Consumers Empowered?

A patent targeted by EFF’s patent busting project caught my eye. A company called NeoMedia claims:

the general concept of reading an “index” (e.g., UPC number1) off of what it calls a “data carrier” (e.g., consumer product) and crossreferencing that index in a database in order to find the necessary information to look up and connect to a remote computer (e.g., URL fetched out of a database which is then inserted into a web browser).

The November 15, 2006 edition of the EFF’s Effector email newsletter summarizes the patent:

NeoMedia claims to have invented the basic concept of any technology that could, say, scan a product on a supermarket shelf and then connect you to price-comparison website.

This technology has the potential to empower consumers and force prices to reflect real-time supply and demand. Think about scanning the bar code of a product at a retail store with your phone. The information is transmitted to a price-comparison site and the results display on your phone. Now you know instantly whether the price there at the retail store is the best price.

This technology has the power to put some real teeth into those lowest-price-guarantees. What if the price-comparison surveyed not only online retailers but also traditional retailers? So you could scan a product at Circuit City and find out it is available for $50 less at the Best Buy store one mile down the road?

A company called Scanbuy already provides a free service that allows consumers to enter a bar code into their cell phone and receive: best price, other online prices, product reviews, and information about the product. This service will probably only really catch on when it is easy to use, i.e., when the users cell phone scans the barcode instead of requiring the user to manually enter the number.

Will retailers honor their lowest-price-guarantee when a customer shows the retailer the price comparison results on their phone? Some guarantees do not apply to prices of online retailers, and some match only in-print advertisements from competitors. The cost of redeeming a lowest-price-guarantee has been described as a hassle cost. Can retailers afford to continue providing guarantees when the consumer’s search cost incurred in discovering a lower price is virtually eliminated? Will this technology be the death of low-price guarantees? Or will retailers just retreat to price matching only in-print advertisements from competitors? If they retreat will the guarantees loose their effectiveness (if they are effective in the first place)?

Price-guarantees aside, a service like Scanbuy, should offer the option to “buy it now” that lets the user purchase a product using their phone from the online retailer with the lowest price. E-commerce continues to expand. The ability to purchase products with your phone while standing in a retail store maybe the next step in the evolving way we purchase goods.

Will Google Provide a Free Web OCR App?

Today I had an image of a document that I needed to convert to text. In this age of free web apps I wondered whether there was a Free OCR web app. I found Jon Galloway’s post which basically concludes there are no satisfactory free OCR app. He did find Microsoft Office Document Imaging acceptable, but its not free and its not on the web. It comes with Microsoft Office XP and Microsoft Office 2003. I also discovered this web OCR app, but I did not get a chance to try it because the document I needed to OCR was in PDF format.

All this got me wondering whether Google will provide a free OCR app in the future. Google is doing a load of OCR work with their Book Search project. Did Google write its own OCR software or did it purchase the software from a third party? Duff Johnson proposes Google wrote its own OCR software. If Google did, it might be easy for them to provide that app free to everyone. Will they?

Judges are Real People (even when acting in an unreal world)

Recently the Seventh Circuit started podcasting oral arguments. Now, Judge Richard Posner of that circuit has taken a step into Second Life. He is no stranger to technology as he blogs at The Becker-Posner Blog. James Au provides a transcript of Judge Posner’s December 7th Second Life question and answer session. The discussion covered serious topics, but Posner showed his sense of humor when he ordered the raccoon to appear. Just another example of how judges are real people (even when acting in an unreal world).

Documentarians All Around

The talks hosted by TED are incredible. TED is an annual conference were speakers talk about the latest ideas in Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED), and also Business, Sciences, and The Arts “… in fact any subject area offering something fresh and important.” The talks are available at TedTalks and you can subscribe to their podcast feed.

Today I was listening to Peter Gabriel’s talk. He described the work of Witness, the organization he founded in 1992. Witness describes its mission:

WITNESS uses the power of video to open the eyes of the world to human rights abuses. By partnering with local organizations around the globe, WITNESS empowers human rights defenders to use video to shine a light on those most affected by human rights violations, and to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools of justice.

His talk reaffirmed the power of video and photography to expose human rights violations. Recent news stories about a conference of Holocaust deniers show the important documentary power of an image. One of the reasons the existence of the Holocaust is not reasonably doubted is because there is video and photographic evidence.

Now that many cell phones have video and photography functions, the ability to easily and quickly document human rights violations is enhanced. Programs like GrameenPhone are bringing cell phones to the developing world. If Witness partners with programs like GrameenPhone, its net will be expanded, and human rights violations will be reduced. People with cell phones are now documentarians.

Video: Changing the way Teachers and Adminstrators Act

Cnet and This Week in Tech reported on the story where a teacher was recorded yelling at a student. The recording later ended up on YouTube. Two thirteen year-old girls worked together. One provoked the teacher while the other secretly recorded the teacher’s response. The Canadian school suspended the two girls and the teacher took a stress leave of absence.

It seems the suspensions were imposed because of the provocation and the coordinated nature of the event. I wonder if the school had a policy concerning the use of video and audio devises. If they don’t, I’m sure they are drafting one now.

The Cnet article quoted Abdu Mansouri, a spokesman for the region’s teachers’ union, saying: “The teacher will be the master of his class–a closed class and confidential.” I’m not sure a classroom should be completely closed and confidential, but this incident raises a question of whether technology was disrupting the educator’s ability to teach. It seems reasonable for teachers to restrict the use of video equipment in their classes when it is used to disrupt education. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where a particular student attempts to provoke a teacher on a regular basis in order to catch the reaction on tape. Students have attempted to gain attention from disruption for years. The difference is that before the ability to easily record the incident, the student’s audience was only their classmates at the given time, whereas if the event is recorded the student’s audience is unlimited and the incident can be played over and over. In short the incentive to disrupt class is greater because the attention generated is greater. But if there is a policy against recording, the possible punishment may offset the incentive.

A student should not be disciplined where the school did not have a video policy and, unlike here, the student doing the recording had no involvement in the incident. The more interesting issue is whether an uninvolved student doing the recording should be disciplined where the recording exposes truly reprehensible conduct, but the school had a policy prohibiting unauthorized video recording. Arguably, in that case, the student’s act of recording was good, although against school policy. Yet, maybe the accountability benefits are outweighed by the need for a consistently applied policy and an undisrupted educational environment.

Today, my search of Youtube for “Teacher Yelling” returned 83 results. I am sure that number will rise. Regardless of whether a school has a policy, the fact that secret recording is possible will likely change the way teachers and administrators act. What type of change and whether the change has a positive, negative, or mixed impact is open for debate. Even if a school has a policy that prohibits a student from unauthorized recording in school, there is no guarantee that a student is not violating the rule. Once the video is put on the Internet, there’s no getting it back simply because it was recorded in violation of school policy.

The Launch

I have been thinking of starting a blog for a while. As I read more blogs it became obvious that blogging was an excellent idea. I particularly like Jay Rosen’s idea of a blog as “a little First Amendment machine.” Ideas are quickly dispersed and tested in the blogosphere. It provides an excellent forum for the Marketplace of Ideas.

I must thank Professor Diane Murley for introducing me to blogs in my Advanced Electronic Legal Research Course in 2004. I know some of my classmates thought blogs were a waste of their time, but I’m glad they were covered. Blogs have and continue to expose me to new ideas, subjectmatter, and products, which I would not otherwise discover. They influenced the direction of my legal career. They prove an important legal resource for my current work at the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit Court.

I like Ernie the Attorney’s post on why and how to start a blog. I also like his quote of Martha Graham where she said:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you…

You can find more about me and the purpose of this blog here.