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March 23, 2005

AOL Guardian

While fixing a co-worker's home computer, a dilemma that presented itself was whether to use parental controls that AOL offers. At first I used the "Young Teen" setting for her younger son and "Mature Teen" for her son in 11th grade. Both settings are supposed to restrict access to some websites. What I found out was that all or nearly all sites were being blocked, even for the Mature Teen. As a compromise, I gave him full web access but enabled AOL Guardian which logs the sites he visits and sends a report to his mother. Though the whole family uses the computer, it is located in his room and he is often home by himself. Parental controls at AOL also allow her to restrict the amount of time per day (one hour is the lowest; I remember when AOL restricted you to 10 hours per month) as well as the time of day he is allowed to log on. I didn't activate those.

I wanted to find out more about the AOL Guardian service and whether it would track usage through a browser other than AOL's built-in browser. I'm still not sure, but apparently it does. Essentially AOL is a web proxy and you tell it what sites you want to get and it gets them for you. You're not dealing directly with a site. So no matter what browser you use, AOL can log the sites. Guardian does not read e-mails, record chats, or tell you the path of all sites (It would just say you visited mac.fiveforks.com, not which blogs you read). It sends a report every time he logs on and it tells him when Guardian is turned on and when it is turned off by his mother.

While looking for information I found an interesting discussion. Kids almost universally feel Guardian means their parents don't trust them. Parents are mixed. Some middle ground people say if a kid feels that strongly about it, he should discuss it with his parents and try to convince them to turn it off, but not try to circumvent it.

It raises privacy and parenting issues. Parents are accused of letting a computer program do their job as parents. If a parent can't trust their children then they must be bad parents. Why don't parents just ask their kids what sites they are visiting? Parents are spying on their children. Kids above 13 or 15 or 17 (depending on which kid says it) should be allowed full access to the internet and let them decide for themselves what is appropriate.

On the other hand, kids just have to live with their parent's rules. If kids aren't paying for AOL they shouldn't be able to say how it is used. It's not a privacy issue, but a safety issue to keep the kids away from bad influences. If a kid isn't hiding anything, why would he care if his parents know what websites he visits? One suggestion was to always have the computer in the family room but leave the controls off. One person actually said parents should always be with their kids when they are on the internet. I'm sure Jenny will eventually be pressured into disabling AOL Guardian by her son, but she liked the idea even though she would probably never even log on to read the reports in the first place.

One problem is that the kids are almost always more computer savvy than their parents. So parents are at a loss on how to monitor computer usage. Jenny had rarely visited the parental controls section and never uses AOL anyway, but she has paid for it for five years. And there are ways to get around the parental controls by using a keylogger to hack the parents' password (though Jenny could log on from another computer or have me log on from my house to set the password which a keylogger couldn't detect).

I don't have children so I don't have to worry about it and don't feel like I should weigh in other than to advise Jenny on what is possible. She's pretty trustful actually and even let her son set up an iTunes account so he could buy music with her credit card, which I'm not sure I would have done (I think you can also give iTunes gift certificates and avoid the possibility of a hundred songs being unexpectedly downloaded with your credit card). As it turns out, later that day she had forgotten her new password that I gave her so she had her son reset it for her. I don't doubt that AOL Guardian isn't turned on anymore.

Fixing a computer

Back in August I wrote about working on a co-worker's home computer that was attacked by viruses and Trojans. At the time I wasn't able to really fix it, just make things a little better. After a few months the computer became so busy running all of its viruses and processes that it ceased functioning and you couldn't even start any programs. I knew this time that rather than try and fix the computer it was time to reformat the hard drive and start over with a fresh installation.

First I had to boot the computer in Safe Mode to do anything. I was able to use the CD writer to back up all of the Docuements and Settings for the main account set up in Windows XP. I was not able to get her older son's files since he had protected those and they could only be accessed under his account, which didn't work (safe mode wouldn't let us log on to his account). Unfortunately he wound up losing all of his files. He was most worried about all of his MP3's which he had painstakingly tagged by hand in Music Match. (Later I showed him how to get the tags over the internet using iTunes, but he still lost a few MP3's that he doesn't have the original CDs for). I feel like there is a good lesson that paranoia about privacy doesn't pay off. I also pointed out that if he does have files he wants to keep secret he could just store them on his iPod. Lastly, if a file is worth saving, it is worth backing up. (Even worse, once he installed iTunes it had no songs and when he synched up his iPod, all the files were erased off of the iPod too.)

Once I had backed up what files I could, I went ahead and used the XP installation disk to format the drive and install XP. I brought a CD with Service Pack 2 Network Install (has all the files you could possibly need) rather than wait to download the updates over a 44 kbps phone line that would be subject to hijacking in the meantime (when I installed Windows 2000 on my computer I was infected while downloading the updates). Even so there were still another 16 MB of updates she needed since the release of SP2. To get those we had to install AOL 9.0. SP 2 comes with a firewall which we installed, though I'm not sure what good that does.

Next I wanted to install Norton Antivirus. Jenny had bought a full blown version in 2003. We installed it and then it had another 16 MB of updates to download for that, but it acted like it was a completely new installation and doesn't expire until March 2006 now. That was a nice surprise. The problem with Norton is that it will bug you about updates until you actually install them. But Jenny's son was impatient so he would just cancel the download. That meant he would just get bugged again and again until he finally disabled Norton. Better to just download them and be done with it.

Norton still bugs you a lot when "suspicious activity" takes place like a program trying to get on the internet (like Firefox or iTunes). If you don't select "Always Permit" then it will bug you every time. But you don't want to permit everything, so you just have to pay attention. I don't know if it's worth the effort and most people are going to pick the wrong thing at some point. The problem with computers is it is not good to be just a little bit competent on them. You have to be pretty competent. And Jenny's son has already developed the male tendency to just click on stuff with great confidence and speed and then figure out what he did wrong later.

I also wanted to get the files back that we had backed up on CD. I scanned the CD and it was amazing the number of viruses on it. But none of the documents like Word files appeared to be infected, just stuff in the internet cache. Anyway, it appears to be working fine now and all but one of the Norton updates was installed when I left.

March 14, 2005

100 Things to Do

This is another thing that Don sent me. I have been to 10 of these places (I list them at the end; 3 in the top 10) and have seen two more in person but not been inside (Versailles, the Kremlin). Sadly I never went to The Temple of the Emerald Buddah while I was in Thailand and when I was in Beijing I decided to sleep in instead of going with my friends to The Forbidden City that day.

Here are the Top 100 "wonders", but Don called this his Ultimate To Do list. He has been to 15 of these.

1 Pyramids of Egypt
2 Great Wall of China
3 Taj Mahal - India
4 Serengeti Migration - Kenya/Tanzania
5 Galapagos Islands - Ecuador
6 Grand Canyon - USA
7 Machu Picchu - Peru
8 Iguazu Falls - Argentina & Brazil
9 Bali - Indonesia
10 Amazon Rain Forest - Brazil & Peru

11 Ngorongoro Crater - Tanzania
12 Great Barrier Reef - Australia
13 Angkor Wat - Cambodia
14 Victoria Falls - Zambia & Zimbabwe
15 Forbidden City - China
16 Bagan - Myanmar
17 Karnak Temple - Egypt
18 Teotihuacan - Mexico
19 Banaue Rice Terraces - Philippines
20 Bora Bora - French Polynesia
21 Acropolis & its Parthenon - Greece
22 Potala Palace at Lhasa - China
23 Jerusalem Old City - Israel
24 Qin Terra Cotta Warriors - China
25 Chichen Itza - Mexico
26 Petra - Jordan
27 Nile River Cruise - Egypt
28 Easter Island - Chile
29 Cappadocia - Turkey
30 Colosseum of Rome - Italy
31 Fjords of Norway
32 St Peter's Basilica - Vatican City
33 Egyptian Museum - Egypt
34 Borobudur - Indonesia
35 Valley of the Kings - Egypt
36 Hong Kong Harborscape - China
37 Sistine Chapel - Vatican City
38 Alhambra - Spain
39 Louvre Museum - France
40 Canals of Venice - Italy
41 Versailles - France
42 Carlsbad Caverns - USA
43 Mecca - Saudi Arabia
44 Kathmandu Valley - Nepal
45 Metropolitan Museum of Art - USA
46 Mt. Everest - China & Nepal
47 Temple of Emerald Buddha - Thailand
48 Hagia Sofia - Turkey
49 Pompeii - Italy
50 Kashmir Valley - India
51 Prague Old Town - Czech Republic
52 Golden Temple - India
53 Amalfi Coast & Drive - Italy
54 Meenakshi - India
55 Chartres Cathedral - France
56 Mezquita of Cordoba - Spain
57 Damascus Old City / Umayyad - Syria
58 Dubrovnik - Croatia
59 Uffizi Gallery - Italy
60 Rio Panoramic Views - Brazil
61 Golden Pavilion - Japan
62 Delphi - Greece
63 St. Basil's Cathedral - Russia
64 Abu Simbel - Egypt
65 St. Mark's Basilica/Campanile - Italy
66 Florence Cityscape - Italy
67 Kremlin - Russia
68 Varanasi & the Ganges - India
69 Li River Cruise - China
70 Shwedagon Stupa - Myanmar
71 Sahara Desert - Multinational
72 Leaning Tower of Pisa - Italy
73 Baalbek - Lebanon
74 Mont-St-Michel - France
75 Topkapi Palace - Turkey
76 Carnival in Rio - Brazil
77 Stonehenge - England
78 Angel Falls - Venezuela
79 Yellowstone - USA
80 Santorini - Greece
81 Petronas Twin Towers - Malaysia
82 Matterhorn - Switzerland
83 New York Skyline - USA
84 Marrakesh - Morocco
85 Eiffel Tower - France
86 Ladakh - India
87 Niagara Falls - Canada & USA
88 British Museum - England
89 Burj Al Arab - Dubai, UAE
90 Antarctica Penguins - Multinational
91 Yangtze River Cruise - China
92 Yosemite - USA
93 Ayers Rock - Australia
94 Chambord Chateau - France
95 Temple of Heaven - China
96 Neuschwanstein Castle - Germany
97 Suez Canal - Egypt
98 San Francisco Bay/Cityscape - USA
99 Dead Sea - Israel & Jordan
100 Portofino - Italy


Ones I've been to:

Great Wall
Grand Canyon
Sistine Chapel
St. Peter's
Eiffel Tower
Temple of Heaven
New York
San Francisco

Straight Dope

One of my Peace Corps buddies, Don, who still lives in Thailand sends me e-mails. Apparently he is on a mailing list with straightdope.com because a lot of the things are articles from there. One interesting one lately was about refrigerator doors. I've always heard how important it is to take them off when you throw a refrigerator away, but never could figure out why they would be so dangerous. This points out that old timey refrigerators had latches that held them shut from the outside. With any refrigerator made in the last 40 years the doors aren't a problem though you still hear about how dangerous the doors are. There are all kinds of things like that at Straight Dope.


March 5, 2005

Shopping with Susan

Today Susan and I had a lot to do. First we were going to Rhodes Furniture to pick up a new chest of drawers I had ordered from them (to replace the blue one that Grant and I used when we lived in the Silvastone basement). Then we were going to Fernbank to see the frogs exhibit (I would still like to take Kelly and Claire when they get a chance) where Susan found some things to buy at the gift shop. Then we were going up to Gwinnett Place to visit Honda and Toyota dealers and test drive some cars Susan was thinking about getting.

The night before I had looked on Atlanta Toyota's website and they said they had 7 Priuses (Prii?) available. Susan was looking for something fuel efficient and small in addition to her Jeep now that she has decided to keep her house and the daily 30-mile one way commute that goes with it. Honda has three hybrid models: the Insight, Hybrid Civic, and Hybrid Accord. Toyota has only one: the Prius, but it gets 44 mpg (according to Consumer Reports; the EPA estimates are something like 50 highway and 61 city; yes, it gets better mileage in the city partly from turning off the engine when it is stopped and partly because the brakes recharge the battery). The Insight gets better mileage but is a two-seater whereas the Prius is about the size of the Accord inside.

We got to the Toyota lot and the salesmen were waiting like wolves on the Serengheti (I think that should be lions, actually; well, maybe cheetahs; how about jackals?). We were immediately approached by one named Mohammed. We said we wanted to test drive a Prius. He said they only had one on the lot. I said their website said they had seven. "Really?" he said, "I think some of those are just on order." The Prius is made in pretty small numbers and demand has been very high. People have been paying thousands of dollars above MSRP to get one and waiting lists are as long as nine months. I read some internet posts where Toyota dealers wouldn't even give test rides because they could just sell any car they could get their hands on. We walked over to the one car (a maroon one, though Toyota calls it Red Salsa) but another customer was already in it and soon her salesman came up with the keys and they drove off. We went into the showroom while our salesman went to find out about the other Priuses they supposedly had. We were told that the website included cars that would arrive in the next week as being in their inventory and that there was only one car on site, though one had been sold earlier in the day.

They didn't even have a brochure for the Prius. I guess there is a waiting list for that too. We went over to a computer they had set up for customers and visited Toyota's website to see more about the car. They asked us which option package we'd be interested in so we had to figure out what the option packages were (some were as much as $5,000). Eventually the salesman came back over with some xerox copies of a brochure (or a printout from the webpage).

Eventually the other customers came back and Mohammed got the keys. The Prius is odd because it is just powered by the battery except when it needs the gasoline engine (which can be used to power the car and recharge the battery; you never plug the car in). So when you put the "key" in (you just put the whole remote in a slot), you then press the Power button and some lights come on, but that's it. We shifted into reverse but it wouldn't stay and it turns out the shifter doesn't stay where you put it, but we were in fact in reverse. So Susan backs up, exclaiming how weird it is to be driving a car that doesn't even seem like it is running. We drove out to I-85 and down a couple of exits and back up to the Toyota dealership. When we got back the car had 27 miles on it and we had probably put a third of them on it. As we got out another salesman came up to Mohammed and asked for the keys, but he shooed him away as he told us to sit in the back seat and see how roomy it is.

After hearing some more about features of the car, Susan told me she really liked how it drove, liked the color, and she thought she would buy it. Consumer Reports gives it good ratings and the $3,000 battery has an 8-year warranty so it is a sensible car, even at about $23,000. And it could easily save Susan $500 per year in gas. Plus there is some kind of tax break where you can write off $2,000 of the price. It would be hard to go wrong buying one, though it is like buying something from Apple where you know you're getting gouged a little in order to get something insanely great.

So Susan spent the next couple of hours filling out paperwork and doing the financing. And before it was dark, Susan owned a Prius with 27 miles on it. No waiting list and she only paid the MSRP (plus taxes and some kind of administrative fee).

I got to drive it eventually tonight. The gas engine runs most of the time, but it does shut off when you are coasting. At a stop light it feels like the car has stalled because it just goes totally quiet. Even with the engine running it is pretty quiet and you never hear the engine turning over to start up. There is a display that tells you when the engine is on and when the brakes are recharging the battery. It also gives you your current gas mileage which can go up to 99.9 mpg (it would be beyond infinity while you were slowing down because of the regenerative brakes). Mohammed says it gets 500 miles on a tank of gas and it holds 11.9 gallons. It also has a lot of nice little features that you usually only find on higher end cars (light-up vanity mirrors, two glove compartments, AC/heat thermostat, sunglasses case, thermometer, cd player). The car came with Option Package 1 which includes all kinds of airbags. We never made it to the Honda dealer, but it seems like a great car.