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Friday, May 13, 2005

Next Xbox's big party

It's not on store shelves yet but, watch out gamer parents and parents of gamers, Xbox 360's marketing has already started - its Hollywood premier party aired last night as a prime-time special on MTV. One of the interesting things about it is the many ways gamers will be able to customize it - its hardware, the look of the screen, and games' background music (without losing their all-important sound effects), MTV reports. Also compelling will be the community aspects - four controllers can be plugged in at once - and, "through Xbox Live, 64 players from around the world will be able to compete against each other in the same game." Parents may want to note this example of how game consoles are getting closer and closer to being connected computers, with the accompanying online-safety and PC security implications (console games, ideally, will need to be in high-traffic parts of the house too). Gamers will appreciate this insider's view of Xbox 360's development at

Calling young programmers!

I've been following Tom Friedman's writing about this flat world of ours for some time as a separate interest from kid-tech news, but today there's a point of intersection in his New York Times column that parents of tech-literate kids might want to see. Tom quotes a CNET commentary: "The University of Illinois tied for 17th place in the world finals of the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest ... the lowest ranking for the top-performing US school in the 29-year history of the competition." A Chinese university took top honors, followed by Moscow State and the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics. David Patterson, president of the Association for Computing Machinery and a computer science professor at University of California, Berkeley, said that, though the US "used to dominate these kinds of programming Olympics," it hasn't won a world championship since 1997. Bill Gates has been making a similar point when speaking about US education in various locations, as have other tech executives. This spells opportunity for aspiring programmers and other technologists. Many of our children have never known life without the Internet - a whole generation of Americans soon to add their vision and skills to global competitions and the amazing innovation going on in Russia, India, China, and so many other countries that Tom says are now competing on a level playing field.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Personal info gone missing

This isn't exactly kid-tech news, but if anyone's interested in how some 600,000 past and present Time-Warner employees' personal info went missing, see this very readable New York Times article, which *sort of* explains what happened, or rather does a great job of giving us a picture of how "22,500 gigabytes (22.5 terabytes) of data" are backed up these days. It involves, for one thing, "the homely Ford Econoline 350" van - a fleet of them. Then the article asks some good questions, e.g., "To begin with, why would such sensitive information be handled less like a guard-this-with-your-life briefcase entrusted to Brinks than like a fungible bundle handed to the Dy-Dee Diaper Service? Why was the data unencrypted? And why were trucks involved at all?" Here's earlier coverage at USATODAY and CNET.

P2P as future game base

Besides the fact that file-sharing has surpassed Web use in bandwidth ("space" in Internet pipes) used, here's another sign that P2P technology is here to stay: peer-to-peer gaming. It's an experiment in its early stages, CNET reports, but the Solipsis project/game "aims to draw together the technological lessons of 'massively multiplayer' games like Sony's 'EverQuest' and file-swapping networks like Kazaa or eDonkey. Developers are hoping to construct a sprawling virtual world that runs on its inhabitants' own linked computers, rather than relying on powerful central servers like those that run Web sites or EverQuest's fantasy adventures," according to CNET. In theory, the security of the family PC would be no less vulnerable than if used to swap songs (and that is indeed vulnerable if owners aren't aware of what's being shared on the PC - see "File-sharing realities for families"); and the security of a young player would be no different than in a massively multiplayer game (with players worldwide). [For an arresting picture of Web-vs.-P2P Net activity, see this snapshot of network traffic at CacheLogic (Web use is that narrow little red band - gray, fuschia, and aqua are all P2P).]

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Niche sports videos on the Web

If you have mountain bikers, skateboarders, or surfers at your house, chances are they love watching obscure, hard-to-get videos of their favorite pros. Karl Quist - the founder of TotalVid, a specialty video start-up and Web site - is just like our extreme-sports fans. He told CNET he used to drive his wife crazy watching favorite videos 1,000 times. "TotalVid offers more than 1,000 titles, which cost up to $4 and expire after seven days. In a classic up-selling move, consumers can also purchase a DVD and permanent digital version of a movie and have the rental cost subtracted from the DVD buy," CNET reports. I have a feeling this site will soon be bookmarked on computers at our house.

Yahoo tunes up: New service

Yahoo Music Unlimited is being unveiled today, the Wall Street Journal reports. Using the rent-a-tune model, it undercuts pricing at, e.g., MSN, iTunes, and Real, but it offers fewer choices than Real's latest offering (see my 4/29 issue). Songs can be transferred onto select MP3 players but become unplayable once a subscription lapses. The service gives subscribers "unlimited access to over a million music tracks for $6.99 a month, or, alternatively, for $60 a year" (Real's is $179/year). The latest CNET coverage suggests a possible price war. Besides pricing, what will probably be attractive to young music fans about this service: the music-community part. Yahoo "has spent considerable time building links to its other products, such as the company's popular instant-messaging application, with the aim of making community and legal music-sharing among subscribers a core part of the service," CNET reported Tuesday. The Journal adds that the service will also "allow subscribers to see what songs friends have on their computers, and listen to their friends' tracks if the tracks are part of Yahoo's catalog. Rival services let users share music playlists, but individuals can't always hear the songs unless they own them."

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Net security case focuses on 16-year-old

A 16-year-old in Uppsala, Sweden, that is. The case in question involves a network security breach and stolen computer code at Cisco Systems last year which was "part of a more extensive operation ... in which thousands of computer systems were similarly penetrated," the New York Times reports. Computer-security and US federal investigators only recently "acknowledged that the Cisco break-in was only part of a more extensive operation involving a single intruder or a small band, apparently based in Europe." The Wall Street Journal reports that "the stolen code was a portion of the operating system for Cisco's routers, which direct most of the traffic across the Internet." To parents it might be notable that the nearly year-long investigation, involving Net-connected computers at in seven countries, "is being treated as a juvenile case."

Long-awaited filter reviews

Now that more than half of US families with teenagers use filtering software (see my 3/18 issue), it's surprising how seldom Consumer Reports tests filters - the last time was four years ago. But software testing's very involved, and it's great when they do apply their solid methodology to this important product category. There are four basic take-aways from CR's latest review: 1) Filtering software has gotten better but is still flawed, 2) the 11 products tested are "very good or excellent" at blocking porn (the worst product blocked 88%), 3) "they blocked more than porn but not effectively" (not great at blocking hate and violence sites or those that aided weapons-making or advocated illegal drug use), and 4) they over-blocked ("the best porn blockers were heavy-handed against sites about health issues, sex education, civil rights, and politics"). CR's top 3 picks were SafeBrowse "for most people," AOL's Parental Controls "for Mac users or families with young children," and Microsoft's Parental Controls "if you use MSN or want protection built into your Internet service." But the overview also had good things to say about KidsNet for ease of use and porn-blocking effectiveness (though it overblocked a bit too). Here's the page with at-a-glance ratings of the 11 products reviewed.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Moms & pop culture

US mothers are worried about popular culture and its impact on their children, according to recent survey of 2,000 moms by the University of Minnesota. They're concerned about "what feels like a tsunami of forces threatening parents' ability to impart positive values to their children ... a cultural onslaught that goes far beyond Hollywood movies and TV, and into the world of the Internet, electronic games, and advertising," the Christian Science Monitor reports. The study's lead researcher, Martha Farrell Erickson, said the mothers surveyed were "a huge and diverse sample," from "full-time homemakers to full-fledged workaholics, all income levels, all racial background," citing hypersexuality, violence, disrespect, and body image among their concerns. Interestingly, "politics did not come up naturally in these mothers' group conversations; they see the solutions more through the avenue of personal and community action, rather than dumping these problems on the doorstep of government. Here's the study, "The Motherhood Study: Fresh Insights on Mothers' Attitudes and Concerns" and its sponsor, the New York-based Institute for American Values. For another perspective, see "Our Kids Are Not Doomed," a commentary in the Los Angeles Times by Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, a History" (Viking, 2005) and teacher of family history at Evergreen State College.

'Multi-purpose' mobiles

Nearly 300 UK school and university students were disqualified from exams last summer because of cheating with mobile phones, the BBC reports. That's a 15.7% increase over the previous year. "Some students had attempted to receive answers via text messaging - particularly in more factual subjects such as maths and science.
Others had inadvertently taken handsets into the exam hall." The latter could happen more and more, since there are now more mobiles than people in the UK, reports. Meanwhile, get ready for ever-more-attractive, multi-purpose phones: "games and programs that let people connect, on their own terms, with anyone and everyone else," according to the vision of Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins, cited by the BBC. Watch for "mobile gaming leagues" and other phenomena that are as much about connecting people as playing games (and not about fancy graphics).