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Friday, October 07, 2005

The power of games: Insights

Videogames are all over tech news these days, as we enter the holiday shopping season; as Microsoft unveils games for its next-generation Xbox 360, due to be released next month; as the sixth Grand Theft Auto first-person-shooter game is about to hit store shelves; and as Halo goes mobile and into film (produced by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings). For this week's issue of my newsletter, I interviewed experienced gamer David, 16, in Washington State for his view on what makes these alternate-world games so compelling.

X-rated content & other gaming news

Videogame news was hot this week, no doubt in anticipation of the holiday shopping season. Here's a sampler: After the X-rated "Hot Coffee" mod hit the headlines, the spotlight moved to "Adult"-rated games - the "dozens of games that address sexual issues, sexuality and sex itself, ranging from Cyberlore's 'Playboy: The Mansion' to Sierra Entertainment's 'Leisure Suit Larry.' Downloadable nude 'skins' have even been created by third-parties to (un)clothe characters in Electronic Arts' best-selling 'The Sims'." CNET reports. Here's the latest from the Washington Post on university-level game-design programs and from CNET, on the "State of Play" conference, where "leading thinkers on the social, intellectual, economic and legal aspects" of games gather each year. Xbox 360 "got game" this week, as Microsoft unveiled a passel of games for the next-generation Xbox 360 to hit store shelves next month; Reuters reports. Meanwhile, Halo, "one of the biggest video game franchises in the world," is moving into cellphones, reports; the movie version will be produced by Peter Jackson of "Lord of the Rings" fame, the BBC reports. Two more signs of gaming's gathering power: 1) Nickelodeon's "Jungle Boy" will make its debut and build its franchise in videogames, then be a TV show, rather than the usual other way around, the New York Times reports, and 2) a new study found that "in-game ad campaigns resulted in a 60% increase in awareness of new brands," CNET reports. But the Chinese government is applying some brakes: Beijing will impose a three-hour limit on online game play. "The measures are designed to combat addiction to … games such as World of Warcraft and Lineage II," the BBC reports, adding that 20 million Chinese play games regularly, mainly in Internet cafes, and last year Chinese spent almost $500 million (US) on online games.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Digital music's great divide

Helpfully for online music fans (who may not be technophiles), the New York Times has the "Basics" today on digital music's big file-format divide - the one between Apple's AAC format (found at iTunes and played in iPods) and Microsoft's WMA format (found at Rhapsody, Yahoo Music, etc. and played on non-iPod players). In between is the more agnostic MP3 format, but not the default one for any of the services and thus a pain to convert to. The Times says "the safest strategy, and one popular among audio purists, is to purchase music on compact discs and rip it to the MP3 format," but read the whole article to understand why. And here's the Washington Post on the sound quality of AAC, WMA, and MP3.

File-sharing's future

What will it be like for the some 10 million people using P2P services at any given moment around the world? The Washington Post looked at that question, but I don't think it's fully answered yet. I hope any readers who have file-sharing experts at their house will send me their answers! The Post says that "in the simplest terms, the P2P sites will begin using a filter to keep users from trading copyrighted songs and movies that have not been licensed for sale" and will start charging for content that has been, "ponying up a yet-undetermined fee for each song, and performers and songwriters will get a cut of that fee in royalties." Here's an ensuing discussion on this at the Post among writer Frank Ahrens and his readers. For any file-sharer asking "whither BitTorrent?" (or something like that), the San Jose Mercury News has the latest on that P2P technology, as it goes commercial. For the basics on file-sharing, see "File-sharing realities for families" at NetFamilyNews.

A mom coutersues RIAA

This is actually big news, since only a handful of the some 15,000 people sued by the RIAA for file-sharing have actually countersued. Most have settled with the RIAA out of court, paying the RIAA several thousand dollars. In this case, a single mother in Oregon, Tanya Andersen, accused of "illegally downloading 1,400 gangsta rap tunes is countersuing the music industry for allegedly violating Oregon's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO)," Internet News reports. The RIAA is seeking more than $1 million in damages, but Anderson says she never downloaded a single song. Her lawyer told Internet News that "Andersen contacted the Settlement Support Center [a company created by the RIAA to work out settlements with the targets of its litigation] and professed her innocence. The Center claims there is evidence Andersen downloaded songs at 4:30 a.m. under the log-in name of 'gotenkito.' Andersen again denied the claim, said she had never used or heard of the log-in name in question and asked that the Settlement Support Center." Please see the article for what happened next.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

MP3 players just for kids

Yet another sign of how huge digital music is becoming. Disney's Mix Sticks are beginner MP3 players (MP3 players with training wheels, perhaps?). CNET reports that they're able to download tunes and copy them from a CD, but also play them off memory cards called Mix Clips that feature music music from Walt Disney Records. "Disney Mix Sticks have a storage capacity of 128MB, enough for about 60 songs, and work with a USB 2.0 connector. The MP3 players also feature an SD/MMC card slot for as much as 1GB of storage, or approximately 500 songs. The MP3 player, available in stores in mid-October, will sell for about $49. Its battery will last for about eight hours, after which it can be recharged in the Jam Stand, which will be sold separately for about $40. Here are CNET's photos of the Mix Stick, which comes in four colors, including plain chrome, the Jam Stand, Mix Clips, and yet another purchase opp: a carrying case.

Poker's rise: Fresh numbers

About 2.9 million US 14-to-22-year-olds gamble with cards (mostly poker), and the number's on the rise, reports the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, which has been watching this trend. Card players are more likely to gamble online - Annenberg estimates that about 580,000 14-to-22-year-olds gamble in Web sites on a weekly basis. More than half (54.5%) of self-identified weekly gamblers reported having at least one of the symptoms of problem gambling: preoccupation, over-spending, tolerance, and withdrawal. That's up from 44.95% in 2004. Then there's the money: "We also asked persons who gamble at least once a month if their gambling ever led to their owing people money and, if so, the highest amount they had ever owed. About 10% answered that it had. We estimated conservatively the average debt to be close to $74. (We excluded one respondent who claimed he owed as much as $10,000.) This level of indebtedness would amount to over $115 million for the population of approx. 16 million monthly gamblers ages 14 to 22." Here's the study's press release in pdf format and the Center's own page for more on its research. Here's earlier NFN coverage, linking to a thorough look at the phenomenon by Sports Illustrated and naming key gambling sites, for parents wanting to monitor online gambling.

*Lots* more worms in IM, P2P

Heads up, parents! Increasingly, the worms are where the kids are online. "Instant-messaging and peer-to-peer fans are being hit with more worm and malicious code attacks than ever before," CNET reports. Detected threats in IM services and on file-sharing networks were up a *huge* 3,295% the third quarter of this year, according to IMlogic research CNET cites. Not only that, the attacks are getting smarter: "Worm writers are coming up with more effective ways to get people to click on links to their malicious code, and worms can increasingly hop from one IM network to another." MSN Messenger was hit hardest (reflecting its popularity), with 62% of detected attacks overall, AIM and ICQ got 31%, and Yahoo Messenger 7%. Tell kids to be really careful about what links and files they click on in IM and file-sharing, even - in the case of IM - when the messages look like they're from friends. Hackers and/or their malicious code have figured out how to disguise themselves as friends (by hijacking buddy lists on infected PCs, for example). If you feel you want to click on a link from a "friend," first start a new conversation or window with that buddy and ask him/her if s/he sent the IM. Click *only* if s/he did! See also "IM risks & tips" from a tech-literate dad.

Dial-up on steroids

It's getting so the only difference between accelerated dial-up and slower broadband Internet service is the fact that, with the former, you still have to dial up! Speed and price differences are becoming negligible, the Boston Globe points out in a very thorough look at home Net users' current options. But there's an upside to not having the Internet "on" all the time, in the case of dial-up users: a little less risk of having the family PC become a zombie. Computers that aren't available all the time to outsiders seeking to take control of them are a lot harder to manipulate in denial-of-service attacks and for spam distribution. Herb Lin of the National Research Council last year pointed out another advantage of slower connections for families with online kids, linking inconvenience and kids' safety (see my 4/23/04 issue).

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Teen blogs help police

Generally, law enforcement is concerned about teen blogging (see "Teen solicited in MySpace" and this Little Rock, Ark. TV report). But here's a case where the technology is helping police. Probably because of her blogging, the case of Taylor Marie Behl, 17, who "disappeared from a Richmond university four weeks ago," the Washington Post reports, is now being viewed by police as that of abduction, not just a missing-person case. Because of Behl's blogs, the Post adds, police are "privy to the disagreements that Behl had with her parents, her emotions on any given day, even her sexual exploits … [it] recorded her moods, her crushes, her insecurities in 50 entries she posted online over the span of 12 months." The Internet, in fact, "has emerged as a virtual tip machine that often maps the course of an investigation. The girl hasn't been found, but there's a suspect in custody, arrested on charges of possession of child pornography, a 38-year-old man who'd posted in Behl's blogs, including at LiveJournal.comand

Child pornographers more 'mobile'

Unfortunately, they always seem to be a step ahead with the technology, so it's good for child advocates and caregivers to be aware of their tech exploits - not only for child-protection purposes, but also to see where tech in general is going. For one thing, child porn is becoming more mobile. "Handheld devices including cell phones, PDAs and portable MP3 players will increasingly be used to take and transfer images of child pornography," reports the Associated Press, citing a talk by Det. Sgt. Paul Gillespie of the Toronto Police Department's child exploitation unit at an international law-enforcement conference in Toronto. Parents, help your kids be alert to the downside of camera and video phones. Officer Gillespie told fellow police about "the arrest of a 36-year-old man last month for using a cell phone camera to take digital photographs under the skirts of young girls in [Toronto's] east end." [Thanks to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for pointing this news out.]

Monday, October 03, 2005

Online music sales way up

In just one year, sales of downloaded music have more than tripled, the Associated Press reports. Digital music sales reached $790 million in the first half of this year, compared to $220 million for the first half of 2004. Even though the $790 million figure is just 6% of overall industry sales, it's "helping offset a continuing decline in CD sales and other physical formats," according to a report from the London-based International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. "The digital boom, which now exceeds the value of the global singles market, was largely driven by sales in the top five markets - the US, Britain, Japan, Germany and France," according to the AP. For more on digital music, see "File-sharing realities for families."

School district's blogging alert

A school district in central Texas took matters in its own hands and sent parents a heads-up about blogging and social-networking sites like and The Leander school district "sent letters to hundreds of middle and high school parents warning them that their children may be posting personal information and suggestive photos on the Internet," the Austin American-Statesman reports. "School officials said they became concerned when they saw 'inappropriate' material being posted on their students' blogs," including "personal attacks on other students and school staff members." When the American-Statesman was looking for sources for the article, several students declined because they didn't want their parents to know they blog. One agreed: 17-year-old Terra Pratt, who blogs and has her own Web site, the American-Statesman says, but she's smart. She "posts her photo but uses an alias so strangers cannot find her." Here are further insights from the Miami Herald into middle-schoolers' early entry into the adult world through blogging. And here's a teacher's view on teen blogs, featured in my 6/6/05 issue.