Niagara Gazette

December 12, 2008

TECHNOLOGY: TechBits package 12/3/2008


By The Associated Press



BEIJING (AP) _ Authorities in a southern Chinese city require that Internet cafes pay close attention to the operating systems used on their computers, saying the rule should promote wider use of legitimate software. But is it really a way to help the authorities snoop on users?

The new rules that went into effect Nov. 5 in the city of Nanchang require operators of Internet cafes to remove unlicensed software and replace it with legitimate copies of either Microsoft Windows or China's homegrown Red Flag Linux operating system. The goal is to cut down on pirated software, said Hu Shenghua, a spokesman for the Culture Bureau in the city of Nanchang.

However, Radio Free Asia, funded by the U.S. government, reported Wednesday that cafes were being required to install Red Flag Linux even if they were using authorized copies of Windows. The radio service quoted Xiao Qiang, director of the California-based China Internet Project, as saying the step would help authorities regulate Internet cafes that now operate on the margins of the law — and allow the officials to undertake heightened surveillance.

Fan Hongguan, a spokesman for Beijing-based Red Flag Software, declined to comment.

Chinese who access the Web at Internet cafes are already required to register with their identification cards. Whether accessed from home or an Internet cafe, the Web within China is regularly patrolled by monitors looking for content deemed politically subversive or related to pornography or criminal activity.

Large numbers of Web sites are blocked and dozens of Chinese citizens have been arrested for accessing or sending politically sensitive information over the Web. Despite such prosecutions, China has the world's largest population of Internet users with 253 million, and authorities are eager to encourage Internet usage as a driver for commerce. Internet cafes are patronized mainly by migrant workers, the rural poor and online gaming enthusiasts.

A woman reached by phone at Nanchang's Junlin Internet Cafe said officials came last month to replace the pirated software her shop was using. The woman, who gave only her surname, Wang, declined to identify the new operating system.

—Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press Writer.

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Wikipedia hopes to make editing user-friendly

NEW YORK (AP) — Concerned that many would-be contributors to Wikipedia are being scared away, the foundation that runs the Internet encyclopedia is getting an $890,000 grant to try to make the editing process more user-friendly.

Anyone can contribute to Wikipedia, but clicking on the "edit" button brings up a jumble of coding mixed with plain English paragraphs. There are buttons on the top of the page that eliminate any need for users to write their own coding, but the Wikimedia Foundation has acknowledged for several years that the unfamiliar feel of the editing process probably turns off people who could otherwise make valuable contributions.

"Wikipedia attracts writers who have a moderate-to-high level of technical understanding, but it excludes lots of smart, knowledgeable people who are less tech-centric," Sue Gardner, the Wikimedia Foundation's executive director, said in a statement Wednesday.

The foundation has snared an $890,000 grant from the Stanton Foundation for the project and plans to assemble a five-person team to identify what exactly is turning some users off. In particular, the foundation said it will look at hiding more technical elements of the site that contributors don't necessarily need to see.

—Andrew Vanacore, AP Business Writer.

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The phone that feels the flu before you do

NEW YORK (AP) — Did your parents tell you to remember your scarf when you went out, so you wouldn't catch a cold? Today, the advice might be: Remember your cell phone.

A maker of over-the-counter cold and flu remedies released a program this week for the T-Mobile G1, also known as the "Google phone," that warns the user how many people in an area are sneezing and shaking with winter viruses.

The "Zicam Cold & Flu Companion" will say, for instance, that 8 percent to 14 percent of the people in your ZIP code have respiratory illnesses, representing a "Moderate" risk level. To give germophobes and hypochondriacs even more of a thrill, it also says what symptoms are common, like coughing and sore throat.

Matrixx Initiatives Inc., the Arizona company that makes products under the Zicam brand, gets the information on disease levels from Surveillance Data Inc. — which gets its data from polling health care providers and pharmacies.

Users can also ask the application about risk levels in other ZIP codes, so they can steer clear of, for instance, Atlanta, one of the five most infected cities in the nation right now, according to Zicam.

The "Companion" is available for free from the Android Marketplace, the repository of downloadable programs for the G1. Later this month, the program will be available for the iPhone, according to Matrixx.

Google Inc., which created the G1's operating system, launched its own state-by-state Web-based flu tracker recently. It's based on the number of people plugging flu-related searches into Google's search engine.

—Peter Svensson, AP Technology Writer.

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Professors aim to get students a Web analysis tool

NEW YORK (AP) — For anyone who remembers sifting through yellowed card catalogs in the library for that 10th-grade history project, the abundance of information available online is astounding — as is the task of sifting out unreliable information.

Now researchers hope to give students a method for assessing the reliability of material they find on the Internet, whether it's in Wikipedia articles, YouTube videos or blogs.

In a paper they recently presented at a teaching symposium, North Carolina State University English professor Susan Miller-Cochran and Rochelle Rodrigo, of Maricopa Community Colleges in Tempe, Ariz., suggest that students be given a sort of checklist to explore as they consider online — and offline — texts.

The two main questions they encourage students to ask: How does the information change over time — is it constantly updated and revised, or static? And how has it been reviewed?

Miller-Cochran stresses that just because something has been published in print does not make it a reliable source. Such doubts could arise about self-published books, for example. Conversely, online materials are not necessarily inherently unreliable.

Often, as in the case of Wikipedia, which has elements of peer review as well as self-publication, the answers can get murky. But Miller-Cochran says the end goal is for students to learn how to analyze texts without "pigeonholing the material based on where it was found."

—Barbara Ortutay, AP Technology Writer.



Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.