Thursday, December 29, 2011

Photoshop Phriday

There are a lot of bizarre little Web sites on the Internet. One of them is SomethingAwful, which does a pretty good job of being funny and sometimes offensive. They have a contest every week called Photoshop Phriday, where you are given a theme and offered the chance to create an image to go with that theme. Sometimes they put out a starting image and people make changes to it. Definitely amusing, if you are not easily offended! That is always the problem with sites that are based on user contributions, of course.

Link to site

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The End of Another Semester

So, the semester comes to an end again, a group of students moves on, and a new group prepares for the Spring semester.

Back in the stone ages of the 1990's, when I was in college, some fraternities used to carry around books containing teacher ratings. Of course, nowadays, it is much easier on the Internet. I love the idea behind - this is a free site that does not require signing up, and it allows you to anonymously post ratings for your professors.

Of course, there are always students who dislike certain professors who everyone else loves, but the more ratings a professor receives, the more accurate you would assume the rating is.

In terms of positives in my class, I know I have a passion for the material and I do try very hard to make it something students can relate to. I also try to encourage dialog in the classroom, and make it safe for students to ask questions. I also try to be entertaining and avoid using the PowerPoint presentations. Sometimes students don't like that teaching style. I also know some students dislike that they need to read the book, be on time to class, and turn work in on time. Personally, I feel like timeliness is critical one students transition to the business world, so I choose to emphasize these things in my classroom.

It's a great site, and here are links directly to my ratings pages:

Ratemyprofessor for me (Passaic)

Ratemyprofessor for me (Bergen)

Friday, December 02, 2011

When Web marketing goes wrong...

There are a few companies making names for themselves in marketing. LivingSocial, Groupon, Gilt Groupe, and are some of the sites that have popped up that offer consumers deep discounts on various types of services. LivingSocial and Groupon are sites that are especially geared towards localized services. For example, my students and I looked at the sites the other day, and we saw packages such as a spa day, keratin hair products, and a day of go-kart racing, all offered at a discounted rate. The advantage for a company is they attract new customers by offering a discount, and the advantage to the consumer is they save money.

Is this a sustainable business model? I am not sure. I do know you sometimes hear horror stories about sites like that. Generally, they have to do with the stampede effect created by Groupon and LivingSocial. As opposed to, which will give businesses a random amount of business, Groupon and LivingSocial tend to bring a stampede of business in around the same time. Some companies report regular customers being driven away by deal-seekers.

These sites do allow businesses to limit the amount of purchases (see Groupon terms here). However, businesses sometimes underestimate the demand for deal-seekers. For example, a British bakery recently offered a deal for a dozen of their gourmet cupcakes for $10. This was 75% off their normal price. This bakery chose to do all the deals at once (link to article), rather than spreading them out over a few weeks, and also chose not to cap the number of purchases, which many companies do. The normal monthly sale volume was around 1,200 cupcakes a month, they ended up making about 102,000. The owner had to bring in temporary workers just to meet their end of the bargain.

Now, could Groupon do a better job helping the customer avoid disasters like this? I am sure they could. However, the bakery owner also has to realize that caps exist for a reason, and should have seen the potential issue with opening it up to everyone with no restriction. That said, you have to feel for the owner who made this decision and cut in to what was likely a thin profit margin.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Google+ at the four month mark

Google+ is Google's new social networking site. Google released this in the summer of 2011, and so far, it has picked up a lot of users. However, it seems to have lost some of the early momentum.

Spot on, xkcd!

I feel like Google versus Facebook will be a tremendous battle. Facebook has already reacted and quickly started to implement some of the features Google+ offered. Competition is usually a good thing for consumers, after all! Now that Google+ is a few months old, it is less of a novelty.

As it becomes less of a novelty, people start to take a more critical eye to it. One of Google's engineers, Steve Yegge, accidentally (?) posted a rant about Google+ last month. To summarize his complaints, Google+ does not make it easy for other people to create Google+ apps, therefore making it difficult for app developers to create Google+ apps. This is certainly a current limitation of the system.

Will Google+ adapt or die? We shall see.

Also, I have a Google+ profile set up, if anyone would like to add me.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Spring 2012 Semester Schedule

I am in the process of figuring out my Spring 2012 schedule. Of course, my schedule is up in the air until we are certain some classes will run. For the moment, here is what I know.

Definitely mine:
CIS 125 M02 (Microcomputer Software I): Tue/Thu 10:20 AM to 11:35 AM Paterson Campus
CIS 273 ME1/GD 273 ME1 (Web Graphics): Thu 7:05 PM to 9:35 PM
CIS 294 M01/GD 294 M01 (CIS Internship): Times TBA

Probably mine:
CIS 101 P01 (Computer Concepts and Applications): Mon/Wed 10:20 AM to 11:35 AM Passaic Campus
CIS 101 P02 (Computer Concepts and Applications): Mon/Wed 8:55 AM to 10:10 AM Passaic Campus

Here's where it gets complicated. If the CIS 125 P01 runs at Passaic, that will probably be mine, but if it does not, then I may get one of any number of classes.

At Bergen:
INF 163 001 (Internet Concepts and Applications): Mon/Wed 3:55 PM to 5:50 PM Paramus Campus

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Microsoft SyncToy

Moving between machines is always difficult. If you keep files on your hard drive, problems arise with forgetting files. So, if you copy them to a USB drive, you can end up with two copies to a file, which can be even worse.

One way to combat this is to use an online storage solution, such as Microsoft's SkyDrive. SkyDrive is basically an online USB drive, with access to Microsoft's Office Web Apps. Google has a similar functionality through Google Docs.

However, if you are looking for something that doesn't require an online account, you can also download a tool such as Microsoft SyncToy. This application is free for Windows users, but for whatever reason not installed with Windows when you first install it. If you are someone who has some issues with keeping track of files, this is a highly customizable tool. As opposed to a program like backup, a synchronization program can be set up to work both ways. In other words, if I change a file on my hard drive, it can be synchronized to my USB drive, and if I change a file on my USB drive, it can be synchronized to my hard drive.

For free, it's a great little tool, and a good alternative to accidentally overwriting a file with an older version.

Download SyncToy here

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Computer Security Education

Whether I am teaching a Computer Concepts course or a course in the Information Technology major, the topic of computer security will usually come up. At some point during the discussion, someone will usually ask "should you really be showing us this?" or something of that nature. I suppose that sort of issue exists in many areas. If you teach someone karate, who is to say they won't use those skills to hurt someone? If you teach someone how to shoot a gun, how do you know they won't shoot a person? Of course, causing physical damage is a little different than computer security. How about this: if you teach someone computer programming, how do you know they won't use it to create a virus? The short answer is that you don't.

We have a few courses that involve computer security at PCCC. I know Bergen also has a course that involves computer security. As a matter of fact, ABET (an accrediting board) includes data security and privacy as a "core" topic in Information Technology. In other words, it is a critical piece of any IT program. You can't send entry-level computer professionals out without some sort of background in this area. Even someone who is going to be employed in a career that involves computers (most college students, I would assume) need some background. Often, the weakest link in computer security is not your firewall, or your antivirus, or your VPN software, it is your users. I think we have a responsibility as educators to raise the awareness level of all students.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

PCCC Surplus Sale

Every few years, PCCC does a surplus sale, where they get rid of all their old equipment. Outdated computers, desks, and other stuff are made available for very low prices. Last time they did this, one of my friends bought 10 older computers for his mosque for $6 each, with the intention of putting Linux on them. If you can get here early for it, it is a nice opportunity. Students are given priority, so if you get here between 10 am and noon the first day, you will only be competing with other students.

They have the surplus sale in the parking lot of the Community Technology Center (218 Memorial Drive, Paterson), right by the intersection of Memorial and Market.

Even if you are not a PCCC student, it is open to the public noon to 3 on Wednesday, and 10 to 3 on Thursday. Here's the info:

DATES: Wednesday, October 12, 2011 and Thursday, October 13, 2011
TIME:  10:00 A.M. TO 3:00 P.M.

On Wednesday from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon it will be open to students with a valid ID only. Open to the public after 12:00 noon on Wednesday and all day on Thursday.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Facebook Freebies

I am a fan of getting things for free. There are a few companies I follow on Facebook that give me free stuff.

Two companies that make free stuff available are Quick Chek and McDonalds.

For example, if you Like Quick Chek on Facebook (link here), they give you access to a weekly freebie. Right now, the freebie is a Dr. Pepper 10, a new flavor of soft drink.

McDonald's Local (link here) has been giving out free stuff as well, though they haven't done so recently.

I know people have this tendency to assume if something is free, there is something wrong with it. For example, I mentioned the Quick Chek site and showed it to my students, and I asked why they would give it away. A few students came back with the answer "because no one is buying it". Companies sometimes create promotions like this for new products to encourage stores to buy a new product. In the case of a restaurant like McDonald's, giving out a product (like the new smoothie) can encourage people to visit the store and try something they may not otherwise try.

The other advantage to either of these scenarios is that, if you are in the store or restaurant, you want to get people to come to your location, and this is certainly a way to do that!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Windows 7 and the curse of retraining

As a computer person, I am in the position where I need to constantly retrain myself. Many of the things I learned in college are already obsolete. A career in computers always presents new challenges and new opportunities, and that is part of what I like about it.

I find that many people hate the fact that things change. Computerization of jobs is one thing. I know two doctors with small offices who are pretty computer illiterate. They both plan on retiring if and when they have to submit all medical claims electronically instead of faxing or mailing them. I certainly can understand that. In that situation they feel there is too much added expense (in time and/or money) in retraining themselves, buying equipment, and possibly hiring an assistant to do the computer work.

However, even computer literate users generally dislike retraining. I understand the thought. People who are not in the computer field seem to look at computers as an appliance, much like a stove. If I had to retrain myself on how to use a stove every year I'd dislike that and just order out more.

Since people don't like the idea of retraining, they tend to use a new tool the way they used the old tool. However, newer versions of tools generally include better ways to do things. For example, since Windows 95, I used the same process to take a picture of what is on my screen and save it. I would hit the print screen button on my keyboard (or hit alt+printscreen to only capture the current window). If I wanted to only keep a part of the image instead of the whole thing, I would then open a program like Photoshop, create a new file, paste the screen image, select the part I want, crop it down, and save. This process is clunky, but it works, and this was just how I did things.  Windows 7 (and some versions of Vista) include a tool called the Snipping Tool. This tool would let me take an image of part of my screen in many less steps. Were I not constantly playing around with new features, I would be less efficient. For those of you who haven't started using this cool tool, here is the Microsoft Snipping Tool tutorial.

Rather than learn new versions of a tool, people may even actively seek ways to make the new tool look like the old tool. For example, when Office 2007 came out, people hated the Ribbon interface, which replaced the old menu interface. A number of companies released tools (such as ubitmenu) that allowed users to display the old menus back in Office 2007.

For me, retraining is part of the allure of computers, but if you are among those who view it as a curse, I can understand the thought.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Monetizing a Site

As some of you know, I teach courses that involve Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, social networking, and other such material. For me, it is critical to be involved with some of these because it keeps me up to date on the stuff I am teaching. After all, if I am not staying involved with these things, how can I speak to their effectiveness, ease of implementation, and details?

I'll definitely talk about this in my Internet course this semester, but I felt like it might be a good idea to put some information out about how people make money off of Web sites, even if they are not selling products or services online. Here are three ways a Web site can make money with no risk, and links to sites I have personal experience with.

Advertising: Google has a program called AdSense, which allows a Web site owner to sign up and set up an account to display ads. Through a pretty straightforward step-by-step process, they are given the option to choose how invasive they want the ads to be. For example, you will notice I have a few small ads on this site. Through Google's Blogger service (which hosts my blog for free), it is even simpler. For other sites, Google will give you some HTML code that you embed in your Web site. If you don't know what that means, your Web developer will.
From my own experience, I've been running this blog since 2006. Google will send you a check after you make $100, and I haven't received a check yet. If I were being paid by the blog post, I'd probably be making about 20 cents a post. If my goal was to try to make money, I could choose to display more ads, or make the ads more prominent. I am also displaying blog entries in my Facebook account, so I assume many of my students are viewing this through Facebook and don't even see the ads, which also cuts down on possible ad revenue. In terms of keeping myself fresh with the technology, I will usually hop on and change the format a little bit before I talk about it in class. This way, I can speak about the latest version of Google AdSense from my own personal experience.
Is Google the only site that allows you to advertise? No. However, Google is pretty trustworthy. There are other, less ethical sites that allow users to display ads and may pay more. However, some of them use some shady business principles.
In general, if you are a small Web site, Google AdSense allows you to easily connect with advertisers without having to worry about doing much work.

Affiliate Marketing: Sites such as Amazon and Walmart offer affiliate marketing. Affiliate marketing basically allows me as a Web site owner to provide links to Walmart or Amazon. If anyone clicks on those links and buys something, I get a small percentage of that sale. Amazon Associates is among the most popular. Users can log in and get a personalized link.
Users can link directly to a product, or just to the main site. Amazon requires a minimum payment of $100 before they will pay you. Again, I may reference it once in a while, but I've never received a check from them because I really don't push for clicks. I have a small link on the right hand side of my blog, and will once in a while go and build a link to stay on top of things.
Sites that really want to monetize may even ask their users to click on the Amazon link they have provided if they are going to buy something anyway, as it will help support them. The more a user sells, the larger a percentage of fees they get.
As a member I see (sometimes on a weekly basis) how they are changing the program. Amazon and some states are in court because of Amazon Associates. The short form is that states are suing them because states feel this program should compel Amazon to charge sales tax. Looooong story there.

On-Demand Publishing: Sites like CafePress allow users to upload a logo. Once the logo has been uploaded, you can decide what you want it to be on. Do you want it to be on t-shirts? mugs? underwear? You then choose how much markup you want to ad and provide your users with a link to the site. This is a great option for a company that does not want to risk buying t-shirts and then having them not sell. As a matter of fact, one of my students last semester mentioned he set up a site like this for one of his high school organizations. I've got a small site on there I haven't played with in a few years, but it's kind of a neat way for Web site owners to create shirts with no overhead, or for artists to make logo shirts, mugs, and other items.

If you have a Web site or are an artist of sorts, these are some options available to you.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Volunteer NJ

With all the problems lately, one thing I have heard a lot about lately is volunteering. Volunteers have done a lot of good helping people affected negatively by the recent tropical storm.

I know I always used to wonder how I could volunteer, and it turns out the NJ Governor's office has made it easy for people to volunteer (and to find volunteers) in NJ,

People can fill out a volunteer profile, browse volunteer opportunities, and find agencies in need of goods and services. Volunteering doesn't have to revolve around emergencies; there are plenty of opportunities for people with a trade. For example, a quick search shows they need people to help low-income folks with taxes, provide computer training for senior citizens, and provide training for people who are out of work.

If you've ever wondered how to get started with volunteering, this site is a great starting point. For Students looking to beef up a resume short on job experience can always volunteer. Another advantage is that by volunteering, you get the chance to network and meet people who might have a job opening.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

PCCC Registration Fall 2011

For all my PCCC students - I hope you have registered at this point, but if you have not, it's okay. Registration is going on right now. Of course, in the interest of getting people registered, they generally have a large gym registration in Paterson. If you are a student with a major, you can request to see someone specifically. I generally can only give very basic advice to Criminal Justice majors, and I am sure the Criminal Justice department doesn't know the IT program as well as I do. The Center for Student Success also has a number of qualified people, but there is no way anyone could know every nuance to every single program the college offers, let alone what schools our programs transfer to, etc.

If anyone in the IT or Computer Science majors saw someone outside of the major for registration, you can always come see any of the faculty members in-person. I personally will be at the Wanaque campus from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm on Monday the 29th, and again at the Wanaque campus on Wednesday the 31st from 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Our other faculty members (Professors Atshan, Bamkole, Siegel, and Yip) will be in the gym in Paterson at various times, so you could go in and see one of them.

I'd say it is always better to ask if you are unsure, rather than end up stuck with a schedule that holds you back.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Google and Motorola

I love technology, in part because there is more drama than an episode of Mad Men.

 Google bought Motorola Mobility, who makes a number of mobile handsets. Motorola has been involved in a number of technology areas for a number of years. In 2000 or so, I had a Motorola pager. They've obviously graduated to smart phones by this point.

The company also makes processors and tablets. As a matter of fact, for many years, the Motorola processors were the only processors found in Apple computers. They've since gone to the same processor as you find in a PC.

The interesting part here is that Google now enters the mobile market full force. Will Microsoft feel the need to respond? Will Google's new Motorola products overtake Apple? Is Google trying to take over the world? Time shall tell.

Link to story

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

RIP Google Toolbar?

I hate filling out forms on the Internet. For a while, I was using a tool called Roboform to assist me with it. The problem with Roboform was that there was a trial version, but to use the full version, you had to pay.

Google eventually introduced a form assistant in their Google Toolbar program, and I downloaded and installed it. I've been using the Google Toolbar for a while; it did what I needed, and though not as full-featured as the Roboform tool, it is free.

Firefox 5 recently came out, and when I upgraded, I got the warning that some of my add-ons were not compatible. Among them was the Google Toolbar. I figured Google would figure it out and send out updates eventually.

It turns out Google, surprisingly, has decided to no longer support the Toolbar in Firefox according to Google Toolbar's blog. This is disappointing for me, if for no other reason than I don't like change when I am used to something.

I've downloaded AutoFill Forms for the moment, and it seems to be working out. It is free, relatively unannoying, and functional. If you are looking for a replacement, or do not have a tool to fill out forms automatically, I would recommend trying this tool. There are of course other options available, but this works nicely for me.

I am just surprised because Google generally seems to be on the same page as Firefox. RIP Google Toolbar, at least on my computer.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Book Update and Soliciting Help

One of the portions of my book involves me demonstrating a fake business on Facebook, and showing how you can set up a Facebook Page for a business. I set up a fake spa on Facebook, and in order to create a shorter Web site address, I need 25 people to "Like" it. I am hoping I could ask for help. I would need for people to first click the link below, and then click on "Like".

My goal is about 16,000 words, and I am at 13,876 as of this exact moment. I haven't written out the step by step description of the demonstrations, which I figure is probably another 1,000 words. There are very few illustrations and pictures in it, but it is at almost 55 pages double spaced. In other words, it is close. Now comes the proof reading and copy editing and all that. It has been a good experience thus far, though quite honestly a little intimidating at points.

I am posting this to my blog because I know I have former students who may not be friends with me on Facebook who may be able to help out.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Overdone Resumes

I recently helped a friend with his resume. I have some experience with this from coordinating the CIS internship program at PCCC, though I am certainly no expert. My resume is about two pages long at this point. I'm certain it could be improved upon, but I basically have only needed it to send in a book proposal to Pearson and to apply to teach part-time at Bergen. Since I am not an active job seeker, I have not done a lot of work on it.

Though I coordinated the internship program, our former internship coordinator was my resume expert, so I sort of learned by watching her edit resumes. When we would work with our students to get their resumes done, I would help them with the basics (list your jobs, what sort of responsibilities did you have, etc), and she would come around and really polish the resumes.

This Career Builder article discusses some of those cliches, and how you can clean some of them up:
Link to article

Of course, if you are an active student, your college probably has a Career Services office that will provide you with free resume help. I'd say that is something to take advantage of, whether you are at Passaic, Bergen, or elsewhere. Otherwise, once you start looking for a job, you will end up bugging a friend or maybe even paying a professional to do it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Medicine and IT

If you've ever watched the TV show House, you will know that the main character (a doctor) has a rule that you never believe a patient, because "everybody lies". It's a very dark view of the world.

I can relate.

I've had friends ask me to take a look at computers, and while not everyone lies, I do find that many of them do. I imagine for a full-time tech support professional, it is doubly so. For example, if you spilled coffee on the computer, please don't tell me you dropped it. If you dropped it, don't tell me it just stopped working.

Any of my former IT students run in to this?

Friday, July 01, 2011

Big News

So as those of you who read my blog know, I was on leave for the 2010-2011 academic year from PCCC. I am officially back as of today, since today starts the 2011-2012 academic year.

That is not the big news, however.

I told my classes in person last year that one of the things I wanted to do with my year was to work on a manuscript for a textbook. I submitted a sample chapter to a publisher in November, and I hadn't heard anything from them, so I just sort of assumed it wasn't going anywhere. However, I did do some side work for the same publisher, doing some test banks, PowerPoint presentations, and other supplements for some of their textbooks.

I received an email last week from the publisher, wanting to speak with me. They said in effect that I've proven to be an asset with the smaller projects I've worked on, and that they'd like to move me up to a bigger project. The woman who emailed had read my sample chapter, and we've come to terms on a book. Yes, I will be an author!

I'm going to be writing a smaller textbook that they will bundle in upon request from a college. There is a new Office textbook series they are coming out with called "Your Office". I know for their other textbooks, the main Office topics (Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint) are usually sold together as one big textbook (as you see with the 1000 page Go! with Office 2010 text). To allow faculty freedom to teach other topics, they have a series of smaller books they can bundle with it. For example, instead of having a chapter on Windows 7 there, faculty can choose a smaller 96 page Windows 7 book, or get the Windows Vista one instead. If you'd like to additionally teach topics like Internet Explorer, OneNote, Outlook, or one of any number of topics, you can get one of the smaller books bundled in with the main book. My book will be the equivalent for the Your Office series, and the topic is Web 2.0 applications like social networking, blogging, podcasting, and cloud computing. I am still working on finalizing a projected table of contents.

The publisher gave me a link to the marketing materials, and I have to admit, the main series editor and I have a very similar approach to education, and I think this is a great fit for me.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dining on a Budget

I enjoy saving money, and I also like food. A good intersection of these two interests is the Web site I've been using this site for a number of years, and it's a pretty good site if you want to save money and try new restaurants. I know people see things like this and think "scam", but I've been using for years.

For example, my girlfriend and I went down to Baltimore in January. Rather than break the budget, we decided to see what restaurants were close to the hotel we were staying in were on the Web site. We purchased some gift certificates, and saved somewhere around $150 on food.

Here's how the site works. As a consumer, you go on their site, you purchase a gift certificate to a restaurant, and you use it. Different restaurants offer different types of certificates, but the ones I see most commonly are $25 off any purchase of $35 or more, or $10 off any purchase of $25 or more. A $10 gift certificate costs $5, and a $25 gift certificate costs $10. By that math, if I went to a restaurant and got $35 worth of food, it would cost me $20 ($10 for the gift certificate, and $10 for the difference between the gift certificate and the bill). Even that would be a pretty good deal, but also does one other thing that makes it a great deal. Generally, they have some code or another you can use to save even more. For example, right now they have a deal where you can take 70% off any order. So, going back to our previous example, that $20 gift certificate would cost me $3 instead of $10, and the $10 one would cost $1.50 instead of $5. Therefore, that $35 bill I mentioned before would cost me $13.

Now, restaurants can do things a little differently. Just a quick look at the site shows some restaurants do a deal where you can get a $100 off a $200 purchase for $50 (and, if you used one of the common 70% off coupons, a $200 order would cost you $115). Some restaurants charge a little more for their gift certificates, which make it less good of a deal, and others don't let you use them on weekends. However, it is a nice idea if you are looking to try a new place, or travel. They will apparently make it right if a restaurant you go to stops accepting them (I've never had that experience). Gift certificates don't expire, so you can use them or trade them in if a restaurant stops accepting them.

If anyone owns a restaurant, you can sign up with the site as well and offer the gift certificates to your site, though I can't speak to that experience, it seems like a nice way to get people to come in and try your restaurant.

You can generally find the discount codes if you sign up for their e-mail list, or if you visit their Facebook page.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Google Image Stalking

So, Google is introducing a few new features, and as always, the applications can be used for evil.

One of the features aims to allow users to ask questions through their microphone, and have Google search for the words you speak rather than requiring you to type them in. It will recognize your voice and send the words to the search engine.

Another new search is the Google Search By Image. This feature claims that it will let you upload a picture and find information about that picture. For example, if I have a picture of me in front of a building, Google Search By Image would attempt to identify that building. That seems really interesting.

I decided to test it out with some pictures of a trip I took. I went to the Google image search, and downloaded the Firefox extension which allows you to right click on any image in your Web browser and search the Google Search By Image tool for it. However, it doesn't work with Firefox 4.0 yet, so I decided to try it in Google Chrome. I then dragged a few images in to the browser.

I had some pictures of a cruise I took last summer, so I decided to try those.

First, I tried a picture of a lighthouse I saw in Canada. It came up with some pictures that were very similar, but they were the lighthouse in Cape May, NJ.

I decided to try something easier, and I dragged a photo of the Statue of Liberty there. Google Search by Image correctly identified it and returned other images of it and a link to the Wikipedia article.

I tried a picture of a random chunk of the NYC skyline, taken from sea, and that also did not return anything useful.

I tried a picture of a pretty distinctive tour bus from St. John's, Canada, and it wasn't able to match that either.

Verdict on the image locator: weak so far.

Google also claimed it could locate an image that is on the Web. I dragged an image of something I am selling on Craigslist, and it was able to immediately find and display that for me. I dragged another image of something I am selling on eBay, and it was able to find that. Finally, I tried an image I downloaded randomly, and it was able to show me where that image came from. I would say this is a success.

Verdict: This could also be pretty powerful if you are checking to find where an image came from, in case you want to use legally it in a publication, but isn't going to be able to determine where a vacation photo was taken unless it has a pretty obvious or distinctive monument in it.

Google does claim there is no facial recognition that will be available. Color me suspicious.

For a number of years, Google had a free 411 service called Google 411. Many people felt like the reason Google was doing this was to allow testing of their voice-recognition algorithm. All of a sudden, they have Google voice search. I would assume they tested and improved their algorithms in part with their free 411 service.

Now, Google is going to claim there is no facial recognition that is available. However, they will be amassing a powerful database of photographs. The Google privacy statement seems to allow them to keep Web requests, and my interpretation of an image is that it is a Web request.  Given what they did with Google 411, I would suspect that they will save the images you upload for their own testing purposes. Could facial recognition be something they are testing?  Who knows.

I tend to trust Google more than some of the other big name companies, but just because they aren't making facial recognition available to the public, doesn't mean they aren't gathering our uploaded photos to test their software.

I also have some concerns about how, if this technology develops, people might use this to stalk or harass other people. For example, let's say someone uploads a few pictures to their Facebook, or hacks their phone, or steals their digital camera. If someone is trying to hide from someone, those pictures may be searchable and usable. In addition, let's say a criminal finds a digital camera and notices people wearing nice jewelry in it. Could the pictures possibly lead them to a person's residence? As I said before, this does not seem to be at that point yet, but always something to think about.

Monday, June 06, 2011

One in Every 14 programs downloaded is malware?

A few weeks ago, Microsoft blogged about Internet Explorer 9's new "SmartScreen Application Reputation" feature. Microsoft quotes a statistic that 1 in every 14 programs downloaded (on the Microsoft platform) is confirmed to be malware. Of course, statistics can be twisted, so I am not sure what Microsoft defines as "malware". I also assume they are talking about files downloaded through Web browsers, and not files downloaded from the Internet.

From my experience, the riskier the behavior the user engages in, the more likely it is they are going to have a problem. When a friend has a computer crash, it generally has something to do with the activities they engage in on the computer. For example, if people visit shady sites to download videos or music, they risk running in to problems. Making things even riskier (though not affected by this study, I assume) are the file sharing networks.

Even if you have an updated antivirus program, and antispyware, and a firewall, you still risk running in to problems. A virus released today may not end up being blocked by antivirus tools for a few weeks. First, the virus has to come to the antivirus company's attention, and then they must figure what it does and how it does it, and then program a fix, test the fix, and make it available for updates. Then, the user's home machine needs to download the update and apply it.

These viruses are called zero-day viruses, and it isn't unreasonable for it to take weeks for a low-priority virus to get blocked. Further complicating matters is that many home users do not always pay for updates to the antivirus tool. It's generally better to have a free, up-to-date antivirus tool than an outdated commercial one, because new viruses are written all the time. I have in the past personally used the free AVG antivirus, and there is also a free version of avast! antivirus available.

Of course, Linux and Macintosh computers deal with less viruses, not because they can't be written for those operating systems, but because Windows has the largest market share and generally has more inexperienced users. If Macintosh ever became more popular than Windows, hackers would certainly work to find exploits for that operating system too.

So, Microsoft will claim IE9 is safer than Firefox, and Firefox will claim they are safer than IE9. If nothing else, turn a critical eye to both claims. And, if you want to be safe, stop doing risky things. They say the safest sex is abstinence, after all, and the same concept applies to computer activity.

Link to Network World article

Monday, May 30, 2011

Customer Service Follow-up

So, after I talked about how bad my customer service experience with Comcast was, I thought I should follow up regarding my positive experience as well.

As I mentioned in my other Comcast blog post, I was not happy with the customer service I received, and I felt like the representatives on the phone were more concerned with following a script than doing what was right. I had a situation where Comcast as a company really made some mistakes, yet no one was trying to make it right. As a result, I was considering moving to FIOS.

I went to the physical Comcast location near my house to return the rental modem. I was planning on just dropping it off and verifying the fee was removed from my bill. The representative took a look at my account, and I think he saw all the issues I had been having. I wasn't even planning on talking with them due to my frustration level, but he offered me a different package. Basically, it will save me about $40 a month for the next 6 months, and gives me more channels.

I marked my calendar to call in November and change back to a cheaper plan, but for the moment, I save $240, which was an unexpected surprise.

Again, just from a customer service perspective, I am not sure why it took me physically showing up to get a good deal, but I won't look a gift horse in the mouth, as they say.

So Comcast. you've won me back over, for now.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Customer Service Failures (A Comcast Rant)

I hate dealing with customer service most of the times. There are some companies that do a spectacular job of it, and others that do not. Still others are helpful in some areas and not so much in others. I get offended when companies make me use my time to fix their mistakes,

As an example of this, let me tell you about my issues with Comcast. I've been a customer since roughly 2000, between two addresses. I've had a number of bizarre issues occur, for example, when I moved, I returned my old cable box. Two years later, I received a bill for the cable box, and since it was two years later, I didn't have the old receipt. It took me getting on the phone and talking with people a few times to get this fixed.

In early April, I received a letter from Comcast saying my old cable modem didn't support the highest possible speeds for the network, and that I should call them for a new one. A few years back, I had purchased my own cable modem to avoid rental fees, but my thought was that if it meant higher speeds, I could use their modem for a month or two and buy the same model they sent me on eBay to save on future rental costs. I called and the representative asked if I wanted to pick up the new modem or to have it sent to me. Since there was no cost mentioned, I took them up on the offer to ship it to me.

The modem arrived very quickly.

Before I disconnected my old modem, I went to (my 163 students will recognize this site) and got a baseline speed. I swapped out the modem for the new one, spent an hour resetting everything and registering the new device with Comcast, and then re-ran the test on the site. Oddly enough, it was about the same speed.

I called Comcast and they told me my old modem would not support the higher speed connection if I chose to use the more expensive Internet service ("Blast"). I decided to stick with the new modem and find a replacement, because I have been considering upgrading.

I sold my old cable modem (again, my own personal modem) on eBay. This is when problems start.

The modem arrived to a customer out in California. He tries to set it up and Comcast tells him it is a stolen modem. The customer wants a refund, and since I sold the item and it did not work, he rightly filed a significantly not as described complaint. So, it cost me $11 to ship it to him, and $15 for him to ship it back to me. I am now out $26 because of Comcast's mistake.

My bill comes in the mail the next day, and I have three charges:
1) Unreturned modem fee ($60)
2) Shipping Fee ($9.95)
3) Modem Rental Fee ($7.00)

As you can imagine, I was frustrated. I called Comcast and tried to be polite. I find that explaining that I am frustrated up front helps me to stay courteous. The rep tells me they need to submit a research request, which would take ten business days, after which I would be contacted via email. The rep took down my email address and we ended the conversation.

I hadn't heard anything for over two weeks, so I called in. The rep I spoke with yesterday told me the credit for the unreturned modem was there (and I was able to verify this online), and she wasn't sure why I didn't get contacted regarding this. Having resolved the modem fee, I asked about the shipping fee, and the customer representative was able to refund that, since it was a charge that I was not told about, and the eBay stuff is my problem. She then tried to get me to sign back up for Comcast Voice, which really infuriated me. I told her I have an Ooma and ended the conversation.

So, Comcast refused to refund the modem rental fee, and as a result of Comcast's mistakes, I have wasted $26 on shipping, $7 on a modem rental fee, a bunch of hours dealing with their customer support, my first negative feedback on eBay, and frustration. Comcast has decided they can't do anything more for me, and while the representatives are nice, this is an obvious mistake on their part, and my inconvenience is my problem.

I think companies nowadays spend way too much time following procedures, and I don't feel like customer service representatives understand "the right thing to do". If a first-line customer service representative sees something that just isn't right, they should be getting a supervisor involved.

I've had other issues with Verizon. My apartment building just got wired for FIOS. My doorbell rang, and the person said "I'm here from Verizon". I told them "you must have rung the wrong bell" - assuming he was setting up someone else's apartment. Two days later, the doorbell rang again, and it was Verizon. He asked if he could speak with me, so I assumed they might need to get in my apartment. (When they set up FIOS in the building, they had to put some equipment in the back of one of my closets). I stopped work on a project and went upstairs, and the guy was just there to try to sell me FIOS. I walked away from him, and called Verizon, because it isn't the right thing for me to be harassed at home like this. The first representative I spoke with told me to go to and register there (which only opts me out of phone calls, not in-person calls). We got disconnected somehow. I called back and re-explained my problem, and they told me there was nothing they could do. I finally sent an email to the customer support on the Web site, explained the situation, explained my frustration, and asked to be forwarded to a supervisor. The supervisor got back to me and told me they added me to their "do not knock" database, but offered no apologies or explanation as to why the other reps couldn't do that.  Had Verizon been a little more helpful or a little less intrusive, I would be switching from Comcast to Verizon right now. I'm still considering who is the lesser of two evils, but it does look like FIOS would be about $20 cheaper.

For those of you going in to support-related fields, try to keep the idea of "what is right" in mind when you deal with customers. I know it is not easy, and I know I stray sometimes myself when dealing with students and co-workers, but it is a good ideal to shoot for.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


My semester is now officially over. I have from now until September off, and then I will be teaching six courses in the Fall 2011 semester (my complete Fall schedule is linked here). I got to thinking about the last year, and how it has changed me as a professor. Here are some of the things I learned this year.
  1. Teaching less classes yields better results. I have in the past had a tendency to take on a very heavy load, and only teaching two courses a semester has left me with more energy to get in to the classroom. 
  2. There is a better way to teach application software. This was inspired by one of my students in INF 101, Kevin. Teaching application software in introductory computing classes is difficult, because of the different levels of students. I've tried to teach this a number of ways. First I would lecture and leave the computers open, which led to people not paying attention. I feel like my job is to structure a lesson to promote the maximum possible learning, so I did not like that. I then tried using hardware to lock the computers and offer class time to work on things, but as soon as I stop lecturing students seem to disappear. I then moved to a model where I first demonstrate the software (with the computers locked), and use ungraded groupwork to practice (with two students sharing one machine to prevent drifting), and then assign an individual case problem to students. This seems to work well, but in the CIS 101/INF 101 courses, there is never enough time to leave for that groupwork. Kevin inspired me to try something different, so I combined groupwork and lecture for Access and PowerPoint this semester. I would lecture and demonstrate, and the groups would follow along. It gives the advanced students a chance to teach, and what better way to reinforce skills than by teaching? It gives less advanced students more individualized attention, since they are more likely to ask a peer a question. Finally, it keeps everyone focused on the work. I really liked how this turned out and I will use it in the future in certain classes.
  3. Electronic tests have many advantages. At PCCC, I never really investigated giving tests on hte computer. We have a campus portal (which allows students to submit assignments, allows faculty to share files, etc.). This portal does not allow students to take tests online. We also have WebCT, which is primarily used for online classes at PCCC, but is available for regular classes. I may continue to use the portal for assignments, and use WebCT for tests. It's convenient, ends up with less mistakes (and no true/false answers that look like a combination of the letter T and F), and saves me from reading handwriting for essays. Bergen has a software tool called Respondus LockDown browser, which allows me to prevent students from using the Internet and other electronic files. This tool works both in WebCT (which we used this year) and Moodle (which we are moving to). At PCCC, I don't think we will have the software, but I can use the monitoring software we have in our classrooms in Hamilton Hall.
  4. Open book tests work. I always was sort of against open book tests, but I tried it this year, and I see similar results to non-open book tests. The trick I never caught on to is a time limit of 45 seconds to one minute per multiple choice/true false/completion question. With a strict time limit, looking up every answer is near impossible, and students still need to prepare for the tests. Even better, if they know it is open notes, they may take the time to really organize their notes. Organizing notes requires students to re-read the notes, review them, and even look up things they are not familiar with. This is a good thing. I found the standard deviation and average for the open book tests were similar to tests I've given in the past. Anecdotally, I feel like this gives students with a good work ethic an advantage over students who come in to the class with some knowledge.
  5. I can kill less trees. I generally would create and print assignment sheets for every assignment I give out, and run off copies. I would also make those descriptions available electronically. I did everything electronically this year in my INF 163 course, and it went well. I figure students can print things manually if they would like a copy.
  6. Doing textbook supplement authoring is kind of fun. Since I had so much time on my hands, I did some freelance textbook supplement authoring. I've done test banks, PowerPoint presentations, scorecards (rubrics), lesson plans, and book reviews. I've actually had some fun doing this, and I may pick up a small project or two. 
  7. Sign language interpreters have a tough job.  I had one deaf student each semester, and in a technical course, it becomes difficult for the interpreters to keep up. I have a tendency to throw out all sorts of technical terms and abbreviations, and interpreters are experts in translation, not in technology. In addition, there are many technical terms that need to be fingerspelled (in which the interpreter spells it one letter at a time). Bergen actually had a grant to provide signers for students, so they sent a team of two signers to every class, and paid a student notetaker. Even with that, there were challenges. For example, Bergen's INF 101 course has podcast and video assignments, and the publisher hadn't made accommodations for deaf students. The college allowed the interpreters to work with the student in an open lab, and the publisher did eventually provide transcripts and captioning. It was a learning experience for me, to be certain.
All in all, I think being taken out of my comfort zone has led to growth, and for that, I am grateful. I look forward to returning to PCCC, evolved.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Productivity Software and Being Productive

Programs in Microsoft Office generally fall in to a category of software called productivity software. The idea behind this is that users should be able to use the tools to save a company time, and hence money. Programs like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are tools many companies view as useful.

However, I hear that many companies are not impressed with the technology skills of students graduating college, and that seems counter intuitive at first. I think the issue is only partially technology-related. For example, I am in the process of teaching PowerPoint to my 101 class. I try to make the comparison between the things businesses like students to know and the things students want to know how to do. The things students like to do in PowerPoint include animations, slide transitions, and sounds. However, in a business environment, those things are generally not used. As a matter of fact, in many medium to large sized companies, employees will be using a standard company template and just adding the data they would like to the slide.

What a company would look for is certainly part technology, but also part English. A company would expect a new hire to be able to take a paper and summarize it in to a presentation. This involves very little technical know-how. If a new hire takes that paper and types in complete sentences on the slides, or spends a lot of time playing with animations, the company will not be impressed. I try to get across a few key pieces of information, for example, don't write in complete sentences on each slide, summarize data and try to use the 7x7 rule (no more than  words per line, and 7 lines per slide), and use the notes pane, especially if you plan on sending a presentation out via email (this will allow a blind user's screen reader to give a blind user a similar experience to a non-blind user).  As you can see, those are less technology issues and more using the technology to achieve a task.

Similarly, I see a disconnect between the technical aspects of Excel and the application. Every semester, I put the percentages for each component of a grade on the syllabus. Let's say tests are 40%, lab projects are 40%, and the final is 20%. With that information and knowledge of what grades the student has received, this spreadsheet should be pretty easy. However, I find most students seem to have no sense for how they are doing in a class unless I tell them.

In a business environment, this is the type of problem a new hire may be presented with. Given a certain situation you should create the formulas to get an answer. If a new hire can't figure out how to do that, is that a logic problem or technology problem? I'd argue logic problem, providing they know how to enter formulas.

Companies expect new hires to really understand the technology. It isn't just remembering every point and click, because even I forget specific tasks sometimes and have to Google it. It is also understanding the capabilities of each tool and being able to apply it to the tasks you face.

My last job before I started teaching full-time was at a highly technical company. People did amazing things with programming, but they were still doing really silly things like using a paper log book to keep track of problems. If one wanted to log something, one had to go to a specific person's cubicle and write it down on paper. I made the suggestion that we create an Excel spreadsheet and just put it on the network (in a configuration management system - don't worry about the details). Of course, I didn't try to force it on people, because that never works. I made a suggestion to my manager, and he asked me to create a prototype. He loved it and made it policy. Soon people were asking me how we could generate reports to show only open ones that were more than a month old...replace a text column with a pull-down menu...validate data...etc. This little spreadsheet took on a life of its own, but made a lot of information available to management, things they would otherwise have had to have someone tabulate by hand. It also helped reduce mistakes. This was me applying technology to an existing situation, and this was something that helped me stand out. In a very technical company, I got promotions and gained the faith of management because I could not only use Excel, but also because I had the vision to see where it could make things more efficient. I did a lot of things that helped streamline processes, and was on the fast track as a result

I think many students have a built-in understanding of computers that people thirty years older than them do, but they don't always know how to apply the tools to real-world problems. If you can do so, you will do well in the real world.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cool Tools: Tunatic

I found a bunch of old CDs the other day, with hundreds of songs on them. These were CDs I had burned in 2000, 2001, and 2002. There were a number of songs I remembered, but I could not remember the name for them. I figured there had to be a tool out there to help me find the names (because iTunes imported all the files with the names Track1, Track2, etc).

I did a quick search and found a tool called Tunatic. This is a pretty nice tool that works much like the iPhone tools Shazam and Midomi. You let the computer hear the song, and the tool will identify it. It's a free tool, so I downloaded it and gave it a shot.

This worked extremely well for me. It had a little problem with some of my more obscure songs, especially anything without vocals. Since I have a computer headset with a microphone, it was extremely easy to set this up.

I'd recommend this, as long as you have some sort of microphone input.

Link to Download

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Day eBay Changed

Today is the day eBay changed to a new business model. For years, eBay has had a fee structure based on a few things (for small sellers, anyway):
  1. Listing Fees (a cost for posting an item)
  2. Listing Upgrade Fees (want your listings to appear in bold? go for 10 days? etc.)
  3. Final Value Fees (they take a percentage of the final sale value)
In addition, eBay bought Paypal a number of years ago, so they also take a percentage of each payment processed.

For years in my CIS 152 course at PCCC and more recently my INF 163 class at Bergen, I've discussed how having an item go for 99 cents is not a good thing for eBay, in my opinion. It would be better for them to let people set a starting price and give them a free listing fee, because they would make more money off a final value fee. For example, if I list an item for $1.00 and it sells for $1.00 cents, eBay would get about 19 cents (10 cents to list the item and 9 cents for a final value fee). I might list an item so cheaply to avoid paying a large listing fee, which I am responsible for even if the item doesn't sell. Many sellers avoid risk, so they start items cheap in case the item doesn't sell, minimizing cost for listing fees.

My personal opinion was that if eBay cut out listing fees and simply raised final value fees, they would reap two benefits:
  1. Sellers would list items for higher prices, therefore leading to higher final value fees.
  2. Sellers would be more likely to sell items that might not sell, due to reduced risk of wasted fees.
eBay has seemingly decided to go with this, and will now allow sellers to sell 50 items a month with no listing fee, regardless of starting value. In addition, these auctions will be eligible for a free "Buy It Now", which allows an anxious buyer to purchase an item for a set price and preempt the auction.

Link to new fee information

Listing upgrade fees still exist, as do final value fees.

Of course, there are always catches. First of all, eBay will no longer just be taking a percentage of the final sale. They are also taking a percentage of the shipping cost. There still seem to be some workarounds, but eBay has done this because a seller could list a $200 item for $0.01 with $199.99 shipping and pay no fees on an item (and sellers did try to exploit this).

It seems like eBay's idea here is to keep small sellers around, while motivating medium sellers to move to eBay stores. The eBay stores are a system which has monthly subscription fees ranging from $15.95 to $299.95.

The loser in all this is the buyer who is looking for bargains, because in my opinion, they are going to be harder to find.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

My Bookshelf

I am in the process of doing some updates to my place of residence. As part of it, I ended up cleaning out my bookcase and reminiscing about some of the books I found there. It seemed like a cool idea to mention what's on my bookcase and why.

Google Hacks (2005): This book was a pretty cool book for the time, teaching you how to use many of the Google services more efficiently. This book is how I learned about some of the special Google commands (as basic as using the title command or as in depth as using commands like inurl). It also gave a bunch of Perl scripts you could use to do all sorts of cool stuff, effectively combining a Perl script and Google to give you the power to automatically perform and parse searches. This book doesn't seem to have continued past the third edition (I have the second), but it is a cool read, especially for those of you with knowledge of programming.

Fire in the Valley (2000): This book details the history of the personal computer, going back to the days when people ordered the parts and put them together themselves. The central part of the book details the battle between Apple and Microsoft, made more famous by the movie Pirates of Silicon Valley. I found it fascinating, though a little dry at times.

The Art of Intrusion (2005) / The Art of Deception (2003): Two books by Kevin Mitnick detailing some hacking and social engineering topics. It is fascinating how social engineers can manipulate a person to the point where you are thanking them as they steal your information. These books taught me about things like SQL injection attacks (which we just talked about in my 163 course - see page 175 of the Art of Intrusion). I asked the librarians at both PCCC and BCC to get these books to have on hand, they are definitely worth checking out.

Cryptonomicon (2002): This is a tough read, but it's an excellent fictional novel. It has two main storylines. The first has to deal with a group of people in World War II who have broken the German's secret code (Enigma). This was early cryptography, and it was interesting to see the characters intercept messages but not actually warn troops sometimes, because they also did not want the Germans to know they had broken the code. The second storyline has to do with a group of more contemporary individuals trying to create a secure digital cash system, using cryptographic methods.

And, just to show I have more than computer books on the shelf...

The Butterfly Revolution (1961): I actually had to read this for a freshman class in high school, and my teacher gave me one of the books since I liked it so much. It has to do with a socially awkward teenager who goes to a summer camp, where he ends up involved in a takeover of the camp. Chaos ensues. Picture "Lord of the Flies" in a summer camp.

The Machine (2009): A book about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds. Even as a child, I read a lot of books about baseball. I remember in high school having to write a persuasive essay, and I wrote one arguing that Pete Rose (featured in this book) was innocent of gambling charges. Of course, he later admitted this so I was wrong, but as a fan, I guess I was blinded. So, the book involved one of my favorite players, and had the extra bonus of being authored by my favorite sports blogger, Joe Posnanski. I've been reading his stuff for years, and it was cool to see him go from a small writer for a Kansas City newspaper to someone who writes for Sports Illustrated. Behold, the power of the Internet!

The New New Thing (2000) / Moneyball (2004) / The Blind Side (2008): All these books are written by Michael Lewis. I was first introduced to him through the first book listed, which was about Dr. Jim Clark, founder of Netscape and Silicon Graphics, and how it was fascinating for him to take chances on new technologies and stay at the forefront (and find the new "new thing"). The book detailed a company called Healtheon, which later merged with WebMD. The Blind Side and Moneyball were both excellent sports books which had movies made from them.

The Closing of the American Mind (1988): This book was recommended to me a few years ago by a colleague from PCCC, Dr. Ida Greidanus. The author feels as if modern colleges and universities are failing students, and that America is in a crisis regarding higher education. I think this book made some excellent points which got me thinking about my teaching in a different way.

The Dark Half (1989): The first Stephen King book I ever read.

There are many more books on the bookcase, but I think that's a good enough sample for today!

Saturday, April 02, 2011


Spyware is a topic I don't feel like many of my students really see the risk in. I figured I would put up some information about it since I am going to be talking about it in class soon.

Not THAT type of spyware (Image from

Spyware isn't the same thing as a virus, and this was a problem at first. Programs started appearing that would monitor what a user was doing and possibly transmit the results elsewhere, and antivirus software programs did not block them, because were not a traditional virus (especially in that they did not replicate/copy themselves to another machine).

Some examples are keyloggers, advertising software ("adware"), and tracking cookies,

Keyloggers keep track of the keystrokes entered on a computer. They can be either hardware or software based. A hardware based keylogger would simply plug in between the keyboard and the system unit. Since most people don't regularly examine their computers, this is a good way to spy on someone. It is generally a little more difficult to detect since the operating system may not even detect it, but it has the drawback that you need physical access to the machine. Software keyloggers are a little safer, but also more likely to be caught by anti-spyware tools. Some of them can record the keys you hit and even email or upload the log file to someone.

Adware keeps track of a user's browsing habits and pops up ads. The adware tends to be a little more aggressive than your standard pop-up ads. Certain adware will attempt to scare you in to buying things like antivirus software. The reason this can be more malicious and dangerous is because once it is installed on your machine, it has more permission to do things (like pop up windows or change system settings) than a regular Web site does.

Tracking cookies also present a threat, though they are less scary than the other things mentioned. These keep track of your viewing habits and store information on your computer. These may be used to, say, display more ads about cars and less about baby clothes if you often click on car ads and never click on baby clothing ads.

The main thing that distinguishes tracking cookies and adware is the way they are used. Adware is usually installed versus the tracking cookies just being left by a Web site.

Either way, you should have some sort of anti-spyware protection on the computer. Most antivirus tools come with some sort of anti-spyware at this point, though if you are looking for extra protection, tools such as Lavasoft Ad-Aware and Spybot Search and Destroy do have free versions.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Adventures in Laptop Repair

My friend had an old laptop he brought to me today. It was pretty old. It has 64 MB of RAM, a 233 Mhz processor, a 4 GB hard drive, a dead battery...a real winner! In addition, whoever set it up installed Windows XP on it, so it takes FOREVER to start up.

He asked me if I could put it in Spanish so he could send it to his niece in Puerto Rico.

I decided to take a look and see what I could do. After all, it keeps my tech skills fresh!

As I have never done a Spanish install before, I first started by going to the Windows control panel. I took a look around, and went in to the language settings. Ah ha, I thought, this should fix it. I switched everything to Spanish, restarted the machine, and waited for it to work.

Sadly, this did not work. The Windows XP system files were installed in Spanish, and this did not even change the Start Menu to Spanish. It made sense when I thought about it. All the programs were already installed in English. A little Internet research showed that in order to do what we wanted, I would need a special installation of Windows with a new license key. License keys are generally tied to a specific version of Windows, so even if I got the Spanish version, I doubted the existing license key would work.

I was also sure that my friend did not want to pay for a new XP license for this machine.

At this point, I had a few options. I could have considered pirating the key, but my personal ethics ruled this out. Even if they didn't, the risk of downloading stuff from torrents/file sharing networks (0-day viruses, getting caught) would deter me.

Besides, when I thought about what my friend wanted for his niece, it was a computer that allowed her to do Internet research and type papers. At this point I decided to investigate Linux. I figured there should be a Spanish distribution of Linux, and it would certainly run better than Windows on this machine.

I am familiar with Ubuntu Linux, but it did not look like there was a complete version, so I did some searching and found Asturix, a Spanish Linux distribution based on Ubuntu. I downloaded the CD image and burned it on to a CD.

I brought my new CD back to the old laptop, and tried to open the CD-ROM drive. No response. Luckily, I know about the trick to open a stuck CD-ROM drive with a paperclip (that's why that tiny little hole is on the front of the drive!).

I opened the drive, inserted the CD, and started the machine. I walked away and came back, and it booted directly in to Windows. I restarted, and went in to the BIOS (the computer's basic input/output system). It was correctly set up to try the CD-ROM drive before it booted off the hard drive.

I restarted again, and paid attention this time. When the computer restarted, the CD-ROM drive made a very odd sound and then stopped spinning, and then the computer booted in to Windows. To verify, I went to My Computer, and the CD-ROM drive wasn't even listed, which means it was malfunctioning.

Normally at this point, I would consider creating a USB boot drive, but this machine was so old, the BIOS did not support it.

At this point, I considered partitioning the hard drive, but it just wasn't worth the effort for me.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fall 2011 - What I'm Teaching

I've got my tentative Fall schedule set up. I figured I would pass it along.

At PCCC - Passaic Campus
CIS-101-P02 Computer Concepts and Applications
Monday, Wednesday 8:55AM - 10:10AM

CIS-101-P01 Computer Concepts and Applications
Monday, Wednesday 10:20AM - 11:35AM

At PCCC - Paterson Campus
CIS-152-ME1 Internet/E-Commerce Technologies
Thursday 7:05 PM - 9:35 PM

CIS-170-M01 Website Design and Tools
Tuesday, Thursday 11:45 AM - 1:00 PM

CIS-290-M01 Database Fundamentals
Tuesday, Thursday 10:20AM - 11:35AM

At Bergen CC - Paramus Campus
INF-163-001 Internet Concepts and Applications
Monday, Wednesday 3:55 PM - 5:50 PM

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The battle for online sales tax

Funny, we were just discussing this in one of my classes, and now it jumps in to the news.

There are a number of ways to make money online. Advertising is an obvious one, along with having a Web catalog. There are always sites that do on-demand publishing like CafePress where someone can design shirts and link to their store there, and CafePress handles the printing and shipping.

One of the other ways has traditionally been affiliate marketing. This is the type of thing where I can link to someone else's site, and they give me a percentage of any sales generated by you clicking on the link. Many companies, such as Overstock and Amazon have these types of programs.

For example, I have one that I don't push through Amazon Associates here. That link takes you to Amazon, but if you bought something, Amazon would give me a small percentage of it. This is a great program, with very little risk to either side. Amazon makes money, so do I, and my users may buy something they were going to buy anyway through the link.

However, this has also been at the center of a big war. This is not a new war. However, online retailers do not need to charge sales tax to residents of a state in which they do not have a physical presence. So, take NewEgg. They are located in California, so they are required to collect sales tax for anything sold to California residents. However, they do not have a physical location in Alaska, so residents of Alaska do not have to pay sales tax on NewEgg purchases. Of course, companies like WalMart and Best Buy have been fighting this for years, because they feel like it puts them at a disadvantage. State governments don't like this either, but a Supreme Court decision (Quill v. North Dakota) from 1992 said companies without physical locations in a state do not have to charge state sales tax (this ruling was for mail order catalogs).

With many states in dire financial situations, this has become even more of an issue. Some states have made the argument that if a site has affiliates in a state, they now have a physical location in that state. Since I live in New Jersey, this would mean Amazon now has a physical location in New Jersey and must charge sales tax.

To me, this is a very loose interpretation of the law, but a number of states have passed laws to require any companies with affiliates in their state to collect sales tax. Amazon's response has been to just end the program in the states that pass this type of legislation. Amazon terminated the program in Rhode Island, North Carolina, and Colorado, so anyone who lives in those states can not be affiliates. Amazon has been doing battle with New York over this issue, and (to summarize the legal blah blah blah) the state basically now has to prove that having an affiliate in a state is really the same as having a sales representative in a state.

This is now even more newsworthy because Minnesota has a bill in the Senate that would try to collect Internet sales tax. The article linked also states that Minnesota made $20 million in income tax from Amazon Associates, so they are on the brink of losing the program.

In addition, the governor of Illinois today signed into law a bill that did the same thing as other states, and Amazon predictably cut ties with affiliates in those states. I am not sure if the Illinois government really expected anything different, but now Amazon Associates is no longer available in Illinois. Walmart, as a company that already charges sales tax to everyone, is pushing their affiliates program, since this is the only option some people have.

If the government really wants to do this right, maybe the original law needs to be revisited, because it has become a big staring contest.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

No, your operating isn't perfect either

When I was in college, I gave up on Microsoft's operating systems (I got tired of Windows freezing on me) and ran a distribution of Linux called Debian for a few years. For my needs, it worked well, probably even better than a Windows system did. I did a lot of programming, and the Linux operating system was very similar to the Unix (Solaris) operating system that our assignments ran on.

When I teach introductory classes, I have students who have Macintosh computers at home or people running Linux. When we come to computer security, I will generally mention the idea of antiviruses. I generally will have some student say "I don't need one because I am not running Windows". Sometimes, I even get "you can't get a virus on a Mac (or Linux) system".

This is factually incorrect. In security, there are no absolutes. There are viruses, malware, and other programs which end up out there for both operating systems. This doesn't mean the Macintosh and Linux operating systems aren't inherently safer, however.

If I am a hacker, I have to determine my audience (much like a research paper). Who am I hacking? The answer is probably something like "new computer users". Most new computer users are not running Linux, and therefore, if you are writing an exploit, you want to target non-Linux users. Similarly, if you are writing an exploit through the Web, you want to target your biggest audience, and that would be Windows operating system users running the default browser (Internet Explorer). Of course there are other reasons you might target the Windows/IE combination (such as Active-X controls).

The reason this is on my mind...out at the Pwn2Own hacker challenge, some folks from a French penetration testing company hacked a fully patched Mac. They did it using an exploit in the Safari browser.

Link to story

Teams will also compete to create more exploits for a number of different browser/OS/plug-in today and tomorrow.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Most Popular Pirated Movies 2010

I was wondering what the popular 2010 searches were, though not on the Google search engine. I was wondering what people were searching for on the torrents. This follows up to my post about keywords people were using to find me.

So, I did manage to find a site that was referenced by Gizmodo, who I trust. The site TorrentFreak had a list of the top ten pirated movies of 2010.

The list is linked below, but I am not surprised that the most popular movie was Avatar. However, I was surprised that the movie Kick-Ass was second, though it was a low-grossing film. While Avatar made almost $2.8 billion, Kick-Ass brought in around $100 million. It's the second lowest grossing movie on the top ten list.

I was also surprised that Iron Man 2 was not higher up the list (it came in at number 5, after Shutter Island).

The sheer number of downloads (16.5 million of Avatar alone) makes it apparent why movie companies are trying to crack down. Then again, Avatar did make almost $2.8 billion dollars, so it is pretty doubtful the Internet cut in to the profits THAT much.

Kick-Ass and the Hurt Locker, on the other hand...maybe.

TorrentFreak's Top 10 downloaded movies of 2010

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Stalking? There's an app for that.

A large part of Facebook's appeal is the ability to add apps to your account. Games (such as Farmville or Vampire Wars), social apps (like Yelp or horoscope apps), self improvement apps (dieting apps, investing tips) and many more can be found on the site, many of which are free.

There are times where Facebook will determine that certain apps violate their terms. For example, in early 2009, Burger King created an app that, if you dumped 10 friends, would give you a free Whopper. Really. Facebook's rationale was that apps are not allowed to tell people if you've dumped them as friends, and this app did.

Facebook just pulled the plug on an app that many contended was a stalking app. Breakup Notifier was an app released recently. The whole purpose of the app was to let you know if someone's Facebook relationship status changed. For example, if someone was listed "in a relationship" and changed their status to "single", you would be alerted.

Many people view this as a stalking app, but in my opinion, if someone puts this information out there publicly, there really isn't anything wrong with it. I could just as easily bookmark a profile and revisit it to see if someone changed their profile status, and I would also be able to see it through my News Feed. This app would just monitor it for you and send you a response via e-mail when that status changed, providing you with real time information.

Facebook has apparently permanently disabled the app, citing some reason or another. Was it the 3.6 million users it amassed in a week (and the strain it added to their servers), was it complaints, or was it something else? I would guess complaints. I am assuming that the same people who post their relationship status publicly are the same people who wrote to Facebook to complain.

Undeterred, the creator of the Breakup Notifier has created another app, Crush Notifier. This works very much like speed dating. Let's say Sally has a crush on Tim. She would mark that she has a crush on him, using this app. Tim would not receive notification of Sally's crush, so Sally does not risk rejection or awkwardness. However, if Tim marks through the app he has a crush on Sally, they would both receive e-mail notifications that they like each other. Crush Notifier even has a business model, where you get two uses for free, and would need to use Facebook credits to receive any further e-mails.

Amazing how social media continues to change society, huh? Well, as Ricky Bobby said, "Does that blow your mind? That just happened!"

Saturday, February 19, 2011

I am the number 6 Google result for "cat-proof software"

Statcounter (the site I mentioned which showed what browsers people were using to visit my site) provides a lot of cool features. If I had my own Web server, I could get this same information by perusing my Web server logs, but since I am running a site through Google's Blogger service, I don't have access to those.

Statcounter logs all sorts of information, for example, computer IP address, operating system, browser information, screen resolution, and more. One of the other things that is cool is that it can tell you how people found your Web site, assuming they didn't just type it in to their address bar.

For example, if you Google:
Professor Cameron blog

I am the first result for this. This makes sense. If you were to then click on that Google link, I would be able to see that someone Googled that and found me using those search terms. I can also see which search engines people used to find me. Of my recent visitors, 55 found me using Google, 7 using Bing, 4 using Yahoo!, and 1 using Ask. (Note: Statcounter only logs the most recent 500 visits for free users, and many of them didn't find me using a search engine, hence the small numbers).

I sometimes will pop on the system and see how people for finding me, and there are always some interesting results.

For example, I have a number of searches I would expect. The following searches led people to me (again, some Google, some not):
interesting computer stuff (name of the blog, that makes sense)
professor cameron (makes sense, that's me)
fun stuff with professor cameron (I assume someone just forgot the name of my blog here)
eric cameron pccc us (that's me!)

In addition, there are searches that turned up specific blog posts of mine. I have a number of searches related to computer hardware disposal (due to a recent post), PCCC Panther Alert (something I've discussed a few times - PCCC's emergency alert system), Zune disaster (an older post), an assortment of things related to Microsoft Office hotkeys, and other such searches. As a matter of fact, I am the number 6 result on Google for cat proofing computer due to a post from last year.

Then, there are the bizarre ones. These serve to show me that search engines, though amazing, still have a ways to go. Here are some of the bizarre searches that have led people to my site:
  • simple one touch notification pagers from chef to servers 163-001
  • i get taken advantage of a lot
  • Bergen Community College, "flight simulator"
  • Professor Cameron porn
  • wife playing world of warcraft when supposed to take children +subpoena
Some of those are bizarre! I wonder what was going on in that last search...

Anyway, you can see searches like Professor Cameron porn would lead you to this site because somewhere in a page is each of those words. I posted about pornography a few times, and of course Professor Cameron is on every page, so yeah, that works.

I am pretty sure whoever was searching for that was disappointed when they found my blog.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Web browser usage

Sites like Statcounter can track happenings on your Web site. For example, I can tell you of my last 500 visitors, 49% used Firefox, 27% used Internet Explorer, 6% used Google Chrome, 2% used Safari, 0.4% used Nutch, and 0.2% (one user) used Konqueror.

We see a lot of statistics regarding Web browser usage. It does vary by region. Firefox and Chrome seem to be more popular in Europe. According to Statowl, the latest numbers for the US, around 60% of users are running Internet Explorer, and only 20% running Firefox. World numbers are somewhere around 47% for Internet Explorer and 31% for Firefox, according to Statcounter.

None of these will be 100% accurate, but they do paint a picture for us. Why are my users more likely to use Firefox than the average world user? I would assume that, as I maintain a technology-related blog, my users are more likely than the average user to use a browser like Firefox.

If I were doing Web design and I had these numbers, I would need to make sure the browsers my users use were the browsers I was testing my site in. Though it really should not happen, there are times a page looks different in Internet Explorer and Firefox (for example).

It is interesting for me, as someone who is not running a for profit site, to look at these statistics. For someone who IS running a for-profit site, this information can be critical.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Spy vs. Spy

A few years back, I attended a workshop hosted by NJ Infragard. It's a group that puts on workshops related to security, specifically computer security.

(Amusingly enough, every time I mention Infragard, I get an email from someone telling me how "bad" they are. I also get a comment every time I post anything remotely related to Web design, from someone who hates a stock photo company called Getty Images. Always interesting to see what brings out the commenters and emailers!)

Anyway, that said, one meeting had the key speaker being Kevin Murray, of Murray Associates. His company is one that is part of an industry I didn't even realize exists. His company will come in and sweep your company for wiretaps, listening devices, and the like. It was quite educational for me. He told some crazy stories about how far people go to spy, in politics, and in private industries like pharmaceuticals.

Anyway, the company maintains a blog with tons of news involving espionage, privacy, and security. This site is definitely one I check out from time to time. I enjoy computer security, but I am not actively involved in it on a day-to-day basis. Reading the perspective of someone who is out there in the field is entertaining and educational for me.

Link to Kevin's Security Scrapbook

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Happy Birthday Facebook!

So Facebook turned 7 yesterday...and to celebrate, it seems to have developed a problem. For many users, the site is down, and the Internet seems all a-buzz over it. Rumors of the site shutting down start flying and people get crazy.

This is the longest outage I can remember (around 12 hours). I can imagine there are many people who are lost right now...or angry they can't play Farmville or Mafia Wars...or can't communicate with friends because it seems like no one keeps track of people's email addresses anymore.

This does seem to be an issue with certain people's accounts. My professor one works fine, but most of my friends can't get in, and I can't get in to my personal account.

I am sure heads will roll at Facebook after such a long outage.