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Friday, January 07, 2005

Family tech at turn-of-the-year

"We're swimming in doodads and options - text messaging and search engines, Blackberries and blogs, Wi-fi, cell phones that try to do all of the above, and the promise that we haven't seen anything yet," the Seattle Times reports. Yet, this flood of "convenience" makes a lot of us feel uneasy - our children less so, however. Is this low-grade concern-in-the-background just a grown-up thing - part of not having childhoods with one foot in cyberspace, playing with all the technologies that turn it into a social scene, insta-library, and entertainment service? It's hard to say - there hasn't been a lot of research on this question. Fortunately, someone uniquely qualified - Prof. David Levy at the University of Washington, who did his PhD work at Stanford in computer science and artificial intelligence - is looking into this question of how technology affects our quality of life. For more on this and further links, please see my latest newsletter.

Microsoft's free help with PC pests

Microsoft is now offering anti-spyware software for free (while it's in beta testing), at least until this summer, CNET reports. Here's the download page. It sounds like a neat product: "The look and feel of the anti-spyware beta is similar to those of products from vendors such as McAfee and Norton, which offer people the ability to launch manual scans for unwanted applications and to program the tool to run automated searches. Microsoft's application is designed to monitor all system and software changes made to a particular computer and launches pop-up announcements to let customers know when the system has detected an attempt to install spyware," according CNET. That's more than other free spyware programs do, such as Ad-Aware and Spybot. Here's Wall Street Journal tech writer Walt Mossberg's year-end "Primer on Fighting Spyware." [From the Music to Our Ears Dept., Washington Post techie Rob Pegoraro writes in his helpful article, "Six Steps to Safer Surfing": "It's completely feasible to put a computer on the Internet - even one running Windows, the most attacked, least secure operating system around - and never suffer a single successful attack."]

Anti-virus help is also available at for free, the Associated Press reports. The software, which Microsoft said could be downloaded from its site yesterday (here), removes viruses rather than prevents infection, so you'll still need security software like that of McAfee's or Symantec's, at least until Microsoft starts selling software that competes with these (probably second half of '05, according to the AP). The free virus-removal software will be automatically updated monthly, Microsoft says. Here's ZDNET's review of other virus-prevention products. For AOL's offerings in this area, see "$14.95 for peace of mind" and "AOL's PC security reviewed."

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Phone texting & disaster relief

As popular a leisure activity phone texting is in Europe and Asia (and increasingly among teens in the US), it has become an important tool in dealing with natural disasters. "The messages can get through [and did in the tsunami's aftermath in Asia last week] even when the cell phone signal is too weak to sustain a spoken conversation," the BBC reports. And SMS (for "short message service" or phone-texting) networks can handle a lot more traffic than cell-phone or land-line networks, it adds. Plus, even where there's no Internet cafe and land lines are down, there's almost always someone who has a mobile phone to get word out (or in). The BBC tells the story of Sanjaya Senanayake with Sri Lankan TV (also a blogger). "He was one of the first on the scene after the tsunami destroyed much of the Sri Lankan coast. Cell phone signals were weak. Land lines were unreliable. So Mr Senanayake started sending out text messages. The messages were not just the latest news they were also an on-the-ground assessment of 'who needs what and where'." Read the BBC piece to see how Sanjaya and Dan Lane, "a text message guru" in the UK are creating the "Alert Retrieval Cache," a system to "link those in need with those who can help." [This is a little off topic for Net Family News, but age isn't an issue, here - your child could well be the next Sanjaya Senanyake or Dan Lane (next week, not necessarily when s/he's grownup, certainly!).]

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Blogs booming (teens' too)

A sure sign that blogging has arrived was the news that a blog called Tsunami Help was among the Top 10 most visited humanitarian sites by January 1. According to Web traffic monitor, it was No. 10 in a list that included,,, and That's on top of news from the latest Pew Internet & American Life report that - even though 62% of US Net users don't know what a blog is - 27% (or 32 million Americans) read blogs, a 58% jump in less than a year, and 27% have created blogs (we suspect a lot of them are teenagers). Here's the BBC on this news, reported by all the tech news outlets. As for the Web as a whole, here's the New York Times on how Lisa Bauman, a nurse in Austin, Texas, used the Net to search for relatives traveling in Indonesia when the tsunami struck - a search that illustrated both the Net's "extraordinary reach" and its limitations ("Finally, on Thursday night, her mother reached Mr. Bauman by telephone and learned that all in the family were fine," the Times reports).

For insights into the teen version of the blog culture, see """>Teens' blog life," "Xanga & other teen hangouts," and a mom writing about her daughter's online journal, or blog.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

A 'virtual' teacher's view

"Some educators are aghast when I explain how delighted I was to receive my world-literature student's proposal to film a documentary instead of the standard analytical essay on 'The Epic of Gilgamesh.' The ancient Sumerian legend of a man devastated by the death of his closest friend resonated deeply with my student, who had recently witnessed the murder of her best friend. Her work on this documentary ensures that she'll never forget the Sumerian king and his sorrow, so like her own," writes Melissa Hart in the Christian Science Monitor. This is just a taste of the extraordinary rapport Melissa - an English and history teacher at Ojai, Calif.-based Laurel Springs [online] School - seems to have developed with her distant students, contrary to the pronouncement of one educator of elite young athletes that virtual school "offers endless possibilities," but "you will never have that wonderful teacher who inspires you for life." If you click to Melissa's commentary, be sure to get all the way to the bottom. BTW, she has taught championship figure-skaters, young Hollywood actors, Olympic hopefuls, and world travelers, as well as recovering drug and alcohol addicts, victims of bullies, and children who are in bereavement and chronically ill - "students for whom a traditional five-day-a-week school is impractical."

Monday, January 03, 2005

Virtual tourists

Have you taken a virtual tour of a university with a high school student at your house? If so, you're in good company. In the latest of the Pew Internet & American Life project's reports on Americans' online activities and pursuits, it found that 45% of US adults online (54 million people) have taken a virtual tour - 2 million people on a typical day. Popular destinations include museums, tourist and vacation locales (e.g., the White House and the Taj Mahal), colleges and prep schools, real estate, historical exhibits, parks and nature preserves, and hotels and motels. Here's the San Jose Mercury News on this. Other recent Pew findings about Americans' online activities include:

* 53 million US adults use instant-messaging. *How* people use IM "varies widely across the age groups. Of interest to parents: Younger people use IM "not only as a way to expand and remain connected their social circle, but also as a form of self-expression, through use of customized away messages, profiles and buddy icons." They use these expressive tools "more frequently than the protective tools that allow them to block unwanted communications. Buddy list management also occurs relatively infrequently, with users reporting adding or deleting buddies from their list no more than a few times a month."
* 26% of US adult Net users (33 million people) have rated a product, service, or person using an online rating system.
* 84% have used search engines (107 million people), and 87% of those say the find the info they want most of the time.