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21st Century Newspapers

rolled up newspapers

A long, long time ago (maybe 6 or 7 years now) I taught an elective ESL class centered around a student newspaper.  We tried various formats including weekly, monthly, and quarterly editions, which ranged from 2 to 32 pages.  We also experimented with various online editions, but at the time that mostly consisted of cutting and pasting the documents into HTML pages.

Fast-forward to 2011 and look how online publishing has changed.  Blogs are ubiquitous, if not approaching passé.  Everyone but my Mom has a Facebook page.  (Don’t worry, my aunts fill her in).  And many people get news, sports scores, Twitter posts, friends’ Facebook updates, and other information of interest pushed directly to their smartphones.

It’s no surprise, then, that a website like paper.li has found its niche.  The slogan for paper.li is Create your newspaper.  Today.  Essentially, paper.li is an RSS aggregator in the form of a newspaper.  RSS aggregators are nothing new (see iGoogle, My Yahoo!, etc.).  As the name implies, the user selects a variety of different feeds from favorite blogs, people on Twitter, Facebook friends, etc. and aggregates the updates onto one page.

The twist with with paper.li is that the aggregated page looks very much like a newspaper — at least a newspaper’s website.  For people not on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, paper.li might feel much more comfortable.  Also, publicizing one’s pages seems to be built right in to paper.li’s sourcecode.  I say that because I first learned of paper.li when I read a tweet that said a new edition of that person’s paper was out featuring me.  How flattering!  Of course, I had to take a look.

Would paper.li be a good platform to relaunch a student newspaper?  It might.  If students have multiple blogs, paper.li could certainly aggregate the most recent posts into one convenient location.  Other feeds could also be easily incorporated as well.  (Think of this as akin to your local community newspaper printing stories from the Associated Press.)  The most recent news stories about your city or region, updates from your institution’s website, and photos posted to Flickr tagged with your city or school name could each be a column in your paper.li paper right beside the articles crafted by the students themselves.  You could even include updates from other paper.li papers.

To see examples of paper.li papers, visit the paper.li website.  (And note that .li is the website suffix — no need to type .com no matter how automatically your fingers try to do so.)  You can search paper.li for existing papers to see what is possible.  A search for ESL, for example, brought up 5 pages of examples, some with hundreds of followers.  Take a look.  You might just get an idea for your own paper.li.

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Searching for Search

We all remember using Google this way.

We all remember using Google this way.

Earlier this year, a new idea in search hit the internet: Wolfram Alpha.  Although there was a lot of buzz around it for a couple of months, I didn’t really see what the big deal was.  Wolfram Alpha does take a different approach from Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft’s Bing, the Big Three of search.  Rather than using an algorithm to rank pages based on how often pages are linked to one another, Wolfram Alpha enables the user to search information compile from several databases.

Some of the results are impressive.  For example, type in a city like Columbus, Ohio and you’ll get an encyclopedic snapshot including population, elevation, and current weather.  But Wikipedia can do this better.  Wolfram Alpha does an impressive job making calculations like x^3 sin(y) but Grapher, which is included with Mac OS, does a better job there as well.

Besides some of the interesting Easter Eggs that are hidden within it (See: list, the most popular, the most useful), having all of these capabilities in one place, is handy, but… now what?  Once the excitement had passed, Wolfram Alpha remains, unable to live up to the hype that preceeded it.

Speaking of overhyped search, Microsoft recently unveiled it’s new Bing search engine.  Is it better than Google or Yahoo?  I’m glad you asked.  Try Blind Search, which blindly returns either web or image search results from all three of these search engines and asks you to choose the best one. For example, search for images of Columbus, Ohio and see which search engine returns the best set of results.

The results are a little surprising.  (Warning: some of the searched-for terms in the results may not be work / school safe, but there is no inappropriate imagery.)  In general, the three engines are ranked quite closely, with Google placing first.

Most striking is how simple and effective this process is.  Instead of wondering which search engine is the best, a simple test was devised and data was gathered.  What a great project!  It makes me wonder what other technologies could be pitted head-to-head in a similar way.

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