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Friday, December 02, 2005

Truly inspiring blogging

One person's blog, ShaketheQuake and the handful of volunteers behind it, has probably helped thousands of Pakistan's earthquake victims by aiding the coordination of convoys of supplies to the stricken areas, Reuters reports. It started with a post-quake phone text message from a friend to blogger Zohare Haider in Islamabad, saying they should figure out how to help. They and other friends got together at the message-sender's house. "Within hours, the group had scraped together 12 truckloads of food, blankets, medicine and supplies, and almost 30 million Pakistani rupees, and were on their way to Balakot in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province." Many convoys and blog posts later, Haider, who then worked for communications multinational Nortel, has since quit to work for an aid organization because of the way his volunteer work changed his life. Haider's isn't the only Pakistan-based blog inspired by similarly substantive ones that developed out of the tsunami disaster. Reuters also links to "South Asia Quake Help."

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Fly: 'Hot' tech toy

The Fly is a fat ballpoint pen+computer that's infinitely more interesting to kids than it sounds, reports David Pogue at the New York Times, and it appears to be among the "hottest toys" of this holiday season. Here, too, is USATODAY's review of The Fly. From the educational toymakers of LeapPad fame, the Fly, which targets 8-to-14-year-olds is actually *fun* ed tech that does a mind-numbing number of things (see David's paragraph that starts with "STAGGERING possibilities"). On p. 2 he writes, "when it comes to children's technology, a sort of post-educational age has dawned. Last year, Americans bought only one-third as much educational software as they did in 2000. Once highflying children's software companies have dwindled or disappeared." So he's rooting for this exception to the current rule, though its wonderful-ness has a few exceptions too (search for "flies in the ointment" on p. 2). What I wonder is, will your kids be as starry-eyed about The Fly as David's panel of young testers were? The last LeapFrog product I gave my child was not a big hit with him and I didn't want to make him play/read with it - but we may be the exception to *that* rule (and The Fly has lots more bells 'n' whistles). Let me know what your kids think of The Fly, if they try it.

Fun teen gift idea

Now here's an affordable idea for the media-minded teenager on your holiday gift list, courtesy of the Washington Post: a $20 piece of software called Xingtone that "allows users to create custom cell phone ringtones using tracks from their personal digital music libraries." Pick your latest favorite song and use the software's simple sound-edit tool to shorten it and fade in and out, then send it to your phone. The site has a long list of supported phones and carriers (unfortunately, Verizon isn't among them). Brilliant concept, since teenagers love to personalize their media and communications tools (but I know a few adults who'd have a lot of fun with this too).

IM worms becoming real pests

They're multiplying like rabbits. The number of worms attacking instant-messaging were up 226% this month over October, hitting a new record, CNET reports. "Of the worms, 58 were variants of previous pests, and four were new," CNET said, citing IM security firm Akonix figures. These worms are more flexible (or "interoperable") than the services themselves, since more than a third of the attacks hit two IM services and 14% hit all four major ones - AIM, MSN and Yahoo Messengers, and ICQ. Also this month, 14 worm attacks hit file-sharing networks such as Kazaa and eDonkey, Akonix found. Tell your kids to be very careful about what they download or click on in IMs - even if they look like they're coming from a buddy (the buddy's PC could be infected and sending out automated IMs). The best precaution is to be sure that friend's online, then open a new conversation with him or her to check with them about what they seem to be sending.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Digital music: Just amazing

Whether you're a digital-music fan yourself or the parent of one or two, it might help to have a current snapshot of the online music scene. Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot thoughtfully presented the big picture over Thanksgiving weekend. It's an amazing scene, and not just for the music industry, scrambling to deal with the sea changes. Greg writes about how "convenience is paramount," with artists "creating music at increasingly lower costs in their own homes and distributing it over the Internet" and with consumers "listening to that music anywhere, anytime on wireless portable devices." Cellphones are becoming music-sharing and video-viewing devices the computers have been. "Record stores" and the mainstream music biz are floundering, but the digital-music numbers are astounding - e.g., "more than 251 million digital tracks have been sold, compared to 96 million last year, a 160% increase" and "digital album sales have jumped to 11 million from 3.4 million, a whopping 226% spike." Then there's Warner Music's new all-digital label, Cordless Recordings, and for independent musicians, adding "35,000 new releases annually." Derek Sivers, the founder of CDBaby and a musician himself, estimates that at least 100,000 new digital albums are produced each year. Don't miss what Greg writes about the implications of all this. Meanwhile, European youth still have quite a taste for illegal music, CNET reports.

Amazon wish list: Risky for kids

I remember when my 8-year-old was really into Gundams (plastic robot-like toys), he had a lot of fun surfing through's toys and sending his favorites to his Wish List. I, in turn, found it very convenient later to peruse his list and do a little one-click shopping. But a new online-safety risk (especially for kids with unusual names in small towns) has come up concerning that feature and kids - because of the shipping address registered users provide Amazon and the way it can be associated with a child. "Site visitors can search wish lists by name," Internet News reports, so "it's relatively easy for a stranger to find a kid simply by searching for a common first name, then scrolling through the list to find those who have listed last names, cities and states." Other wish lists do a better job of protecting kids, Internet News reports. For example, Kaboodle, which is still being beta-tested, "lets users protect their wish lists with passwords if they choose," and Google's Froogle allows wish-list searching only by email address, so only people who already communicate with the person can find his or her wish list. Check out the article for details and advice.

Family tech shopping

Of course, retail news is everywhere right now, so I'll presume to link to the best for people with kids at heart. First the breaking news: The iPod and the Xbox 360 are Nos. 1 and 3 on this year's "top 10 list of desired gifts compiled by the Consumer Electronics Association," the New York Times reports. Last year, game consoles were in 9th place and portable music players didn't even make the list. The Cincinnati Enquirer attempts to explain the iPod phenom. As for the content on those consoles, check out's kid-tested "Video Game of the Year" winners for kids 6-9 and 10-12 and USATODAY's videogame gift guide in four categories: Kids, Preteens, Teens, and Adults. The Washington Post categorizes too, but creatively zooms in on recipients as much as products. For example, it took 4th-grader Aneya months to start playing with the Nintendo DS her dad got her last Christmas, the but now she's finally using it to play games like "Lizzie McGuire: On the Go" (have things like that happened with kid-tech at your house too)? Then there's Nicholas the teenage gamer; a "road warrior"; a cool grandmother (who's "on her 5th or 6th computer"); and a 30-something "multimedia junkie" whose daughter Gemma isn't that much bigger than his iPod. The Associated Press and Wall Street Journal both look at this widespread parental challenge of 8- and 9-year-olds preferring tech to toys. [If any of you have dealt with bad guesses on tech gifts for kids and figured out what to do when that happens, other parents would love to hear about it - email me anytime, or post just below.]

2006: Year of Mac attacks?

First things first: Mac users, if you haven't already downloaded it, be sure to check for the just-released security update from Apple (click on Software Update under System in System Preferences). It patches 13 flaws. Now for that arresting question about 2006. It may very well be time for Mac users to ditch their false sense of security, says Washington Post security writer Brian Krebs, and not just because of this security update. His reasoning, after going into his local Apple store and finding it jammed with people and 10-15 degrees warmer than any other store in the mall: "Fact: Macs are coming down in price. Fact: More people are fed up with the incessant viruses, spyware etc. on Windows that switching to a Mac is more appealing than ever. My hunch: 2006 may turn out to be the year we start seeing a significant growth in the Mac user base, and with it, if not Mac viruses or worms, then at least some automated tools for attacking various Mac vulnerabilities." BTW, if you're a Windows PC owner, do not hesitate to take advantage of Microsoft's free new service, Windows Live Safety Center, for "Protection," "Clean Up," and "Tune Up."

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Our 8-to-12-year-old techies

Fortunately, marketers can no longer find them just by advertising during Saturday-morning cartoons. Unfortunately, they are an increasingly prime target of marketers (and marketers are finding them anyway, of course). Why? The Los Angeles Times reports that they are our family CTOs (chief technology officers), and marketers know that very well. They know that, "by some estimates, tweens influence $60 billion in spending annually." The simple reason why they're so darn tech-literate is that, unlike us, they grew up with technology (and the information overload that sells it and that's enabled by the technology itself!). The Times piece illustrates all this very readably, with family stories and marketers' perspectives.

Beware antivirus software (!)

In some ways, antivirus services do family PC owners a disservice: They give us a false sense of security. And the security is increasingly fragile, Washington Post security writer Brian Krebs reports. Citing a candid report from Russian antivirus company Kaspersky Lab, Brian writes, "By the time those [antivirus] products are updated to detect the latest threat, the virus writers have already released several newer versions that evade the latest antivirus signatures." Brian and a lot of experts are all saying that, though we can't give up on antivirus protection, we have to understand it's flawed (ever more so). One security blogger mentions an old joke about the most dangerous part of a car being "the nut behind the wheel" and says nothing replaces educating computer users: "Don’t open attachments, even if the message claims to be from someone you know, unless it was an attachment that you were expecting. I used to say, unless it was about something that you have discussed with that person, but realistically the varied subjects and techniques of virus writers make that too risky." That goes for attachments to emails or IM, and our kids also need to be very careful about what links the click on. Trojan software can now be downloaded just by going to malicious Web sites. For more, see "Tips from a tech-savvy dad: IM precautions." And for the latest help in PC protection and clean-up, do not hesitate to take advantage of Microsoft's free new service, Windows Live Safety Center.

The new Kazaa

To a file-sharer, Kazaa will not even be a shadow of its former self, this still-popular service that was once No. 1 but long ago overtaken by eDonkey and BitTorrent. A federal judge in Australia has ordered Kazaa's parent Sharman Networks to add to the software "filters aimed at preventing users of the software from swapping copyrighted material," the Associated Press reports. What that means, probably, the AP says, is a filtering system that "will include 3,000 so-called keywords, most likely the names of popular recording artists." Sharman is also required to urge users to download this new software. I suspect they'll also have to provide some sort of incentive for users to download software that blocks the free-though-illegal music a lot of them are looking for. Otherwise, the new Kazaa probably becomes a marketing or sampling tool for artists spreading the word about new releases and, for users, another way of seeking out indie music (competing with the likes of and Meanwhile, there's nothing stopping the millions of people with the old Kazaa software on their machines to keep file-sharing as usual.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Families blogging for each other

Teen blogs can actually be good for parent-child understanding, some parents will tell you. At least that's what some people of both generations told the Wall Street Journal. Writer Kevin Delaney cites one 19-year-old experienced blogger who doesn't mind that his parents read his blog - he told Kevin it may even be parents' duty. Another teenager's mom told Kevin that reading her 17-year-old's blog has helped her understand what he's dealing with and opened up communications for them. A dad in a third family has his own blog, knows his son reads it, and hopes the latter will see in it the respect his dad has for him. It's the familial twist on the blogging phenomenon. Kevin (who also talked to a mom who first contacted Net Family News about something scary she found in her 16-year-old's blogging), calls it "intra-family blog-tracking," and I'd call it another one of those helpful pointers for parenting in the Digital Age. Over the weekend, the Journal also ran an article on schools' student-blogging dilemmas. And the New York Times looked at teens' "enthusiastic self-revelation" in a shorter piece focusing on all the tools at their fingertips. Here's the WSJ piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in case you can't get it at the Journal.

Game-console parental controls

Sony's making it unanimous. It just promised that there will be parental controls on its forthcoming PlayStation 3, joining the just-released Xbox 360 and the Revolution that Nintendo announced will have controls when released next year, the Associated Press reports (Sony's handheld, the PlayStation Portable, has parental controls on it - see "Porn's new platforms"). The PS 2 limits access only to movies, not games. The Xbox 360 "lets users restrict access to video games and DVDs that carry certain ratings, such as 'T' for 'teen' or 'M' for 'mature.' It also offers parental controls on the company's Xbox Live online gaming service, limiting who their children can interact with," the AP adds. See my issue last week for lots more game news.

Nationwide filtering in Thailand

This may be the start of a trend in countries where free speech wields less power: In his weekly radio address, Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told his country that the government "plans to block more than 800,000 pornographic or violent Web sites that officials say are harming the kingdom's youth," Agence France-Presse reports. The government will order the country's Internet service providers to block the sites or they'll lose their licenses, he said. "The ban, which affects both foreign and domestic-based websites, is likely to come into force before Thailand's Children's Day on January 14." Speaking of filtering, a child's friend is another Internet user's enemy, it seems. I wonder if Thailand will soon be on Reporters without Borders's "Enemies of the Internet" list (here's the current list of 15 "countries to watch"). [Thanks to BNA Internet Law for pointing this news out.]