Thursday, September 11, 2008

Frauds Galore

Social networking may have brought many good things to people. Many long lost friends have been reunited, many new friends have met and many romance ending marriages have formed.

But social networking sites have become a rendezvous not just of friendly people but of frauds as well. Worse, the target of these evil people lurking amidst what is supposed to be a place of smiles is to steal identities and use these to trick and steal from other people!

Look at social networking websites like Friendster, Bebo, Facebook and MySpace and you will easily see many people displaying their profiles publicly.

I read somewhere that in the United Kingdom alone, 80,000 people have been victimized by identity stealing last year and the toll has amounted to more than 1 billion British Pounds!

These frauds are simply taking of advantage of the mathematics field of probability and statistics. There are millions of internet users and each user may have on average about 5 accounts on different social networking sites. They can easily guess username and passwords by trying to deduce from publicly shown information such as birthdays, place of birth, pet's name, mother's names, affiliations, etc. Sounds familiar? – Yes, it does sound familiar because you commonly encounter this during sign up!

Next time, you try to limit the information you send online. If the registration does not require fields on it, do not fill it up. Do not join online surveys of websites you are not familiar with.

On friendster, my most visited among social networking site, I have given miminal information and, take note, in the account settings, I placed there that only my first degree friends can see my profile. This is very important.

On a different note, my brother asked me to pay for an online phone service using my credit card. When I clicked their about us section, there was no mention of company name. When I clicked the contact us section, there was no physical address. The only phone address they have is a toll free hotline to a call center and the agent said they could not disclose the company name as a protocol. Huh? And to think that my brother, who is somewhere in the middle east, said the company agent who referred the site him is an old friend. And before you ask, yes, I was talking to my real brother, identity verified and all.

Still on a different note, I still have been getting chain emails from my relatives despite my warning them that chain emails are "tools of the devil" spams. After several forwarding and circulations, these spammers can already collect thousands of email addresses for potential attacks.

There are thousands of reasons to be paranoid about on the internet. The keyword here is caution and moderation. And if is possible, do not stick to one password. Make several passwords which are difficult to memorize. Then record these difficult passwords the old fashion way: write them on paper until you memorize them from constant use. Just make sure that paper is secured in your hands! When you have memorized, burn the paper.

Free Certification from Brainbench

These days, getting into an information technology career requires very stiff competition. With today's software getting more and more complex and new languages and scripting technologies being developed, it can be very hard to gauge a professional and find the right employee.

And add to that is the breaking of global boundaries with the internet. There are already many schools advertising on their websites that they have the best IT curriculum.

The best way to get the right candidate under certain standards is through certifications. But then, certifications do not come cheap and many people especially those coming from the third countries can hardly afford and do not even own credit cards to pay for online certification.

Good thing there are online free certifications. In fact there are thousands of websites claiming to give free certifications but the problem is how credible and acknowledged these companies are.

I stumbled upon Brainbench I think around the year 2002. Well, actually my friend working in Japan recommended Brainbench but I totally forgot about it until I heard about it on television. I visited their website at and learned that the company was founded in 1998 and has served 5000 corporate and 6 million individual customers.

But of course, the skeptic that I always I am, I did believe because many things are possible on the internet. What if it was a hoax.

Last year, my friend landed on the IT job of his dreams in Florida and he said that his Brainbench certification was a big factor his being hired.

I revisited the site. Actually, not all certifications are given free. In fact, most of the important and most used technologies certifications come with a price but which are significantly lower than other credible and well known certification bodies.

I tried the trial. They were quite difficult and intimidating but seemed to be very credible. During the last few months, I had resolved to get certified on PHP which costs $49.95 and MySQL which costs another $49.95 but I haven’t had the time to really get my hand dirty because I was busy with other things.

But just yesterday, Brainbench send my an email (I subscribed for alerts of course) saying that they are offering more than 2 dozen exams at no cost. These include .NET Framework 2.0, Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition, Macromedia Director 8, HTML 4.0, RDBMS Concepts, Programming Concepts and many more. I am thinking of taking Java 2 but then I have to do more reviewing as I hadn’t done Java in many months already.

Oh, and Brainbench actually has a learning center where you pay to learn some technologies while you get the others for free.

For now, I should have followed the advice of my friend back then. He now heads an IT department and at the same time runs his own profitable website.

Well, I am very positive that in one of these days, I'm going to be certified on one of those technologies. I know that to some degree, I am confident of my skills being better than many people, but it still is a different to be certified. Especially if you get it from a reputable company for free!

Boosting Computer Performance with RAM

My desktop computer system at home is about 3 years old and I still keep if for sentimental value. Well, aside of course from the fact that it is still in the best shape and performance.

My only problem though is that the motherboard cannot already support newer and faster processors. Not that I want to change processor as mine is still perfectly working. But my point is that software is getting more complicated and my needs greater especially that I am getting into photography and multimedia and as any of you know, the file sizes of these stuff are just humungous.

My better judgment tells me that the best way to boost performance is to add more random access memory (RAM). Aside from the fact this really significantly boost up performance, even better than upgrading the processor, RAM chips are incredibly cheap. For 1 gigabyte of RAM chip, I bought one a few months ago for about 25 US dollars.

As a little backgrounder, the random access memory is the place where data and software currently in use by computer are placed. There is analogy I love and it goes like this. RAM is like a physical table where you have all sorts of work to do like worksheets, paintings and journal. If you have a small table, you cannot place these works all at once and you need to place the others on another place and keep swapping with whatever you want to work on.

In computers, if you have a small RAM capacity and you open many software, a swapping takes place between RAM and the hard disk storage. The problem with this is that it will take some time because the hard disk reads slower than RAM and this will negatively affect performance. Same is true with the computer technology as one will take extra time to swap between the table space and the other place where the other stuff are located.

I now have 2 gigabytes of RAM in my dear old laptop and I am thinking of adding more but the motherboard has reached its full capacity.

There is a good news I read on the web yesterday that says that flash memory (those that come in tiny keychain like thingies) can actually act as a supplemental RAM. In that article, it said that Microsoft through its new operating the Microsoft Vista, is capitalizing on developing flash drive to act as RAM. Wow, what great news. And flash drives nowadays could have up to 16 Gigabytes capacity and very cheap price!

How this works is that the computer moves regular accessed files which can no longer be accommodated in the RAM and store them into the USB flash drive.

I am particularly interested with this development because this can be very useful with my laptop. Laptops do not come cheap and they are hard to upgrade. I am sure that many of you laptop owners out there are as excited as I am.

Developing with Linux

For a time, Linux, which is a Unix-like operating system, was confined to the domains of the computer geeks and servers. In fact, the first Linux kernel was created by the geeky Finnish software engineer Linus Torvalds and development by the open source community around the planet kept springing up bringing hundreds of different "flavors" of Linux in the world today.

The beauty with Linux is that is totally free and one can enhance it because he can also get the source code very easily. This has, to some degree, threatened the leading commercial operating system in the market today – Windows.

In a survey of more than four hundred IT managers, programmers and developers, it was found out that Windows developers have declined in number by 12 percent from last year. This has caused Windows' 74 percent developers decrease to a bout 62 percent this year.

True, Windows is still in dominance but Linux popularity has consistently been eating up an increasing portion.

Many devices other than the tradition desktop and laptop computers like hand held personal digital assistants and cellular phones are switching to Linux to run their devices. Because Linux is free, this will significantly reduce the selling price of the devices and make them more accessible to the masses. Because Linux is open source, the operating system's source code can be modified to run efficiently on smaller electronic devices.

Linux development tools have also come a long way to sophistication. Techies know that in the distant computer world past, which is a few years ago, talking of development editors mean using vi or EMACS command line editors with interfaces similar to Windows command prompt of Notepad. But today's Linux development environments can rival those of Windows' graphical look and feel like its Visual Studio Suite.

In the home, more and more household users are switching to Linux to fit their budgets. This has become easier for them to use Linux because of the many desktop features that make computing similar to what they have been used to with Windows in the past.

Many applications have developed for Linux. Well, it is no surprise because of the thousands of collaborating programmers around the world lending hands and brains for Linux. It's answer to Microsoft's Office is OpenOffice. For internet applications, there Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin, aMule, Evolution and Azureus. For multimedia, the choices include MPlayer, Amarok, Totem, VLC, Xine, and XMMS. For graphics editing, one can have Blender, Inkscape, Scribus and Blender. These are all free software so who would not be enticed?

I think one of the big reasons why many developers are going to Linux because of the bright career prospects in the future. With the exponential rise in manufacturing of electronic devices, it will certainly mean big demands for Linux developers a few years from now. But among my IT friends and colleagues, the thought of being a Linux guy is synonymous to the word "cool". Call it hype, but I believe it to be so.

Customizing Your Firefox Browser With Add-ons

I just wiped my computer slate clean last week after more than 4 years since I installed the first operating system. My computer has two operating systems: Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux.

Since Windows does not ship with Firefox browser, a direct competitor of its own Microsoft Explorer browser, I had to download Firefox from to reinstall my all-time favorite browser.

I noticed that first add-on featured on their website was the Download Status Bad add-on. While I did not have any problem with the regular download feature of Firefox, I figured that it would be worth trying the add-on. This add-on lets me view the download progress at the foot of my browser instead of the progress being opened in a small separate window.

Being a geography fanatic ( I have blogged about Google Earth and NASA's Java application in the past), I immediately took notice of the Map+ 1.1.0 Add-on. This add-on allows me to view maps but unlike Google Earth, I can view maps within my browser. The installation is very easy, less 1 minute and everything is done but the configuration can be a little challenging. But the installation and configuration can be
viewed on video on YouTube at

Still on being my geography freak, I downloaded Forecastfox add-on which lets me, as the name suggest, view weather forecast from around the world through I like this add-on because it is not obtrusive and I can easy customize to my desired place for forecast.

I also downloaded Adblock Plus which I think is the coolest and easiest to use ad blocking code I have ever seen. Since I often travel to countries that have slow internet connection, these ads make the connection even slower as it takes time to download these ad graphics. With Adblock Plus, I can easily right click on an ad and choose "Adblock" from the context menu and the ad will never show and be downloaded again. It will just be replaced by a star. I can also subscribe for automatic filtering with Adblock Plus.

And then of course, there is my favorite Bookmarks. If anyone can see my bookmarks online, he can see there lots and lots of them. Installing Bookmarks creates two icons on my tools bar on top. One will take me to the website while the other lets me bookmark my pages automatically. This has been one of my most frequently used add-on (I had this before I reformatted my hard drive) because I go online a lot and maintain lots of websites and also keep on researching and studying online.

Most of these add-ons come in very small sizes not exceeding 1 MB. They install in one click and in about 1 minute. Although an installation requires a restart of the Firefox browser, there is actually no need to worry about closing any opened pages because Firefox has a really neat feature that restores previous sessions.

Be wary during you birthday and other important events

Sounds like a weird advice, don’t you think?

Well, last July 4, 2007 I received an email from my best friend in Boston and the email said I had an Independence Day greeting from America. When I opened the email, it said that I need to click the link and be taken to another website where I could view the greeting card. I could have been the biggest dork on earth had I clicked the linked: a combination of four set of numbers better known as IP address! Who are they fooling? – me the IT professional? An elementary student could immediately recognize the link to be an IP address, which was a very glaring indication that there was something fishy going on

The emails contain the following subjects and people should delete them immediately:

Happy Fourth of July
Independence Day Celebration
July 4th Fireworks Show
America the Beautiful
God Bless America
Your Nations Birthday

I tried looking for information about the Trojan on Google and learned that when one clicks on the link which, as I said, comes in the IP address format, one is taken to a zombie computer that hosts the JSecard-A Trojan downloader. A code which is called Mal/Dorf-C is then immediately downloaded and installed into to the victim's computer.

These shameless, malicious spammers, who I think are not even technology savvy and are just mediocre marketing people trying to take advantage of vulnerable people, have no qualms at all at tricking people by using important events up to international stature!

For those who may not be aware, Trojans are malicious codes that install somewhere in the back of the computer without the owner's knowledge. It is actually taken from the Greek Trojan Horse which was used by soldiers to win the battle in the guise of a giant wooden horse gift but actually contained soldiers.

A perfect example of how a Trojan works is the program called "waterfalls.scr". This program deceives people by making it appear as a beautiful waterfalls screensaver, which it actually does, but in the back, the program would open some computer ports so that hackers and other evil computer people can have access to the computer's resources. This would also open to cyber thieves the private information, including credit card numbers and even passwords, of the unsuspecting computer user.

As a safeguard, we should always use the latest anti virus and other protection software and regularly get updates. A firewall is also a very important tool for one who is on the internet. My firewall always prompts me for permission for any incoming or outgoing access to the internet so I know everything that passes through my computer.

The internet is a jungle of different kinds of beast. Millions have been lost to online thief. If one is not careful, he may lose not just computer hardware by being physically damaged by malicious codes but his bank savings as well. Worse, one may be penniless on his birthday!

Cross Learning: Biology and Information Technology

Who among us haven’t realized the existence and increasingly growing virtual world? These people must be living under a rock.

We have virtual communities where people are representing themselves as 3D images mimicking real people and their location even are virtual worlds that have supermarkets and roads and houses, etc.

Indeed, virtual worlds and universes are created, thanks to computers. Going down to microcosms, we have viruses and Trojans.

In the real world, top scientists have completed the mapping of the human DNA through the genome project. This has heightened the interest of many people to create artificial lives.

And there is David Harel from the Weizmann Institute in Israel who proposes to recreate living organism inside a computer. He wants to recreate a worm called Caenorhabditis elegans believing that this is the best example to work on being the best understood animal in the field of biology. His objective for the project is to be able to reveal how some stem cells, particularly the pluripotent, decide which specialty to take on and eventually make us understand some of the complex developments happening in nature.

And then again there is Stephen Emmott from the Microsoft Research who is thinking the other way around. Opposite to David Harel's computer trying to mimic a living organism, Emmott wants to make computers out of biological components.

Stephen Emmot and another thinker Stephen Muggleton of Imperial College, London are developing what they call an artificial scientist. This creation has been borne out of their thinking that people and other biological beings are forgetful and not very good crunching numbers compared to electronics but people and other creatures are better at reasoning. The artificial scientist would be able to do inductive logic and probabilistic reasoning. As such, these computers would really act like real scientists - they can design experiments, gather results and make theories and hypothesis. Much as I had imagined, I honestly have not come up with a picture of what an artificial scientists physically looks like. But the idea though is very enticing.

Many other researchers have taken the inner workings of biology into IT developments. Luca Cardelli who is also from Microsoft Research compares biological cells and computers and tries to discover how molecular biology wetware works in analogy to hardware or software.

Other scientists, both from Biology and Information Technology think of the spread of diseases like AIDS and malaria in terms of information systems. These are complex insights involving artificial intelligence but I think developments like these should be something people from all walks of life should support.

As information technology professionals are trying to learn more and more from how nature works through biology, we – humans, plants and animals – are supposed to be beneficiaries of these efforts. Let us just hope that all scientific projects will be geared towards increasing opportunities for work instead of increasing war weapons; finding better medical solutions instead of developing biological warfares; and healing this ailing planet instead of extracting more resources indiscriminately.

Spammers getting passed through encrypted email attachments

Who doesn’t hate spams? The answer is a resounding "Nobody!" These spasms invade our internet world like bacteria and viruses and no matter how much we try to disinfect or protect ourselves, the still get through.

Many email service providers have had effective solutions to blocking these spasms. One of the most effective and commonly used ways is to filter all income and outgoing emails. Email servers try to read the contents of all emails and they have their own algorithm to detect spasm. These machines can even know the attachments whether or not they contains spasms and other malicious codes like virus and Trojans. Once these emails are identified as spasm of malicious, the IP address of the sender is then blocked. But these can be easy to overcome because there are ways to changed IP addresses.

Now, filtering has been very effective. But the thing now though is that spammers use encrypted email attachments to encode their bad plans exploiting the fact that many spam systems cannot scan inside emails that are encrypted or password protected.

Email Systems, a filtering service provider, disclosed that in the past few weeks they have detected that a steady stream of spasms had been coming out from hosts which were compromised by bots. These spasms contained the compressed version of the Storm Trojan which had victimized many people in January when they inadvertently opened the password protected attachment.

The easiest to determine whether there are spasms and malicious codes in an attachment is to look at the file size and if is 77 kb, then there is a high chance of attack.

To be guarded against email spasms and other attack these days is simply not to open suspicious emails and delete them immediately, most especially if these emails come from strangers.

Also, be very careful with giving away your email address when signing up in some unreliable websites online. These could be website who will give away your email address and other information to spammers.

And this one: as much as possible, do not forward any chain emails. Many of these chain emails may sound to have good intentions like helping a sick girl or praying for world peace. But this is another strategy of spammers to gather as much email addresses as they can. Take note that many chain emails tell you to forward the email to all your friends and each of your friends will forward the email to each of their friends. That translates to exponential growth of email address the spammers can collect!

If there are any threatening of harassing email messages coming into your mailbox, report this immediately to your internet service provider. And for phishing, those emails trying to misrepresent a reputable company to draw money from people, immediately report any incident to the company being mispresented.
If all else come to worse, you can always file a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission. Dealing with spammers is always a cat-and-mouse game. But in the end, the cat usually gets the mouse.

Kids Friendly Windows Vista

A lot of what used to be high tech past time like the television and game-and-watch in the last few decades have now been taken by the internet. Parents used to worry about children spending too much time on the television because such an activity can greatly affect children's performance in schools.

The relative horror brought about by television on some parents pales in comparison to that brought about by the internet. While children spending too much time on the television can be easily monitored and taken immediate action, it can sometimes be a daunting task monitoring children's activities on the internet.

Good thing the new Windows Vista has incorporated some features into its operating system which can monitor children's activities and protect them from malicious attacks. The consumer launch of Windows Vista comes with parental controls that are very easy to use even with non technical parents.

Windows Vista can provide parents a list of websites which are being visited by their children so that they can review the list later and then take appropriate action. Windows Vista also has strengthened its partnerships with parental control websites like Contentwatch (, Pix Alert (, Safe Eyes ( and IMSafer (

Like in the previous versions of Windows, there are the web filtering or restriction options which can be set to either low, medium or high depending on the kinds of content allowed by the parents for their children. These restrictions encompass which files are allowed for downloads and streaming media.

Even the games for the children can be strictly regulated by the parents. Parents can specific what types of games are allowed and they can even set a certain block of time during the day that the children can use the computer for games. This is a good feature because according to studies, more and more children and youth are losing their social skills and flunking in their studies because of the great amount of time they stay ensconced in their rooms playing games.

I have yet to look up if Windows Vista has also an online monitoring program that sort of spies in a positive way on the activities of their children and parents can monitor the activities remotely through a web browser.

With so many reports of children being sexually abused online or getting themselves to pornographic materials or online thieves targeting the young vulnerable minds, these parental control features should be strictly implemented by parents.

With proper security features and monitoring, these children will be guided to grow up to be good and useful technology citizens in the future. And with technology coming natural to them when they grow up, they will surely be an asset to the community in the future.

Of course these parental controls on computer use should be coupled with real caring and love within the family. When there is real open communication and love, no amount of outside media bombardment can shake the moral fiber of the child.

Java Universe

I have always been a big fan of Google Earth. Like I had been blogging in the past, I noted that that I am aspiring to be a space tourist when I can afford it but for now that I can even hardly afford to have vacation in another country, I am sticking to Google Earth to give me a view of the world without moving my butt.

And then I came across World Wind which is an open source software developed by the National Aeronatics and Space Administration (NASA). This software is similar to Google Earth where one can zoom from satellite view into any spot on the planet.

Although Google Earth and World Wind are not really in competition as they have their unique features and they complement each other in some ways, what excites me about World Wind is that it is available as a Java applet which can be easily integrated into my website and other application I might develop. World Wind uses data from Shuttle Radar Topology Mission (SRTM) as well as Landsat satellite images to deliver good images and dramatic views. World Wind also has modules and components for viewing other planets in the universe and also the moon.

In Java, one can make outputs either as application of applet for web content delivery. Word Wind for application can be as simple as including several packages like the following as listed on the official website of Java.
gov.nasa.worldwind - The top-level world wind package.
gov.nasa.worldwind.awt - Classes specific to use with Abstract Window Toolkit
gov.nasa.worldwind.formats.gpx and gov.nasa.worldwind.formats.nmea -- Both are classes specific to GPS track formats.
gov.nasa.worldwind.geom - Geometry and math classes.
gov.nasa.worldwind.globes - Globes with earth, Mars, and so forth.
gov.nasa.worldwind.layers - Imagery and other data to display on globes.
gov.nasa.worldwind.layers.Earth - Layers specific to earth.

Embedding World Wind in webpages is even easier by using Java applet through the Java APIs for OpenGL applet launcher. A few lines of code, with no programming needed, will set a website complete with the online version of World Wind.

These are all welcome development. Already there are also many webpages employing GIS data and these may complement well with World Wind. World Wind is aggressively pursuing on integrating more data on stars and planets and moons as well as the weather and time series. Some efficient components which are on the way include animation player, layer manager and other drag and drop components. Also, World Wind will include support for RSS speed and API extensions for scripting.

For sure, websites powered by maps, graphs and images like these are useful from grade school research to top science projects to simple hobbyists. The world is indeed shrinking and we are more and more in control of this planet more than ever.

I hope these technologies will bring out rehabilitation of the resources that we have worked havoc upon the planet in the last few years when other technologies have consumed man. I am certainly positive that these will.

Speeding up internet access without spending a dime

I have always been a constant traveler. And in many of these travels, my trusted companion is my dear old Dell laptop.

By things are not always peachy with my laptop especially when it comes to accessing the internet in remote third world countries. Whether I am in an office network or a wi-fi hotspot coffee shop, I just usually plug in my laptop to the network of just activate my wireless connection. But the most of the time in Asia, I get slow connection even if the internet service provider is providing broadband connection.

The reason for this could have something to do with the DNS server. As a little backgrounder for those who are not familiar, DNS, which stands for domain name system, is responsible for translating domain names into IP address which computers and routers in the internet understand. For example, if one types, a DNS server translates the address in its IP address which is (try to ping

In most cases, the DNS server provided for by my internet service provider and slow and overloaded. Perhaps their IT infrastructure still needs upgrade to accommodate their many subscribers. So every time I would open a page, I would end up with slow response which I suspected is due to the slow response of the DNS server of my internet service provider.

My friend recommended using openDNS service and I wasted no time visiting the website at In less than a minute I was able to create an account with them. And another less than a minute, I was able to configure my internet connection to use the openDNS server.

Configuring was easy. Since I use Windows XP on my laptop, I went to the Windows control panel and then the network connections. I open the connection I used and clicked the TCP/IP properties. In the preferred and alternate DNS servers area I typed in the openDNS server IP address which are and respectively.

I have indeed noticed a significant speed in my internet activities. But more than an increase in speed, the best thing for me with openDNS is the safety of my internet activities. There is an anti-phishing feature with openDNS because phishing sites are automatically detected and the internet user informed. In fact, as a user, I can specify which domains I want to block by just adding the domain name or IP address. As stated in their website, all sites which are being blocked are also reviewed by humans.
I never thought that such procedure could created such a tremendous impact. The DNS I think is the single most overlooked aspect of many people's internet experience. In this case, one simple change in DNS configuration is being handled by openDNS site somewhere thousands of miles away. They brag about having a lot bigger cache and tougher infrastructure compared to others thus making their service more stable and dependable. I believe them.

Linux, Apache MySQL PHP installer - XAMPP

I am a web developer. And to be specific, I have been using php and mysql for quite some time after I moved from Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASP) simply because php and mysql are free and of course very stable.

But just recently, I had been part of a project that is not web based but this project uses php and mysql which are web based applications.

As any web developer knows, these trio – Apache, MySQL and Php require separate installations on the server machine. Now having been working for internet applications, I usually did not have to install these softwares because they are already in place in some remote place. All I would do would be to tweak the configurations to my specifications, upload the pages I made and then the project is done. Of course, I have to have the three softwares on my computer to test the pages before upload. What I'm saying is that is that I didn’t have to install all three every time there would be a new project.

Now, in this new project, every time there is a need to install the whole application, and many clients have already expressed interest in acquiring, one would have to separately install Apache, MySql and Php. And that is not to mention manually configure each of them. This is not only a tiring and cumbersome process but it can also be confusing to our technical support who go to the field. And since our organization is small and non-profit, we don’t have many IT staff. Our new staff can experience the steep learning curve for these three technologies- let alone the learning curve to the functions of the application itself.

We finally found our solution – XAMPP. The name is really an acronym for X (any of the four popular operating systems – Linux, Mac OS X, Windows and Solaris), Apache, MySQL, Php and Perl.

XAMPP bundles together the aforementioned technologies into one installer so that the user can easily install in one click. Our senior IT specialist customized the flash screens to include our software logo and also configured the settings for Apache, MySQL and Php. The past experience of individually installing the components and doing the process in almost an hour has been reduced to five minutes and very few clicks.

Next to being its easy to use and efficiency, the best thing about XAMPP is that it is totally free of charge and also free to copy under the GNU General Public License terms. Many non profit organizations have really benefited from free software.

Right now, our application runs on both Windows and Linux. The latest version for both Linux and Windows is XAMPP 1.6.2 which contains Apache HTTPD 2.2.4, MySQL 5.0.41 and PHP 5.2.2 among other useful applications like ProFTPD 1.3.0a, phpMyAdmin 2.10.1, Webalizer 2.01 and PEAR.

The official website of XAMPP can be found at and there are abundant resource which can be found.

Mapping the Poverty Landscape

In this modern era, many things can be done expeditiously with the help of information technology.

Even in poverty reduction where most of the work takes place at grass roots levels in remote communities, information technology has been intensively used. In our case, we have developed our own software to monitor poverty and track the progress of family, communities or individuals.

This system takes survey answers so that individual households can be determined how poor or not poor they are. These data, based on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) are then used to rank them and identify which are the poorest of the poor that deserve interventions.

To further enhance data for non-technical planner and decision makers, the software can present locations in map format. To do this, the software employs the use of ArcGIS.

We are using ArcGIS version 9.2 which, if I am not mistaken is the latest version. We are particularly heavily using ArcGIS's spatial analysis feature to analyze the different potential causes of poverty in an area. For instance, it becomes very easy for us to correlate a relatively dry land area to poverty due to harvest.

We also use ArcGIS to pinpoint the exact household locations of families. So, if there are groups or individuals wishing to extend help to impoverished families, the can simply look at the maps and look at the color codes of households. Those households colored red are the most impoverished.

We have not employed this feature yet but I read that in this version of ArcGIS, there is a feature that allows the user to zoom in and out on a place much like Google Earth. This can even make things easier because many policy makers especially in poorer countries are old and not technically inclined so this feature can be a visual aide.

Althoug ArcGIS has many predefined maps, most of these are on more familiar places notably in rich countries. But this has never been a great worry for us. We simple get our base maps from planning agencies in the province or community and with the help of ArcGIS's wizards, we can already customize the acquired maps for our software's use.

ArcGIS has many more available features and tools like metadata management and support for many kinds of data types, images and multimedia to for easy analysis of any given geographic location.

By the next year, with our GIS expert coming in from Europe, our organization is planning of setting up a web based poverty map. This will make it easy for many poverty reduction groups to pinpoint exact targets around the world, or whoever uses the software we developed.

And 2015 is very fast approaching. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals include reducing poverty around the world by 15% by the year 2015. And there can be no guessing at the target because time flies very fast. With the help of maps, interventions to poverty can be hit bulls eye!

Techies Get Physical

We sure do know that most techies, especially the geeky types, can spend more than 10 hours just sitting down and tinkering with computer and other gadgets.

And when techies take a break from writing those complex codes, how do they do it? The answer that easily comes to mind is – by playing computer games!

Somewhere in the Silicon Valley, there is a new high tech fitness gym that is targeted at teenage people. There are the regular cardio exercise gears as well as weights but living up to its location near the Google headquarters, the gym known as Overtime Fitness, also has equipment for the so-called “exergaming”. This new hype combines physical exercise and video games.

As an example, there is a controller transforming the ordinary Xbox games to a game involving full body movements because rather than pushing buttons, the player will have to exert pressure on a padded metal bar. Another system lets the player stand in front of a screen and wear motor sensors so that he can control the game on screen like moving in the real world.

These systems are not really that new although I think the gym is a new idea. I remember a few years back that the dance revos (dance dance revolution) are very popular in malls around the country. Remember those dance pads where the player tries to follow the dance steps on screen and hitting some points on the pad to determine the score?

In fact, according to a technology magazine online, exergaming’s origins can be traced back to 1989. This was when Nintendo came up accessories for their entertainment system – the Power Pad and the Power Glove. The Power Pad allowed players to play sports games like “World Class Track Meet” while the Power Glove simulated movements on screen.

Many other games that stretch the muscles followed. Launched in 2001 was MoCap Boxing where players, whose movements are detected using infra red, box against a software opponnent. Other exergames include sports like golf, tennis and baseball where players hit virtual balls within generating mess in their living rooms.

The innovations will surely help better the lives and fitness of people who can’t go out of their computer zones to tone their muscles. According to many health experts and fitness buffs, these exercise alternatives offer relief from computer-related stress. And there will be no need for hitting breakables with baseball bats.

But not all health professional agree that exergaming is the ultimate solution to getting good health.

An associate professor of kinesiology from the San Francisco State University, Susan Zieff, maintains that real work out movements cannot be substituted by limited movements in exergaming.

For sure, many exergaming will be out in the next few years that will lift the limitations of movements in today’s current software. There may even be fitness and calisthenics games with scoring schemes that can excite discriminating gamers. But one question will still remain, and this is “Is there a substitute for a real sunshine?”

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ajax Technology

When I got into the non-profit charity job, my brother and his British volunteer service organization (VSO) counterpart already developed a poverty database software for profiling software for the organization.

The software is web based front ended by Mozilla firefox which comes bundled with the installer. But the version at that time was quite difficult and confusing to use because when one tries to look up the profile of the thousands of communities, the browser will have to reload the whole interface and the waiting period was long.

With the new version, the developers integrated AJAX or Asynchronous Javascript and XML. AJAX may seem intimidating at the first sound but if one really tries to analyze hard, it is not really a new technology. Both javascript and XML have already been around for years.

The beauty with using AJAX is that the browser interface directly communicates with the server and what gets a round trip from client to server are only the small parts of the code. This translates into faster applications and more user friendliness.

For instance, our poverty database software has a tree view of all the communities. Before AJAX, when one clicks a community in the node, the whole thing seen on the browser will have to be reloaded and the returned interface can be different and thus confuse the users, who are mostly non IT people working for poverty reduction and charitable institutions. With the AJAX enabled version, only the request for a community profile is sent. In short, the whole browing experience is like working with a desktop application.

The key player in AJAX implemention is the XMLHttpRequest Object which is an API used to transfer data using HTTP. For sure many of you are have experienced using Google Suggest. This feature employs the XMLHttpRequest Object through Javascript sending the data to and from the server.

Other very familiar applications on the internet using the XMLHttpRequest Object Meebo, MapQuest, Google Map and Virtual Earth. With applications like these where data requests and responses are moving more frequently than in the case of “regular” and static websites, AJAX can help control bandwidth traffic and encourage developers to separate layout design from contents.

But AJAX is not without problems. One problem is that the browser’s “Back” function may give unexpected results because the pages do not register in the history engine. A related result is that pages can have difficulty in getting bookmarked.

But these limitations should not discourage one from using AJAX and enjoying its benefits. The important thing here is that all problems corresponding to AJAX have solutions which may take a longer process to do and may require a little more creativity and innovation. All technologies have pros and cons. And AJAX has more advantages than disadvantages.

As for search engine optimization, AJAX developers should be take extra effort in providing data that can be read by search engines because in general, search engines do not consider javascript code used in AJAX.

Web Applications as Office Assistants for Traveling People

While traveling to a remote country in Asia, I would frequently visit internet cafes because there are not enough wireless services in my cheap hotel and in coffee shops for my ever dependable laptop.

One thing I noticed is that many internet cafes have switched to using Open Office in a span of over a few months. I asked the café assistant and learned that raid by Microsoft has been frequent and many internet cafes have closed because they were caught using unlicensed Office Suites.

I do not have problem with Open Office even though I have been a Microsoft Office for many years until now. But I recently read at a website that there are web based alternative to office applications.

And then I wondered how I could have missed Google Docs ( Google Docs has stripped features of the Microsoft Word but I think what this application offers is already enough for me. I tried to insert tables in the documents I could not find tables. Anyway, I usually don’t really use that much table in my documents.

I uploaded some of the documents I created offline through Microsoft Word, and voila! It was instantly added to my list. I could even share the documents I uploaded of created via Google Docs.

Google Docs also has a spreadsheet application that can replace Microsoft’s Excel. A lot of Excel’s most frequently used features are offered in this online application.

More and more web applications are emerging on the internet and this may be seen either as a threat or as challenge to innovate by big companies like Microsoft.

In the realm of organizers and email applications where Microsoft’s Outlook once reigned supreme, email providers Yahoo and Google have I think overtaken the niche set by Microsoft. I have always been a user of Google calendar and I am very contented with it. I have even embedded Google calendar in some of the websites I maintain.

Some alternatives to Microsoft Powerpoint are Empressar, Google Presentations, Spresent and Zoho show. Even in the movie, people are slowly moving to the web with applications like JumpCut, YouTube Remixer, MotionBox and Eyespot. For now, these online movie makers are still far from being at par with their stand alone counterparts considering the fact dealing movies involves very heavy big file sizes. But maybe soon when internet speeds will have greatly improved, so will online movie makers too. I can’t wait for that to happen especially that I like traveling around with video camera on hand.

And now, check this out: Online desktop. DesktopOnDemand offers 1 gigabyte of storage so that one can upload his files and other applications and access them anywhere like using his own settings on his desktop at home. Nivio offers similar services with 5 gigabytes of storage. And these are free services but can be expanded with minimal fee.

All these are very big proofs that the browser is the king of applications in today’s computing!

Gotcha spammers with CAPTCHA!

Last year, some of my websites that had comment and forum features was heavily flooded with those shameless spams.

These spams have been very embarrassing. The websites I was maintaining was about charity works and goodwill and these spams were advertising sleazy items.

Even when I disabled the comment and forum sections, these spams still kept coming. I configured the web host server such that any new emails will be redirected to my personal account. Not only were the spams tasteless and blasphemous, they were also slowing the traffic. Several times, the web hosting companies temporarily stopped the service because of spam traffic.

Thanks to CAPTCHA, these spams were significantly reduced if not totally eliminated. I have always noticed in many websites that their registration process includes typing some words (some words did not make any sense at all). I first thought that it was a specialized program developed by their in-house IT staff but when I figured how proliferated it was, I scoured the internet to know it’s name until I knew it was CAPTCHA.

CAPTCHA stands for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart" which was developed by Carnegie Mellon University. CAPTCHA usually involves having the user type the letter and number contents of a distorted image. This is under the presumption that a computer cannot programmatically interpret the distorted image.

CAPTCHAs are not just used to ward of evil acts of spammers. They are also used to protect websites from illegal or excessive registrations. In the past, free website services have suffered from “bots” attack which programmatically signs up thousands of emails every few minutes. Online polls have already benefited from CAPTCHAs having prevented malicious voters from multiple castings using malicious codes.

CAPTCHAs come in other forms for people with disabilities. For instance, people suffering from blindness or minor sight impairment like color blindness can opt for audio CAPTCHAs. But at present, only few websites offer this option and has still cause complaints from affected users.

There are also CAPTCHA-like implementations like being asked the sum or product of numbers. In fact, one website I visited made me answer 3 simple and dumb-sounding questions like “What is the capital of Japan?” or “Britney Spears is a (a) singer (b) inventor (c) prime minster?” This makes sense because there is no way for computers to know the correct answers to random questions like these without human interventions.

But spammers are pushing forward too wherever CAPTCHAs take them. Many spamming groups employ cheap labor from poor countries to do the solving of CAPTCHA codes.
Another technique is employed by spammers is to copy the CAPTCHA images and use them for their website. When their traffic is high enough, they can then get the interpretations of these CAPTCHA images and use them on the legitimate sites.

CAPTCHAs are very easy to implement. In fact, many Joomla templates and other CMS software already come bundled with CAPTCHAs. Any non-programmer can already integrated CAPTCHAs into his website in less than a minute.

Bookmarks Galore!

I am a true netizen. From the moment I wake up, the first thing that I would do is head to my computer and check emails and read the news.

I spend more than half of my day in front of my computer. I maintain several websites and at the same time, I want to always keep myself abreast with the latest in technology.

And I also have short attention span and poor memory. I tend to surf from one website to the next. So to help me with my memory problem, I bookmark some of my favorite sites and many other websites I would come across which I could not finish reading before jumping to the next.

Good thing there is (a domain name example of a domain hack) allows users to instantly bookmark any page and can later be accessed any time anywhere. As you can imagine, the bookmarks in my computer browser is full and when I click the drop down menu, the list would go all the way down and I will have to click the arrow to go down further. And that’s annoying. Also, if I didn’t use, there would be no way to access my bookmarks from other places.

The neat feature about is that it is also a social networking website. As it is, I can see what other people are book marking and I can even see ranking of the most popular bookmarks. I will not have to scour the internet for what is hot and cool. One of favorite bookmarks are the wikis.

I can also easily find my bookmarks within should the list goes long. A search feature can make this possible because the bookmarks have already been tagged. has a downloadable component that can be installed in the browser very easily. Should I want to tag my page, I will only click the icon and my bookmark is instantly added.

Another neat feature is that a small code can be inserted to any webpage so that the page can be easily bookmarked pronto. This is very helpful to promote the website.

The website’s layout is very simple. There are no fancy graphics, annoying ad pop-ups and other whatnots that can hog the internet speed. And this makes them get the message across: is a web application focusing solely on heavy features. Right now, I am subscribed to travel tags and I get lots of important and relevant information. is a good alternative to popular search engines like Google. With Google, the hits can be mostly found by the machines and certain algoriths. With, the “hits” are more referred by human beings and therefore more direct, narrow and precise. In other words, the hits are recommended by real human beings and not by machines. was founded by Joshue Schachter in 2003 but was acquired by Yahoo for a whooping $35 million making the deal the most high profile acquisition in internet history.

Millions with Malwares

I just read an article saying that according to a research by Google, approximately 10 percent of all webpages published on the internet contain malwares. The research sampled about 4.5 million pages and found that 450,000 of them have scripts and codes that contain spywares, viruses and Trojans.

Just last week while traveling with my boss, we experienced an annoying worm called ttms that keeps popping up and disabling internet connection as well as firefox. My boss got this from an internet café while using his removable flash drive. My boss never visits any suspicious sites. In fact when I asked him, he said he only visited The Economist, Time Magazine, Newsweek and The New York Times websites and checked his Yahoo and Google emails.

The ttms worm disabled firefox but my boss’ internet explorer was still working. His anti virus could not remove the malware and while troubleshooting his problem over the phone, I found from my research that the virus could be removed manually by tweaking the registry. But I was too scared to dictate to him the manual removal because he might destroy his whole system.

What I did was led him to an online virus and spyware scanner. This online scanner is very neat and is totally free. One can have a choice of the top anti-virus companies like Trend Micro, Norton and Symantec. We chose semantic and the problem was fixed pronto!

After that, I told my boss to be very careful with what to click even on famous and legitimate websites. Some malwares are attached to advertising banners. I also told him to frequently update his antivirus software and even told him to have his settings to frequently look for updates.

Just last night, I was trying to check the balance of my debit card. To my horror, the website led to me to a page which said that my account does not exists. I immediately emailed their customer service and was replied by a machine that my problem will be addressed the following day during office hours. I could not sleep and kept on logging in until at my tenth or so attempt, I was finally able to log in using the same information I had been using for the last five years! Today, I’m thinking of going to the bank and personally reporting the problem.

According to Google, even big, famous and legitimates sites that have been spending millions of dollars on its infrastructures are not spared from malwares. I can’t imagine how much more malware exists in the dark corners of the internet of webpages maintained by the anonymous.

I know that research against malwares have been going on from time immemorial and will continue to be as long as the internet exists. But malicious techies are also not to be out witted. This is like a war between good and evil – it will never be end. The only thing that we can do is take necessary precautions.


Developing and managing a website is an extremely daunting task. Well, actually it depends on the kind of website. For static websites, which means that web pages having contents never change at all, it can be easy. But static websites are already very out dated. Today’s websites are very dynamic with pages that gets updated every day or shorter.

There are many content management systems (CMS) available today to help ease the burden of updating articles and other contents. Some CMS can be acquired with a fee; others are totally free.

One of the most popular free content management systems, the one I have been using, is Joomla. Joomla is very easy to install and in less that an hour, the website can be up and running. And it does look very professional.

Now, the most interesting part about Joomla is its extensions. Doing ecommerce used to require intensive programming. Think about people going to a site and purchasing an item. Think about hundreds of them simultaneously doing transactions with their credit cards and private information.

I used to program backend ecommerce scripts using Microsoft’s Active Server Page (ASP) and it was too much work and headache. With Joomla’s extensions, all a person has to do is download the component or module to be integrated to the CMS, install and configure.

In fact, Joomla’s extensions do not just tackle ecommerce. A wide array of extensions are available like advertising banners, calendars, forums, guest books, help desks, social book marking, podcasting, streaming media and even weather.

Just the other day, I installed a weather component in my website. The weather component can be specified to the weather of a desired town or any place and linked to

My friend also just recently added Amazon Partner component for his personal site. This extension features patching of content items that are linked to relevant Amazon products and he can earn money with the Amazon Associates Program. This is much like Google’s Adwords, only very specific and narrowed.

As I love geology and geography, I am planning to build a related website with Google Maps extension. This extension is a plugin that enables one to use it almost the same way one uses Google maps on its website. The thing is one will not leave the site to go Google Maps.

These extensions are actually just a set of files, usually composed of php and css files that can be easily plugged into an existing content management system. So, even people with no programming skills can run a very complicated website. But it is important to have at least basic knowledge of html and css and these skills are very easy to learn with thousands of online tutorials.

There are hundreds of free extensions at the Joomla website at Even in other websites, free extensions can be found and downloaded.

If you are a programmer or developer, you can share your extensions creation. This is the beauty of open source and free software.

Humanity to others

Last week, a notice of claim of CD for my brother arrived through postal mail. Since my brother was out of town, I was the one who claimed the said CD.

It was from Ubuntu and was in fact an installer for Ubuntu Linux distribution. When my brother arrived a few days later, I asked him how much he bought the software for and he told me it was totally free. Even the shipment for the CD was free! I thought about how awesome it was.

A few days later, I came across a feature of Mark Shuttleworth from a prominent magazine. Mark Shuttleworth funded the development of Ubuntu which gives away the software totally free. He is likewise the first African and one of the few space tourists to ever go to space! Wow, and to think he is only in his early thirties!

True, doing goodwill really has its returns. Ubuntu is an African word that literally means “Humanity to others” or “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

And Ubuntu is not just free. Is it also user friendly. As the IT world know, Linux, as it is based on Unix, has always been for the techies as opposed to the Windows operating system which is ubiquitous in both the techies and ordinary user worlds.

And as Unix and Linux have been employed for servers for many years, Ubuntu is targeted to be used in desktops as well as servers. A standard installation could take only about 25 minutes and this already includes productivity software and internet features as well as games.

Dell, one of the world’s largest personal computer makers will soon start bundling Ubuntu operating system in its computers. This will mean cheaper computer because one will no longer pay for the operating system unlike with Windows.

This will be good news to the promotion of education worldwide, especially in Africa where Shuttleworth comes from. Many organizations are giving away computers to deprived countries to improve education.

And since Ubuntu is a fork from Debian Linux which makes it subsequently under the free software license, Ubuntu can be free distributed and even modified. In fact, there are already several unofficial derivatives of Ubuntu including uUbuntu, zUbuntu, Ebuntu, Fluxbuntu, and Ubuntu Lite.

Ubuntu will soon invade the world of portable devices like may Linux distros have. This will further bring down the prices of these devices.

Ubuntu is under the auspices of Canonical Ltd. Company based in London where Shuttleworth lives at the moment. One of the most admirable virtues of the company is that it treats its employees as equal participants instead of class workers.

I just certainly hope that Mark Shuttleworth will press his efforts further by making innovation to make space travel more easy and accessible for ordinary people like me. As I can remember, a few years ago, computer usage was limited to the few elites. But now, even pre-schoolers can use internet. I hope the same will be true to space travels and tourism.

Adding Ads in Computer Games

There’s this funny experience I had with online Ads. My gay colleague was browsing his email at the office when I noticed an advertisement banner about gay cowboy on his email provider’s front page. I teased him that he was secretly opening gay porn sites in the office (we knew he did not have internet connection at home) and thus his preferences were detected. Not that he minded my teasing because he is openly gay, but the point is about the horror it could have had impacted had this happened to a closeted gay.

Although online advertising is not really bad (this is what makes free services sustainable), this can have a negative impact on users especially on privacy. And there are many online advertisements that are based on IP address. This makes things worse because the IP address could be shared by many computers on a network.

There is another kind of advertising that is directed on computer games. Many computer games nowadays are simulation of real life scenario. Take Formula One racing. This event has been simulated in a wide variety of computer games. We know that this race takes place in some of the best cities around the world. And these cities have billboards everywhere. These billboards are perfect places to put up online advertisements.

Think about the impact on the product being advertised. The product can be directed to narrow audience whose preferences can be easily known and lumped together.

Advertising in computer games can really be a good move. Nowadays, it has been found out that more young executives and career oriented people are watching less television and spending more time on computers. And add to this is the fact that there are ad skipping technologies like TiVo.

But not all computer games can be easy to have advertisements places on them. For instance, think about fantasy games like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. How can you place a billboard in Middle Earth or in Hogwarts School of Wizardry? Well, maybe this can pushed further with imagination.

There are also community simulations in online websites where one user can register and become part of a citizen and move around the virtual community. This can be a perfect place to have billboards. In general, the possibility of having ads in computer games is unlimited.

And this certainly great news for software game makers. Reportedly, it costs around $20 million to develop a game which sells at $60. But then there are software pirates and thieves. Games advertisements can help the developers raise income despite the presence of software thieves. Accordingly, games advertising typically costs about $122 dollars for every 1000 views and this cost is twice the going rate for static ads.

And as to privacy, I don’t know yet what to say. The only thing that I have in mind is that if a person is privacy conscious, then he should carefully subscribe to free services. Free services will always look for ways to live and ads are the best way to go!

When Enough Easily Exhausts

I can still remember the time my computer had 32 MB of memory and 64 MB of hard disk storage space and I was happy. Later, I had 128 MB of RAM and 4 Gigagabytes of storage space and I was happy until another higher storage came.

Today’s information technology is growing at a pace we can hardly keep up. Now that I have gazillions of all kinds of video and music files, software installers, digital photos and other digital whatnots, I feel like 160 Gigabytes of hard disk is not enough. And I am talking here about personal use storage!

I read on some computer magazine that a new development in storage technology will go on sale in the next couple of weeks. It is called holographic storage. This kind of storage will potentially have the capacity to store hundreds of times more data than ordinary CDs or even DVDs.

And then I thought – will this require a new kind of drive like we had floppy disk drive or CD-ROM drive? And then I got a flat answer – YES, because the holographic storage works very differently from tradition discs.

Unlike CDs and DVDs where data is stored on their surface or in some layers beneath the surface, the holographic storage works like…a holograph! The data is stored in different dimensions within the disc’s volume allowing it to store up to a whooping 300 gigabytes of digital data.

Remember those holographic cards we used to play as kids where person seem to protrude from the background and change perspective depending on the angle that the card is held like real 3D scenario? This is very similar to holographic storage where data are stored in “pages” at different angles. Each page may consists of millions of tiny grid-like patterns and when a laser beam projects its light on these patterns, then the codes can be formed and interpreted by the computer.

A company called In-Phase Technologies reportedly will launch the first holographic disc drive this summer called Tapestry 9000. The holographic disc drive will cost $18,000 while the 300 gigabyte holographic cartridge will each cost $180. This combination will promise to be work much faster than the ordinary DVDs because the cartridge-based discs are stationary as data are written at 350 different angles. Another factor that adds speed is that data are not written and read bit by bit but by batch.

I think this is a good development. With everything else analog like music and even television shows going digital, these massive storage space are really good news. But the problem is the price. With $18,000, I can already buy an assortment of other digital gadgets like high end cameras and video cam recorders.

For now, I try hard to be content with my reliable 160 Gig hard drive. Should this fill up, I can easily get a new one at $100. I am very certain that holographic storage will dramatically decrease in price once it becomes very common. Can you believe that my friend paid $500 when the first CD-writer came out?

Camera View

I once asked by my friend which among hearing, seeing and talking faculties I want retained if God were to take all of them except one. I pondered hard because I know that each of them are important in their own individual and unique ways but I finally decided that it was the sense of sight I want to retain.

I can never imagine being blind. And I said that I would rather be dead than blind because there is no way to enjoy life without seeing the beauty of creation.

Although many blind people have been happy with their condition – some even excelling than the unimpaired – science has developed a new means for the blind to see again.

Eye hospitals of Tubingen and Regensburg Universities in Germany have been studying and researching about sight restoration and reasoned that the use of the now very common silicon chips in camera can be used also to restore sight to the blind. Their project which includes implanting implantint these silicon chips on seven volunteers who have lost sight due to a disease which is called retinitis pigmentosa, has been led by Eberhart Zrenner.

The nature of the disease is that the rods and cones which are responsible for detecting light for the eyes are destroyed. This disease has yet no known medical treatment but the optic nerve, the part of the eye that transmits the electrical impulses to the brain, is still intact and undamaged.

So, the silicon chip, which is being design by a firm called Retinal Implant, will be implanted on the patient so that it will simulate the function of the damaged rods and cones and the images can still be transmitted to the brain though the optic nerves. This idea was taken from how a camera works where photodiodes act as the camera’s eyes. In the case of simulating they human eyes, 1540 sensors on a chip is implanted over the person’s retina to produce 1540 pixels of image. Electricity is provided using a battery worn around the persons neck connected by a very thin cable to the chip but is hope that someday, wireless power can be supplied through induction.

At the moment, the technology is crude, and so is the image seen by the person. The person does not see full color but can only recognize very vague grayscale images. It should be noted that the healthy eye has 120 million rods and 6 million cones.

In the future, the production of vague images can be enhanced into color images and more vivid pictures. But for now, those volunteers who have tried the recent innovation claim to have improvement in their lives.

As for me, even if I know that should I lose sight in the future, I won’t be as much doomed because of the interventions of high technology, I still take care of my eyes. I make sure I do not strain them. And so now, I will close this blog and look at greeneries to give my eyes time to relax.

Those stupid thieves

Two days in a row, I had been receiving separate emails offering me huge amounts of money I can never ever earn even by working for 20 years.

One email came from someone who claimed to be from Singapore and is the external auditor for the United Overseas Bank. His name is Mr. Feng Zhao.

Mr. Zao said in the email that an investor with $15.7 million (not specified whether Singapore or United States dollar) died without any next of kin. He wanted me to act as the next of kin so that the money could be transferred to my account and for this effort, I will be given 20 percent of the amount plus the interest.

The other email came from a certain Azhar Asjad from Ivory Coast. Asjad said that his father was serving as director of a cocoa exporting board until he was assassinated by rebels in political uprising. His father left US$5.2 million which he and his mother wants to invest in my country in my name.

What huge amounts which could have been easily enticing but I was never enticed at all. I did not even spend one second to Google about them or the banks, places and circumstances mentioned. Had I done that, I would have lumped my self among their kind – the stupids.

This kind of scheme, Phishing, as it also called because these scammers fish for information, has existed for many years already. In many phishing activities in past, those thieves use masked internet addresses to lure potential victims into their sites to give confidential information. Many big, legitimate and well known websites have been used by phishers. For instance, paypal and eBay have been used. What these criminals do is that they change a few characters in the address. can easily become Can you notice that I just changed the letter “l” to the number “1”? The victim who does not notice this will land on a webpage that will look exactly as the page of the website that is being spoofed and he will begin to input the confidential data which will lead him to his doom.

This kind of activity has made 9.9 million Americans victims while costing financial and business institutions lose $48 billion in Septmber 2003, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

I am not sure how many have been lured through the email scheme. But for the record, these email phishing is really easy to spot. First, the grammar is atrocious. Second, the offer is too good to be true. Third, a total stranger offers huge amounts to another stranger.

I pity these scammers but I pity the victims even more. Perhaps everything boils down to one common factor in both parties: greed. Ignorance is tolerable but greed is not.

I take consolation on the fact that despite the advances in technology, phishing scheme has deteriorated very badly. Read the emails and notice the grammar and spelling and you will know why.

Robots as warriors

We all know that wars have caused so much human casualties. And not only, that, wars have caused so much destruction to the environment. All those senseless bombings have obliterated tens of thousands of flora and fauna and natural habitats have been turned into smoky mountains.

I stumbled upon an article that features a move by America’s Department of Defense to try to replace much of its armed vehicles and other weaponry by sophisticated robots by 2015. While this may cause them to invest additional money for research and development, America claims that it may save them money as damaged robots are a lot cheaper that human death tolls.

Although I personally am not in favor of war in any form, I think this is a laudable move. For one, robots are more precise than humans. Say, if a robot aims at a particular target, it will be a closer hit. In contrast, human control in weaponry is subject to high inaccuracy and may cause catastrophic impact on the environment. Another thing is robots are very easy to replicate. In contrast, a dead army man can never ever be replaced even if cloning is possible.

The Pentagon has already been using robotic airplanes which are known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Al-Qaeda’s chief of military operations and one of Osama bin Ladens closes ally Mohammed Atef was killed by a firing from a remotely controlled UAV.

And to push the development further, the Pentagon is seriously considering developing robots which are capable of deciding when to use lethal force. This is in contrast to the remotely human controlled UAVs.

Ronald Arkin of the Georgia Institute of Technology is said to be developing some programs to simulate ethics for robots in the use of lethal force in the battlefield. He calls the method “multidimensional mathematical decision-space of possible behavior actions”. All the inputs from radar data to intelligence inputs are processed and are given corresponding ethical outputs. For computers geeks and programmers, this may be as simple as if-the-else structure but many specialists argue that ethics cannot be simply translated into several lines of computer codes. One very strong argument is regarding the garbage-in, garbage-out concept in computer science. What if the data input from radar data or intelligence data are wrong?

Well, my general view as an IT fan is that this is a good development. I am all for robotizing weapons. But more research should still be done as this involves not just the lives of people but the life of the planet as well. America is home to top-notch programmers and innovators so I have high hopes that the war robotic technology can be near perfect before 2015.

As for war, it is only the individual character of man that can stop or minimize its devastating effects. As long as man continues to disregard the harsh effects on war, no amount of high technology can prevent it from damaging this planet. Even if the old adage goes “to prevent war is to prepare for war”.

Learning a new language

No, I do not mean computer language like C, Visual Basic or Java which of course can be easily learned with the hundreds of thousands on the internet. I am talking about learning a real language, a spoken language like French, Spanish of Chinese.

I used to work for a Japanese outsourcing company as a software developer. Being a non-Japanese, my Japanese colleagues were some of the nicest people I have ever met. They were always very polite and gentle. But the problem with that company was that the owner was a traditional Japanese – does not speak English and pressured (although not required) the staff to learn Japanese (we also learned that he goes to an exclusive and very expensive bar in Japan that still has geishas).

I scoured the internet for Japanese tutorials. My friend recommended me to using Pimsleur language studies. Pimsleur’s approach is the language student is being made to listen to many audio clips. These audio clips consist of many instructional materials as well as real life conversation in the desired language to be learned. The idea is that language can be learned easily if it is being listened over and over. Each night before I would go to sleep, I would listen to at least 2 modules. In the morning while having breakfast, I listen to another module or two. And while commuting, I listen to my iPod. Indeed, this has proven to be very effective and I was the top in the non-Japanese staff to be able to learn the language in a few months.

But Pimsleur’s approach is not totally interactive. The only interactivity is that I can repeat the words, phrases and sentences uttered by the person on the audio clip.

Now, with Broadband and other fast connections becoming more common, there is a much better way to learn a new language. Skype, the famous software that makes possible computer to computer communication using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), has become the main medium in real online language learning program.

Irishman Ken Carroll, British Steve Williams and Canadian Hank Horkoff founded Praxis, a company that provides language lessons. Currently, the company mainly handles Chinese lessons. It has 35 employees in the Shanghai-based office. All of these employees are the best language teachers around and are paid $500 a month which is already a good salary by Chinese standards.

The method is a combination of downloading language lessons in audio clips which the student can listen to anytime and anywhere. Then there are actual conversations with native speaker instructors.

This is a very efficient way to learn without spending much. One will not need to go abroad in order to learn the language from native speakers. All one has to do is log on to the internet and talk with someone miles away.

Other language services are on the way. The most immediate might be Spanish as the next service disclosed is called SpanishSense. I am interested in learning French and I am sure that it won’t be long before this service opens.

Trees that see

Good news to environmental groups and people! Although much of today’s environmental destruction of the planet (think global warming) has been due to technology, it also through technology that we can heal the planet’s wounds or prevent more damages being inflicted on our precious home.

Steve Gulick, an electrical engineer turned biologist left State University of New York (SUNY) set up a non profit organization. The organization which he calls Wildland Security has pioneered TrailGuard, a sort of system of small spy cameras installed on trees and communications illegal wildlife activities to the rangers.

In Nouable-Ndoki national park in the Republic of Congo, the 42,000 square kilometers of virgin tropical forest with rich diversity of flora and fauna is guarded by only 14 rangers. With ivory demands from many newly-rich people of China and the elites in Japan, elephant poaching is on the rise and the rangers have not even caught even a single soul. Many loggers have also begun to penetrate deeper into the forests and have killed apes and other wild animals both in defense and to deliberately get their meat which is of value in the area. More than 23,000 African elephants have been killed last year.

The sophisticated TrailGuard will have electronic devices hidden in trees and bushes. These devices can know who are the friends and enemies. For example, authorized hikers or government staff will be given transponders such that they will be identified as friends. On the other hand, hunters who bring weapons can be detected and reported to authorities. The system also includes fire detectors. Many poachers smoke their meat to prevent them from spoiling.

The beauty with this system is that all 14 rangers will not have to go around the vast area just to guard – because that is impossible anyway. The only thing that they do is quickly rush to the area where the communication tells them to.

In Congo where many people are not exposed to very high technology, many poachers may think that is magic how they are accurately located in a short period of time even if they are in the deepest parts of the forest. They may think it’s magic. Indeed, TrailGuard was thought to be that way – magic. Gulick in part got the idea from another one-time electrical engineer, the famous science fiction writer Arthur Clarke. Clarke is known for this “third law” which states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

Let us hope that more TrailGuards will be installed in other biodiversity hotspots all over the world. The Amazon jungle is another area that is not just a victim of poaching and illegal logging but of man-induced fires as well. In the past, wild fires are only occurring in very dry forest lands but now, even wet tropical forests are not spared.
Millions have already been spent in conservation. I think the TrailGuard will not be very costly. Since these are small devices, the raw materials will definitely not cost much. And with worthwhile projects like these, I am sure that many big companies will surely come with ready helping hands.