Cellcraft

I recently heard about a upcoming computer game called Cellcraft. The website isn’t updated much, but you can check it out at http://www.cellcraftgame.com/. It’s being made somewhere in North Carolina, but details on the web site are scarce. Anyway, the point of the project is to use a computer game to teach cell biology. This isn’t really a new idea, of course, but probably what caught my attention was the name of the game.

“Cellcraft”, as in “Starcraft” ?

When I heard the name “Cellcraft”, I immediately thought of Starcraft, possibly due to the impending release of Starcraft 2. Of course, this was probably the intent of the authors of the game. I was a bit excited, imagining a real-time strategy game where you build mitochondria to power armies of proteins, or rally the immune system to fend of viral invaders. Call me a nerd, but wouldn’t it be sweet to have a game on par with Starcraft that had a cell biology theme? Unfortunately the actual game seems to be built in Flash, so you have some idea of what it will be like. Even so, I think this is a great idea for teaching biology, though I was perhaps disappointed that it’s no SC.

I guess I’ll probably take a look at it when it gets released, though, just for fun. The most recent blog post says it’s in “alpha” stages and being tested in the classroom. Supposedly the final release will be open for all to play. Who knows, maybe I’ll be using something like this in a biology class I teach in the future. This reminds me Times Attacks, the multiplication tables video game that teaches times tables in a doom-style first-person-shooter. Right now, these seem like novel ideas, but kids these days are so attached to computers in some form that this may be the only way to get them to learn things in the future.

How search engines are destroying the internet

Back in the day, the internet was built to deliver information to people. These days, it seems like I come across more and more pages that were built to deliver information to robots. Because of the new advertising supremacy of the search engine market (who uses phone books anymore, anyway?), it makes sense that there are huge profits to be had in internet marketing. Just look at Google, for example–they barely even existed 10 years ago, and now have billions in revenue from sponsored search clicks.

While I don’t dismay at the growth of the web, I find more and more little things that annoy me about the way things are playing out. One of the biggest is the growing presence of pages that were built for search spiders. While these pages are usually intended for people to find them eventually, it is apparent that the foremost goal on the part of the creator was to attract high search rankings. Once the internet is built for easy-of-navigation for robots, instead of for humans, well, I think we’ve hit a new low. I’ve divided these pages up into 3 classes that annoy me:

Search Portal Pages

We’ve all run into the stupid portal pages that have absolutely no content, instead displaying a bunch of “sponsored listings” related to your original search query. These pages make money by paying for clicks (or “natural” optimization) to get visitors to visit, then making money back when people click on the sponsored links. Really, they are an unnecessary middleman that only makes the web less efficient. They are like a trap, hoping to lure unsuspecting visitors into believing they actually have content. Sometimes they use domain name misspellings that are only one character off of a common website, like “gmai.com”. These pages are optimized for search engine rankings and build elaborate link networks to fool search engines into believing they are popular and useful websites.

Cryptic Text

Have you ever stumbled across a site that seems cryptically written, repeating the same phrases over and over again? Because of the importance of keyword density, seo-savvy writers go through text to make sure the key search terms they are targeting are used enough in the page content to convince a robot that the page is relevant. Unfortunately, sometimes this makes it extremely difficult for humans to wade through the muck and get useful information from the site. I’ll post some links as I find them, but it always bother me when I start reading the text on a site (sometimes even an e-commerce site where I’m trying to buy something) and realizing that the repetition and phrasing was written for a computer, not for me. Once again, the end result is for humans to find the pages and buy the products (or what have you), but the method of attracting visitors is to make the text so convoluted as to render it useless.

Uninformative Titles

Lastly, the most recent thing that has begun to bother me is websites whose titles, once again, are simply a list of keywords. In Search Engine Optimization, one of the most important ways to make your page search-engine friendly is to use search keywords in the page title (that’s the bar on the top of the browser). Search engines figure like so: if the title of the page is about “red widgets,” then the page probably has something to do with that so we’ll make it come up for that search term. This can obviously be abused…but what really bothers me is when pages put keywords first in their title. I go to bookmark the page, or try to find it on a tab in firefox, and I’m unable to locate which page is which because the title of the page is a search keyword–not the name of the company (or whatever).

I’ll give you 2 examples. I recently bookmarked Scottrade.com’s website. Later, when I tried to use the bookmark, I couldn’t find it…I realized it’s because the title of the website isn’t “scottrade,” as I expected, but it’s (I kid you not) “Online discount brokers, Online stock trading, Stock investing, Mutual Funds, IRA – Scottrade.” Does that sound like a title of a web page that was written for a human, or for a search robot? I thought so.

Here’s my second example. Discovercard.com: “Credit cards, gift cards, loans, banking, insurance: Discover Financial Services.” Just to prove that not all finance websites are this bad, kudos go to Wells Fargo and ING Direct, at least, for making their titles more human-readable.

Conclusion

I’m not against optimizing websites for search engines. I worked for a couple of years as a search engine marking director for a web design company. I understand the importance. I just think that things are starting to get out of hand in the above situations. When writers/designers/developers start making robots the first priority, instead of building a useful, understandable, concise website that happens to be search-engine friendly, then I think things have been turned around.

Dell Latitude D630 vs Lenovo Thinkpad T61

The Dell Latitude D630 and the Lenovo Thinkpad T61 are of comparable class, and so many have asked the question of which one is better. I did a lot of research on the two of them and finally came to the conclusion to get the D630, mainly for 1 reason: battery life.

Here I will summarize the information I gathered on the subject in relation to factors that I thought were most important: size, weight, performance, cost, and battery life.

Size

The size is pretty close on these two. I have below used the 14.1″ widescreen T61, since that’s the one that matches the D630. It turns out the T61 is about a millimeter thinner in all directions.

T61: 335.5 x 237 x 27.6 – 31.9 (mm)

D630: 337.1 x 238 x32 (mm)

Weight

I call this difference negligible:

D630: starts at only 4.47 lbs
T61: starts at 5 lbs

Performance

Both had WXGA+ screen availability, which was important to me. The default processor, an Intel T7250 2.0Gz Duo, is exactly the same in the base model for both. RAM is irrelevant, because you can pick up 4GB of Corsair memory from Newegg for under $65, so there’s no point in upgrading the RAM they include (it costs $400+ for 4GB), or giving extra credit to a machine that comes with 1GB instead of 512MB (because you should upgrade it either way, in my opinion). Hard drives start the same too. The only real difference in starting specs is that the Dell comes with a 6-cell battery while the T61 comes with a 4-cell battery…For me graphics is irrelevant because I don’t play new video games.

Cost

At the time of purchase, the cost for similar systems were almost identical. The latitude was slightly (maybe $20) cheaper with basically the same specs, but I just considered them even.

Battery Life

Up until this point, I considered them about even. I probably was leaning toward the T61 because of the reputation Lenovo has for great customer service and long-lasting laptops with no problems. Not that Dell has a negative reputation in either of those categories, but I think consumer opinion is that Lenovo takes the cake. But the battery life is what turned me around.

First of all, the T61 (14.1″ edition) doesn’t have a 9-cell battery option. It only goes up to 7-cell, which, according to the spec sheet, gives up to 6.5 hours (which really means 3 hours of actual use). Furthermore, the optional ultrabay battery is only a 3-cell, and from what I read on the forums, this only gives about an extra 45 minutes to 1 hour of actual use time. On the other hand, the Dell can have a 9-cell primary battery, and a 6-cell media bay battery. Besides this, from what I read on the forums, even with just a 6-cell battery the Dell did significantly better with battery than the T61.

Conclusions

I ended up with the D630. I am very happy with it. I seems to be built very well, I haven’t had any problems with it, and I really do get 4+ hours of battery life (using the computer for browsing, programming, etc) on the 9-cell extended battery. I haven’t seen a need to get the media bay battery yet. I haven’t actually owned a T61 so I can’t give a perfect opinion, but for what it’s worth, I am happy D630 user.

Here are some helpful links if you’re considering this same issue:

Thinkpad T61 Review

T61 spec sheet

Forum discussion and poll

Installing Ubuntu Linux on a Dell Latitude D630

I recently bought a new laptop from Dell. After some difficult option considering, I decided on the Latitude D630 over Lenovo’s T61 Thinkpad. Mostly it came down to the Dell having considerably better battery power.

The D630 came with Windows Vista Basic on it, but I prefer Ubuntu. However, I didn’t want to completely abandon Windows, because sometimes there are programs that I want to run that cannot easily be run on Linux (like computer games). I decided to dual-boot.

I installed the 64-bit edition of Ubuntu 7 Gutsy Gibbon and without much difficulty. The Ubuntu installer guided me through an easy repartitioning of the hard drive by claiming a portion of the Windows partition for the Linux. The Ubuntu boot loader recognized the Windows Vista installation and correctly prompts me on boot which OS to load.

I had no problems with drivers. I had read earlier that some of the integrated Dell wireless cards have some driver issues with Ubuntu, so I elected for an upgraded Intel wireless card. If I recall correctly, everything worked perfectly out of the box, except the sound card. I got instructions for the fix from Martti Kuparinen, whose guide is no longer available:

sudo aptitude install linux-backports-modules
sudo gedit /etc/modprobe.d/alsa-base
options snd-hda-intel model=dell-m42

After a reboot, the sound worked fine. So the installation went really well, and I now use Ubuntu almost exclusively on the laptop. I get 4+ hours of battery life on the extended 9 cell battery.

A few things that I noticed that you may want to consider if you’re thinking about this. First, dual monitor support is difficult. I haven’t been able to get my laptop to connect successfully to a second monitor. Usually I can get it to work in some semblance of the word, but I can only mirror the desktops, and the resolution gives me problems. I was unable to get it to extend the desktop like I wanted it to. This may be due to incompetency on my part, however, as I have only been using Ubuntu (on my desktop) since August 2007, so I’m sure it’s possible. Second, as far as I can tell, there is no way in Ubuntu to instruct the computer to NOT charge the battery, if you have the battery plugged in. I always just have to unplug my battery if I don’t want it charged. But wait, you ask, why wouldn’t I want it charged? Because battery life is prolonged when you don’t leave your battery at max charge all the time. Check out these tips on prolonging lithium ion batteries if you’re interested in more information.

64-bit edition?

Of course I was a bit concerned that installing the 64-bit OS would cause me problems, but it hasn’t been too bad. At this point, they always warn you that some programs may not be able to run on a 64-bit OS, so you’re always safer to just install a 32-bit OS, even if you have a 64-bit processor. In fact, the Windows Vista that came with the laptop was 32-bit…which surprised me, because the processor is 64 bit. I have noticed a few difficulties, though, and I’ll highlight them here. Once again, these may be due to my incompetence, but I’ll present them anyway. First, I seem to have trouble with java applets loading in firefox. For example, the Facebook image upload applet won’t load for me. A quick google search shows one possible solution, but you also will notice that this only works for 32-bit Ubuntu. I also had trouble getting MEGA (bioinformatics software) to work, though they do claim support for Linux through WINE, it only works on a 32-bit OS. But that’s about the limit–I don’t think the 64-bit OS has caused me any other problems.

In conclusion, I think most who are willing to attempt could be successful at installing Ubuntu on a D630.