Thursday, December 13, 2007

Today I Stalked Myself

Today as I was reading up on Internet safety, I got to thinking, how vulnerable am I? I've shared some information on the Web; I feel no need to hide my blog posts and comments. But I don't want someone going to my hometown address and harassing my parents, nor do I want companies stuffing their mailbox with junk mail. So I stalked myself. I'm pleased to report that my full home address can't be found on my social networking sites or anywhere else on the public web, and I've eliminated one reference to my neighborhood within my hometown.

Do you have anything online open to public view that you wouldn't want a stranger to see? I encourage you to stalk yourself, before someone else stalks you. Try this with your kids, too, and teach them about Internet safety.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mankind has Built Hands

Mankind has built hands
Of silicon and copper
Of myriad ones and zeroes
That reach across the world.

Hands serve and entertain us.
They beckon to temptation,
Applaud, or point in scorn.

Hands clasp in trust and friendship,
Build and hone tools together,
And even mend a patient's life.

As we reach across the world,
Do we lift our fellows up?
They still count on our hearts of flesh
To show compassion
With these hands mankind has built.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

It's Easy to Lie Online

Fooling computer systems usually takes some technical know-how, but using the Internet to fool other people is elementary. No authenticity checks keep me from setting up an email account under any name I choose to use, and then registering for social networking sites such as Facebook. Since I use any name, pictures, and information I choose, I could masquerade as practically anyone, imagined or real.

Adults as well as children need to exercise caution; some people we meet online may be disguising their identities or their true motives. A friend in need might ask to borrow money; an online friend, once she owes you money, might block you from ever seeing her log on again. In-person acquaintance reveals a person's tone of voice, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues; only a great actor can fake these. Typing a lie is much easier.

There are some valid reasons, such as online dating, to meet and form friendships with people over the Internet. These activities require precautions. I'll emphasize this precaution: Before you entrust an individual with personal information that could be exploited, be sure that you have formed a sufficient friendship with that individual in person.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cable will Evolve or Die

Cable companies have an obnoxious way of providing channels in inflexible bundles, giving customers the channels they want with the channels they don't want for themselves or for their children. The CNET News article "Can the Internet really compete with Cable TV?" looks at the recent proposal for FCC regulations that would force cable companies to offer channels separately. The article also explores the possibility that competition from the Internet makes such legislation unnecessary. With satellite TV and seasons of TV shows on DVD, there's hardly a need to bring up Internet TV as evidence that cable has competition.

Nevertheless, TV-like Internet services have the potential to be contenders. The hardware is already in place to bring Internet television on a level playing field with cable TV. When I watch a DVD with my friends, it's as often on a widescreen computer monitor as it is on a traditional TV set. The services themselves that come along more slowly. Large, long-established networks take a few years to use the latest technology, but those who catch on most quickly will have the edge. If flops, someone else will do Internet TV better. Meanwhile, cable TV had better adapt to what people want, or its present and future competitors will run it over.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Zero-Sum Myth

With so many manufacturing jobs being offshored to China, many blue-collar Americans fear for their jobs. Likewise, outsourcing to India has brought many white-collar Americans to realize how easily they can be replaced. At first glance, it looks perniciously selfish of companies to take jobs away from Americans just because foreigners can do them for less. It would seem that U.S. unemployment would skyrocket...but it doesn't. As Thomas L. Friedman points out in Chapter 3 of The World is Flat, the layoffs of hundreds in the U.S. due to outsourcing are offset by companies hiring increasing numbers of Americans, few by few. Jobs are leaving America, and yet America hasn't suffered a net loss of jobs.

Let's remember that this isn't the first time we've seen the economy give us a nonzero sum. The very rise of civilization is a powerful argument for a positive sum being possible. Recent decades have shown us tragic examples of self-inflicted negative sums. Mao's and Castro's regimes, though located amid adequate natural resources, imposed an inefficient command economy that had citizens waiting in breadlines for equal pieces of a distressingly small pie.

So how are the U.S. and its business partner countries turning up a positive sum? Efficiency and invention. Friedman argues that there are always marketable ideas waiting to be conceived, so the number of "idea-person" jobs in the world is limitless. I would add that, due to the innovator's need to mass-produce, the unskilled job market is also expandable. Simply put, innovators create jobs.

And they're creating jobs in China, where wages are a minute fraction of the U.S. minimum wage. This is a shrewd move, but is it ethical? They're getting a relatively small piece of the pie, but with increased efficiency, that pie is getting bigger. Furthermore, as more companies turn to China for labor, they will compete for workers by offering better wages and benefits. Before globalization, China was poor; with it, China is poor but it's being pulled up by more developed nations.

The U.S., as a prosperous nation, holds a position of responsibility in the global market. Since we have high wages, we'll need to start earning them or lose our jobs to lower-paid work. Since we have opportunities for education, we have not only a need but a duty to use them. Then we can set our minds to invent ideas that will lead the world to greater prosperity.

Consider the vast numbers of poor and illiterate people in the world, people who desperately need help to rise above their condition. Is there any shortage of work that ought to be done? With the economic merits of capitalism, the spark of innovation, and a healthy dose of altruism, much can be done. The world has risen this far; let's not limit ourselves now.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

How does open source make money?

When open source software entered the mainstream, it brought new advantages and new questions to an economy formerly built upon copyrights and licenses. The advantage: open source developers build upon one another's innovations in ways that would be against the interests of proprietary developers. The question: since open source software's distribution is not restricted by copyright, how can developers make money off of it? Good open source applications are available for free, so where's the profit?

Trademarks are a big part of the answer. Robert Young's book Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution compares selling open source software to selling ketchup. Anyone can make and sell ketchup without worrying about copyrights. Heinz ketchup sells the best not because some trade secret makes it better, but because it has marketed its brand name successfully. This illustrates that good marketing is profitable, but the analogy breaks down. Each unit of ketchup requires raw materials and manufacturing costs, but copying software is essentially free.

Software, then, is not a good; it is better viewed as a service. Open source developers don't sell licenses, but they still manage to sell software packages with their trusted brand name. They also sell tech support, books, and other services related to their software. For more open source marketing strategies, see's list of not quite 101 Ways to Make Money off Open Source. Proprietary companies make money by being software owners; open source distributors make money by being software experts.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Games that Train your Brain

In a previous blog post, I explored some possibilities for how video games can be designed to offer real-life benefits. Here's one in the news: a MindHabits Trainer game that boosts confidence and trains the player in good emotional habits. By finding the smiling face in a crowd of frowns, the player learns to focus on the positive. The CNET News article "Online game smiles seen vanquishing the blues" has the story on this game and the study that shows its psychological benefits.

I notice some pronounced differences between today's good-habit games such as BrainAge (also mentioned in the article), and habit-forming games such as Halo 3. Obviously, the former serve a purpose that's beneficial to real life, and the latter are just for fun. But there are differences in how long people play, too. Addictive online games keep players coming back regularly, in blocks of hours at a time. The good-habit games are also designed to play regularly, because habits are built on regularity. (BrainAge even graphs the player's performance from one day to the next.) But they only keep you on for about ten minutes at a time. These good-habit games, though made to be fun, are designed to bring you the benefit and then send you on your way.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Why Women Should Try Computer Science

I am a traditional woman. As much as I value education and useful careers, I want to raise children and be at home for them. To put homemaking and motherhood first, I'll drop anything I must. So why am I breaking from tradition and studying computer science?

First of all, I like it. That's a good reason for anyone, male or female, feminist or otherwise, to look into a particular major. But I also enjoy art, music, and psychology. I chose computer science because it's practical. It's in high enough demand that when I graduate I'll easily find a job in my field, and it's logic-based enough that I won't hate my job if my inspiration runs dry.

Computer science is especially practical for moms who want to be at home for their children. Software development offers many part-time jobs that can be done from home at flexible hours. So a computer science mom can step into her home office and work for a few hours a day while the baby is asleep or the kids are away at school. She probably even gets paid better than many of the other working moms who worry about commutes and babysitters.

If computer science fits so practically to a variety of lifestyles, then why do so few women study it? Here are my thoughts on that.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Virtual Conferencing: Should we go 3-D?

With the rise of fuel prices and the advancement of information technology, teleconferencing presents an ever-more-capable alternative to business travel. Tech News World's article "Virtual Meetings: Bridging the Distance Gap" investigates two types of teleconferencing currently in development: video conferencing and 3-D virtual conferencing. The former offers high-definition video and audio, both live and carefully synchronized. The latter involves virtual conference rooms, populated by individually controlled avatars.

My initial reaction was that 3-D virtual conferencing is just a toy, and video conferencing is the way to go. Why bother using little computer-animated figures when live video looks more realistic? Then it dawned on me: Though video conferencing effectively connects two rooms full of people, trying to use video to communicate in more than two locations gets complicated. The number of locations is either limited by how many screens are in each conference room, or some of communication's flow must be sacrificed.

With a 3-D virtual environment, bringing people in from multiple locations does not introduce the same limits. On EverQuest, my dad discusses and carries out battle strategies with his group as if everyone's in one place, even if the other players are scattered in five different physical locations. The same principles apply to discussing business strategy. Since members of the same company live in many distant places, 3-D virtual conferencing offers a promising solution.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Wireless Internet: Our New Weak Spot

Hacking into computer accounts doesn't take creativity; it takes knowledge of a common weak spot and persistence to find out who has it. In Cliff Stoll's Cuckoo's Egg, the hacker could walk right into various military computer systems of the 1980's, simply because the system administrator didn't change the default passwords. It seems like resetting these passwords would be common sense, but those administrators lived in the days that the Internet was a small, trusting community. They didn't expect hackers.

The face of the Internet has changed over the last 20 years. Now the Internet serves millions of individuals and corporations. Many of today's websites apply lessons from the past, such as requiring that a user's password contain both letters and numerals, and that the password be changed periodically. But innovations bring new vulnerabilities, to which Internet users are newly naive. Today's site of frequent security holes is the wireless network.

The apartment complex where I live features an unreliable but complimentary set of wireless networks, one to each apartment. By default, these networks are unsecured: any computer with wireless capabilities can log on without a password. Most of us leave our wireless networks unsecured; that way, if our neighbors are having trouble with their own network they can borrow ours without having to come and ask us for the password. We're all friends and we trust each other. It would seem odd to password something that many of us share. But if somebody up to no good were to latch onto our wireless, then we'd have a problem.

One the latest trends among hackers is driving around, scouting out unsecured wireless networks to exploit. An unscrupulous wireless user who knows a few tricks can spy on information sent over an unencrypted wireless network in his range, stealing credit card numbers and the like. Furthermore, when he engages in illegal activity on the Internet, the address traces that activity to the network's owner, not to the usurper. By the time the police come after him, he's long gone. The Saint Petersburg Times has published an eye-opening article that describes the security risks of wireless and how to protect against them.

Many of these dangers can be avoided by the same wisdom that we learned from the mistakes of the 80's. Change the wireless network's ID and password from its defaults. Good old common sense, applied to new systems, still serves us well.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Family History Wiki

Two of the Internet's greatest advances, the search engine and the wiki, lend themselves naturally to the accretion of family history information. Indeed, search engines and wikis existed in genealogy before the Internet was in common use. Family search programs running on DOS used access searchable databases of names. Newfound genealogical information was mailed to Salt Lake City on paper or floppy disk to add to the database.

The Web's ubiquity helps this process happen quickly and easily from anywhere with Internet access. The Church's website allows visitors to search multiple sources for a deceased person's data. It also is a wiki; people can contribute their family history data. For example, when I looked over my grandfather Tyrus' Ancestral File online, I saw that three people had submitted information, most of which was accurate. However, a contributor who did not know Tyrus' death date must have approximated the burial date, listed as two years before the death date. Tyrus' wife, who passed away a few years ago, was still marked "living." The information gaps motivated me to register as a contributor to

As I looked over my grandfather Tyrus' record, I remembered that I had read to him when I was five years old. My family has photos from that visit, as well as from when my grandparents were young and recently married. My father still has the old straw hat that Tyrus used to wear when he farmed. Photos and stories enrich the family history, for they remind us that behind each name is a real person. Many family history websites devoted to particular families have such treasures. I would like to see FamilySearch's Ancestral File allow contributors to provide links to sites with more in-depth histories. While the search engine and the wiki aid today's genealogy, a third innovation, that of digital photos, deserves to find greater use in the work.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Do Video Games Have Value?

Most video games are like junk food: they're nice in moderation, but they have little nutritional value. People like them because they afford an opportunity to experience the fantastic. The player can rule an empire, find treasures in the deep, or soar through outer space. I enjoy video games the way I enjoy a good dessert or even a good novel; they let me reward myself or unwind. Yet I am among many who have spent hours upon hours playing a game, burning up time, that resource that's so necessary to get anything done. Then as soon as I turn off the game, I have nothing important to show for my time and effort.

Why, then, do people put so much time into playing? It's because the video game's fantastic world offers new honors and opportunities step by step: only after reaching a certain level can the player advance to the next. If playing video games is addictive, then achievement is the drug. Unfortunately, this achievement is an illusion. After all, what difference does being a 60th-level paladin make in the real world?

In this same power of addiction, I also see video gaming's redeeming grace. Excelling in video games has something in common with excelling in basketball, piano, or mathematics: all of them take hours of practice. Video gaming offers a "practice for the fun of it" that, with the right game design, can hone real-life skills. Puzzle game enthusiasts learn to analyze in split seconds. Dance Dance Revolution maniacs have a fun way to keep fit. And, once the game is created, an 85-WPM Martial Typist will not only save a computerized world from evil ninja lords; he'll also be well prepared for an office job that will put him through college.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Gimli Flight: Whose Negligence Was It?

In the historic Gimli flight, an Air Canada plane ran out of fuel mid-flight and made an emergency landing. Faulty software failed to report that the plane was running out of fuel. This is a simple case of negligently designed software putting lives at risk, right?

Perhaps there's more to the story. The second paragraph of Wade H. Nelson's article indicates that the software's malfunction resulted in conjunction with several mistakes by technicians and flight crew, including a poorly soldered sensor. The designer of the FQIS fuel-monitoring software was responsible to test the software rigorously, but it is impossible to test every combination of circumstances that could happen in the field.

But if software purports to fill a vital purpose, shouldn't it take financial responsibility if it fails to do so? Of course! Now, does responsibility for the Gimli crash rest fully upon the software failure? Let's investigate.'s article, paragraphs 1-3, explains that the ground crew and pilots knew that the plane's FQIS software didn't work, and that they deployed the plane anyway, relying on old fuel-gauging techniques. While using old techniques, they made an error in the conversion between pounds and kilograms. The pilots and flight crew chose to ignore the software and take the matter of measuring fuel into their own hands. It was because of their negligence that the plane ran out of fuel in midair.

If the crew had reported the malfunctions of FQIS when they first manifested, the software designer would have owed Air Canada the cost of the inconvenience of having one plane out of commission during the repair time. Accountability for these costs would have rested squarely on the designer of FQIS, and no emergency landing at Gimli would have occurred. As such, the designer of FQIS should not pay for the entire cost of the Gimli crash, but only the hypothetical repair time cost.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sourcing Out, In, and All Over

Near the end of the 20th century, the United States began to tap India's new resource: vast numbers of educated people. With their sheer numbers, they finished programming projects faster than U.S. labor could have. (To learn about how outsourcing to India has changed the world, read Thomas L. Friedman's The World is Flat, pp. 126-136.) First India lent coding gruntwork to bail America out of the Y2K problem. Then India stepped up her sophistication and offered consulting. Recently, India is doing some delegation of her own, outsourcing to other countries or even back to the United States.

The CNET news article "Outsourcing works so well, India is exporting jobs" describes this new turn in the tale of outsourcing. India's technical minds gain autonomy with each new tactic they learn; their learning to outsource is a natural next step. We started to outsource to them because they had the quality and economy of brainpower that our projects need. This is the same principle by which India, in turn, is spreading the work all around the world.

India's decision to outsource to places such as Mexico and the United States all fits with finding the best technical labor for its price. For example, since Mexico has large numbers of people looking for work who understand Spanish language and culture, India can organize a team in Mexico to meet the growing demand for IT services to the Hispanic people. Outsourcing from the States to the States through India makes sense under these considerations: the U.S. has many technically educated people in low-cost areas such as the Midwest, the States know their own language and culture best, and India knows outsourcing best.

Far from being a zero-sum battle, working with programmers globally allows us to specialize and complete larger software development projects more quickly than before. India has taken her economic boost and paid it forward around the globe and right back to us. I imagine that the complaints of many U.S. programmers fall silent now that India opens tech jobs in our own United States.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Building the Kingdom with

The Church uses the Internet to advance the work of the gospel on various fronts. In particular, I've recently looked at Its layout is simple and effective. I first noticed the video clips, each with a convert to the Church relating how his or her questions about life found answers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now I click on the Basic Beliefs link; as the categories appear, I recognize the lessons and principles in the Preach My Gospel manual from which missionaries teach. This well-organized set of lessons would be excellent for anyone who browses the site to learn about the church, and even better for investigators who wish to review these same lessons the missionaries have taught them.

The Church webmasters have gone beyond simply publishing information about the Church to the Web. They have selected features that give the Internet an advantage over other publishing forms. A video clip accompanies each principle. Visitors can customize and send gospel-themed e-cards. They can type in a specific question and find an answer, or find the time and place of the nearest Sacrament meeting, complete with a MapQuest map.

It especially caught my attention that site visitors can chat with a member of the Church live. Church magazine articles warn that too often the anonymity of online chat hides predators or inappropriately lifts inhibitions. I am glad to see make careful use of online chat for a good cause. Because of the Internet's anonymity, people who are not yet ready to announce their interest in the Church can learn more, and learning prepares them to take further steps.

Overall, I see a website that has been attentively shaped and polished to assist in the Lord's work of proclaiming the gospel. Kudos to the minds behind for the wise steps they have taken in building the kingdom.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Age of the Everyman Publisher

What Gutenberg's printing press did for reading, today's Internet has done for publishing. Twenty years ago, sharing one's words with the masses required arrangements with a printing press or a radio station. The Internet has changed that. Now a penniless college student can post to a blog, and instantly anyone in the world can read it. What, then, are the ramifications of such great ease of publishing?

The Web's convenience for writers, combined with its ability to instantly bridge any distance, means that we have access to more than we can possibly read. Before us spreads a spectrum of opinions and data, some more reliable than others, many completely useless. How does the typical Internet user narrow this vast river of information to a stream small enough to understand? Human nature has already provided the answer, which the poet Emily Dickinson describes in the following stanza:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

A person in a metropolis of a million inhabitants finds a few close friends; likewise, an Internet user frequents a few favorite sites.

Now more than ever, we choose what we will learn and how we will influence society. We can spend hours surfing the Web and remain just as ignorant as we were before. Or we can focus on the best and most informative sources, finding them more quickly on the Internet than through other means. We can clutter the Web with meaningless babble, or we can use it make our mark in the world, whatever mark that may be. The Internet, like other technological advances before it, is a tool whose impact depends on the actions of the wielder.