Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How a proxy server can help you

If you work in a large school system, you probably know proxy servers as something the school district runs to block web sites. If you're a technical person, you probably have sworn more than a few times when the proxy server has prevented you from reaching a tech support site or from downloading A/V updates.

While proxy servers can be useful for protecting students from bad content, they can also prevent you from reaching useful sites. Proxify is a proxy server intended for the purpose of hiding one's use of the Internet. Sites one visit via Proxify will have no idea who the real user is. It can also prevent ISPs from spying on your Internet habits.

So how could another proxy server help you? Well, the trick is that it is possible that Proxify is not blocked by your school's proxy server. If that is the case, you can send traffic to Proxify and the blocked sites would be sent by Proxify and not by you. Your school proxy sees you linked to Proxify but not to anything that it would have blocked. So, the solution to an invasive proxy server is another proxy server.

Proxify is not without problems. If you don't pay for their service, the connection speed and use of advertisements can be bothersome. This is an emergency solution and not a routine service. If you require regular service, you may wan to consider their $80/yr price.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Technology can make you a better person

NPR Technology podcast (April 30, 2008) covers the work on Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab. The segment starts 18 minutes into the podcast. While I have long heard that athletes can improves skills, such a free throws, by seeing it in their minds, VHIL has shown that watching an avatar that looks very much like use can impact our real world reality.

One of the more interesting findings they observed was that when a person picks a better looking avatar from a set of possible avatars, the student will take on some of the attributes of the avatar. For example, subjects were asked to fill out an online dating form in which they picked people they thought they could reasonably date. The subjects who had selected a good looking avatar filled out an online dating form where they projected better possible matches. I should mention that the dating service form was filled out an hour later and that the avatar was not used or associated with the dating system.

What does all this mean? Behavior modification and building self-esteem are two obvious areas for students. Perhaps new teachers could practice in front of a virtual class room. This feels like an area rich with possibilities.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Could this be your next video conferencing system?

TechCrunch has a very nice review of live streaming systems. YouTube and its videos of last night are history. How YouTube has kept from offering live services is something I don't get. They allow real-time uploading from a web cam, why not let people watch in real time?

I'm currently trying out one of the reviewed system, Kyte. While it has not been perfect, I like it a lot. Not only can I broadcast live but I don't have annoying ten minute limits. Kyte allows for 60 minutes. For most teachers, that is more than enough for a class. Not so great for my 3 hour plus classes, but I can work around that problem.

Technically, these live streaming services are not replacements for video conferencing systems. While the viewers can upload video feedback in real-time, the model is more of a broadcast model than it is a face-to-face model. For distance learning situations, I believe real-time streaming is best. If you really need to do video conferencing, you could broadcast to each other.

The fact that you can broadcast from a cell phone -- has to be the right model -- is fantastic. You could take it on field trips, broadcast sporting events, and take it around the school without much concern if it would work. Of course, you can also broadcast from a web cam.

I think the potential for these technologies is huge and that you should start to play around with them now so that you'll be ready. BTW, they are all free to use.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Will ISPs be the future pot holes of the Internet?

I was reading an interesting post on one person's experience with an ISP cutting service in ways that may be a harbinger of what will happen to many of us in the future. In short, his ISP, ComCast, cut off his wife's ability to send out email because they thought she was using email too much for a typical home user.

As gas prices continue to go up, many more of us will be working from home. Will our home ISP now expect us to buy a much more expensive business account? That was the "solution" that ComCast suggested.

So, you thought the $60/month your paying for Internet access was unlimited? Well, it is in that you don't pay by the byte. The contract you never read probably says you cannot have a server running from your home, etc. The ISPs have basically made this restriction a moot point by making the speed of going out from your house far lower than the speed coming in. In other words, the ISPs made it impractical to operate a server even if you wanted to break the rules of the contract you never saw.

The ISPs have two problems that they probably didn't anticipate. The first is that the competition between the cable and telcos have resulted in dramatically greater bandwidth. The second problem is that there are now services that can eat up all that bandwidth. Most people would not notice the difference between two and ten megs per second. Web pages don't speed up much after a certain point. But, download hi-def movies and the difference is large. Also, ISPs planned on the Internet being used when a person was home and on the computer. Soon, your computer may be an Internet-based Tivo downloading huge files all day long.

The result is that ISPs have run into a wall that is partly of their causing and partly a result of circumstances. They cannot cut back speeds and keep the same prices. I don't think they can raise the prices -- of course, they have been all too good at increasing cable TV prices. I think they will do one of two things. They will fight even harder in Congress to get bills passed that will allow for tiered performance on the Internet. This will allow them to charge you more if you want the ability to download a movie or to use Skype without it voice breaking up. The second game they can play is to screw up the applications they don't like and hope users will think it's the application's fault and thus stop using it. This has been tried by ComCast and by Rogers (in Canada). We'll see what will happen in the courts.

What does this all mean for you? Most likely, applications your are using now will be okay most of the time, but you may find that advanced features, such as Voice over IP, multimedia downloads, and remote control of computers at work will either be more error-prone or will be a "premium" service.