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Friday, October 21, 2005

Bullying/cyberbullying: Samantha's story

When Samantha Hahn, National American Miss Teen 2005, was in 6th grade, her best friend started a mean rumor about her, circulating it through their circle of friends. Soon it seemed the whole school had turned against her - "kids in other grades, kids I'd never met before. I didn't even know who they were and they had comments about me." The abuse continued on into cyberspace, via email and IMs, and also got physical. Well into high school, Samantha experienced just about every form of bullying, but now, as she works on her B.A. and prepares for the Miss New Jersey competition, she's using her experience to educate students, parents, educators, and law-enforcement people throughout New Jersey and is starting to get speaking requests from other states. To read her story, please click to this week's issue of my newsletter.

1.6 million witches

That's one of the projected figures for this year's trick-or-treaters, courtesy of New York Times online-shopping goddess Michelle Slatalla and mother of Clementine (8), who does not plan to be a witch this year or, quite probably, any year. Clementine, who - frighteningly - has mastered the skill of one-click shopping, always chooses to be royal for Halloween, and this year to be an "Elizabeth-ian Queen" (, $42.99). Don't miss the photo with this fun piece - it illustrates that there are choices in the witch category, with "Sweet Witch" and "Pretty Princess Witch" depicted.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

'Beyond GTA': Bats not guns

Any parent curious about what the creators of Grand Theft Auto are up to these days would enjoy reading a New York Times profile of Dan Houser, 31-year-old co-founder and creative VP of Rockstar Games (who granted a rare interview). The GTA series of games has "sold more than 50 million copies since 2001, generating more than $1 billion in revenue," according to the Times. [Rockstar is about to release the sixth, "GTA: Liberty City Stories" - see "The power of games."] The new project, for Xbox and PlayStation 2, is "The Warriors," also a fighting game. It's not a first-person shooter, but it's violent, as its "Mature" (18+) rating indicates. As in the 1979 cult movie of the same name, "players portray members of a multi-racial street gang in 1970s-era New York City," ABC News reports, "armed with chains and baseball bats." Here's's review of the Xbox version . Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times looks at the growth of advertising in videogames.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

iPods, blogs: Learning tools

In Ms. Gagliolo's classroom, 5th-graders record their poems, book reports, interviews and sounds on field trips, etc. and turn them into podcasts, the Washington Post reports. Podcasts are the personal "radio shows" that more and more people are creating, that can be downloaded to an iPod or other MP3 player, and that Apple now provides for free in iTunes' podcast directory. In fact, Ms. Gagliolo's students could submit their podcasts to iTunes for the listening public! Other examples, the Post mentions: "In a private school near Detroit, middle-schoolers podcast performances of student-composed musical works. From East Oakland, Calif., high-schoolers paint an audio portrait, in English and Spanish, of their troubled community." Teachers have been doing similarly creative motivational work with classroom blogs for a while now. CNET links to some great examples and looks at some new tools that make classroom blogging a little less public, a little safer.

Toys: 'No thanks, Mom & Dad'

Reeling from kids' declining interest in toys, toymakers are moving into electronics in a big way, the New York Times reports. There's LeapFrog's TicTalk cellphone for 6+-year-olds, Disney's Mix Sticks digital music player, and Hasbro's Zoombox projector. Of course, some tweens simply go overnight from playing with Bratz dolls to playing an iPod, the Times reports, pointing to the discussion this trend is fueling among parents and child development experts. "The push to sell consumer electronics to preteens is touching off an animated debate about … whether it is wise to break down one of the last barriers between children's play and adult technology." All that technology eclipses creative play and imagination, critics say. Another big question, for toymakers, is whether children will want the kid versions of these products or just move right on to the "real" ones.

P2P: Family info overexposed?

"Extreme file-sharing" is what the Washington Post headline writer calls it, and that's an understatement. On the family PCs they're using to swap tunes, file-sharers are sharing tax and payroll records, medical records, bank statements, emails, etc. Post PC security writer Brian Krebs writes in his blog that he found all of that and more while "poking around Limewire, an online peer-to-peer file-sharing network where an estimated 2 million users share and swap MP3 files, movies, software titles and just about anything and everything else made up of ones and zeroes (including quite a few virus-infected files)." He's not the first - see this '02 study at HP labs. Pass along this good advice from Brian to any file-sharers at your house: "If you're going to use file-sharing networks, be extremely careful about what you download; and, pay close attention to the files and folders you are letting the rest of the world see." [For more, see "File-sharing realities for families."]

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Teen sex ed online

"About half of teens go online for health information, and they have more questions about sex than they do about any other topic," USATODAY reports, citing research unveiled at a recent American Academy of Pediatrics meeting. The article links to five sites recommended by adolescent health experts, including the six-year-old and (a Google search of "teen health information" gets about 21.4 million results).

Child-porn spam: More aggressive

In the Internet Age, children's first exposure to sexuality often happens when they stumble on something in email or on the Web. Sgt. Paul Gillespie of the Toronto Police sex crimes unit reiterates that in a Toronto Sun article about a particularly egregious example: a piece of spam email in circulation with horrific child-porn images (not just links) right in the body of an email that has nothing in its subject line - "just the latest in an increasingly aggressive campaign by online marketers of child porn." Canada's child-exploitation hotline,, has received at least 10 reports about this email, according to the Sun. "About half of all child pornography complaints received by is related to email spam," it adds. If your kids have email accounts, tell them to be sure to delete immediately, never open, any emails from anyone they don't know because they increasingly contain pictures no child should ever have to see. At the bottom of the Sun article are tips about what to do if you ever do receive such an email. [Thanks to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (which runs the US equivalent of - (800.843.5678) - for pointing this piece out.]

Gaming for peace!

The world of gaming is certainly not all first-person shooters. An online game that was released by the UN's World Food Programme last spring - "Food Force," "in which players must figure out how to feed thousands of people on a fictitious island" - has been downloaded 2 million times, the Washington Post reports. That's half the number of players claimed by the world's most popular online game, World of Warcraft." And FF is not the only game project about "saving the world through peace and democracy." The Post points to "PeaceMaker," a game being developed at Carnegie Mellon University in which "you win by negotiating peace between Israelis and Palestinians"; the University of Southern California's just-launched competition "to develop a game that promotes international goodwill toward the United States"; and an MTV contest to come up with a videogame that fights genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

Monday, October 17, 2005

New patch: Caution note

Microsoft issued October's PC security patches last Tuesday, but later reported one of them was causing some users major computer problems - but "only when default permission settings on a Windows directory have been changed," CNET reports. If your settings haven't been, you're fine, and Microsoft says the patch is still needed. If your permission settings have been changed, you probably already know what can happen: users locked out of their PCs, Windows Firewall not starting, certain software not running, an empty network connections folder, "among other things"! There's a guide to restoring "the default permissions and the COM+ catalog" at Microsoft's Web site. Meanwhile, you are not alone: Here's one very tech-literate PC owner's account, at the Washington Post, of how complicated it was even for him to get his patches up-to-date after his laptop was "repaired."

Tablet PCs on the rise

Those portable PCs that are more writing- than keyboard-oriented have been around for a while, but the New York Times reports that now they're finally coming into their own. "The two main types of tablet PCs are the slate model, a book-shaped computer with a pen, and the convertible model, which includes a keyboard and closely resembles a laptop," the Times reports. "Both types run the same programs as other Windows-based computers, but all of the mouse actions can be performed by touching the pen to the screen." Soon touchscreens will be an option too. Though prices are coming down, they're not a cheap solution, though. The lowest cost one among the products the Times mentions is $1,100. It also discusses software that runs on these PCs.

Net 'lite' for the unwired

It may be just the thing for those uncles, aunts, and grandparents who've been meaning to learn email to keep in touch with the kids but never got around to it. Washington Post tech writer Rob Pegoraro says AMD's $300 "Personal Internet Communicator" isn't the first basic, easy, secure, and plug-'n'-play box for newbies, but it's the best yet. It does everything most of us want to do with the virus-vulnerable PC - Web, email (via Web browser) - but it's not for multitaskers and not much cheaper than today's regular desktops, once you add a screen (keyboard and mouse are included). On the other hand, it is mindless and much more secure, and software gets updated automatically.

The MMORPG experience

Researchers are studying it, professors are teaching about it. I'm referring to the virtual worlds of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). The most successful to date is World of Warcraft (WOW), with 4 million players worldwide, a quarter of them in North America, the Christian Science Monitor reports in an in-depth look at what draws so many players. Writer Greg Lamb leads with the story of 16-year-old WOW player Trevor, who was pretty obsessed with it for a while, much to his mom's concern. "But then … Trevor started his junior year of high school and began a part-time job. He decided he needed to cut way back. Now he plays at most a few hours a week." That is actually not unusual for most WOW players, Greg reports, noting a small minority for whom temporary obsession "can lead to bad habits or worse." He goes on to describe how social MMORPGs are for many players, how much there is to explore in these vast "worlds," how playing with real people behind characters provides spontaneity and unpredictability that keep it very interesting. Then there are gender issues (the pluses and minuses of having a male or female character) and economic ones (the opportunity to buy and sell virtual objects and real estate with real money).

Meanwhile, CNET points to new research in Germany showing a "short-term causal relationship" between first-person shooter game play and "brain-activity patterns" considered characteristic of "aggressive cognitions and effects." The researchers watched the brain activity of 13 guys between the ages of 18 and 26 while they played "Tactical Ops: Assault on Terror." They were hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) system while playing. "The research will appear in the January 2006 edition of Media Psychology," CNET adds.