Computers missued in schools

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/07/2004 - 09:44

A large German study of computer use in schools found that computers were overused in the early grades, and not used well enough in higher grades, like high school.

The study also found that students who spent too much time on the computer had LOWER reading and math scores. This does not surprise me, as it is entirely too easy to waste time, mostly on the Web, and parents and teachers have been too quick to assume that any time on the computer is good time.

I've had many opportunities to observe K12 technology use for a decade, and I continue to see two big problems.

Firefox users see fewer ads

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/07/2004 - 09:32

A Cnet article details a surprising study that shows Firefox users see four times FEWER ads than Internet Explorer users.

Firefox is the free Web browser that is increasingly popular with Windows users because it is faster and has fewer security problems than IE. It also apparently does a much better job of blocking pop-up ads, which may account for some of the differences between the two groups.

I had to spend a couple of days working on a Windows machine last week, using IE, and I was shocked at the number of pop-ups--it was actually difficult to get work done at times. I've been rather spoiled, I decided, from Safari, Apple's browser, and Firefox. Both do a pretty good job at blocking pop-up ads; so well, apparently, that I had begun to take it for granted.

Firefox is free, and can be downloaded and installed easily.

BellSouth eyes video

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 12/06/2004 - 13:14

According to a CNet article, BellSouth plans to provide higher capacity broadband to most of its customer base in the next five years.

Video is driving the plans. The cable companies have not only captured about 75% of the broadband market, compared to the phone companies' paltry 15%, but the cable companies can offer the fabled triple play--voice, data, and video.

The phone companies are terrified. VoIP is sapping traditional landline customers all over the country, and most of those VoIP users are getting that service over cable broadband, not DSL broadband. So the telephone companies want to offer the same thing--voice, data, and video--but their weak point is the 100 year old design of the telephone infrastructure. Most phone users in this country are still getting their dial tone the way Alexander Graham Bell designed it, but those copper cables won't haul video all the way from phone company video head ends. So BellSouth has decided to go with fiber to the node (i.e. fiber to the neighborhood), and deliver the first mile (last mile) connection over copper.

This may sound like great news, but most communities are still stuck with the same two monopoly service providers they had twenty years ago; that's not choice, and two oligarchies aren't likely to drive prices down. Continuing to overbuild private networks does not level the playing field and will not attract real competition.

Pillcam an easier pill to swallow

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/03/2004 - 07:52

The USA Today had a story yesterday (page 11D) about the PillCam, a screening device that you swallow. While it travels through your body, it sends video and still images back to the doctor. The "pill," which is not much bigger than an oversize vitamin capsule, is much easier to take (literally) than an endoscopy, which requires sedation and the insertion of a tube down the throat.

It gets patients in and out of the doctor's office more quickly and with less risk. An endoscopy might still be required as a followup if the doctor decides a tissue sample is needed.

I have a great idea for a reality TV show. It's a bit like Fear Factor, where the contestants have to eat bugs, but they also have to swallow the PillCam, so we can see in real time what the little critters do once in your, um, stomach...8^).

Have a great weekend.

Ukraine and the Internet

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 12/02/2004 - 15:55

It's not being covered much in the news, but you can be sure that the demonstrations against the stolen election in Ukraine is being organized in large part via the Internet.

Over the long term (fifty years from now), the real impact of the Internet, looking back, may be the changes it has brought to politics and nations. Short of cutting off Internet access entirely, it is no longer possible for dictators, despots, and thugs to keep people from learning what is going on in the rest of the world. Nor can they keep their own people from passing the truth from one to another. If the only thing the Internet does is help spread freedom and democracy, that's enough.

Windows machines are easy to hijack

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/30/2004 - 10:37

A story in USA Today details how easily a Windows machine connected to the Internet (e.g. via DSL or cable modem) can be hijacked. Macintosh and Linux machines were also tested, but it was found that the numerous security holes in Windows made it more difficult to keep the machine secure.

Properly configured firewalls were considered essential, and on any of the machines running firewalls, there were no compromises. The Windows machines that were not running firewalls were broached "within minutes," with over three hundred attacks per hour noted on all the machines.

The Internet as retailer

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/30/2004 - 09:55

It is being widely reported that Internet shopping over the Thanksgiving weekend jumped dramatically, especially on Thanksgiving Day. Apparently, while everyone was waiting for the turkey to cook, twice as many people as last year went online to do a little shopping. Friday also saw a big increase (about 50% more).

The big loser was Walmart, which did not see the big increases expected. Other stores, like Target, apparently did better. There are all sorts of theories explaining various aspects of the holiday shopping--that Target offers a nicer shopping environment and better quality, that Walmart shoppers bought from Walmart.com instead of going to the store, and so on. All the explanations probably have some truth to them.

I'm more interested in the implications for smaller and rural communities. One interesting fact is that half of broadband users were apparently shopping online, by one estimate. That's a big number, and I think the reason is that you really need (and want) broadband for online shopping. Browsing an online catalog by dialup is painful. You might as well get in the car and drive to the shopping center.

For rural communities, affordable broadband and the willingness to shop online means people living in these towns and regions have much the same shopping alternatives available to them as people in the suburbs and big cities. But you have to have the affordable broadband.

It also means that small towns and communities may want to think differently about their approach to retail. In many of the towns and regions in which I work, there is much worry and discussion about the lack of retail. Maybe this is not the problem we think it is--if your residents have affordable broadband. It may be that money spent on retail initiatives might be better directed at quality of life issues that will attract entrepreneurs and businesspeople to the community, who know they can shop online, and instead want a Main Street that supports small businesspeople (lawyers, accountants, copy services, coffee shops, good restaurants, etc.). Finally, the change agent is affordable broadband. Instead of putting new street lamps on Main Street with the hope of reviving retail stores there, invest in a public broadband infrastructure that will bring broadband providers to town--thereby letting people shop online.

"The real estate is the hard part"

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/29/2004 - 09:10

This New York Times article is worth a read, despite the ad you have to click through (and NYT registration is required). It's about companies that are beginning to deploy WiMax.

The article helps dispel some of the hype, like the frequently quoted "up to 30 miles" range, which is actually about half that most of the time.

On the first page of the article, one of the owners of the profiled company confirms something I have been saying for years, that "The real estate is the hard part of the business." If communities would make very modest investments in identifying where to put antennas, provide easy permitting to mount antennas on public facilities, procure tower sites, and put up towers, it would be easy to get private sector companies to come in and offer affordable wireless broadband.

But you can't have it both ways. Too many communities complain about the lack of affordable broadband, but don't want to spend any money to get it. In smaller markets (i.e. virtually all rural communities), it is naive to expect every wireless provider to come in and make substantial investments in site surveys, permits, buy or lease real estate, and invest in towers.

Make all those available easily as community infrastructure. By doing so, the community can dramatically lower the cost of market entry for private providers.

And just to be clear, none of those investments involve getting into the service side of the telecom business, if you live in a state where the legislature has prohibited that.

On the second page of the article is another bit of information that also includes something that I have been warning communities about for years: cable redundancy. The WiMax company has a major business vulnerability because a key location has no alternate cable route. Every commun

Firefox Web browser a big hit

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/23/2004 - 10:10

Numerous reports from various sources are all pointing the runaway success of FireFox, the Open Source Web browser for Windows and other platforms. It has doubled its marketshare in the past year, and the recent release of version 1.0 has caused a big spike in downloads of the free browser.

Firefox sports significant user interface enhancements like tabbed browsing, which does away with the nuisance of having multiple browser windows littering your desktop. It also sports popup blocking, RSS news feed integration, privacy and security tools, and built-in Google searching. Microsoft does not plan an upgrade of Internet Explorer until 2006.

Solar and hydrogen fuel cells will power the grid

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/23/2004 - 08:09

The Energy Economy continues to heat up--literally--as practical Stirling engines, powered by light, are getting an injection of technology. The Stirling engine was invented two hundred years ago, but it was hard to control, so it was largely a novelty item.

Recent work at Sandia Labs in New Mexico has Stirling engines looking like a useful source of electric power, using sophisticated electronic controllers that manage the output of the engines. Stirling engines have only a few moving parts, and are heated by a reflective dish that looks like an oversized satellite antenna. Sandia is designing a 20,000 dish farm of Stirling engines that would generate 230,000 volts of power for an electric grid, at costs near the average of today's fossil fuel generators. Buried in the article is a nugget indicating that they plan to use hydrogen fuel cells to store power during the day and release it at night, when the Stirling engines are shut down.

Does your region have a strategy to participate in the Energy Economy? Have you done an inventory of your manufacturing companies and entrepreneurs to find out who might already be positioned to grb a piece of the energy business?

Carbon nanotube yarns

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/22/2004 - 15:11

Researchers have made what is being called a major breakthrough--a new process that allows the production of yarns made from carbon nanotubes.

Carbon nanotubes have been around for a while, but it has been difficult to manufacture them in forms that make them useful. The ability to produce yarns will enable the production of fabric that can be used in clothing and in the design of other products. Carbon nanotubes are extremely strong while being much lighter than metals like steel and aluminum. One of the emerging markets where carbon nanotube products are likely to be important: space, including lightweight spacecraft and strong, durable spacesuits.

Iowa says it will be first in broadband

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/22/2004 - 09:57

Iowa has what many other communities won't take the time to get--a clear, concise vision for the future. A consortium of Iowa communities and businesspeople have decided on a very simple goal--to have the best broadband infrastructure in the country.

Even better, based on the news article, they are doing it exactly the right way--with community investments in the transport layer (e.g. dark fiber) and leasing it to access and service providers who will deliver the services.

This approach is a win-win-win. Governments win because their investments are modest and manageable, and access fees provide a stable source of revenue to support the system. Private sector broadband providers win because they get access to more markets at lower cost, because the local governments are bearing part of the cost of infrastructure. Consumers win because the community investments expand the marketplace, create more competition, and lower the cost of broadband.

Don't forget that local government, schools, libraries, and health care providers are all users of broadband. Community investments lower costs for all users, public and private--don't discount the value of secondary savings from those initial public investments.

Philadelphia to fight ban on municipal wireless

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/22/2004 - 09:32

The City of Philadelphia has been much in the technology news lately because of its ambitious plans to offer wireless broadband throughout much of the city. It's now back in the news with its announcement that it will fight a statewide ban on municipalities offering Internet access and related services.

On the one hand, these legislative attempts to throttle community projects are almost always the handiwork of the incumbent phone companies, who typically are nonpartisan in their strategy--they give money to all legislators, who then too often pass bills favoring these companies. A cynic might view this as selling out the electorate.

On the other hand, I don't believe local governments ought to be in the service business for broadband. It's not the same as water or electricity, and the fact that the community has municipal water and/or electric service does not, in my opinion, necessarily justify going into the broadband business.

As I have said repeatedly, I view more it like roads. Communities build and maintain roads, but they don't own the cars and trucks (or the businesses) that use those roads.

I'm very much in favor of municipal and local government investments in broadband, ESPECIALLY in underserved communities, but I think the way to do it is to keep the delivery of access and services in the private sector, where jobs are created and taxes are paid. It's a little more work and effort at the outset to make sure you have the right business and administrative model, but over the long term, making the private sector a partner is going to have a much better outcome.

Congress gives thumbs up to space tourism

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/22/2004 - 09:27

A crucial step in the developing space tourism business occurred when the House passed a bill approving taking tourists into space.

At issue is the potential risk. Investors in the space business don't want huge lawsuits hanging over their heads, and the bill would allow companies to take tourists into space under the same "at your own risk" liability that other dangerous sports like mountainclimbing, hang-gliding, and skydiving have--you sign a waiver if you want to jump out of an airplane.

This bill still has to go through the Senate and get signed by the President, but the fact that the House acted quickly on this is a good sign. The emerging Space Economy marches on.

Making a list...

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/19/2004 - 09:13

The Christmas catalogues are pouring into my mailbox, the newspaper is fat every morning with sales circulars from the local stores, and once again, electric razor ads are on TV (hint: no male has EVER bought an electric razor--spouses and significant others think this is something men want).

Just a year ago, I bought a progressive scan DVD player for $150, which I thought was a bargain. At that time, many progressive scan (better quality pictures) DVD players were often over $200. This morning, I saw an ad in the paper for a progressive scan player for $29.95.

It is amazing how much things have changed. I was in a small town restaurant two nights ago, eating dinner, and they had a stack of old magazines by the cash register. I picked one out to thumb through while eating. It was from 1998--a scant six years ago. In it, they had a short article explaining that DVD was this new kind of computer disc that could be used to play movies. It was treated as some exotic novelty.

Six years later, in our house, it's way too much trouble to watch a videotape. Remember those? Those old, antique things with moving parts, fuzzy pictures, and NO bonus material, director interviews, outtakes, dubbing in sixteen languages, or any of the other stuff that no one ever looks at but now comes on every DVD.

As an advocate of technology use, I find myself embarrased at the cheap junk being thrust upon us. Kid's toys are wretched excess. It seems that this year, virtually every toy made has about $5 worth of electronics (we're at a point where the cost of the batteries exceeds the cost of the electronics in the gadget).

Regrettably, I'm afraid that too many people think their kids will be technologically illiterate if they don't have electronic "books," electronic "first word" toys, electronic drawing games, and so on. The current crop of electronic "drawing" toys are apalling. The low resolution, the lack of printing ability, the lousy color choices, and the lack of appropriate tactile feedback are just the technological shortcomings of these things. What is much, much worse is the lack of intellectual adventure offered by them.

NASA scramjet breaks speed records

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 11/17/2004 - 07:01

NASA's X-34A scramjet broke every speed record in the book by traveling at nearly Mach 10, or about 7,000 miles per hour. Scramjets have been studied and under development for years, but they were mostly theoretical--no one was really sure they would work.

Scramjets, in addition to some military uses, offer an alternative to expensive and heavy chemical rockets for getting into space. One more signal for the emerging Space Economy.

Does the FCC control everything digital?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/16/2004 - 09:42

It's hard to know which way the wind blows in the corridors of the FCC. Hard on the heels of thoughtful rulings on the future of VoIP, the FCC has turned around and claimed jurisdiction over, well, everything digital, including your computer. That's the conclusion of a lot of interested parties, anyway.

The current gasoline being thrown on this fire is the Broadcast Flag mandated by the FCC to be supported on all TVs beginning with sets manufactured next year (right around the corner). The broadcast flag is a bit that tells the set or recording device that the content (i.e a television program, movie, etc.) cannot be copied.

The thinking here was that digital TV would never take off unless the content creators (the giant media companies) were protected against rampant piracy. As the Ars Technical article notes, the FCC continues to be too easily influenced by the incumbent media companies, and tends to pay too little attention to consumer interests.

I have to agree. I don't see that Congress has directed the FCC to "make sure the big media companies don't suffer any competition." The FCC ought to be seeking to create a level playing field for all content providers, large and small. Secondarily, the notion that consumers are just a bunch of thieving pirates is not only extraordinarily small-minded, there is absolutely no evidence to support it. VCRs, twenty-five years ago, were going to kill the movie industry. Now movie makers make more from selling recorded movies than they typically make in theatre box office receipts.

We have a more recent example in the music industry. Even while music industry groups continue to sue consumers for filesharing, they are making hundreds of millions of dollars on legal music downloads. Why is the FCC falling for this nonsense?

New technology and new delivery systems for entertainment always create a period of displacement; it's the beauty of creative destruction. Time after time, we have seen new and bigger markets (and new job and work opportunities) emerge out of the ashes of old businesses. As a country, why are we trying to preserve the near monopoly status of buggy whip makers?

The fog of telecom

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/15/2004 - 18:36

There is a fair amount of disinformation being bandied about on the issue of community-managed telecom infrastructure. Read this article [link no longer available] by the deceptively name "Heartland Institute" for an example of a very one-sided view of community investments in telecom.

Here's another view. The context here is a proposed community telecom project in Illinois, where the incumbent telecom providers have spent millions to try to convince citizens and community leaders that the sky will fall if communities make investments.

Part of the disinformation campaign involves selective reporting. Bristol, Virginia's widely cited fiber to the home project has been misleadingly reported as bleeding red ink, but the way this is done is by looking at only the first two years of the project, where capital costs were correctly projected to be high. By looking at just the first two years, it's easy to show the project is "losing money" and cheating taxpayers. But the real facts are a bit more difficult--as the project moves into year three, Bristol has a big backlog of consumers and businesses clamoring for service, and the project expects to move into the black ahead of schedule.

Another problem with community infrastructure projects is that they fall into several different categories in terms of business models and levels of investment. Some articles that purport to "prove" that community projects are moneylosers by comparing two entirely different business models--one theoretical and one actual. It's very confusing unless you know what is going on.

We just are not far enough along in most real projects to have reliable data, and that's one of the tricks being played--it's entirely too early to tell if most of these community efforts are going to work over the long run or not. But if anecdotal reports from happy customers are any gauge at all, I'm not greatly worried.

And you always have to compare these theoretical doom and gloom stories with the actuality of most rural communities--little or limited DSL service, lack of choice, high prices, poor service, or some mix of all four.

Finally, the biggest trick of all is to take private sector ROI measures and use them as a yardstick for community projects, claiming that if these projects "don't make money," they aren't worth doing. When was the last time any community used ROI to develop support for a community project? The answer is, "Never." Because it just doesn't make sense in the context of "community good," which is why these things get started in the first place.

What's the ROI on a town park? What's the ROI on the community library? What's the ROI on garbage collection? We don't try to measure community services based on return on investment because that's not why we do them in the first place.

Should community telecom infrastructure projects be based on sound business models? Absolutely, and they should not require long term injections of funding from general tax funds. But that's not the same as trying to treat them as a private sector business.

Don't fall for the tricks.

Ukraine has a vision for the future

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/15/2004 - 09:56

Ukraine, a country still struggling with the legacy of the Soviet past, has what many other states in the U.S. still lack--a coherent and easy to explain vision for the future. BusinessWeek has a short article on the country's drive to be one of the top software and IT countries in the world.

That may sound brash, but they are not wringing their hands over the "old days" or talking about "we've never done that before." They are putting a heavy emphasis on education, and cranking out more programmers and IT specialists than many larger countries with a bigger population and more structural advantages.

I've never seen a community fail that has the will to succeed--regardless of how much or how little money they have. I have seen some very well off communities accomplish virtually nothing because they could not articulate where they wanted to go and how they wanted to get there. In the case of Ukraine, they are betting on education and training. I think it's a safe bet that the country will prosper.

Big Brother will be watching while you drive

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/12/2004 - 12:12

In a deeply disturbing ruling, the National Transportation Safety Board has ruled that car manufacturers must put black box data recorders in new cars and trucks. The boxes will record speed, acceleration, braking, direction, and other data that could be used to reconstruct accidents, among other things.

The problem with this is that the data does not belong to the vehicle owner--it can be accessed by third parties without your consent. Traffic safety experts like to talk at length about how the data is valuable in analyzing accidents and improving vehicle safety. Fair enough, but forcing private property owners to both buy the system and to give law enforcement officials, officers of the court, and other third parties access to the data without the permission of the property owner is not acceptable.

Expect a big fight over this one, and there should be a big fight. This is abusive technology--the fact that we now have the technology to monitor and collect this kind of data does not mean we should automatically force everyone to use, at great loss to our privacy.

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