Friday, August 15, 2014

I Spy Spotify

This week, I got my invitation to try out Spotify as they have just now ventured into the Canadian market (after launching in 50+ other countries).

Over the years,I have used many other online music services before. I don't like services that only play a specific genre or era of music as after a while one ends up hearing  the same kind of stuff over and over again, there seldom are any delightful surprises, and I like to hear the latest songs.

With the exception of Pandora, which I loved during the brief period it was available in Canada. It had most of the music I liked, but it was incredibly good at predicting music I hadn't heard of but liked. I was sad when they pulled the plug on Canadians accessing it.

I've heard Spotify was as good as Pandora, so when I heard they were planning of coming to Canada I got on the waiting list for my invitation. So I was quite happy earlier this week when I got my sneak peek entry code.

And I'm happy to report that I love it!

Patrick O'Rourke at has done an excellent job describing the features of Spotify and comparing it to similar services. Michael D'Alimonte at MTL Blog provides a great tutorial on the service for Canadians complete with ample screenshots.

It is not clear, however, what Spotify's pricing model will be once it is fully rolled out into Canada. Currently, I have access to the service for no charge. There are no commercials, instead there are tips on how to use Spotify spliced between songs, which I'm assuming will be eventually replaced with conventional commercials. I don't listen to music on my smartphone, so I haven't tried that service yet, although it sounds very promising.

What I love about Spotify

Here's what I want from an online music service and so far Spotify has:

  1. ability to listen to specific songs on demand
  2. extensive collection of songs from the past 70 years
  3. ability to make customizable playlists
  4. ability to skip songs, preferably unlimitedly (but a limit is fine)
  5. playlists or channels based on genres, tempo / mood, or holiday

At present, I'm getting all these services for free - including unlimited skips and on-demand songs.  But from what I've read of Spotify's service levels in other countries the ability to have unlimited skips and on-demand song choice is a "premium" feature, that I'll have to pay $10 a month for after my sneak peak is over.

I love the interface. It's very easy to use. Downloading and installing was simple on my old computer.

There collection seems pretty extensive, with a strong Canadian component. I tried to find my favourite songs and found pretty much all but a handful (apparently some artists have pulled their songs from Spotify due to their meagre payments - see BBC).

They dazzled me when I searched for  "The Girl from Ipanema" and there were at least a couple hundred versions and they even had about twenty versions of "The Story of My Life" (a no-longer secret fav). I think my music taste is eclectic so I like an expansive, diverse collection from a music service. As a reviewer of Spotify noted that it has the ability to serve "subset of people who like to mix corny hip-hop with twangy country oldies" which perfectly describes me.

There ability to search for songs, artists, and albums works great. When I do find a new artist I like (it turns out that the covers of "The Story of My Life" are excellent - better than 1D even!) I like the links to their bios and other songs.

I haven't integrated Spotify with my social media, but I think that would be a great feature if there were a critical mass of my friends using it.

What I don't like about Spotify

Their help and tutorial content could be much better - or frankly exist at all.  They appear to rely heavily on user communities, which is fine (particularly for the people using the service for free). But in browsing a bunch of posts, I found many posts by people paying for the premium service and not being able to contact customer service any other way.

I'm also not impressed by their recommendation engine (particularly compared to how great Pandora was at this) . Their "Discover" feature appears to just be recommending music trending in an undefined "near me" - but it isn't close to music I would like. They also present some artists that are popular on Spotify, but these have not changed in days of using the service and have not been updated to reflect the various songs I have added to my lists and favourites. For example, they have been recommending Adele to me for days. What a novel artist to recommend - it's not like I'd ever heard of her or would encounter her work otherwise.

They have the ability to generate recommended songs based on a song provided - which they call a "Radio Station".  My experience with this was dismal - the songs they returned were not similar in instrumentation, tempo, genre, or any other pattern I could discern other than a similar time period (i.e., plus or minus ten years).

So other than being seriously underwhelmed by their recommendation ability, I overall love Spotify.

I'm going to go to bed now, but before logging off, I put on an Adele song ("Chasing Pavement") and it turns out this Adele isn't such a bad singer. Who would've known?

Friday, August 08, 2014

Most Frustrating App Ever!

We have been taking my daughter to Toronto's Art gallery (AGO) since she was a baby. We have always tried to make the experience of viewing art pleasant and fun, but it's not always easy to come up with ways to present the art at her level and make the experience dynamic and engaging.

At a prior visit a couple of months ago, we were given a pamphlet by the gallery staff for a new mobile app game sponsored by and set in the gallery.

It is called Time Tremors Treasure Hunt.

It sounded great. It's essentially a scavenger hunt that encourages interaction with fine art. What a great way to explore the gallery and have fun. And I was looking forward to blogging about my experience here.

I never pay for mobile apps - mostly because there are so many excellent free ones out there. This one costs $3 - which I think is a lot for a kid's app one is only apt to use once or twice.

But I was really excited about the potential of using a mobile device for a mixed reality game (a.k.a. alternative reality game). I've only ever done one before -Google's Ingress, which was cool but needs more of a compelling narrative or active gameplay.

Before we downloaded Time Tremors onto our Android smartphone we read the reviews on Google Play. The app was only launched a few months ago, so we weren't concerned that there was only one review and it was negative.

There are four games one can play in the app - all centered around visually finding specific items in the gallery via text clues. All the low-tech features seem to work fine. There is no intro to explain the overall situation - you have to get that from their website or companion television show (which is a weakness). There's also no introductory motivation within the app to explain the need to accomplish the challenges. Overall, though it seems like a nice-looking and engaging app.

However, there are two killer problems. One is the fault of the developers and the other the fault of the gallery.

Early into two of the games, they have a feature requiring one to complete the task of scanning a painting. It absolutely does not work. We tried to get the scan feature to work for two different paintings for at least 30 minutes and nothing could make it work. The security guard there said other people have had the same problem - as did a reviewer.

Frankly, I'm dumbfounded this problem wasn't uncovered during testing.

But, I can live with a bug or two - if it isn't fatal. But due to poor game design their bug is indeed lethal. The app doesn't allow one to skip any challenges, so if for some reason you can't find one item or complete a task due a bug, the game will not progress - unceremoniously ending it for the users - in this case a 10-year-old kid.

The second killer problem is the gallery's fault - and it is really baffling on the part of the gallery considering how prominently they have hyped this game via brochures and website. One of the challenges requires finding a specific painting and answering questions about it. But the gallery has removed one of the paintings only weeks since launching the app. I know games get outdated - a particular problem with mixed reality games - but considering how new this app is, there really is no excuse for this.

Again, if there was the ability to skip a challenge, we could have still played the game. But a gallery mistake combined by a design flaw ends in frustration.

As we had planned a whole day around this game, it was really frustrating for my daughter and me (mobile geek that I am) and a rip-off of $3 plus gallery admission!

We talked to the gallery's front desk staff and apparently they knew the app doesn't work and were advising people not to use it. I wish we knew that before we wasted our time and money.

I emailed the app development company and the gallery in a hope to receive a refund. I waited to post this in case some excellent customer service made up for an awful app experience. But it's been days now and no reply from anyone.

BUT...In the last couple of days the app was removed from Google Play and iTunes was updated with a note about the moved painting, so they must have got my message.

In the end, I'm most upset that Toronto finally got a cool digital media game it doesn't work. Also, based on the little we were able to play the game it did make the gallery experience much more fun, interactive, and educational. The educational component about the art was really effective and the game play provided an awesome way for kids to learn while having fun. It's a sad missed opportunity for Toronto, the gallery, and kids.

Update: Six days after I contacted the developers they got back to me, offering a refund and apologies. The next day the art gallery also contacted me and offerred a refund. So in the end, the customer service was satisfactory if slow.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Finding and Getting Our Way With Google Maps

I have been using Google Maps for years since I switched from MapQuest. In all the years of using Google Maps I never came across a circumstance where any corrections were needed.

Until recently when I noticed my daughter's public school was missing from the map. I thought this was a problem as I had a fair amount of difficulty finding the school for the first time and considering that many people (myself included) rely on Google Maps to find places that I should correct the omission.

Google offers a tool to make these additions and corrections called Map Maker.

It's quite easy to use. There are text-box fields to enter or edit a name, address and contact info - all quite clear. The visual interface to plot locations on the satellite view is also easy to use, particularly if one is  familiar with GIS. It just requires using a simpler drawing tool to outline the shape of sites over Google's satellite view.

So I added my kid's school to the map and also decided to fix other sites in the area.

I did five changes:

  1. public school added (by correcting existing entry)
  2. park/garden added 
  3. public ice rink added
  4. change rooms (for pool and rink) added
  5. variety store's location corrected (it was misplaced on the wrong street)

These changes took me no more than 20 minutes. There usefulness to newcomers or visitors to the neighbourhood would be significant, I'm certain.

So far I'm thinking that the tool and service (to everyone) is a great idea.

But then came their murky, dubious review process...

I appreciate the need for a review process to stop spammers, trolls, and vandals. But Google's review process is unnecessarily opaque and inconsistent.

Google will notify people of the status of changes made via a location's history webpage and email (although I found that email notifications only went out seldom).

Change #2, made it onto the map. It is the only correction that Google accepted.

Change #4 was added to Google Maps as I submitted it, but then removed a few days later.

Change #5 was quickly flagged as needing further investigation (the street address for the store was correct as is but Google had it marked as on a separate step - that is quickly able to see and shouldn't require investigation). Although I do get that with businesses they should check with the business owner to double-check.  About a month later and the wrong location is still on the map.

Change #3 was rejected as needing more information. No details were supplied on the precise or even nature of the required missing info except to a link to a general page about using the tool.

I was given the option to add more info to my change. The only info that I hadn't supplied was the telephone number and opening hours. I gave them our Parks and Rec department. Phone number and indicated it was only open during winter months and then resubmitted.

The second try at the ice rink seemed to have worked - partially. It doesn't appear by default on the map (as the park's seeming pool and off-leash dog areas do), but if you type in the correct name it will come up on the map.  That just raises another murky issue with Google Maps, why do they have locations that don't show up on a map unless you specifically search for them (particularly major public sites)?

Change #1 - the one that started all this - was rejected as the current (incorrect) information was deemed by a Google editor to be "more appropriate". I had provided a link to an official source - the Board of Education - which had the correct info as I entered it. What is more appropriate than the Board of Education?

This begs the question - To what authority does Google recognize?

Even worst Google did not give me the option to change or object to my entry (as I got with the ice rink). And Google removed all record of the change request from the tool's user history - so as to shut of any debate or trace of the issue permanently.

I got the name of the editor who rejected the change but Google provides me no way to examine editors' credentials or record. But it is safe to assume that they are not a Toronto government official or even a local, so why do they get such absolute, unchecked power?

Google does offer a forum that can provide some recourse and further information but it is unwieldy and frankly it is an unreasonable burden to make people use such a cumbersome process.

As a public service and a company and one that relies on user-generated content, Google has a duty to establish more rigorous, consistent, transparent processes.

I'm so put off by Google after this I will start switching to OpenStreetMap, a free, user-generated map. At least their review process appears quite transparent and any effort I put into improving them map doesn't add money to a corporate juggernaut.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Canada's New Anti-Spam Legislation

If you live in Canada, you probably have been receiving a torrent of emails latel from companies and organizations asking you to confirm your intention to receive email news. Canada's new anti-spam legislation (CASL) goes into effect in a few days (July 1, 2014), hence the flurry of emails.

I have got a bunch of emails from organizations that I'm fairly sure I previously expressly consented to be added to their email list, so I have been surprised to receive so many emails asking me to (re) confirm my intention to stay on their mailing list.

I find email newsletters to be an invaluable source of info for me so I have taken the time to respond to my deluge to confirm. But today a friend posted a note about this topic on Facebook that started a fascinating discussion on the issue.

It turns out that a lot of businesses are confused about the new legislation and are probably being more cautious than they have to be. Nonetheless, I do think the official communication around this issue from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)could have been better.CRTC's website does a good job in communicating the new legislation, through such things as infographics, FAQ page and even spam quizzes. But there's a lot to weed through. 

Thanks to my friend's Facebook thread, I found a couple clear and succinct articles on the topic:

From a marketing perspective, most of the emails I have received asking me to confirm my intention to stay on the email list have looked rather like spam themselves - i.e. wordy, generic notices that I quickly scanned and ignored. Many organizations had to send me two such notices before I responded - in the meantime I became more aware of CASL so I made the effort to notice such email. But this email from Shoppers was the most effective, I received so I thought I'd share it.

Email from Shoppers notifiying me that I must consent to receive emails from them with a huge yes button for me to click

Visually this is very clear and noticeable. But Shoppers did make a big mistake when they sent this. I don't automatically allow images when I receive emails (except for ones from friends). As almost all the content from the Shoppers email was in an image file, the message was lost until I turned the image on. It's really simple to provide alt text or other text solutions to rectify this.

I'd say it's as important to not look like spam as it is to follow the new rules.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Foursquare Loses Me

After hearing awhile ago that one of my favourite mobile apps, Foursquare, would me splitting into two I was not eager for the changes.  I'm not normally one who hates all changes to their favourite apps. (Every time Facebook makes any change I can anticipate the tiresome complaints from the regular suspects.)

I was an early adopter and continual user of Foursquare and blogged a lot about them. For those not familiar with Foursquare - or who checked it out when it launched and then forgot about it - Foursquare is a leader in location-based services and geosocial networking.  Since its launch, people could virtually indicate their presence at a physically location through the service. Users could also add associated public reviews or share status updates for one's friends.  The app made it easy to see where your friends were and to find nearby places and business of interest.

Earlier this month, Foursquare announced they would be splitting these services into two apps. A new app, Swarm, would be launched for geosocial networking and the Foursquare app would maintain social recommendation features.

I acknowledge that many of the gaming and title features that initially drove usage through novelty - the mayorships of places and humourous badges based on check-ins - were no longer compelling. There were occasional real-world benefits - in my years of using Foursquare I got a free gelato and a 10% discount on concessions from my local cinema. Ben Heyman addresses Foursquare and other app's challenges with pointless gamification, Foursquare Committed Suicide, Signaling the End of the Gamification Fad.

But it wasn't all about that. And, I still believe Foursquare had unique value

It's great as a place diary. I enjoying recording and sharing with my friends any interesting places I was at or any interesting commentary I had. Not everything merits publishing on Facebook or Twitter.

I also liked the ability to explore the world around me. It's great to find out if there are businesses near to me that my friends or other users like. But I enjoy the social and unofficial histories of normal and special places that Foursquare offered. Foursquare also had lists that enabled social, place-based curation that was also great. Granted, the app Findery is doing this better, but they have only recently launched an app (iPhone only) and it has not hit a critical mass that gives it vitality or stickiness.

I liked how Foursquare had all these features in one place. I loved how it was an app where the central feature is place. This allows a different view of the world than other apps entail. It grounds us to our place, while opening up our world to our social network.

I understood why Foursquare needed to change to keep their massive number of users, however. Matthew Panzarino wrote an excellent article on this for TechCrunch, Foursquare’s Swarm And The Rise Of The Invisible App. He argues that as smartphone media have become more mature we have transitioned from replicated prior technology to multi-purpose apps that offerred a plethora of features (such as Foursquare). In the era of people ever-increasing number of apps and ever-dwindling free time, we are now seeing a new era of apps,
These ‘invisible apps’ are less about the way they look or how many features they cram in and more about maximizing their usefulness to you without monopolizing your attention.... A confluence of factors have made these kinds of context-aware apps possible at this point in time. Increasing power efficiency in physical memory and device processors has led to better battery life
 Today, I tried out the new app Swarm and a sneak-peak of the new Foursquare (the old interface is being grandfathered out).

Swarm is definitely easy-to-use and seems great at what it does - geosocial networking. Swarm has features Foursquare didn't have, such as social coordination tools (helps you plan a semi-spontaneous events with your circle), auto check-in options, and better friend geo-tracking displays. The ability to set Swarm to check you into places automatically is key to its utility as Wired has identified. There are also some "sticker" features that I seem like glorified emoticons. But the place check-in is central to the app, as it was with Foursquare. One can check into a place manually in the same way as one did before on Foursquare. Once checked into a place Swarm is linking to Foursquare for friends' and other users' reviews.

Swarm is cool, but aimed at the party crowd (which I am not one any more - okay I never was).  There are (or rather were) many apps that did this. Perhaps, Foursquare's large number or users and slick interface will help it succeed where others have failed.

Downloading Swarm is super quick and easy. Foursquare is automatically porting user's data to Swarm. It makes transferring to the new app easy.  So from that standpoint the split is handled well, but some people might not like their data ported to another app without their permission (or knowledge).

The old Foursquare app will become essentially just a social and proximity recommendation app for businesses and sites pretty much just like Yelp or Yellow Pages' app. With the geosocial networking features largely removed from Foursquare, it seems like the only reason to use it would be when one wants to get a recommendation for a nearby business or site with one's friends reviews getting special status. Foursquare long ago buried their lists features to the point that it is impossible to find other users lists.

So now Foursquare becomes a passive tool for searching for proximal info. I get that local search and advertising is a potentially lucrative market for much-needed revenue for the company. It's definitely a useful feature, which I will no doubt use occasionally. But unless I'm travelling, I don't visit very many new areas. And when I do go somewhere new and special, I am not going to use two apps. Foursquare used to be the app that made place a single, pivotal focus. By splitting its focus, it adds up to less than the sum of its original parts.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Give MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) a Try

Last week, I finished my first MOOC. No, it is not a sound a sick cow makes, rather it's a Massive Open Online Course  MOOCs are different from other online courses in that they are open. Open in that they are free to take and open to anyone, no perquisites required. Massive in that their free status tends to attract a very large number of students - with diverse backgrounds, locations, and subject-matter knowledge.

My experience is limited, but from talking to others who have taken MOOCs, I have a sense of their structure and purposes.

MOOCs tend to run for a more limited timeframe than traditional university classes (online or offline) - often for four to six weeks, sometimes at a self-study pace. The MOOC I took would require anywhere from 20 to 40 hours to complete (depending on one's prior familiarity with the topic and one's language and technical skills).  The course was pass / fail - which I also believe is common for MOOCs - but credit could be applied to a program at the university offering it (I'm not sure if this is common).

MOOCs use an e-Learning platform. The MOOC I took used Desire2Learn, but Moodle and Coursera are also popular options. All the e-learning platforms are similar in that they offer a web-based interface for the instructor to posts text-based notes or readings, lecture videos,  forum style discussion boards for students to post questions to the instructor or fellow students, and online quizzes.

E-leaning is one of the areas I consult on and I have blogged a lot about this already (see my prior posts on e-learning).  For this post, I'll focus on the differences between MOOCs and online courses generally.

All the challenges I have identified with e-learning are present and often compounded with MOOCs (e.g., lack of presence of instructor and students, minimal interactions, etc.). There are the same benefits too (e.g., distance and time barriers removed), but the benefits are not as many

From an institution perspective, MOOCs are a good marketing opportunity. It is a way to introduce prospective students in a low risk environment to programs and faculty. It is also a great way to disseminate knowledge for altruistic reasons. From a student perspective, the selling point of MOOCs is their price - free. You can't beat free!

Did I mention free? But there are other advantages beside the price or lack thereof.

Despite attending one of the largest universities in Canada, I haven't taken a lot of courses on my research interests at my home school as there hasn't been courses on my exact subject matter offerred. Considering the large number of universities and colleges worldwide offering MOOCs, one can choose from a large number of schools, which makes it likely you'll find a relevant course for you somewhere.This gives one access to an exciting array of schools and professors not limited by location country or cost.

I also like that the class I took was pass or fail (i.e., no grades) - with the opportunity to redo any tests that were failed. This meant that I could focus on learning for learning sake and not for the primary reason of getting a good grade (which is ruining education at all levels). It was really refreshing and rewarding to take such a class.

I also loved how my course combined the standard e-learning techniques (i.e. online reading and multiple choice tests) with applied projects in applicable software. As so much software in any field is online now, it is great to be able to combine theory with hands-one experience in one course. We used a trial version of the software, so we got access to mainstream, premium software for no cost!

As MOOCs are designed, I believe, primarily to be a marketing tool for universities and thus reach a wide and large array of prospective students, the material tends to be at a general level.  The course I completed had students from all levels of academic backgrounds. So one is studying with people with no post-secondary education to PhD students and working professionals in the field to absolute newbies. There are also many students from various countries with differing levels of technical and English skills (from almost none to proficient in both). So to design a course around such divergent skills and backgrounds is difficult. Thus the first few modules in my course was way too basic for anyone at an undergraduate level or above. This wasn't a huge problem as I could breeze through those and by the final few modules the material was much more insightful and helpful.

The diversity of the students would also be a great way to meet and interact with other people interesting in the same topics, yet MOOCs in being "massive" and for a short duration don't provide any feasible means for students to meet and engage with one another.

I also have gripes about people who don't read the FAQs and post stupid questions to the forum, but that's people for you. Because the class was free, there were times when the class felt like it was third-rate - there were lots of typos and  poor quality material at times. I realize one gets what one pays for - but from an institutional, marketing perspective it defeats the MOOCs purpose to be perceived as second or third rate.

Overall,  however, my experience was really good. I'm sold on MOOCs. In fact, I start another MOOC next week!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Spam Poetry

A couple years ago, I had to turn off allowing unmoderated comments to this blog as I was getting mostly spam.  I've configured the blog to email me for approval to post any comments. I still get mostly spam, but one I received today was something special - it was downright poetic.

Of course, the "comment" had nothing to do with my blog post. And it appears to have been written by a robot with minimal knowledge of English. In the end, it is a plug  for someone's search engine optimization service (a highly ineffective plug at that). Yet somehow the comment works as thought-provoking free verse on my blog and life in general.

Below is the spam-poem as it arrived to me today, uneditted except to remove the plug and with line breaks as provided by the spam-poet. Enjoy:
I loved as much as you will receive carried out right here.
The sketch is tasteful, your authored material
stylish. nonetheless, you command get got an nervousness
over that you wish be delivering the following. unwell unquestionably come more
again as exactly the same
nearly a lot often inside case you shield this increase.
I received barely intelligible and bizarre comments before, but this is this one charted new ground.  I think I'll collect other similar spam-poems to compile an online anthology. At least, these "comments" will have demonstrated some worth, however unintentional.