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 familysearch.org 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 familysearch.org.

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.