Category: Current Affairs

Google launches people-finder for Japan quake

Given the shocking events unfolding in Japan today, it’s understandable that many will be looking to check up on friends and family located in that country.

Telephone lines and cellphone service has been spotty, yet internet access remains relatively stable which makes it one of the best ways to get information in and out of Japan as they deal with the crisis at hand.

Google has once again provided a set of tools that leverages this infrastructure.

The first is a crisis response centre page that acts as a clearing house of information related to the developing sitiation.

http://www.google.com/crisisresponse/japanquake2011.html

The second is a people-finder tool.

http://japan.person-finder.appspot.com/

Something to keep in mind: The tool is only as good as the data people submit – in other words, Google has no direct control over the quantity or quality of the information. They are merely providing the tool for people to use as they see fit. At the time of this post, the tool had registered 7,200 entries.

On a related note, if you own an Apple i-device, there is a free English-language app from NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, that provides live coverage  of the situation.

And if you are trying to check on Canadians located in Japan, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs has two phone numbers you can call: 613-943-1055, or toll-free within Canada at 1-800-387-3124

If you know of any other web based tools or sites that can help during this severe crisis, please post in the comments below.

[Sources: Canoe, GigaOm]

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Has Apple committed a sin against humanity?

copyright Getty ImagesApple and several other major consumer electronics companies get their gear manufactured for them under contract in China by FoxConn. FoxConn is a massive organization that employs hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers and has been at the centre of several controversies in the past including several scandalous and high-profile suicides.

While some news outlets and blogs have questioned the responsibility of FoxConn clients like Apple for these sad incidents, the general attitude seems to be that what happens in China is the responsibilty of the Chinese government, end of discussion. Or is it?

Enter Mike Daisey, a gonzo journalist and self-professed Apple fanboy who finds relaxation in the act of dismantling his MacBook Pro to perform a deep clean of its innards. Recently Daisey was interviewed by TechCrunch in a series of video segments to find out why he is now in the process of rethinking and possibly recanting his previous love for Apple and its products.

As you’ll hear in the video, Daisey visited the city of Shenzen in China and spoke with FoxConn employees outside the factory. Their stories raise serious questions.

Now I don’t for a moment think that we should listen exclusively to one man’s tale of despair and tragedy, especially when he uses loaded terms like “thugs” to describe the Chinese government (if they are thugs then they aren’t alone) or slippery-slope arguments that end in slave-labour or worse. But despite the hyperbole, Daisey gives us food for thought and even if we all simply take a moment to consider the full price of that gadget we’re about to buy in terms greater than dollars and cents, his comments will have been worthwhile.

Take a look and judge for yourself.

[via: TechCrunch]

We've seen the future at CES: it's wireless power

Fulton Innovation showed how cereal boxes printed with conductive ink can light up when placed on a shelf equipped with their wireless power technology

Fulton Innovation showed how cereal boxes printed with conductive ink can light up when placed on a shelf equipped with their wireless power technology. Click for larger image.

This soup package contains a heating coil and circuitry that lets you heat the liquid without any external heat source

This soup package contains a heating coil and circuitry that lets you heat the liquid without any external heat source. Click for larger image.

Fulton Innovation isn’t exactly a household name, but if their wireless power technology takes off, it could end up powering everything from your car to your kettle. That’s because they’ve demonstrated how induction charging (the method used by Duracell, PowerMat, and others to recharge cellphones and iPods) can be used to do way more than just recharge your phone. In the video below, they show how a kitchen counter equipped with their “eCoupled” inducers can boil kettles, fry eggs, run food processors and even heat up soup inside the container faster and more efficiently that with a microwave.

Fulton demonstrates how they can charge a Tesla Roadster from a distance of four inches - using the blue charging pad beneath the car's front end

Fulton demonstrates how they can charge a Tesla Roadster from a distance of four inches.

In another section of their CES booth, Fulton Innovation was also showing how they can run power wirelessly over short distances. They had a Tesla Roadster equipped with their eCoupled technology, which when it was positioned over a charging pad located on the ground, could begin recharging even though the car and the pad were separated by 4 inches of space. No word yet on when we’ll see this technology enter our homes (and garages). For now, it’s just a tantalizing vision of the future.

You may want to use headphones when listening to this video – in the second half we had to switch to the camera’s built-in microphone because our wireless mics were picking up a ton of interference from the wireless charging stations!

Why I don’t think internet filters should be mandatory at schools and libraries

kid-computer-libraryYou can view the bill here.

Alright, before you hit the comment link and start saying that I want kids exposed to porn, let me state for the record: If there was a fool-proof and cost-effective way to keep kids from viewing explicit adult material, without blocking any non-adult material, I would be supportive of it; I would prefer that my kids not look at porn.

But that’s the problem with filtering mechanisms: They aren’t perfect. Some would argue that they are in fact deeply flawed.

The reason they don’t work is because of the incredibly difficult task of determining what should and should not be filtered. Let’s take a look at the wording of Bill 128 202 which is calling for the filtering. Section 321 states:

“sexually explicit material” means material of which a principal feature or characteristic is the nudity or partial nudity of any person and that is designed to appeal to erotic or sexual appetites or inclinations.

Interpreting this definition accurately means not only looking at how much, or what kind of nudity appears, but also its context. A woman wearing a bikini could merely be an online catalogue showing a bikini for sale, or, if the woman is posed in a very suggestive manner it could be part of an ad for porn site. Being able to understand the context of an image is critical.

Even if you believe that a person or group of people could make this judgement call for the entire multitude of images that are available online, filters don’t work that way. They rely on programming. Sometimes the programming blocks a whole site, say http://www.playboy.com. That’s an easy one. But they often use algorithms or other means to block the offensive content.

Even Google, the company with arguably the most depth of experience when it comes to understanding the content of the web and how to organize it, can’t block all explicit material. When I turned their SafeSearch option on and set it to “Use strict filtering (Filter both explicit text and explicit images) ”, and then did a search for “breasts”, the second result was:

Breasts Video – Metacafe
She gets naked in this movie and shows her pretty breasts and body

Why do I get the feeling I’m about to see nudity or partial nudity of a person that is designed to appeal to my erotic or sexual appetites or inclinations?

So it’s pretty clear that these filters can’t block all of the material that they are designed to block. Some might say that at least something is better than nothing. And in general I would agree.  However it brings me to the other big problem with filters: what they block that isn’t sexually explicit.

Not long ago, the Australian government promised to implement a policy requiring all ISPs to install filters that would prevent anyone from accessing adult material, based on a blacklist of sites. Almost as soon as the system was conceived, problems arose as their “[restricted] category includes not just child pornography but anti-abortion sites, fetish sites and sites containing pro-euthanasia material such as The Peaceful Pill Handbook by Dr Philip Nitschke.”

And that’s happening with the most basic of filtering systems – the blacklist scheme. Imagine the difficulties with other mechanisms.

I’m somewhat concerned with the costs that a mandatory filtering system would impose upon the already cash-strapped budgets of both the public school system and the public library system. In Windsor, the public library is struggling to find enough money to keep all 10 of their libraries open and have enough copies of books to meet demand. I doubt that paying for internet filtering is something they want to squeeze into their budget.

In public libraries, the fear is that kids will be exposed to this material if an adult is looking at it on a computer and the kids happen to walk by. I have a solution: Why not relocate the library computers to a more private area where only the person using the PC can see the contents of the screen. This would be a good idea regardless of the content. I’m sure that a teen looking up information on birth control or perhaps STI’s would want a little privacy. This has to be less expensive than buying filtering software and installing it on all the PCs, and then keeping that software up to date.

I’m also not convinced that there is enough evidence to suggest that my kids are going to be exposed to questionable material – unless they go looking for it – at either their school or their local library.

This brings us to Premier McGuinty’s thoughts on the subject. He’s not ready to back the proposed bill. He suggests that responsibility for a child’s online activities rests primarily with the parents.  I tend to agree. The best way to prevent your kids from viewing illicit material is to talk to them about what is and is not appropriate, much like you would for any other behaviour. If the message sticks, you shouldn’t have to worry about whether your school’s filters are adequately protecting your kids – your kids will avoid the material altogether.

If the message doesn’t resonate with them, then I have some bad news: even the filters can’t stop a determined youngster from finding what they’re looking for and then sharing it with their chums. 

 For a different take on this issue, check out Rhonda’s pro-filtering post.