Prof told to pull podcasts

September 20, 2006

A North Carolina professor who offered his course lectures as paid downloads has been asked to suspend the service while the school decides whether it is appropriate. Robert Schrag, a North Carolina State communications professor, had begun making his lectures available for download by students and the general public alike, according to a university paper. Schrag charged $2.50 a lecture—he received part of the money, while the rest went to the download site.

Now Schrag has been asked to suspend the practice by university administration while the school struggles to develop a comprehensive policy for the use of this sort of intellectual property. While some students objected to paying for the lectures, Schrag told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the complaints are without merit. “We’re talking about the price of a draft beer,” he said. “You go to a concert. Your tuition buys you access to the concert, it doesn’t buy you the CD.” Of course, if the concert costs $597.88, you might expect the CD to be included.

This isn’t big business; Schrag made only $11 before the lectures were pulled, and he says the money simply goes toward defraying his recording and editing costs.

Podcasting raises a host of questions for those within the Ivory Tower. Should lectures be available to the public, who will pay only a fraction of the tuition price for the same in-class material? Are professors allowed to profit or charge for work done in the service of their schools? Will students come to class, or will “class” become 45 minutes on a Stairmaster with an iPod clipped to the waist? These questions have taken on prominence as professors wonder if the new technology is helping or hindering their mission to educate.

Many of us at Ars have spent (too much?) time haunting the corridors of graduate departments and teaching courses, and we’re excited about the recent trend to more broadly disseminate the knowledge bottled up in the academy. Still, downloading Stanford lectures from iTunes does not a Stanford education make. Attending lectures from an excellent professor in person is one of the most stimulating mental experiences possible, but isn’t fully replicable on a recording for various reasons (no personal interaction, no building of an intellectual community with other students, less accountability, no facial expression or body language, etc). Suffice it to say that podcast listeners will miss out on the copious arm-waving of people like our own Dr. John Timmer, who can convey complex embryonic information using nothing more than his fingertips.

The European Union’s antitrust chief said Tuesday she had no personal feud with Microsoft Corp. despite an ongoing legal fight between her office and the software company.”Far from pursuing a vendetta against Microsoft, the Commission’s actions are guided by the desire to create the most innovation- friendly business climate in Europe to the ultimate benefit of European consumers,” Neelie Kroes wrote in a letter to the Financial Times.

The EU antitrust commissioner said she is trying to ensure that Windows Vista, the new version of Microsoft’s computer operating system, complies with EU competition rules.

Microsoft had no immediate comment on the letter.

European Union officials have warned Microsoft not to shut out rivals in the security software market, as the company plans to launch Vista with built-in protection against hackers and malicious programs.

Microsoft has said it is concerned that regulators might require the removal of some of the new security features, and warned that EU actions could delay the launch of Vista in Europe.

Kroes said the Commission has provided Microsoft with guidance on Vista and has regularly detailed its concerns.

“There appears to be a co-ordinated campaign to portray the Commission in a negative light,” Kroes wrote. “For example, I have seen it suggested that the Commission may seek to prevent Microsoft from improving the security of its operating system.

“This is categorically not the case,” she said.

Microsoft is still embroiled in a long-running legal challenge to the EU’s 2004 antitrust order, which found the company broke competition law and fined it a record 497 million euros ($613 million). The EU subsequently fined the company another 280.5 million euros ($357 million) for failing to obey that antitrust order.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – At the helm of Sun Microsystems Inc., Jonathan Schwartz became “un blogeur” last week when he started publishing his blog in French and nine other languages.

Schwartz, whose Web journal attracts 50,000 viewers each month, says going international will generate new customers and attract prospective employees in Europe, China and elsewhere. That puts the 40-year-old CEO at the vanguard of a trend in corporate communications, one that tears down barriers between executives and the general public.

“The blog has become for me the single most effective vehicle to communicate to all of our constituencies – developers, media, analysts and shareholders,” Schwartz said in his Silicon Valley office. “When I go out and have dinner with a key analyst on Wall Street or a key investor from Europe and ask them if they’ve read my blog, they almost universally say yes.”

Chief executives of smaller companies have already seized on blogs, and big companies are increasingly joining in – despite the potential for disastrous backfires.

In its unfiltered form, blogging lets CEOs bypass the public relations department, journalists and industry analysts and speak directly to the public.

Executive coach John Agno said blogs can also cure the dreaded “CEO disease” – the isolation that envelops a leader when subordinates become reluctant to disclose bad news or worst-case scenarios that might trigger a shoot-the-messenger response.

“Blogs are personal. They humanize the Web and keep CEOs in touch with what’s going on out there in America,” said Agno, head of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based consulting firm Signature Inc. “People feel they can really have a conversation with someone who has a blog.”

Thirty Fortune 500 companies are now publishing corporate blogs, nearly double the number in December 2005, according to the Fortune 500 Blogging Wiki, a collaborative tracking site. Technology companies like Amazon.com Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Oracle Corp. were early adopters, but senior executives at leading industrial companies like Boeing Co. and General Motors Corp. have also embrace the trend.

Yet few company blogs are from the chiefs.

Schwartz’s entries are often risque. In his zeal to tout Sun, Schwartz has crossed paths with the company’s legal department, whose attorneys have asked him to include “safe harbor” statements on blog entries that discuss future business strategies and products.

How much time executives spend blogging vary, but few seem to update more than once a week. Some executives – including Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey – do little beyond posting excerpts from public speeches and press releases.

GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz’s “Fast Lane” blog includes entries from other GM executives and links to his favorite German and French auto enthusiast sites. Lutz’s site has generated 10,000 reader responses since January 2005 and, along with a smaller GM corporate blog, gets 4,000 to 6,000 unique daily visitors.

The blog allows the Swiss-born executive to write directly to hard-core motorheads around the world. More than 900 readers asked Lutz, who oversees product development, to revive the Chevrolet Camaro. GM said last month it would develop a new Camaro based on a concept car unveiled in January.

“I’m not going to tell you that Camaro is happening because the blogosphere demanded it; that would be disingenuous,” Lutz wrote. “But I will tell you that the enthusiasm shown for Camaro in this forum is a shining and prominent example of the passion that exists for this automobile.”

More than 3,000 of Sun’s 30,000 employees maintain blogs on Sun’s sites, a practice Schwartz says helps Sun attract workers with specialized interests. Schwartz says the most esoteric blog entries – discussions on chip multithreading or Sun’s Java programming language – attract passionate responses.

“If you really care about Java in the medical device community, the fact that there’s a Sun blog where someone focuses on that suggests there’s someone at Sun you can relate to,” Schwartz said. “There may be three people at Sun who care deeply about this stuff, and you can go hang out with them if you come work for us.”

Karen Christensen, CEO of Great Barrington, Mass.-based Berkshire Publishing Group, usually updates her blog weekly but spent a half-hour a day blogging during a recent visit to China.

She says the blog gives colleagues a sense of her long hours and concern for details, making book reviewers – her harshest critics – consider her work in new light.

“I had a reviewer write to me and say, ‘I never knew there were real people behind this,'” Christensen said.

The publishing industry is rife with bloggers, including Macmillan Publishers Ltd. CEO Richard Charkin, whose “Chark Blog” includes slice-of-life entries from the British executive. Consultants say blogging suits natural-born writers – but it’s tough for other executives.

“Ultimately, a good blog is good writing. Most CEOs are not good writers,” said Debbie Weil, a Washington-based consultant and author of “The Corporate Blogging Book.””The packaging and controlling of the corporate message has always been done for them, so often they don’t realize that writing well is hard work and takes time and thought and practice.”

Blogs can also become a publicity land mine.

Nondisclosure agreements and financial regulations can turn the most literary CEOs into scribes who post rehashed speeches or press releases. CEOs may also lack the thick skin required for blogging, said David Taylor, an executive consultant in Boulder, Colo.

“One of the inevitabilities of blogging is that you get critical, hostile responses from trolls – people who post provocative things just to inflame a reaction,” Taylor said.

CEO bloggers can also take heat when companies stumble.

Sun’s annual revenue has declined in four of the past five years, and shares have plummeted to just over $5 from a September 2000 high of about $64.

“As much as I’m impressed by Jonathan’s blog, I wonder how he has time to blog when he has a company that desperately needs management steered in the right direction,” Taylor said.

Schwartz shrugs off criticism, insisting that blogging makes sense at Sun.

“Mainstream communication is horrible at serving niches,” Schwartz said. “This is a good way to take the expertise around Sun, which can be pretty esoteric, and ensure it’s available to the marketplace.”

Nathan Peterson, the owner of the iBackups.net – one of the largest U.S. Internet software piracy Web sites that sold products copyrighted by companies such as Microsoft and Adobe at a huge discount – has just been sentenced to more than 7 in prison.

http://ibackups.net/

In a landmark federal court decision issued earlier this week, a motion to dismiss a class-action lawsuit against Target Corp. was denied, marking what prosecutors called a victory for the visually-impaired community.”This judgment was a victory of an important battle, but not of the overarching war,” said UC Berkeley senior Bruce Sexton, one of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit.

The judge issued his decision after Target motioned to dismiss a class-action lawsuit filed Feb. 7 that claimed that the corporation’s Web site was inaccessible to blind customers.

The suit claimed that the Web site violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, the California Unruh Civil Rights Act and the California Disabled Persons Act.

Target wanted the case dismissed, arguing that only its physical retail locations, not its Web site, are subject to state and federal accessibility laws.

But the judge struck down the motion, saying the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires all commercial locations to be accessible to citizens with disabilities, extends to Web sites as well as physical retail locations.

Many Web pages are designed to be compatible with screen-reading software, which takes visual information from computer screens and reads it out loud, said John Pare, who is the director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind.

Such sites also allow users to use keyboard shortcuts instead of relying on a mouse, he said.

“Target didn’t have these shortcuts installed in their own Web site,” Pare said.

Representatives from Target could not be reached for comment.

The ruling could hopefully spur more companies to adapt their Web sites to comply with federal and state accesibility laws, said Daniel Goldstein, a partner in the civil rights law firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy, one of the prosecuting firms in the suit.

While a final ruling has yet to be issued, disability-rights advocates said this is an important setback for Target and they are cautiously optimistic.

“This is the first step,” Pare said, “but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

“This judgment was a victory of an important battle, but not of the overarching war,” said UC Berkeley senior Bruce Sexton, one of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit.

In an unprecedented decision for disability rights advocates, a federal district court judge ruled Tuesday that retail company Web sites must be accessible to the blind.

The lawsuit, filed Feb. 7 against Target Corp., claims

the Web site’s inaccessibility violates the

This technology is crucial for blind individuals, said Daniel Goldstein of

civil rights law firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy, since they cannot drive and need to do much of their shopping and other business online.

And while most sites are software compatible, said Goldstein, there’s a difference between acessibility and usability. While most sites are at least somewhat accessible, he said, “the number of both accessible and usable Web sites are … but still very few.”

Goldstein said the changing face of the high-tech industry has furthered the quality of life for the blind, it has also left other aspects behind. “One might have expected new tech to be liberating, and it has been … but now the thermostat is now digital, the washer is now digital,” he said.

It is when companies have to modify such existing infrastructure to make them accessible that compliance with state and federal laws becomes expensive and possibly unappealing.

Google: Don’t Be Evil

September 9, 2006

Google’s mantra is “Don’t be evil,” which as corporate mottoes go is the equivalent of “Build an eternal bonfire in the parking lot and fuel it with thousand-dollar bills and the occasional Gutenberg Bible.”The worldwide market for evil is stratospheric, and Google is uniquely positioned to take advantage of it. They’ve made some halting inroads in China, but economists — many of whom are themselves evil — estimate that if Google abandoned its inefficient policy completely, it could capture 38 percent of the evil market. That’s more than Microsoft and Lindsay Lohan combined. Here are just a few of the many ways Google could provide cutting-edge, convenient and extremely evil services.

Google TortureSure, Google provides access to nearly all the public information on the web, but what about data people aren’t willing to share? Google could enhance its core search engine by deploying goons and/or thugs to beat information out of people — anything from the location of their valuables to interesting sports trivia. Finally you can search on terms like “why did my neighbor come home at 3 a.m. all last week” and expect to get some real answers.

Google MurderWhy pay top dollar for a professional hit man when an amateur will do it for a few bucks and a good alibi? Google could leverage the technology behind Google Answers to match amateur killers with those looking to eliminate a business rival or key witness. While high-end assassins have all sorts of overhead and pass the costs on to you, Google Murder could match you up with sociopaths who were thinking of going on a rampage anyway, and who would be willing to shoot up the office building or motel of your choosing for a reasonable fee.

Google BlackmailYouTube and Flickr are tough competitors in the world of user-supplied content, but they’re hobbled by terms of service that discourage the most profitable content of all: incriminating evidence. Google could use the code behind Google Video to allow users to upload sordid videos and indelicate photos and set them to be displayed after a reasonable amount of time if the ransom isn’t met. If the victim pays up, Google gets a cut. If the ransom isn’t paid and evidence of degradation and betrayal is made public, everybody wins!

Google InfidelityMore than one affair has brought a marriage to an asset-dividing end thanks to an electronic trail left in the guilty party’s browser. With a couple of changes to Google Desktop and Google Toolbar, these sad results can be a thing of the past. The code could change the browser history so that searches for “crotchless panties” and “motels that bill by the hour” look like searches for “anniversary presents” and “spouse-only massage classes.” And, in case that doesn’t work, the software can automatically block access to the websites of private detectives and divorce lawyers.

Google NudityGoogle Earth may give you a great view of the Grand Tetons, but those aren’t the natural formations most people using Google Image Search are looking for. Sure, turning off SafeSearch can net you all sorts of porn even if you don’t actually want it, but the worldwide demand for naked pictures of famous people still far exceeds the supply. As satellite and rendering technology improve, Google will be in the enviable position of being able to map the topology of anyone who goes outdoors, and extrapolate it into nude pictures indistinguishable from actual perverted photography. Finally you’ll be able to see anyone from your favorite movie star to your Pilates instructor naked as a jaybird and twice as aroused.

I think you can see how evil, properly abused by the benevolent tyrants at Google, could benefit us all while only harming most of us. I think it would be a good trade-off, as long as Google doesn’t start spamming. Some things are too evil to even consider.

As technology creeps into more and more areas of consumers’ everyday lives, the risk of overexposure to gadgets, content, games and high-tech services rises. How much is too much? This first article in a three-part series on the potential dangers of substantial exposure to technology focuses on the risk to infants and children.From Baby Einstein tapes for infants to Reader Rabbit software for two-year-olds to Nintendo consoles given as early as fifth birthdays and beyond, technological advancements designed to stimulate the intellect and entertain the soul are overwhelming many 21st century kids.

Technology access has been linked to improved reading skills, but some believe that too much technology can impose dangers on today’s youth — including vision impairment, technology addiction and sexual solicitation. To be sure, technology opens the doors to a world that includes much more than convenience, knowledge and entertainment.

Pros and Cons

“In the past, we only had to be concerned about too much TV exposure. Now we have video games, computers and cell phones. It is overwhelming for young children and creates patterns of behaviors similar to addiction patterns,” said Mali Mann, M.D., adjunct clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University’s School of Medicine.“Their brains get used to too much auditory and visual stimulation — and in the absence of these stimulations, they do not know what to do with themselves,” she told TechNewsWorld. “They get anxious, restless, bored and aggressive.”Researchers are conducting numerous studies to measure how much children of all ages use technology and to evaluate its impact. The responses are mixed — and telling.Some reports have condemned the use of computers in schools. Others have endorsed Internet use in the classroom. Whether or not they are exposed to technology in the classroom, kids often have bedrooms that are media centers, according to a Knowledge Networks/SRI study. It reveals that nearly two-thirds of children have a television in their room, while 17 percent have their own computer and 35 percent have a video game system.The use of this technology begins early. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 31 percent of children age three and under are already using computers. Sixteen percent use them several times a week, 21 percent can point and click with a mouse by themselves, and 11 percent can turn on the computer without assistance.What’s more, a third of children — many as young as 11 years old — use blogs and social networking sites at least two or three times a week. Yet two-thirds of parents don’t even know what a blog is, according to a report by NCH Children’s Charities and Tesco Telecoms.The report reveals an alarming gap in knowledge between parents and their children when it comes to technology, breeding concern that children may be at risk of exposure to sexual predation and other dangers.  

Instilling Self-Control

Incessant exposure to “all day TV,” violent video games, instant messaging, and the always accessible cell phone interferes with the development of the psychological traits known to be essential to positive outcomes for children, according to Leah Klungness, Ph.D., psychologist in private practice and co-author of The Complete Single Mother. Self-control is one of these essential psychological traits.“Research findings suggest that the ability to focus attention and delay gratification have both a hereditary and environmental component. Differences among children in their ability to focus attention and exercise control emerge before a child’s first birthday. No one is sure how much of the ability to exercise self control is hereditary or how much is learned,” Klungness told TechNewsWorld.In other words, through experience, children can be taught to exercise self-control. On the other hand, such innate abilities can be “unlearned” by experiences that reduce a youngster’s capacity to exercise self-control. Constant media exposure is an experience that will reduce self-control in children, Klungness argued, because media is all about immediacy.

 

Governments seeking inexpensive technology to warn of tsunamis may be interested in a free application that monitors vibrations in the hard disks of computers in an effort to detect undersea earthquakes that cause tsunamis.The Tsunami Harddisk Detector is the brainchild of Michael Stadler, who demonstrated the prototype system earlier this week at the Ars Electronica exhibition in Linz, Austria.

As part of their operation, hard disks measure vibrations in order to keep the read-write head of the disk on track. These measurements can be read from some hard disks. The Tsunami Harddisk Detector captures this vibration data and shares it with computers in other locations connected via a peer-to-peer (P2P) network to determine whether an earth tremor is occurring.

In the P2P network, several participating computers act as supernodes, which analyze the data received from the other “sensing” nodes. The supernodes are able to ignore vibrations generated by a computer being kicked or shaken by recording how many computers report the same vibrations simultaneously.

If an earthquake that could lead to a tsunami is detected, the supernodes inform the other nodes. Computers that are running the client software and are connected to the P2P network can then warn of such events.

The software is able to provide such warnings because the seismic waves produced by earthquakes travel at about 3,100 miles per hour, while tsunamis move much slower at 300 to 600 miles per hour, Stadler explained on his Web site. The speed difference leaves time to evaluate tremors and, if necessary, warn of a tsunami.

On his site, however, Stadler points out that his system is still in the experimental stage with some inherent problems and can’t be fully relied on to provide a “serious prediction” of a tsunami risk in its present configuration.

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – Philadelphia on Thursday opened a public high school where students work on wireless laptops, teachers eschew traditional subjects for real-world topics and parents can track their child’s work on the Internet.

Called “The School of the Future” and created with help from software giant Microsoft (MSFT.O: Quote, Profile, Research), it is believed to be the first in the world to combine innovative teaching methods with the latest technology, all housed in an environmentally friendly building.

The school, which cost the school district $63 million to build, is free and has no entrance exams. The 170 students in the inaugural ninth-grade class were selected by lottery from 1,500 applicants.

Three-quarters of the students come from the surrounding West Philadelphia neighborhood; 95 percent of the students are black, and about 85 percent come from low-income households, the school district said.

Philadelphia School District Chief Executive Paul Vallas told students they would be scrutinized by other schools around the world.

“You have become instant role models,” Vallas said. “People are going to be … watching you.”

Student still sit in classrooms, but lessons rely heavily on information found on the Internet and on interactive software. Students will be allowed to learn at their own pace. Homework is done on computer and sent to the teacher for grading and parents can access the school’s network to read teacher feedback on their child’s progress. Read the rest of this entry »

After walking the Great Wall of China and making plans for a trip to Russia, Shirley Greening-Jackson thought signing up for a new internet service would be a doddle.

But the young man behind the counter had other ideas. He said she was barred – because she was too old.

The 75-year-old would only be allowed to sign the forms for the Carphone Warehouse’s TalkTalk phone and broadband package if she was accompanied by a younger member of her family who could explain the small print to her.

Mrs Greening-Jackson, who sits on the board of several charities, said: “I was absolutely furious. The young man said, ‘Sorry, you’re over 70. It’s company policy. We don’t sign anyone up who is over 70.’

“Later a young lady said company policy is that anyone over 70 might not understand the contract. She said, ‘If you would be prepared to go to the shop in town and take a younger member of your family we might give you a contract.’

“I have just completed a visa form to go to Russia. Last year we did one for walking the Wall in China and here is this person saying I would not be able to understand a basic form – and it was basic. It is pure ageism.

“Somebody has decided when you turn 70 you lose a lot of your mind. I find this is ridiculous.”

When her case came to light on Radio 4’s You And Yours last week, Carphone Warehouse admitted it had adopted an over-70 rule.

But the firm insisted it was not a blanket policy and claimed the guidance was to protect the elderly. A spokeswoman said: “It is not our policy to refuse business from adult customers of any age group. However, we do ask our agents to use their discretion when dealing with older customers.”

She added that the discretionary rule had been introduced in response to complaints that staff had mis-sold products last year.

Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on older people, described the practice as ‘deeply offensive’.

He said: “It is nonsense to assume those over the age of 70 cannot understand this sort of package, especially with the huge explosion of ‘silver surfers’ using the net.”

New laws next month will outlaw ageism in the workplace. But Help the Aged wants the rules extended to protect consumers. “We see companies putting in place arbitrary age rules all the time,’ a spokeswoman said. “To deny people services because of their age is just crazy. There needs to be legislation to address this.”