• Newsletter Issue #287

    May 30th, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    They say there’s nothing like being there, but with a radio show, it’s seldom possible for your guests to appear live in the studio. This is particularly true if your guests live and work in different parts of the planet. In fact, most of the talk shows out there simply conduct interviews and speak with listeners via telephone, and we’ve used the same technique, although I think we get better sound quality than other shows. But that’s a little retro for my taste and a better solution was right in front of my eyes; isn’t that the way it always works out?

    That takes us to last week’s show, when I was set to pay another visit to the David Biedny Zone, but he was not in an environment conducive to good telephone reception. His mobile phone offered the usual digital grunge, and it wasn’t a viable option, so he suggested Skype, the Internet phone service that lets you make calls from computer to computer free of charge. Without going through much detail, Skype makes money by charging you for calls to and from land lines or regular cell phones. After setting up a Skype account and conducting some quick tests, I felt pleased with the sound quality, but faced another dilemma. How do you record both conversations? This isn’t easy as it sounds and you need a little help, since conventional audio applications will capture just the input, or one end of the conversation, and not the other.

    Enter Rogue Amoeba, publishers of Audio Hijack Pro, software that allows you to capture the audio from any application, including Internet radio streams, like our show. The latest version also includes an Application Mixer plugin which that lets you record both sides of an audio chat courtesy of Skype, iChat and other programs. Indeed the solution worked admirably. By the way, before you ask, Ambrosia Software’s WireTap Pro 1.10 can also record audio chats.

    Feeling flushed with success, I next recorded the interview with Matt Neuburg, author of “Take Control of Customizing Tiger,” with iChat with superb results. From here on, a growing number of our interviews will be conducted via voice chats. As to the rest of the show, we were also joined by Wiley Hodges, from Apple Computer, who delivered some cool tiger tips and tricks. Oh yes, Wiley used the telephone.

    On June 2nd, we have four interviews lined up so far. First, that postponed interview with Paul Kent about Macworld Expo Boston. In addition, Lino Pucci of Bose will talk about the company’s speaker systems for both the iPod and your Mac. Tim Twerdahl of Roku will join us to discuss the company’s SoundBridge line of network digital music players. And yes, they do work on Macs. We’ll also be joined by Paul Kafasis, who describes himself as the CEO and “Lackey” of Rogue Amoeba Software.

    And don’t forget our weekly contests. So far we’ve given away iPod shuffles, memory upgrades, and we’ll have more goodies on hand for upcoming shows.

    If you haven’t heard our program, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to our archives. Enjoy.

    THE TIGER REPORT: THE PARENTAL CONTROLS SYSTEM CONSUMER REPORTS DIDN’T TELL YOU ABOUT

    I often suspect Windows users spend so much time ridding their computers of spyware and the virus of the week that they have little patience in dealing with more fundamental issues. Take online security, for example. I don’t need to tell you that identity theft remains a growing epidemic, and I’m sure some of you think twice before ordering something online. What if your credit card numbers and other personal information is being intercepted, ready to be used to hijack your identity and destroy your credit rating?

    Now in all fairness, I should point out that it’s a lot easier for a crooked storekeeper to use the information you provide when you buy something for similar nefarious purposes. Also, when you give your social security number to a bank or other credit granting institution, do you wonder whether the person at the other end is going to turn around and sell that information to a third party without your knowledge and approval? It has happened, sad to say, and victims included customers of some of our largest banks.

    Ah, paranoia strikes deep.

    Today, though, I’m going to talk about something a little closer to home, the kid-safe computer. The June 2005 issue of Consumer Reports carries a review of Internet filtering software. Unlike many of its previous articles, which gave the Mac short shrift, three Mac-oriented solutions are actually covered.

    Unfortunately, due to the long lead times from the conclusion of product testing until the results appear in print, products may be updated, discontinued, and new solutions may not be covered. Consider, for example, Tiger’s Parental Controls. Of course, this isn’t the first time Apple has delivered a method to simplify the Mac experience and make it safer for kids.

    Way back when, there was AtEase, essentially a simple version of the Finder that you could customize by excluding access to certain applications and system-related features. Beginning in Mac OS 9, Apple introduced a rudimentary multiple user system and, of course, there was always that Simple Finder.

    The Tiger version of Parental Controls provides a lot more coverage than the similarly named feature that has existed for years on AOL. You can, if you are willing to take the time, establish a customized and safe experience for your children without a lot of hard work, and without having to buy third party software (although that may help as you’ll see shortly).

    The first step, of course, is to give each member of your family their own user account. That account can be carefully managed to provide just the amount of access you, as the parent, consider necessary. If you want to prevent your kids from running violent games on your Mac, you can restrict access to specific applications and no others. Concerned about getting pirated software and music from a peer to peer network? No problem. You can configure an approved list of sites that they can visit with Safari, and block access to other browsers.

    These custom accounts can also prevent your kids from making changes to the system or modifying System Preferences. Burning CDs and DVDs can be prohibited, along with the ability to modify the dock and administer printers.

    Closer to home, you can create an approved list of contacts, so your kids can only exchange email and instant messages with those people and nobody else. If your child tries to send email to someone not on the approved list, they’ll see a dialog warning that they don’t have permission to send that message, along with an Ask Permission button that allows you to deliver your approval on a case-by-case basis.

    The system isn’t perfect, of course. It will take quite a while to develop a complete list of approved sites, since Apple doesn’t give you any guidance. You have to fend for yourself, and you may have to frequently field questions about why your kids can’t visit one site or another. Here you may indeed long for that third party solution, such as Norton Internet Security or Intego’s ContentBarrier X. The folks at Consumer Reports, however, regard them as imperfect solutions. In the quest to block porn sites, or those preaching violence, for example, legitimate information sources may also be excluded, although you can override the settings as needed.

    However, these systems only work if you take special care in setting up a strong password for your own account on your Mac. If you’re accustomed to using your dog’s name or grandfather’s middle name, rest assured your kids will figure it out in no time flat. You have to be careful to select something that you know, you will remember, but is near impossible for someone else to guess, even at random. Ideally it should be a mixed collection of upper and lower case letters, intermixed with numbers, such as gU3esS49MY8nAme. Well, you get the picture.

    And don’t forget to make sure you block your child’s ability to change their own passwords. I don’t have to remind you of the sort of havoc that can cause. In the end, though, you can’t just set up Parental Controls and forget it. You really need to talk to your kids, and teach them the right values so they won’t stray to the “dark side” of society when not under your direct supervision. Try it. It can really work.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: WHY ARE CELL PHONES SO BAD?

    One of the hallmarks of American society has been its telephone system. With very few exceptions, you could always rely on hearing that dial tone when you pick up the receiver, and you could depend on getting crisp, clear reception usually free of static and distortion. Sure it’s not high fidelity by any means, but it works. As users of VoIP services such as Vonage can attest, sometimes an Internet phone’s audio quality is even superior to the traditional landline, although there are still a few hiccups in the system.

    Now I could rant about why we can’t get better audio quality, something more akin to what iChat and Skype deliver on your Mac, but that’s another story. My real target is the mobile phone, where audio quality is generally worse, far worse. But first a little history.

    On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper, then general manager of Motorola’s Communications System, made what is generally regarded as the first cell phone call. In case you’re wondering, the call was made to AT&T from the streets of New York. Unlike today’s three ounce marvels that incorporate cameras and music players, that original brick-like device weighed in at 30 ounces. But it was only the beginning and it took another decade before the service became a commercial reality. In those days, each phone would set you back $3,500, and don’t ask how much it cost for each minute of airtime.

    Now the technology itself is simply explained, though the methods behind it are quite sophisticated. Mobile phone networks consist of thousands of base stations spread across the landscape, each serving a small area or cell. As you move out of the range of one base station, or cell tower, the signal is handed off to the next base station.

    I suppose we should be grateful that the system works at all, but after spending billions and billions of dollars, it seems the mobile phone companies haven’t figured out a way to make it reliable. And please don’t get me started about the poor audio quality, especially with digital networks.

    We deserve good reception, and that’s not always a given. Now here in the states, Verizon Wireless, the number two provider, is generally regarded as having the best network. But that’s not saying much. Here in Arizona, where Verizon supposedly has good coverage, I can list a number of areas where reception gets spotty, and where calls are frequently dropped. Sprint, last I tried it, was worse. I did have a brief encounter with Cingular and encountered similar troubles. Of course, things might improve once it does a better job of integrating its network with that of AT&T Wireless, which it acquired in 2004 for $41 billion. Of course after spending all that money, maybe Cingular can’t afford to do any better.

    No matter. Whenever I catch that “Can you hear me now?” line on a Verizon commercial, I’m ready to just say no. Now I am not concerned with the technical hurdles that have to be overcome to improve reception. There are plenty of excuses, of course. Localities put up too much red tape to build new cell towers, for example. The existing systems are clogged because the mobile providers concentrate more on increasing subscriber rolls than in providing high quality service.

    Or maybe we aren’t critical enough, but when you live in a sea of mediocrity, there aren’t many choices. Frankly, I’m less interested in purchasing cute ring tones (which get old real fast) or watching TV clips on my phone than in getting dependable service. I don’t want to be engaged in an important business conversation only to lose the call if I happen to enter a so-called “dead area.”

    I could understand spotty service back in 1983, when the network was young and still being perfected. But not today, and please don’t get me started again about the poor sound quality. Now when was my last cell phone bill due?

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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