Sunday, January 27, 2008

SSC #51 Keep those kiddies safe!

    You might think otherwise by reading my articles, but I grew up without the benefit of having a computer.  I actually did not get my first computer until I was twenty-three.
    As parents we always want our children to have things and opportunities that we ourselves never had when growing up.  It is for this reason that my son, Tyler, received his own computer at the age of 6 months.  Yeah, I know you're thinking that is just plain crazy, but honestly it worked out well.  He had a touchscreen by which he could press pictures and watch cartoons and stuff like that.  We also used it as a nanny-cam and baby monitor.  It was really quite useful.
    Now my son has reached the grand old age of five.  He's beginning to be able to read and he's gone past the need for his touchscreen.  In fact, he is in the first stages of learning how to surf the internet.
    How does a parent these days make the internet safe for a child of such a tender age?  How indeed!
    A few months back, I came across a new plugin for the Firefox browser called Glubble. ( It doesn't work for Internet Explorer, and from the looks of it they have no plans to support it.  Glubble makes the internet a safe and fun place for young minds to explore. 
    Glubble has a different layout depending on whether you are viewing it with adult priveleges or child priveleges.  For adults it just adds a couple buttons to the toolbar to interact with the system.   And for children, it simplifies the entire browser into something that they can easily grasp.  Using the adult privileges requires a password so your child can't get into it, though you can turn the password off if it is a machine that your children won't ever be using.
    Now, whenever my son wishes to view a new page, or clicks on a link, a box comes up prompting him to ask either "Daddy" or "Mommy" for permission.  After he has used that box to ask, I get a message that pops up in my browser that tells me that he wishes to see a site and it gives me the link to the site he is interested in.  I check out the site and decide whether or not it is something that he should be looking at and then I can either allow or deny it. 
    If I allow it, he gets a popup box in his browser that tells him that "Daddy has said it is OK to go to ..." and he can then visit the site.
    I can also add sites to his list before he asks, and whatever I add, Glubble will remember.
    Glubble also allows him to add sites to a favorites list which shows thumbnail sized pictures of his favorite websites.
    And on top of that, there is a personal home page that he can see with a new feature called the Family Wall, basically a kind of family message board, where he can send and receive messages to either me or my wife.
    All in all it is a very nice and well thought out system, and the support staff at are all very helpful and they take all suggestions for improvement very seriously. 
    Because this is for Firefox, Glubble can be used on Windows, Linux, or Macintosh.  Keep in mind that if you want your kids to use this, you'll need to get rid of their access to other browsers such as Internet Explorer or Safari.  Using Glubble can make the internet safe and fun for your kids, but it doesn't help anything if they can just start up a different browser and bypass it.

    Until next week, keep those kids safe and sound!

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

SSC #50 Home Recording

    Oliver Wendell Holmes is quoted as having said "Alas for those that never sing, But die with all their music in them!" 
    It is a very rare and strange person who does not enjoy music of some form.  Music speaks to the heart of us.  And for some of us, it speaks FROM the heart of us as well.
    For over 10 years I played guitar.  Not professionally, or even with any degree of regularity.  I did not play the hit songs, I did not play requests.  I tried not to copy, but to create.  I made my own music.  Some liked it, some did not.  Truly, I did not ever care.  It was mine.  It was some part of what makes me unique transformed into sound.  And it made me happy.
    A little over a year ago I had an accident at work.  I accidentally crushed the middle fingertip of my left hand.  The tip of the bone was broken and surgery was necessary to make it usable again. 
    Now, a year later, the tip of my finger is constantly numb.  Pins and needles numb.  I can grip with it, I can work with it, I can even type with it. I just can't play guitar with it.  I probably could learn to use my other fingers differently and work around the injury, and perhaps some day I will.  But for now, it is just too strange, too different, and too depressing.
    I said all of that to say this:  If you are a musician, and you enjoy it, record yourself.  Even if you only play for yourself, in the closet, at night, with the lights turned off... record yourself.  There are songs that I created that I will likely never hear again, except in my head, simply because I didn't feel they were good enough to make a recording of them.  And now I wish I had.
    If you have a computer, recording music can't be much simpler.  There are tons of great professional grade programs out there such as Reason or Cakewalk, shareware applications such as n-Track Studio, and awesome free software such as Audacity.  For Mac users there is Garage Band.  No matter what kind of computer you have, chances are there is a way to record sound.
    Of course results can vary depending on the quality of your equipment, but it is much much less expensive to upgrade a PC-based recording solution than to purchase all analog or solid-state equipment.  And while some may not think much of digitizing their sound, the majority of music these days is listened to in a digital format.  With a decent microphone and a decent $50 soundcard, your PC can outperform equipment costing $1000 or more. 
    Perhaps you've used a 4-track recorder in the past... What would you say to a recorder that is capable of nearly unlimited tracks?
    Depending on the software you use, you can add tracks, use effects, speed up or reverse tracks, and for cutting out the bad parts, you can zoom in so far you can see the individual waves of sound so you will have no trouble finding the place to make your edits.  Or you could just hit record and go.  Most of these type programs have the ability to mix down to MP3, and from there its relatively easy to put on a CD.  You can record something in an afternoon and listen to it in the car that night. 
    It can be easy, or it can be technical.  The rabbit-hole goes deep, but you don't have to follow it all the way through.  Just make sure you have some means to record the songs that come out of you.  They are pieces of yourself that you will miss when they are gone.  Thats all I'm saying.

In response to last week's article about voting machines, Kay Winemiller writes:
"Jeff, this is such an interesting article.  Glad you wrote it.  I work the polls and right now, as you know, the voters have a choice here of which machine they want to vote on.  The first time the Hart machine was used, the company informed our class that the machine will eventually replace the other machine.  Quite a few of the voters refused to use the Hart and raised the question of the accuracy and honesty.  Voicing the same concerns your article points to.  Hopefully, the public takes this seriously.
Very good article.  Keep up the good work."

I intend to Kay, thanks for writing!  I think I know which machine I will be voting on, and I'm glad I still have that option!

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Monday, January 7, 2008

SSC #49 Computers aren't for everything

by Jeff Smith

If you read my column regularly, (that is when I write it regularly) you no doubt know that I am a big fan of computers and electronics. In a word I am a geek. If I could do the dishes from the keyboard I would, and they'd likely get done a lot more often.
Bluetooth enabled refrigerator? Awesome. Battery operated self-warming socks? Very cool. You invented an electronic tomato? All I have to ask is "Does it get WiFi?"
That being said, there's one thing that I don't think should be computerized. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
That one thing would be voting machines.
Right now there is a lot of controversy surrounding electronic voting machines, and rightly so.
Voting machines in Ohio were found to be easily broken into and hacked. False information was able to be introduced via handheld devices that could easily be carried into the booth. Not only that, but they were susceptible to viruses and malignant software.
And its not just in Ohio. The machines in question, manufactured by Elections Systems and Software; Premier Election Solutions, formerly Diebold; and Hart InterCivic are used in multiple states.
The most popular machines, the Diebold TSx, Sequoia Edge, ES&S iVotronic, and Hart InterCivic eSlate were all found to occasionally flip votes to the opposite of what the voter had chosen.
The Hart InterCivic system is REALLY bad, it allows anybody with access and a passcode to modify vote totals from an election without leaving behind any record of the modification. And these particular voting machines are used in more than 16 different states.
You could be the most morally rigid person in the history of the world, yet your vote could be bought by someone with an agenda you may not approve of. The companies behind these machines do not instill any sense of trust in me at all. They all keep insisting that there is nothing wrong and that everything is fine. Conspiracy theorists! Start your engines!
With all of the recent political controversy, perhaps the Presidential election of 2004 has escaped your memory. In that election, Bush got a near landslide of votes from the inner city areas that turned the tide and narrowly won the election for him. Even though exit polls showed only hours before that he was going to lose. Even though the inner city traditionally leans Democrat. Even though... well you get the idea.
The lifeblood of our nations democratic process is our ability to vote. If our votes are not being accurately counted, then we really have lost all semblance of control over our government. When that happens, this ceases to be a government "by the People, for the People" and becomes instead something sinister and, quite frankly, frightening.
Are you a Democrat? A Republican? An Independant? It really doesn't matter. I don't care if you're in the WIG Party. This matters to all of us. If my personal pick doesn't win in an honest election, I will be unhappy, but if he doesn't win and theres a hint of vote fraud, how will I ever know who SHOULD have won? How will you?

The moral to this story is this: When you vote, double check everything. If there's a receipt, check to be sure that your votes were counted properly. And if they are wrong, DO NOT STAND FOR IT!

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