suddenly changed, wiped clean of any references to the buraku villages. There was no note made of the changes, and they were seen by some as an attempt to quietly dodge the issue.

"This is like saying those people didn't exist. There are people for whom this is their hometown, who are still living there now," said Takashi Uchino from the Buraku Liberation League headquarters in Tokyo.

The Justice Ministry is now "gathering information" on the matter, but has yet to reach any kind of conclusion, according to ministry official Hideyuki Yamaguchi.

The League also sent a letter to Google, a copy of which was provided to The Associated Press. It wants a meeting to discuss its knowledge of the buraku issue and position on the use of its services for discrimination. It says Google should "be aware of and responsible for providing a service that can easily be used as a tool for discrimination."

Google has misjudged public sentiment before. After cool responses to privacy issues raised about its Street View feature, which shows ground-level pictures of Tokyo neighborhoods taken without warning or permission, the company has faced strong public criticism and government hearings. It has also had to negotiate with Japanese companies angry over their copyrighted materials uploaded to its YouTube property.

An Internet legal expert said Google is quick to take advantage of its new technologies to expand its advertising network, but society often pays the price.

"This is a classic example of Google outsourcing the risk and appropriating the benefit of their investment," said David Vaile, executive director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Center at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

The maps in question are part of a larger collection of Japanese maps owned by the University of California at Berkeley. Their digital versions are overseen by David Rumsey, a collector in the U.S. who has more than 100,000 historical maps of his own. He hosts more than 1,000 historical Japanese maps as part of a massive, English-language online archive he runs, and says he has never had a complaint.

It was Rumsey who worked with Google to post the maps in its software, and who was responsible for removing the references to the buraku villages. He said he preferred to leave them untouched as historical documents, but decided to change them after the search company told him of the complaints from Tokyo.

"We tend to think of maps as factual, like a satellite picture, but maps are never neutral, they always have a certain point of view," he said.

Rumsey said he'd be willing to restore the maps to their original state in Google Earth. Matsuoka, the lawmaker, said he is open to a discussion of the issue.

A neighborhood in central Tokyo, a few blocks from the touristy Asakusa area and the city's oldest temple, was labeled as an old "eta" village in the maps. It is indistinguishable from countless other Tokyo communities, except for a large number of leather businesses offering handmade bags, shoes and furniture.

When shown printouts of the maps from Google Earth, several older residents declined to comment. Younger people were more open on the subject.

Wakana Kondo, 27, recently started working in the neighborhood, at a new business that sells leather for sofas. She was surprised when she learned the history of the area, but said it didn't bother her.

"I learned about the burakumin in school, but it was always something abstract," she said. "That's a really interesting bit of history, thank you."

Friday, May 01, 2009

Zend PHP framework accesses Amazon cloud

Zend Technologies, maker of tools for building PHP applications, is extending its Web development framework to the Amazon Web Services computing cloud.

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Cloud capabilities in Zend Framework 1.8, being announced Friday, provide developers with the ability to store and serve data redundantly and manage virtual machines.

Zend Framework 1.8 can connect to the Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) storage service as if it were a file system locally, said Matthew Weier O'Phinney, project lead and architect for Zend Framework. Users can add and remove files from S3 via PHP scripts. Also, users can manage virtual machines on Amazon EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud). This capability allows users to scale an application to the cloud at peak times.

"We're providing components within [the] Zend Framework library for working within Amazon Web Services," O'Phinney said.

Version 1.8 also adds RAD (rapid application development) tooling to make it easier to build PHP applications. Developers can, for example, set up a project's application directory structure and files within it. With the RAD support, developers can create their own processes and standards for specific business needs.

Rapid application prototyping is enabled with the Zend_Tool component in version 1.8.

The upgrade to the framework also integrates with the Zend Server application server, enabling caching of data via the Zend Server caching API. This saves on processing duties in Web applications and speeds up the applications.

Zend Framework 1.8 is a free, open source product. Zend offers solutions for integrating and building Web sites as well as products such as Zend Studio, for writing PHP applications.