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Friday, May 20, 2005

A cop on 'Grand Theft Auto' & other gaming news

Star Wars was the top story this past week for a lot of people, Senate filibustering for others, but the *real* story for gamers of all ages this week was the console wars. They've heated up again. Sony's Playstation 3, Nintendo's Game Boy Micro, and Microsoft's Xbox 360 were all on display and vying for attention at the huge E3 games expo in Los Angeles this week. Video games are actually a big all-around story, given that they're now a $10 billion industry, having surpassed the film industry. Journalist, dad, and publisher Larry Magid was covering E3 and got to talking with a Los Angeles police officer who was guarding Sony's Playstation 3 exhibit and controlling crowds while trying out Playstation Portable. They got to talking about "Grand Theft Auto," an M-rated game in which a lot of cops get killed. Click to this week's issue of my newsletter to see what the officer had to say.

Web work improves reading: Study

A study conducted in two Maryland public middle schools, one rural and one urban, found that "7th and 8th graders who used three "online field trips" scored higher on a national standardized reading comprehension test than those who used traditional learning methods alone. The virtual field trips were developed by Maryland Public Television (MPT), which conducted the study of their effectiveness. On the field trips - "Pathways to Freedom: Maryland & the Underground Railroad" , "Exploring Maryland's Roots" , and "Knowing Poe: the Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe" - students "explore, learn and retain curriculum content through numerous highly engaging interactive experiences and activities," according to MPT. The results, the press release says, were "improved students' reading performance on the Gates-MacGinitie Standardized Reading Test and pre-post content assessments," and "improved reading among the poorest readers," and "improved reading comprehension among low-income students."

Amber Alerts on phones

The Amber Alert system is expanding so that cellphone users who can receive text messages can "opt in" to the free service and be alerted about missing and kidnapped children. "Cingular Wireless, Nextel Communications, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless are among the nine cellphone carriers that will participate in the program, along with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and wireless industry group CTIA," CNET reports. The participating companies represent 183 million cellphone customers. "Amber Alerts were named for Amber Hagerman, a Texas girl who was kidnapped and murdered in the late 1990s," CNET adds.

Microsoft to offer 1-stop PC security

Microsoft's been busy on the PC-security front as well as in gaming. There was a lot of coverage about the "Windows OneCare" PC-security service it plans to offer next year (it launched an internal test this week), the Washington Post reports. OneCare "contains tools to fight spyware and viruses, a firewall to block sketchy data (incoming and outgoing), and patches security holes." It will also offer "computer care tools such as disk defragging and file repair, and scheduled data backup features that will save critical data such as photos and financial information to CDs or DVDs," ZDNET adds. Here's further coverage from the New York Times, BBC. Meanwhile, after five months of testing and 1 million downloads, Microsoft has also released the final version of its desktop search tool, competing with those of Google and Yahoo, CNET reports - you know, what to use to find all that stuff on the family hard drive.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

More browser choices

For a while Microsoft's Internet Explorer was virtually the only game in town. Then there was Firefox and, with lower numbers, Opera. Now there's Netscape 8.0, a sort of hybrid of Explorer and Firefox, a San Jose Mercury News blog reports. "To protect its users from the several high-profile security vulnerabilities in IE, [Netscape] will by default view sites using the Firefox rendering engine," according to "Good Morning Silicon Valley." "But when it encounters 'trusted' Web sites designed specifically for Internet Explorer, it will switch to the IE rendering engine" for better family PC security and prettier pages, apparently. Then a little editorializing (it is a blog, after all): "That's a neat trick, but really at this point I far prefer the security and elegant simplicity of Firefox to anything even remotely associated with Active X."

Speaking of Firefox, if you use it, make sure you have the latest version 1.0.4 - it's more secure, the BBC reports. And, just for fun, check out these Firefox promo videos.

Monitoring kids, monitoring workers

If you have online teenagers at your house, you may've received privacy complaints where blogging's concerned. What the complainers sometimes forget is just how public the Internet is. What privacy, we might ask, are we invading? This is just one parent's opinion, but parents have a right, if not a duty, to see what a child's posting, certainly if anyone else can. Now it looks like parental monitoring of kids' online activities is good practice for future employment. A study released this week found that about half of all US employers have fired workers for misuse of the Internet, which means, of course, that they're monitoring Net use. The study, by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute, found that about 75% of companies monitor workers' Web site connections, 65% use filtering software, and 5% use GPS technology to monitor cell phones, CNET reports.

Fla. dad confronts teen bloggers

The headline in the Naples Daily News - "Father angry over daughter's online activities at school" - is a little misleading. The blogging that upset him wasn't just happening at school, and Palmetto Ridge High's Web-filtering system wasn't going to catch this activity. Only close monitoring - by parents and teachers, not software - might've turned up the sexually explicit photos and text posted by his daughter and her friends. But the phenomenon was just as much about their social lives as about technology. According to the Daily News, the dad, John Wilkinson, "made the final posting for his daughter [in the blog] to many of her friends: 'by posting those pictures of yourself and the other girls ... on the Web, not only have you publicly degraded yourself, but you have run dangerously close to the wire of committing a federal offense by posting what could be construed as child pornography on the Web.'" Wilkinson went public with this experience to alert other parents, the Daily News reports.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Senator's ID stolen

On purpose, that is. To see how easy it could be, Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, chairman of the US Senate Commerce Committee, told his staff to steal his identity, and they did, the New York Times reports. The senator talked about the experiment in a subsequent committee hearing. A professor at Johns Hopkins University gave his computer science class a similar assignment: to see how much personal information they could gather with only $50 per group of 3-4 students and using only legal, public sources of information. "Several groups managed to gather well over a million records, with hundreds of thousands of individuals represented in each database" and layers of info on each individual. (One group discovered that 1,500 dead people were listed as active registered voters, and 50 of them "somehow voted in the last election.") Read the story to find out the interesting tactics they used, online and offline. Of course the Times points out the ease of access, but it also cites views on both sides of this debate and shows 1) how ambivalent we really are about personal info being so accessible and 2) how tough it would be find and maintain a regulatory balance between openness and privacy because, as the John Hopkins professor said, collectively, we don't know how much privacy or convenience we want. Another takeaway from all this: Our kids' tech know-how is good preparation for higher ed, careers, and contributing to solutions to this complicated problem.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

File-sharer's dad goes to court

His daughter began using the Kazaa file-sharing service two years ago when she was 13, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. Dave Bink, the dad, wasn't aware of the "hundreds of songs, including 'All You Wanted' by Michelle Branch, 'Eat You Alive' by Limp Bizkit and 'U Don't Have to Call' by Usher," on the family PC. Plus, because he only listens to Led Zeppelin and The Doors, he thought it was a joke when he was sued for file-sharing. Now "he faces this choice: Pay $3,750 to settle or go to court, where he may be ordered to pay at least $750 per song." His daughter didn't think she was doing anything wrong either, the Journal Sentinel adds. "Until last week, Kazaa advertised itself as '100 percent legal'." According to the Journal Sentinel, Bink's chances of winning aren't great. It cites an earlier case in which a Chicago woman sued by the RIAA didn't feel she'd infringed copyrights, decided to go to court, and received a pre-trial summary judgment from a judge, ordering her to pay $22,500 "for the downloading of 30 songs." A new development is a class-action lawsuit started by a family in Ohio (see my 4/29/05 issue). See also "File-sharer's mom sues back."

Scary new phishing scam

As tempting as it might be, even if the email from "your bank" comes with your actual account number and PIN, don't act on it! That's all the more reason not to act on what it says. Because this is a new, more sophisticated kind of phishing scam, CNET reports. It's not part of a mass emailing. It's a phishing technique that "uses stolen consumer data to rip off individual account holders at specific banks." CNET cites computer security firm Cyota as reporting that "the phishing emails arrive at bank customers' in-boxes featuring accurate account information, including the customer's name, email address and full account number. The messages are crafted to appear as if they have been sent by the banks in order to verify other account information, such as an ATM personal-identification number or a credit card CVD code, a series of digits printed on the back of most cards as an extra form of identification." The basic rule is simple and needs to get communicated: Don't click to banks, PayPal, or any other financial site from an email. If you need to go to your account, it's better to open your browser, type the URL into the browser window, and access your account through the bank's home page.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Spam from Germany

Gotten a lot of German-language spam lately? I sure have. The best thing to do is just delete the emails without opening them, suggests the Washington Post. "As for keeping them out of your inbox, you might be out of luck [because most spam filters use English-language keywords to block spam]. Last year's barrage lasted two weeks before petering out. That is probably what will happen this time." Last year's spate was caused by a variant of the Sober worm that propagated by using people's email address books, the Post continued. The messages in both German and English are political; they're not trying to sell us anything, except maybe right-wing, German nationalist views. See the Post piece for some interesting history and present-day context.

'The secret life of boys'

That's the headline of a thoughtful, thorough Boston Globe article about US boys' increasing exposure to pornography. "Hard-core [online] porn has apparently gone mainstream," the Globe reports, citing the views of both young people and adults on this development. What worries psychologists quoted in the article is what happens to a normal biological curiosity about "what girls look like" when it's met with material that's a lot more hard-core than they could've ever expected. One psychologist is concerned about the impact on boys' relationships with girls and later women, because they're "beginning to think that this kind of human behavior and relationship is average and acceptable." Another psychologist told the Globe that viewing porn sites on a daily basis, as have patients of his as young as 10, changes boys' expectations of girls, which "by default changes the reality for girls." And it bothers him that girls aren't outraged because of it (the Globe quotes one 8th-grade girl as saying matter-of-factly that "all the boys" surf porn). At the end of this 5-page article there's good advice for parents who find a child's downloading porn regularly. [On this subject, see also the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's "Is childhood becoming oversexed?"]

But there's no advice about what to do about the technologies that make it so available (not just the Internet). Probably rightly so, since the solutions are as individual as the families. For one family it might suffice to limit kids' Web searches to the search engines that have filtering (see "Kid-friendly search engines"). For another it might be computer time controls that allow online time only when parents are home. Still another family might choose to install filtering or monitoring software. It depends on age, communication, and trust levels in a family, with solutions that keep getting adjusted to fit those levels - sometimes a different solution for each child. For info on parental-controls software, see,, or Consumer Reports' latest review of 11 filters. (I'd like to hear from you if you wish there was an online forum for discussing tough issues like this on the tech-parenting front - email me or post just below.)

Multitasking, multi-tech teens

This is not news to parents of teenagers, but it makes for interesting reading (and viewing): CBS's "Generation M: Natural Multitaskers." The article and 2.5 minute video (clicked to from the Web page) zoom in on 13-year-old Nick, who has an Xbox, a GameCube, a TV, a VCR, a connected computer, and all sorts of portable devices in his room. Nick perfectly represents the "media saturated" "Generation M" described in the Kaiser Family Foundation study of that name (see my 3/11 issue). CBS quotes Gen M-ers as saying they just can't do one thing at a time and a researcher as saying they indeed can cope with distraction in ways we grownups can't.