Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Secunia: Automating the Windows Software Updating Process

Secunia is one of a short list of firms that perform vulnerability testing. While it does not perform many of the tests that a Blink does, it is light and can be run from Secunia's web site. Most users are aware that Windows system updates are important -- or at least they don't interfere with the automated updating system -- but many of the new threats come from applications such as Flash and Acrobat. These programs are in direct contact with the Internet in a way that exposes them to all types of attacks. Few users would think to even check to make sure these applications are updated.

Secunia is also very useful to finding applications you may not have even remembered installing. On my system it found an ancient version of WinZip. It clearly was not something I was checking for updates, yet many attachments come as zip files and WinZip will automatically start up to uncompress the zipped file. If the attachment was dangerous, WinZip would have been compromised. So, a program like Secunia is important to keeping track of all the potential entry points to your Windows computer.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

SoundBible: A possible answer to your prayers

SoundBible is a site that contains a large number of free-to-use short audio clips. While many of these sounds can be found elsewhere, this site puts them together in one place, provides a good description, and offers them in multiple formats. These sound files are great for student projects, such as a YouTube or Power Point. This site is also a great way to expose your students to working with audio files without having to work with huge files. They have fun and your lab still has hard drive space at the end of the class.


Friday, October 02, 2009

YouTube Education 2.0

YouTube has just release version to of their education video site. Youth are now using YouTube as their primary search tool. The educational section is something like iTunes University. This site is worth visiting or taking another look.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Installing Snow Leopard: Not an obvious decision

Snow Leopard, Apple's newest OS, is an interesting decision for educators. The school year is about ready to start and it's always easiest to do major upgrades during the vacation periods. Snow Leopard has a number of significant advantages that make it compelling to schools. The advantage I like the most is that the new OS is actually smaller than the current OS. If your drives are packed to the gills, then this move will be potentially quite interesting.

The problem is that not every application your school may be running will operate on Leopard -- or will at least take a re-install. If you are using older versions of software because you cannot afford the upgrade, you may locked out permanently. See Computer World's story on Adobe's statements about their software on Leopard. While Adobe's position is defensible on an economic basis, it's none too comforting to people stuck with old software.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Back of the Class is front row

There are many podcasts related to education but a new one, The Back of the Class, takes an refreshingly different approach to educational issues. Shows, such as the one on why the skills of a comedian are useful for teachers, addresses a common problem from what I assume must be the first association of comedic skills with instructional technique. And no, "the teacher must be joking" does not count. :-)


Thursday, August 06, 2009

Nine Ways Google Wave Can Alter the Course of Collaboration

Nine Ways Google Wave Can Alter the Course of Collaboration is a short slide show about the possible impact of Google Wave. While there are amazing up-sides to Google Wave, there are also possible downsides.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Sugar on a Stick

The MIT Review has an interesting bit of news on the next evolution of the OLPC program. The original operating system, called Sugar, is being modified so that it run from a USB flash device. Because Sugar is build for low-end hardware -- what else does one get for $100? -- the operating system and its bundled educational applications should run great on old hardware your school might have in a back room. Sugar, BTW, is a version of Linux.

Sugar and the applications that come with it have been extensively tested with school kids and are in wide-scale use around the world. You know you cannot upgrade your old system to Windows Vista or to OS X, so you have nothing to lose. There is no installation required. You download on to a USB device and set the PC's bios to boot from the device. Unplug the device and the system will boot from whatever is on the hard drive.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Pigs Fly!

InfoWorld has a very good post on Microsoft's recent security advances. Microsoft has spent billions on security and now it is beginning to show. It's not that security is extremely difficult on its own; rather, it is the combination of security and compatibility with old software and old hardware that is the trick. Apple has been able to switch operating systems and start all over again. DOS application, on the other hand, still run on Windows. Personally, I prefer Apple's model but I can understand why Microsoft felt it had to drag its history into the future.

The posting covers a number of the new techniques that closes the doors on the most common avenues for attacks. Whether we like Windows or not, I think we can all agree that reducing the number of zombie computers slinging spam by the billions is a highly desirable goal.

What does all this mean to you? Basically, the answer to whether Windows is security or not must now be considered seriously and not just addressed by a derisive laugh.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Three Point Lighting

After one jumps into posting videos on YouTube and other on-line services, it's only a matter of time before you start wanting better quality. While a better camera can help, most schools don't have the money to buy high-end equipment.

The most important aspect of video is audio. Unless you are video recording mime or interpretive dance, the audio is important. If you are providing instruction, the audio is critical. We'll cover audio at some later date.

More important than the quality of the camera is lighting. While a high-end camera might be able to correct for common mistakes, it's always better to avoid mistakes in the first place. 3d Rendering has a nice tutorial on how to set up an effective lighting system called "three point lighting." Basically, the idea is to light from the front with a strong light and use a second light at the subject's side so as to create some natural shadows. A back light creates a sense of distance from the back wall. While there are three-point lighting systems on the market, you might be able to get away with less if you have a reliable source of light coming in from a window. You may also be able to cut down on lights if you use a reflecting board to bounce light from where a second light might normally be placed.

The most important thing is to try lots of combinations to see what works best for your environment and subjects. For example, how you would light for a school play would be very different from an one-on-one interview. The concept of three-point lighting is the same but the equipment and angles would differ.

Good luck and have fun!


Sunday, May 31, 2009

Alternative To for knowing your options

One of the great difficulties with working on the cheap is that the software your school uses or would like to use is beyond your budget. While there are many places to find which Mac or Linux based program can replace a Windows program, there are not many sites that provide lists of alternative programs on the same OS. does just that. lets you click on a program you use or might want to use to see what other programs do the same thing. The site is still quite basic, but given the lack of alternatives, this site is a lot better than nothing.
If anyone knows of better sites, please put them into the comments area.


Monday, May 04, 2009

Blue Screen of Death

MaximumPC has a great article on the dreaded "Blue screen of death" window that sometimes appears after a sudden crash in Windows. While the message can be an indication of a fatal problem, it also supply you with the information needed to fix the computer. Too often users see the screen and assume that it's only useful to a computer technician -- and then only to make sure the headstone for your dead computer reads correctly. MaximumPC makes it clear that it's far more likely that a recent hardware addition is the cause of the blue screen.

One problem that MaximumPC did not cover is how to handle the situation where the blue screens sails past in a fraction of a second as part of endless loop of failed boots/restarts. My trick with such situations is to use a video camera to video the screen and then replay the recording until I can read the blue screen.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Inexpensive Video Streaming

Streaming video is becoming more common all the time. Point-to-point video, such as Skype, is already huge. But what do you do when the subject to be video streamed is on a distance stage or in a dark room? Web cams were made for people sitting in front of a computer. To my surprise, modern video cameras do not stream video nor do many of the "YouTube" video cameras. I did find a solution but it was not an obvious route: the Sony DCR-HC38.

The newer video cameras can transfer files to PCs and allow for editing of content located on the camera, but very few can stream. Even "YouTube" cameras, such as the Flip, don't stream. While YouTube does not offer live streaming, it does allow live recording. The Flip cannot not handle even this mode. Perhaps Cisco will add this capability now that they have purchased Flip.

I looked at top-end web cams and they simply don't have the optical zoom and steady-shot features I wanted. If all you want to do is to sit in front of your PC and Skype someone, a web cam is fine. However, if you want to stream a performance on a stage, a speaker at a distant podium, or a sporting event, webcams don't cut it. Sony has a new "Webbie" camera, but it doesn't have streaming.

The good news is that some older video cameras can handle web streaming -- and those cameras are now inexpensive as vendors discontinue older models. The unit I found is the Sony Handycam DCR-HC38 ($180). You'll need to contact Sony support for new USB drivers not found on the install CDs. The USB works with XP. If you want to run this on a Mac, you'll need to use the i-link (i.e. firewire connection). I have not tried out the firewire connection with my Mac, but I have used the USB on my XP laptop using Skype and one of my streaming services, Mogulus.

Mogulus is a great service for broadcasting public content. The most significant downside is that they don't have mechanisms for restricting access to a broadcast. Their paid-for offering does have privacy settings but it's far too expensive for non-commercial use. Kyte, another streaming service, does offer private broadcasts, but it's limited in terms of functionality as compared to Mogulus and it has a 60 minutes limit. That's a lot in YouTube terms, but not enough for many meetings/events. I'm now exploring It does not have time limits and it allows for free private broadcasts -- with commercials. I have not used it as yet, so it may have downsides I don't yet know about.

If you think you might want to do video streaming, buy one of these discontinued cameras before new and probably much more expensive cameras hit the market. Yes, the new cameras will have better video quality -- but the extra quality will not translate to the image seen via the Internet.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Look mom, no wires! (Wireless Vue cameras)

Avaak has a new web cam system -- Vue -- that does not require a computer, Ethernet wires or even a power cord. Additionally, while it transmits over the Internet using wireless signals, that signal can ride over links between camera units. These units use mesh networking to link one camera to another. At the end of the chain is a base station that links to your network. Mesh networking is a great way to extend a network's range well beyond the source of the school's Internet connection.

These units can be great for a school that needs to get a video camera to a difficult to support area. Because the units require no wires, it should be easy to put these cameras into weatherproof enclosures and us them outdoors. These could be used to monitor the parking lot, play ground, and other places that video cameras have difficulty being installed.

Another aspect I like is that this is a mobile system. As long as you have some access to the Internet for the base station, you could "string" the video cameras all around a special event, such as a sporting event or a performance in on the stage.

These cameras use lithium batteries for power. I have no idea how long these unit operate. Fortunately, given the fact that the units broadcast over the Internet, it should be easy to see when a unit has run out of power.

I should point out that broadcasting over the Internet does not mean the video streams are public or even that the video goes over the public Internet. Your school may just want to use it for internal coverage and have the signals stay on the school's LAN.

In any case, this system does appear to solve a number of video needs that are not otherwise easily addressed.


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Flexible display gettting closer to school

Flexible screens appear to be one step closer to being in the schools. The video above shows a demo of a small version of a flexible screen. Of course, one of the things I noticed was that the display can written on, as well.

I think one of the main benefits for a display being flexible is not so much that it can be rolled up, but because it is probably going to be able to resist the physical punishment of being carried in a heavy book bag or crammed beneath a desk top.

Ebooks have always had promise of being replacements for paper textbooks, but this new invention would also allow students to do homework and take tests on the hardware. The possibilities are truly exciting.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Your computer is the plug

Marvell has produced a new Linux server that plugs into a wall socket. Essentially, what Marvell has created is a small Linux appliance. Others have gone this direction. What I like about this one is that it plugs directly into a wall socket and is designed to run all the time. One potential use for this computer is a host for a web camera. Internet ready web servers can cost quite a bit and they actually include a web server in their hardware. By using a computer with a low-end web camera, you get both the camera and the server, but you control the mix of the two.

This unit could also be used to run a continuous presentation in the school lobby or some other place that a full size computer would not work.


Kindle Two Arrives Today -- what it means to you

Amazon's new Kindle is launching today. The first model was a big success and the second model has been getting even better reviews.

It's $350 price is not so bad if one considers the lifetime wireless connection and the savings of e-books over paper books. The unit could pay for itself in less than a year. My hope is that Amazon can get the school textbook publishers to convert their text books to Kindle-ready formats. Not only would it save a huge amount of weight on our students' developing backs, but content could be updated on the fly. The Kindle and those that will follow will be our future. The only question is whether the publishers will participate fully or be dragged into the 21st century.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Anyone who has purchased a fully functional calculator knows they don't come cheap. You also cannot use the calculator that Microsoft or Apple supplies. SpeedCrunch is an open source project that matches the features of a top-end calculator and then adds some features that only a computer interface allows. With the new nettop computers, it may not be much of a difference between an expensive calculator and nettop computer in terms of expense. SpeedCrunch runs on all major OSes.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Viruses cannot do what you cannot do

I've long held that one of the best methods of stopping viruses and other attacks is to refrain from using accounts with administrative privileges. What most people miss about virus attacks is that while a virus does things that you don't want to have done, but it does these unwanted actions as you. The computer operating system, in other words, believes that the requests from the virus is coming from you. Just another example of how computers don't "think" like a person. The idea of "why would anyone want to do that?" does not come into play with a computer.

If you are using a computer that cannot delete/create/modify applications, it is very unlikely that a virus would be able to do so, as well. Both OS X and Windows Vista deal with this issue by running in a standard -- limited -- mode and asking for permission. Of course, if you're one of those people who automatically clicks on permission pop-up windows, this security system does little good.

Beyondtrust has just released a report that documents that removing administrative rights on a Windows computer can protect it from over 90% of common security vulnerabilities. This is higher than even I was thinking it would be but it does confirm the notion that restricting user rights is a great security strategy.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

OpenDNS for Internet filtering

I've been using OpenDNS for quite some time and recently started using their filtering system.

First, DNS is the system by which URLs, such as, become the IP addresses ( that the Internet actually uses to get from one place to another. While DNS is an open source application, OpenDNS is not so much open because of DNS being open but rather that it is not tied to any given ISP. Most users on the Internet use either their company's DNS server or one supplied by their Internet Service Provider. ISPs didn't always spend a lot of money making their DNS servers fast and reliable. In come OpenDNS with their DNS servers. They have great up-time and the look-up speed getting the URL turned into something meaningful has been great.

OpenDNS makes it money mostly by displaying advertisements on the error pages it presents when the user mistypes a URL. You're going to get an error page -- and your ISP is probably going to have ads too -- so that's not a big deal. They also route Google searches via their server. I assume this is the type of revenue system that FireFox uses to get money from Google for any Google search performed from the FireFox search window. FireFox makes millions a year off that search box. And, I'm glad that they do make money. It's not loss to me and I am able to support a service that benefits me.

OpenDNS is a nice addition to a school's ability to block bad sites. The way this works is being creating an account with OpenDNS and telling them that you want searches from your site to be filtered. You can select differing levels of protection from nothing to very tight. Any student trying to reach a bad site either intentionally or unintentionally will get an OpenDNS block page.

The system is not a perfect solution. If you want your staff to have open access from the same network as the students, the same restrictions would apply. I don't think this is a huge concern given that even the most restrictive filter setting does not appear to block anything truly useful.

Another problem with using only OpenDNS to block bad sites is that it obviously cannot help you if your student knows the IP address of a site they want to reach. OpenDNS would not be involved. It would not be a lot of fun for the student to get around the system in this way, but it is technically possible.

And, some schools may have issues with ads being displayed. I don't think there is a work-around for this issue. Given all the ads that are in school materials and on vending machines, I would think these ads are no worse, but don't assume you're okay until you have asked.

I would recommend using OpenDNS as one element -- a free one -- as part of an overall Internet safety system. You should also tell the students' parents to use it at home.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The eyes have it: How we see web pages

Google's official blog has an interesting story on how users of their search results page move their eyes over the page. A "heat map" showing the intensity of where users' eyes tracked can be seen to the left. These maps are created by having a camera look at the user's eye as they look at the screen. The camera can tell which part of the screen is being looked at.

In the case of Google, the users' eyes were looking at the parts of the page with the most relevant information. This occurrence is not always the case. Frequently, web designers toss in lots of eye candy to pretty up the page. If you have something that is attracting the eye from what the user actually should be reading, then your site is probably going to be less satisfying to use.

This map is also telling in that it shows that people then to pop from place to place. Certainly, one would not expect to see this pattern with a book. This means that web designers need to create pages that are suitable for quick scanning. Use of font sizes, titles, icons, and graphics are as important as the content of the page. Well-written prose is not useful if people see it as a big block of dense text to be avoided.


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

$40 Smart Board using Wii Remote

Johnny Lee, of CMU, has created a very useful hack of the common Wii remote to effectively replace the need for a smart board. Here is a video showing him demonstrate his technology. The system is based on the fact that the Wii remote is a high quality infrared camera. By connecting the Wii remote to a PC/Mac via Blue Tooth -- rather than to the Wii game console -- the camera can now be used to track infrared sources. Because many people have Wii remotes and Blue Tooth enabled computers, the only thing they need is an infrared source. A number of devices are now being produced. I have a customized key chain light, but a commercially sold version can be had for a few dollars. There are other versions, but I like this one because it does not require the person press on the surface to activate the light. That's important to me because I use LCD TVs to display. Pressing on the surface could cause damage. If you know that you are going to be using a firm surface, such as a white board, you can use a light pen that turns on as it is pressed to the surface. That can be lot better than having to remember to press a button every time you start to write.

The Wii sees where the infrared light is positioned on the surface -- which can be anything flat -- and relays that position back to the computer via Blue Tooth. The combination of the light pen and the Wii emulates a mouse. You can move, write, click, etc. as you could with a normal mouse.

The key to making this work is the software Johnny Lee created and the versions that have subsequently taken his code to the next level. The most sophisticated on the ones I found was Smoothboard. There is a cross-platform version that also works nicely. It's less feature-rich, but could be a good option for schools with Linux and Mac systems.

One thing I learned from my tests is that it's a good idea to use two Wii remotes. The reason is that when I'm writing I can inadvertently block the light of the pen from the Wii. Things are improved when I put the Wii remote to one side of the screen, but two units would certainly help.

The possibilities of this system is great. You could project on a brick wall via a LCD projector or view your computer via a large TV screen. The Wii will work with both.

Give it a try. It's a lot of fun and it could save you a great deal of money.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ultimate Boot CD: A toolkit with something for everyone

The Ultimate Boot CD is a collection of open source/free utilities. It has tools to check a computer's CPU, RAM, and hard drives. It can use the information of these tests to both stress-test your hardware and to generate a comprehensive technical support document. There is little that a technical support person could ask regarding the computer's hardware that these reports would not answer!

There are so many tools on this free CD that I cannot describe them all. I'll probably cover a few of my favorites in coming posts. I would highly recommend downloading a copy and trying it out on an unused computer. I should note that some of the applications are intentionally dangerous, such as the disk wipe, and should be used after gaining confidence.

For a school, this disk is a real help. Not only can it create useful technical reports, but it can clone and wipe hard drives. Both of these services are important as you receive donated computers or dispose of old equipment.