Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Need for Digital Literacy and Encrypting IMs...

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a friend about instant messages and data privacy. She was blown away at the idea that when you delete your emails they are not really deleted - the company's servers typically keep that data for months or even years. Likewise, she had never really thought about all her IM conversations being recorded for posterity by corporations.

BillBlog addresses the urgency and importance of this type of general ignorance towards our personal data. "We need a much broader approach to literacy in the digital age, one that helps users of social network sites take good care of their personal information and avoid scams or snares, one that encourages email users to use available tools for encrypting messages or adding digital signatures.
As computers and the Internet become more and more important in our daily lives it is vital that we know how they work and understand the risks we take when we surf websites, chat to colleagues or send emails off into the uncharted wastes of the network."

My friend who was blown away that her emails and IMs were being recorded by corporations and saved for years was not some clueless grandmotherly senior citizen who's never seen a keyboard before. She happens to be a young twenty-something professional, and definitely computer literate. The problem is that in the Internet Age, being computer literate is not adequate enough. In order to be "a well-rounded citizen of a networked society" people need to get informed about what is happening to their personal data and how their actions online may have long-term consequences in terms of their digital profile and identity.

So to contribute my two cents towards helping people in this manner, here is a link for encrypting IM conversations. After all, nobody wants some drunken IM chat to come back to haunt them 30 years later when they run for public office :-)

Monday, January 29, 2007

Problems With the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act...

Senator Ted Stevens has introduced the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act. It is a bill that aims to protect children from online predators, but would really only have an effect on censoring legitimate content and limiting online participation even for websites with educational value.

As this Mashable article describes, the bill has three parts: 1) force video service providers like YouTube to prevent the distribution of child pornography over their services, 2) ban access to social networks and chat rooms in U.S. schools and libraries, and 3) make it illegal for anyone to sell or purchase private data about a child.

All three of these goals are admirable and worthy of pursuit. However, the bill in its current state is ripe with major problems. First of all, it is nearly impossible for video sharing websites like YouTube to verify the ages of people in the videos (remember, OTHER people are the ones who upload their vids, not YouTube itself). This is the classic example of policymakers who have no understanding of technology creating laws which are unenforceable and entirely symbolic, rather than developing real solutions.

Second, the provision to ban social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook from schools and libraries may also have some value, however implementing such a policy in the past has inevitably led to overly extensive regulation (aka - censorship). Internet content filters in libraries are notorious for censoring not only obscene and pornographic material, but also legitimate and CONSTITUTIONALLY PROTECTED material. As it relates to children, the terms of this new bill specifically call for schools to filter any website that is "offered by a commercial entity, allows the creation of profiles, allows blogging or journals, allows users to enter personal information, or enables communication between users. In short: almost all interactive websites would be blocked".

Is it me, or does that basically describe the entire internet?! Lawmakers are fooling themselves if they believe that the World Wide Web of 2007 is a collection of static pages and encyclopedic information. The internet is fundamentally defined by interactivity and communication between users. According to the language of this bill, schools would be censoring not only the MySpaces and Facebooks of the world, but also Wikipedia, CNN, the New York Times, and the Nerfherder, among others.

Certainly, protecting children from sexual predators online is an objective that must be pursued. But how about some intelligence in lawmaking?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Thunderbird and Setting Up Web Email Accounts...

Last week I posted a blog about how since most of us have more than one web-based email account, it would be a million dollar idea to come up with an easy way to login to all those email accounts at once and manage those accounts from a single piece of software. Well, Mozilla's Thunderbird doesn't make it easy, but at least it's possible, and once you have it set up your emailing world will become so much simpler. Trust me I've become hooked in only a few days.

Thunderbird is a free and open source alternative to Microsoft Outlook, plus it can also be used for subscribing to RSS feeds, podcasts, newsgroups, and has all types of encryption and security features to prevent network administrators from reading the messages you read and send. Here are some instructions for setting up Thunderbird to work with your Hotmail, Gmail, AOL, Yahoo, or any other web-based email accounts. It's a pain, but worth it.

1) Download and install Mozilla Thunderbird at: http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/thunderbird

2) You will need to download XPI files to your computer for whichever web email service you use. Go to this website: http://webmail.mozdev.org/installation.html. Download the link for the WebMail extension, then download the other extensions you'll want to use such as Hotmail, Gmail, etc.

3) In Thunderbird, from the top menu bar click on Tools --> Extensions, and Install each of the extensions you just downloaded.

4) Restart Thunderbird.

5) In Thunderbird, click on Tools --> Account Settings, and add a new account. I prefer to skip the wizard and simply enter the following settings for that account after its been created:

My Hotmail Account --> Server Settings
Servername: localhost
Port: 110
Username: rdomanski@hotmail.com

Outgoing Server (SMTP)
Servername: localhost
Port: 25
Check the box for "Use Name and Password"
Username: rdomanski@hotmail.com

That should be everything. Now you can read and send messages from all of your email accounts in one central place. Consider Thunderbird your own personal "Mission Control".

Isn't it amazing what's possible when systems stay open and non-proprietary?

The State of Municipal Wi-Fi...

Anyone who has sat down in Bryant Park on a sunny day in the past few years has noticed a burgeoning trend - scores of people using laptops to connect to the internet wirelessly in public places. This is the result of Municipal Wi-Fi, which refers to public policies that provide residents with low-cost or free wireless internet access. However the politics of wi-fi are heating up, and the questions remain: 1) "Is it good public policy?" and 2) "Who will pay for it?".

The potential upsides of Municipal Wi-Fi are that it is approximately 10 times cheaper for cities to build than cable broadband lines, it can enhance business opportunities and economic development for inner cities, and that rural areas can finally access the high-speed web in places where the telecom companies have been slow to roll out broadband services.

On the downside, however, the telecommunications industry argues that Municipal Wi-Fi is less reliable and can be up to 5 times slower than cable, offering low-cost or even free internet access through city-owned systems is an unfair advantage over private firms and would stifle competition, and that the government acting as an ISP would create all sorts of new regulations and raise fundamental First Amendment censorship and privacy issues.

Furthermore, who will foot the bill for such multimillion dollar wi-fi systems - not only creating them, but also operating them after the fact? As this article reports, there seem to be three options. First, local governments can provide full-blown wi-fi access directly. Second, cities can provide it for free by making deals with companies in exchange for running ads during its use (as San Francisco is doing with Google and Yahoo). Third, cities can establish public-private partnerships, as Philadelphia is doing with EarthLink, where EarthLink owns and operates the network while the city contributes money or light poles to nest wi-fi routers. Philadelphia's new nonprofit agency will oversee EarthLink's activities to ensure digital inclusion programs, such as discounts for low-income residents off the $21.95 subscription price.

Larger political ideological questions remain. Is providing universal internet access the proper role of government? It's hard to make that case and simultaneously not have a problem paying for electricity, telephone, gas, heat, water, or other utilities essential to modern life. Personally, it makes me a little nervous to send emails and surf the web on a system owned and operated by the government. Such a system is ripe for privacy abuses. I also wonder how local governments will address balancing First Amendment protections against censorship with protecting children from obscene online material through filters. Public libraries have had tremendous difficulty in doing so over the past decade already.

Ultimately, Municipal Wi-Fi and universal internet access may demonstrate to be socially beneficial and help to close the Digital Divide within our society. Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, with over 300 local governments already rolling out wi-fi systems and others looking to stay competitive, at the very least it appears that Municipal Wi-Fi is on its way.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Mind Boggling...

Some quick end-of-the-week rants...

1) Why are software version numbers getting so long? It seems pretty straightforward that there would be a need to differentiate between, say, Internet Explorer 6 and Internet Explorer 7. But really, is there any need for Mozilla Firefox What a conversation killer to compare out loud the virtues of version from version Microsoft actually has this one right. Windows 95 vs. 98, anyone?

2) Why is it that email clients still haven't made it realistic to use their software on web-based accounts? MS-Outlook won't work with my Gmail or Yahoo email accounts, and Mozilla's free and open-source client, Thunderbird, won't read my Hotmail. At least not without jumping through amazingly complicated hoops that no normal person would even attempt. A million dollar idea waiting to happen.

3) Best hacker mantra of the week: "Don't live to geek, geek to live". Lifehacker's philosophy of actually developing software that saves people time, rather than creating new ways of wasting time in front of our computer monitors.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Internet Explorer 7 vs. Mozilla Firefox...

It took Microsoft five years to come out with its next updated version of Internet Explorer - now called "Windows Internet Explorer 7" - which is finally out of beta.

It reminds me of a story from a decade ago. There had been a ton of hype surrounding Windows 95 when it first came out - that it was an evolutionary leap forward for computer operating systems and would revolutionize how people interact with machines. But when Microsoft finally released Windows 95, it looked awfully familiar to a lot of people. The bestselling bumper sticker of the year became, "Windows 95 = Mac 84".

And so it goes. Yet again, Microsoft's new and supposedly innovative version of Internet Explorer strongly resembles an existing product - Mozilla Firefox (from two years ago!). Features such as tabs, RSS subscriptions, tags, and extensions have been utilized by Firefox users seemingly forever, thus rendering Microsoft's latest release already outdated.

Maybe the Redmond giant will realize this and actually come up with some genuinely new ideas for its next version of IE. In 2012.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Second Life Goes Open Source...

If you aren't aware of Second Life, you're missing what's increasingly proving to be a major opportunity for earning money. Its a 3D online digital world where people interact with each other through their digital personas and, occasionally, alter-egos. Membership is free, but the experience has been so engrossing and addictive for many of its users that many have demonstrated a willingness to pay extra to pimp out their Second Life life.

Read this Wired Magazine article - it will blow your mind. An entire industry has popped up to meet the demad of Second Life users who want to enhance their experience in this alternative reality. People are shelling out money to buy digital clothes, decorations for their digital homes, and memberships into exclusive social clubs. In one fascinating example, some people are quitting their jobs in the real world because they're actually making more money selling Second Life real estate. Speculators have been buying up Second Life property that's highly in demand, like beachfront condos, and renting them out to other Second Lifers, turning a profit just as landlords do in real-space and with real American dollars taboot.

And now comes an announcement that future versions of Second Life will be released as open source software. This makes a lot of sense since most Second Lifers are pretty tech-savvy and often have both a knowledge of programming and an innate desire to customize their online experience however they see fit, unshackled from the bonds of propriety code.

Let this serve as yet another lesson for open source skeptics. Linden Labs, the creator of Second Life, is undoubtedly a company interested in making a profit. Make no mistake, it is releasing the source code for Second Life, not as a benificent gift of generosity in line with a hippie-like ethos, but because doing so will lead to more users, increased loyalty, and the earning of greater profits.

Geeking Out to Gadgets: Macworld and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES)...

This is the best week of the year for aficionadas of high-tech gadgets. Both Macworld and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas are forums where, at this very moment, companies are huckstering their new devices to "wow" people (mostly the media) with all kinds of technological wizardry.

Some notables:

  • Microsoft's new Windows Home Server - a software package that automatically finds and backs up all of the data on all of the Windows PCs on your home local area network. Mostly its for backing up your network's data, but also makes it easier to manage all shared resources. The coolest thing about it is that it also connects to Zune Mp3 players and XBox 360s. But I wonder how interoperable it will be with Linux, Mac, and other non-Microsoft machines. And is anyone actually going to want this (and more importantly, pay for it)?

  • Among all the fun gadgets, Wired Blogs has also chronicled "a few gems of mediocrity", which might also fall into the category of Gadgets So Bad We Wonder How They Managed to Even Get A Display Table. My favorites include the pig-shaped ultrasonic humidifier and the mechanical bull designed for offices.

  • Apple's new iPhone - it's been getting major buzz in the blogosphere, though I don't exactly see why. The idea is combining your iPod and cell phone into a single device, and apparently Apple has partnered with Cingular to be the exclusive carrier. But there are more cell phone/Mp3 players being pushed by all sorts of companies than any other device. Cingular hopes that iPod users will sign up for Cingular phone service, but what if Verizon users actually move away from iPods to other Mp3 players as a result? Wouldn't that make the world a better place?

Bottom line - most of the gadgets at the CES are unnecessary crap that macho programmers and uber-nerds use to show off the promises of new technologies, but have virtually no consumer appeal. I'd rather companies spend more time improving basic existing features (like making a reliable cell phone battery that only has to be recharged once a month) than creating yet another $50,000 flat-screen TV ripe with dozens of new features that no one will ever use.

Seriously overhyped.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Democratizing the Ivory Tower...

There's an unspoken idea that no one in academia wants to address. Professors and university researchers across the nation who study Web 2.0 and espouse the ideals of a democratized internet remain extemely cool to the idea that the "ivory tower" of academia should also be opened up to the masses. This begs the question, should the "ivory tower" of academia be democratized?

As a PhD student who has spent what often seems like multiple lifetimes in graduate school, I can say firsthand that professors and university researchers for the most part scoff at the idea that non-PhDs can contribute ideas and research on par with their own. They take an elitist view of the world in the same way that professional journalists shrug off bloggers, as traditional media ridicules podcasters, and as professional photographers put down the contributions of ordinary people to sites like Flickr.

The underlying issue is the importance of expertise. Should you have to be a recognized trained expert in your field in order to participate in a dialogue among experts in that field? Bloggers have repeatedly demonstrated that the ideas of so-called amateurs are often just as good, if not better, than those of professionally trained journalists. In this way, some argue, the web has helped democratize the media, and consequently improved the free exchange of ideas so vital to a democracy. Following the same logic then, if the academic debates among America's scholars were also opened up to the masses, wouldn't that lead to the inclusion of new ideas, an enhanced dialogue, and better scholarship? Isn't this the ultimate goal of academia in the first place?

Discussing the power of amateurs in the Web 2.0 era, columnist Steven Johnson states that "for some, [this] has power-to-the-people authenticity. For others, it signals the end of quality and professionalism". As an aspiring member of the "ivory tower", I, for one, do not share that fear of including non-academics into academic debate. Democratization of anything surely has its drawbacks, but ultimately improves things more than its destroys them - and scholarship should be no exception.

Then again, maybe I'll feel different once I get tenure.

Time Person of the Year...

Time Magazine named its 2006 Person of the Year... "You". Really, they are referring to Web 2.0 as being the most significant story of the year, and "you" is meant to describe internet users who generate content to websites such as MySpace, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc. - bloggers, podcasters, and anyone uploading family photos to the web included.

If you're a somewhat regular reader of this blog then you probably already know that I'm a big proponent of the cultural importance of Web 2.0. So without getting too much further into reasons for Time's choice (read the article), here are some random observations on the piece.

1) The best observation was made by Josh Tyrangiel. Andy Warhol once famously declared that in the future everyone in the world will be famous for 15 minutes. In the MySpace era, "everyone is famous to 15 people".

2) Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News, writes that with the internet "we've made the media more democratic, but at what cost to our democracy?", going on to say that with certain online content filters it is now common for Americans to consume only the news that they want to see and hear, but in a democracy there is news that citizens need to hear as well. That statement itself is, rather obviously, spot on, but is he implying that the traditional TV networks and newspapers were adequately addressing that need previously? That is debatable to say the least. One lesson of Web 2.0 is that oridnary, and often highly informed, citizens are immensely capable of, if not better at, being the "gatekeepers" of the news.

3) I was blown away by Ann Coulter's comments on MSNBC the night the Time Person of the Year was announced. The conservative commentator said that there was nothing new about sites like YouTube, and that the importance of internet video would have been better addressed ten years ago. Ten years ago! First of all, what internet was she looking at ten years ago? Second, Coulter has demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of what is going on in cyberspace. If she had actually read the Time article, presumably she would have understood that the significance of YouTube (to name only one of dozens of sites the article referenced) was not that it delivered web video, but that user-generated content on Web 2.0 sites was dramatically changing not only cyberculture, but fundamental underpinnings of the way society itself is structured. This shift in power is far more important than people's simple ability to watch videos.

All of that said, as much as I'd like to think otherwise, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad still had more of an impact on the world this year than a lowly blogger such as myself.