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Friday, December 10, 2004

On parents' minds

Your comments and experiences can be valuable to other parents, so - with the writers' permission - I like to publish as many as possible. Five readers have emailed me recently about, parent-teacher e-conferences, and the Net in the lives of children. For their complete comments, please click to this week's issue of my newsletter. On email communications between parents and teachers, Paula in Wisconsin wrote: "I have to tell you that this is a WONDERFUL way to use email. I keep in touch with the teachers of one of my sons on a weekly basis...." Carol in Massachusetts wrote: "I think that email is a great replacement for the typical teacher-written note: friendly comments, reminders, simple questions, and some kid praise, but I think that it would be a disaster to use email for a parent conference, because email can be misinterpreted...." But she thoughtfully provided some practical guidelines for real-time conferences via email, and they make a lot of sense. Ron in Massachusetts, parents of girls 13 and 16, wrote: "I am not an unabashed fan of the Web, but I am convinced that ... if a Web service (most likely a 'walled garden' on the Web) offered carefully chosen, professionally produced and imaginatively presented games, activities, news, arts and adventures with well-researched learning value, a healthy interactive [children's] community would flourish." Mom and reader Julie emailed us a "warning for all parents of teen-age/computer literate kids" who spend time at, a very popular kids' site, where - after registering - they can create, care for, chat about, explore, shop for, and play games with animated pets. She wrote: "This is my warning: Their message boards are not monitored by responsible adults." She gives some examples of people (ostensibly kids but there's not way of knowing) swapping personal information in chat and ends with, "Please supervise your children's online activities!"

Send in your comments, experiences, or solutions anytime, or post them here (click on "comments" just below). They are always welcome!

From blogging to podcasting

Does your kid podcast? If s/he's an aspiring DJ or standup comedian, s/he just might. Basically, podcasting is blogging, audio-style. "The idea behind a podcast is simple, yet brilliant," the Christian Science Monitor reports. On the listener end, it's the audio equivalent to TiVo. "Instead of using portable MP3 players such as the iPod only for listening to music, new software called iPodder allows one to download prerecorded [usually home-grown] radio shows onto the devices." The listener can go to a podcaster's Web site, sign up as a subscriber, and each time the DJ/podcaster posts a new "show," it automatically downloads onto the subscriber's PC so s/he can listen anytime s/he wants. Radio broadcasters like the US's NPR and Canada's CBC are beginning to podcast now, the same way print news sites like the New York Times (and Net Family News!) provide RSS feeds people can subscribe to. "For the most part ... the medium's pioneers are do-it-yourselfers" doing the audio version of local-access cable TV, the Monitor adds, pointing out a stay-at-home dad who podcasts his own talk show, "The Bitterest Pill," during his daughter's naptime. "After an introductory tune that sounds like a mash-up between a mariachi band and the funk bass of the 'Seinfeld' theme, the Los Angeles native launches into a breathless, free-form soliloquy" about everything from child-rearing to politics to "an embarrassing encounter with Meg Ryan at a party." For other examples, check out the podcast directories, and

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Teens can blog at MSN too

Move over LiveJournal, Blogger, Xanga, etc. As of today, Microsoft hosts blogs and online journals too - at MSN Spaces. As at Google's Blogger and so many others, it's free (for those with free Hotmail or MSN Messenger accounts), the Associated Press reports. The Washington Post says that, "in our testing, MSN Spaces performed so-so at best. The photo publisher choked over a dial-up connection and wouldn't accept any images," and text entries occasionally disappeared. The blogging community says Spaces censors people's posts, and CNET reports that the service "has sparked a new game for some of its users: trying to circumvent its censorship controls." More concerning is MS's legal fine print, which suggests that, once posted, bloggers' content is not their own. The legal verbiage says they're transferring it to Microsoft to "use, copy, distribute, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, reproduce, edit, modify, translate and reformat," as quoted by

Musicians ok with P2P

In ethical discussions about music file-sharing (to borrow from Jack Black's line in the film School of Rock), kids will often explain their guilt-free file-sharing as a way of "sticking it to The Man" ("he" being the recording industry, which has sued thousands of file-sharers to date). Ethics aside for the moment, we've heard a lot from the recording industry so far, but very little from musicians (and kids will tell you the artists get only a small percentage of each CD's price). The Pew Internet & American Life project actually got musicians' views; it surveyed 2,793 of them, mostly with "day jobs," MediaDailyNews reports, in what turned out to be the week's biggest tech story. "The vast majority [of these musicians] do not see online file-sharing as a big threat to creative industries," the study found (as quoted in the Washington Post's round-up on this story). "Across the board, artists and musicians are more likely to say that the Internet has made it possible for them to make more money from their art than they are to say it has made it harder to protect their work from piracy or unlawful use," according to the study, which also found that "two-thirds of artists say peer-to-peer file sharing poses a minor threat or no threat at all to them." MediaDailyNews reported that "the Recording Artists Coalition, which represents musicians signed by major studio labels, sharply condemned [the Pews] report," condemning its methodology (only 8% of Pew's sample said they supported themselves entirely with their music). And so we have a more detailed picture now: Emerging musicians and garage bands have a very different view of file-sharers than that of established, high-profile ones. Now Pew needs to survey file-sharers and ask them what kinds of music they're using the likes of BitTorrent and eDonkey to find!

Meanwhile, BNA Internet Law's Michael Geist took the time to figure out the real impact of file-sharing, at least on the Canadian music industry (he writes for the Toronto Star): The record companies' "loss claims are greatly exaggerated and ... P2P is only marginally responsible for sales declines." In a second article he reports that Canadian artists have not suffered financially from P2P.

New Delhi, New York: Students' jam session

It's the kind of networked-students project that would defy any backlash against the Internet. Some 450 high school students in New York and 200 in New Delhi communicated directly (online) with their peers, comparing northern and southern music in both countries and watching and listening to each other play pieces on giant screens in both locations. "The finale was a jam session over the oceans," the New York Times reports, describing an event in Carnegie Hall's annual Global Encounters series. "The musicians in New Delhi established a rhythm, the bluegrass band in [New York's] Zankel Hall gradually matched it, and eventually the brass band worked its way into the mix. Soon everybody was playing 'Sweet Georgia Brown.' A troupe of dancers in New Delhi twirled to the familiar refrain, their hands in the air, and the principal of Delhi Public School, Dwarka joined them as the American students clapped in time." Partly responsible: renowned Indian drummer Sandeep Das, who has worked with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project. The Times says he "wanted Indian students to see that there is more to American music than MTV."

A teacher on video games

It's pretty amazing when you can read a commentary, then read a dialog between its reading public and its writer. That's the case with a Washington Post commentary by Patrick Welsh, who sounds like a very good, caring English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. It's a fairly predictable but thoughtful observation about his students (mostly male, he says) as gamers. Then there's the discussion with what readers, many of whom appear to be parents, some of whom play video games themselves. Try to make it down to the comment of a 35-year-old IT director of a multinational company and that of a reader whose "63-year-old mother is addicted to role-playing games (RPGs), like Final Fantasy" and finally the one (+ Welsh's response) at the bottom by a programmer, who says, "Halo 2, like Halo, is an awful game.... They are the Danielle Steele novels of computer games. Try a game called 'Out of This World' for something stylistic, immersive, and compelling, yet fun to play." With these, the kids-'n'-video-games picture gets a little more granular. Readers, I'd love to get your reactions, at least to the discussion (if there isn't time for Welsh's opinion piece), especially if you have gamers at your house.

For context: As if to illustrate how pervasive video games are becoming (Halo 2's premier last month rivaled that of any Hollywood blockbuster), the Washington Post reported today that musicians are flocking to video games - it's becoming big money to get their songs onto game soundtracks.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Cell-phone cheating in Korea

This cheating incident looks more like an epidemic and probably has a lot to do with South Korea's high-pressure university entrance exam. "Police questioned 350 South Korean students [last week] and more were under suspicion in a widening probe into cheating that has uncovered a link between two national obsessions - education and mobile phones," Reuters reports, adding that the exam is seen by many young Koreans as the single most important, future-deciding event in their lives. Hundreds of the some 600,000 students who took the exam are alleged to have cheated with their phones (75% of the country's 48 million people have at least one mobile phone, according to Reuters). "Others are being questioned for paying college students to take the exam in their place using forged identification." [For redundancy, here's a link to the same report at CNET.] As for the US, 62% of 12,000 high school students surveyed "admitted to cheating on an exam at least once," according to a Detroit News report on what US educators are doing about it (thanks to for pointing this story out).

New threat center for IM-borne viruses

If you haven't already, tell all instant-messagers at your house to look out for IM-borne viruses. They're now a big enough threat to family PC security to have their own threat center (a clearinghouse where "a consortium of instant-message and antivirus-software companies ... gather and disseminate intelligence on the viruses"), the Wall Street Journal reports. What should your kids know? To be suspicious of anything that a stranger tells them to download, click on, view, or listen to (especially if it has a .exe extension), but also that their friends send them, because these viruses utilize buddy lists' screennames to self-propagate. Here's an example of a mild virus that went around the popular MSN Messenger early this year, as reported by CNET (see also my "Instant-messaging risks & tips").

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Users expect more of ISPs

Do you feel your Internet service provider should protect your family PC from viruses and other Net-borne nasties? That's what UK Net users apparently think. UK market research firm MORI found that 58% of consumers surveyed feel that ISPs need "to work harder to protect their customers," ZDNET UK reports. And 54% even said they'd pay more for worry-free service. As I reported earlier, AOL already figured this out and is trying to deliver on this expectation - its new version 9.0 just needs a little work, according to a Washington Post review.

Computers harm learning: German study

Excessive use of them, that is. The study, about the impact of computer use on students' math and reading performance, was huge: It surveyed 175,000 15-year-old students in 31 countries. It found that their performance in reading and math "had suffered significantly among students who have more than one computer at home," the Christian Science Monitor reports. "And while students seemed to benefit from limited use of computers at school," those who used them there several times a week experienced a significant performance decline in school too. On the other hand, the researchers "also studied the effects of computer use on test scores, and found that greater use of computers in the home impacted positively on test scores," The Register reported. The key problems cited by the University of Munich study's lead researcher, Ludger Woessmann, were overuse of computers and using them to replace "other kinds of teaching," according to the Monitor.

Reactions to the study were, predictably, mixed. Some educators felt the findings show how ed-tech research has come to resemble "conventional wisdom about weight loss, which seems to shift with the tide," the Monitor reports. Others see a "maturing debate," from either total rejection or blind faith in tech to better appreciation of where and how technology is useful in education. The Monitor cites journalist Todd Oppenheimer's survey of research in this field for his 2003 book, "The Flickering Mind," which found that "the most thorough studies have found computers to have little effect either way, although some guiding principles are beginning to emerge." Besides it sheer size and breadth, the other distinguishing factor about the study was its effort "to isolate computers as a performance-shaping factor," the Monitor says. My takeaway: Now that we're settling on a less starry-eyed, more balanced view of tech in the classroom, maybe we can get on with what's much more important: helping our kids develop critical thinking about how they use technology and what they find on the Web.

This news could be another bulleted item in my feature last week, "Family PC: Backlash coming?". Here's a 10/03 Monitor review of "The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom," when it was published by Random House last year.

Search engines: Getting to know you

We mentioned Jeeves-the-search-butler's makeover, as he gets increasingly cozy with those he serves. Well, it's a trend, the BBC reports. "Not content with providing access to the millions of Web sites, many [search engines] now offer ways that do a better job of remembering, cataloguing and managing all the information you come across. In addition to Jeeves, there's Blinkx, which builds on the desktop search feature that builds on search engine technology. In other words, it, like other search-engines-cum-desktop-search tools, are trying to become the new productivity software. For example, Blinkx desktop search "watches" what you're working on - document, email, etc. - and "suggests" sites, video clips, blogs, or documents on your own PC that are relevant to your task. "In the latest release of Blinkx, the company has added what it calls smart folders. Once created the folders act as persistent queries that automatically sweep the web for pages related to their subject and catalogues relevant information, documents or incoming emails, on hard drives too." The BBC also points to Google, Apple, Copernic, Enfish, and X1 as part of the trend (it appears the last three all charge for their products).

BTW, another new search engine just covered by CNET is - a slightly business-focused one that allows you to "super-target" your search by prioritizing the words you type into the search box (the name might be a little hard to remember - or to remember how to spell!).

Monday, December 06, 2004

Finding a sitter online

More and more parents are turning to the Net for a night out, the Washington Post reports. Pointing to sites like,,, and Chicago-based (the largest, which boasts a database of 15,000 sitters in 15 cities), the Post says parents pay an average of $10/hour for child care offered by sites like these. That is, $10/hour plus a membership fee (monthly or quarterly ones of $5-10 or annual fees of between $25 and $40 (rates are typically lower than those of traditional child-care referral agencies). "Parents can log on to the site, specify when and where they need a sitter and identify transportation and other preferences. SitterCity, for example, offers 40 criteria from which parents can choose, including whether the sitter smokes, knows certain languages, or is available on holidays (New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day are the most popular)." The sites provide contact info, references and, as with sellers on eBay, feedback from other sitter seekers on specific sitters' quality of care. "Parents arrange their own interviews and negotiate pay with the sitter (some sites have minimum rates, others have suggested amounts)."