Archives for January 2012

Do computers change the way we think?

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Sandra Vogel Sandra Vogel | 10:14 UK time, Monday, 30 January 2012

What did you do the last time you wanted to check up on something? Did you ask around among people you know? Did you read it in a book - at home or in the library? Did you hunt around to find a specialist who could give you a definitive answer? Or did you type a couple of words into a search engine and see what came out?

Increasingly we take the latter option, and from a pure efficiency point of view it's not difficult to see why. Many of us have broadband now, which gives us fast internet access. Our computers might be in the living room, and may be switched on more than they are switched off. If we are out and about, we've mobile phones which can access the internet. We have constant access to powerful search engines.

So, it's a simple – and quick – matter to tap in a search term and see what comes out.

There are times when the internet can provide information it is very difficult or time consuming to get from other sources. Researching a medical condition is one example (though it's important to take care to go to reliable sources, avoid hype and treble check your facts if you do this). Reading multiple reviews of films or books that interest you is something else it's easier to research online. You most likely have others from your own personal experience.

But we also use computers to check up on mundane, everyday things that in earlier times we might have kept in our heads. How many telephone numbers and addresses of friends and relatives can you remember and how many do you rely on being stored in your phone?

As far as the internet is concerned, there is a strong case that it is simply continuing a situation that has been going on ever since the 'mass media' became a reality. Television news, for example, usually doesn't deliver in-depth analysis. It reports on what has happened. Even news analysis programmes don't go deep into the finer detail. If you want to get behind what's happening in areas of current affairs which are important to you, then you need to do your own research. So, the argument goes, modern media can act as a 'dumbing down' agent.

A counter-argument is that the internet is completely the opposite of television. Rather than simply 'feeding' you with information that you absorb in a one-way interaction, the internet opens things up and allows for a more explorative approach. For example, you can use the internet to research those deeper details of current affairs issues which concern or interest you. Many people find the internet invaluable as a research resource for all kinds of local, national and international topics.

These two arguments aren't mutually exclusive. The reality is that sometimes we use computers and the internet in particular as a one way source of information, at other times we use it more expansively.

There is another side to all this, and it is a neurological one. How do computers affect the ways in which our brains work?

There are research reports which suggest that we think differently if we have prolonged exposure to computers, that we lose our capacity for empathy with other people, that we live more in the day-to -day and stop thinking critically about things.

Even the former Chief Executive of Google, Eric Schmidt is on the record as having said , in 2010 at the World Economic Forum in Davos:

"As the world looks to these instantaneous devices... you spend less time reading all forms of literature, books, magazines and so forth... That probably has an effect on cognition, probably has an effect on reading."

In everyday life it can be difficult to assess a view like this. We just get on with things, rather than sitting back and wondering whether computers are changing the ways in which we think. But you could try doing a little test on yourself. Remember that question I asked earlier about the telephone numbers and addresses? Well, how many do you know by heart?

You can also find out about the effect of the web on young brains in Hajar Javaheri's blog.

Sandra Vogel is a technology journalist who has written for many web sites and magazines. She's written several books on computing. As well as technology she enjoys running, growing vegetables and playing the saxophone.

In the news - Kodak's digital disaster

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 14:26 UK time, Wednesday, 25 January 2012

When was the last time you bought a roll of film? Unless you're a traditionalist, it's probably not been for a long time. Digital cameras are so ubiquitous now that most of us simply expect to see our snaps on a screen as soon as they're taken.

So, when former photography giant Eastman Kodak announced they had filed for bankruptcy protection in the US, few business and technology analysts were surprised. Despite being behind one of the first digital camera prototypes back in 1975, by the end of the 1990s they were still reticent to release consumer digital cameras. Apparently bent on hard copies of photos, they turned much of their attention to digital image printing, still not quite taking into account the huge cultural shift that was in the air thanks to online photo albums and social media.

The firm is currently restructuring thanks to the breathing space afforded by bankruptcy protection and will have to make big changes if it’s to earn back its place as a market leader.

Loved by many a skinny jeans and big glasses wearing hipster, popular instant camera company Polaroid is also subject to much speculation, batting off rumours of a similar ‘Kodak moment’ by recently announcing its latest creation, an Android-powered HD smart camera. But even they are facing competition in the face of Instagram, a smartphone app that mimics Polaroid's signature style on a digital screen.

Keeping up with technology is one thing, but finding new ways to be back at the forefront and stay afloat in a highly competitive market is the real challenge. It’s a hard lesson to learn but whether you head a global corporation or just want to see photos of relatives on the other side of the world, you can’t afford to slip behind in the modern age.

For more on digital cameras, check out the WebWise guide, or for more information about the state of Kodak, visit the BBC News story.

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

Songs of Praise - Wireless Internet

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Alex Duin Alex Duin | 13:00 UK time, Friday, 20 January 2012

Rolling out high-speed internet to rural areas has become a perennial problem - laying miles of cable to a single house can be costly indeed. Wireless internet could be one of the answers - and in a village just outside of Colchester in Essex, Coggeshall Church has found a unique way to help out. By attaching a dicreet Wi-Fi antenna to their own steeple, they can boost the signal to cover a much wider area, providing internet access to much of the local community.


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For more on the Coggeshall Church's Wi-Fi project watch Songs Of Praise on BBC iPlayer - available until 29 January, or find out more about wireless internet in the WebWise guide.

Alex Duin has spent his whole life wading through technology and the media, and in the process has worked and written all over the place, including for Channel 4, and Digital Unite. He currently lives in London.

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In the news - what happened to Wikipedia?

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 14:31 UK time, Wednesday, 18 January 2012

If you had to settle an office dispute this morning or fact-check a presentation, chances are you'll have attempted to log on to Wikipedia. But after a split second of thinking you've found your answer you'll be directed to a blacked out screen.

That's because the English language version of the free encyclopaedia is one of a number of websites - also including blogging tool WordPress - going offline today in protest at a pair of anti-piracy bills being considered by the US Congress.

Referred to as 'Sopa' and 'Pipa', the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act could see content owners given powers to request sites associated with piracy be closed down and removed from search engine results. While supporters deem it a necessary crackdown on rogue sites, critics are worried that the bill would severely impact web freedom.

Although Wikipedia has joined the blackout, there are still a number of ways to access the site's content. Smartphones and tablets won't be affected and you can also go to the site's 'cached' pages – the versions of the page that search engines save so they can analyse them. Just look for the word 'cached' on your search engine results page and click on that instead of the main link. This will take you to a slightly older version of the page.

Of course if you’re multilingual you could acquaint yourself with its non-English language sites – or even copy and paste the text into a translating webpage like Google Translate or Yahoo Babel Fish to get a rough interpretation.

Just because one big site is taking a break, it doesn't mean the internet's falling apart! There are still many other ways of getting the information you need online. A simple search will return thousands of pages, so although you might not get all your answers from just one source, the blackout could be a great opportunity to discover and bookmark other informative websites.

Whatever the outcome of the bill, it's another reminder of how, through the web, the world really is getting smaller. What 50 years ago would have been a local issue now, in the internet age, has a huge global impact.

For a more detailed explanation of Sopa and Pipa, check the BBC News site.

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

How computers can help you to stargaze

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Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 10:48 UK time, Monday, 16 January 2012

I was around 10 when I first started stargazing, and back then it was all about pointing telescopes manually, looking at the stellar sights and maybe drawing or photographing on film what you could see if you wanted to record it. We relied on using star charts to find your way around the sky too - a real skill - but these days there's a whole range of computerised gadgets and gizmos available to help you out.

Mark Thompson posing with a telescope

For starters, if you own a smartphone then you can download special astronomy applications that will help you learn your way around the night sky. Because they use GPS and other features to know where on the Earth they are and the direction they are pointing, these "apps" are an invaluable tool to help navigate the sky.

Once downloaded, your phone's screen is just held up to the sky, and it shows what can be seen in that direction. We will have a guide to the best ones on Stargazing LIVE this year.

I have also recorded some audio guides, which you can download as MP3 files. Take them outside on a portable music player, and my voice will help guide you around the skies of 2012. It's like having a mini version of me in your pocket, all thanks to computer technology!

For even more advanced searching, you can get telescopes that hold vast databases of celestial treats. Once set up properly, these 'Go To' telescopes will point at any cosmic object you choose - from nearby planets to distant galaxies. They will even tell you which ones are visible from your location.

But the real advantage gained from technology these days is in the world of imaging - i.e. actually taking the pictures. Starting with the development of the specialist astronomer's CCD camera in the 80s, and followed by the digital SLR camera in the late 90s, they heralded a revolution in astronomical imaging.

For the first time, amateur astronomers could produce stunning, high quality images of the universe with relative ease - not like the days of messing around with film that I remember! Now you can simply hold up your phone's camera up to a telescope eyepiece to get some pretty impressive results, or hook up a basic webcam to get stunning planetary close-ups.

If clouds fill the night sky, then there are still plenty of websites to pass the time with. There's a vast array of information on the internet: from the latest planetary images from NASA, to aurora forecasts, and meteor shower predictions, there really is something for everyone online when there's nothing to see up above.

And it's not just direct stargazing that technology helps with - the way in which astronomy is communicated has also changed significantly. Where the space sciences once used to be the domain of obscure magazines and newsletters, it's now social media - through chat groups, Facebook, Twitter and other services - which really get the message across. Now important news can spread worldwide, in just 140 characters and even fewer seconds.

It feels incredible when I think about how the tools of the astronomer have changed over the years - and certainly computers have been a huge part of that. The beauty of the night sky is one of nature's real treats, and if technology means that more and more people can access it then that can only be a great thing.

You can find out more about Stargazing LIVE on the website and watch on BBC One on 16, 17 and 18 January 2012.

Mark Thompson is a keen amateur astronomer, and has reported on astronomy for the BBC on the One Show, The Sky at Night, The Culture Show, and last year's Stargazing LIVE. He is the president of the Norwich Astronomical Society, and sits on the council of the Royal Astronomical Society as its only amateur.

In the news - video streaming showdown

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 11:45 UK time, Wednesday, 11 January 2012

How we watch films and television programmes could all be about to change - yet again.

US film and TV streaming giant Netflix launched this week in the UK and Ireland, promising unlimited online streaming of a range of content in exchange for a flat monthly fee - currently £5.99

Despite citing its main rivals as Sky Atlantic and Sky Movies, commentators are pitting the firm against Amazon's Lovefilm - primarily a postal film rental company with 2 million subscribers, and an online streaming offering.

Streaming allows a user to watch a film on a variety of devices including smartphones, computers, tablets and some TVs without actually storing the data on the device.

More and more viewers are turning to free streaming services like BBC iPlayer, Channel 4's 4OD and ITV Player to catch up on programmes they've missed, but these are usually only available for 7 to 30 days after their TV broadcast. So if you miss the second chance online you'll probably have to wait for a repeat or buy the DVD.

But with streaming subscriptions there's no such time limit, as the companies have contracts with major film production companies and broadcasters. In December, Netflix announced it would have non-exclusive access to much of the BBC's archive, with rights to programmes like Top Gear and Doctor Who. In the same month Lovefilm announced an exclusivity deal with Sony, suggesting that the future of online streaming could be as simple as different TV channels for different tastes.

Rather than one firm winning the battle, will we instead see a range of content offered across several different streaming services, which we'll subscribe to and dip in and out of depending on whether we want a documentary or blockbuster movie?

Although it's too early to tell exactly how the two firms will move forward - either in bidding wars for contracts or price wars for their customers, one industry will almost certainly continue to thrive.

Internet service providers (ISPs) could see a surge in customers upgrading to unlimited data allowances as they sign up to streaming packages. Whatever you subscribe to, if you want to stream online you'll need decent bandwidth (around 5mbps should be fine) and a good data allowance to avoid being stung by big bills. WebWise has a helpful choosing an ISP guide.

And of course, the WebWise guide has more information on what streaming is, and how to do it.

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

Use the web to help improve your health

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Sandra Vogel Sandra Vogel | 15:07 UK time, Thursday, 5 January 2012

The turn of the year is the time many people think about their general wellbeing. 'Getting more healthy' is a very popular new year's resolution.

But having an idea and actually making it happen are two very different things. After the turkey and tinsel splurge, good intentions can pile up. But as the January and February winter months kick in with their dark evenings and cold and rain, and we all get back to work, commitment can be difficult to maintain.

There are ways of using the internet to help keep the fire in your belly, though, and if getting healthier is a goal you have for 2012 it might be worth taking advantage.

It's often said that sharing our aims and ambitions with other people makes it more likely we will achieve them. One of the reasons that works is because once other people know we are doing something it is difficult to back out. We don't want other people to think we can't see something through!

Two great strategies that can help here are starting a blog and committing to fundraising. Both are really easy to do on the web. There are free web sites you can use to set up and manage blogs - Blogger, and Wordpress are two popular options. Meanwhile, online fundraising sites such as JustGiving and make it easy to set up your own fundraising page for whatever good cause you wish to support.

You can use a blog to record progress towards your goals, milestones you achieve along the way and how you feel about your progress. Writing a diary like this can help you see how far you've come, even just a few weeks after starting out.

A blog can help on the dark days as well as the successful ones. If you have a setback, recording it can elicit encouraging comments from readers, and these can often spur you on. Tell friends and family about your blog and the chances are they'll read it regularly, applauding your successes and offering support when you need it.

Adding charity fundraising to your goal can also give you a really compelling obligation to succeed. Fundraising websites give a running total of how much money family and friends have pledged to your chosen good cause, and the amounts can really mount up. This reminder of how much money your good cause stands to lose if you drop out of your challenge can be a real motivator.

It's not all about blogging and raising money, though. There are other ways technology can help you achieve a fitter, healthier lifestyle.

If you want to take up running or other active sports, there are web sites to help. Many offer training plans designed for all ages and abilities. Some work in conjunction with smartphone apps or specialist sports watches which can record routes, times and distances automatically and then upload this information. As your information cumulates and you see how much you’ve done since you started, using sites like these can become normal. You'll feel strange when you’ve not logged a run - that's when you know you've really changed your lifestyle!

Meanwhile, if want to take up a new sport, the web can help you find a local club. It can identify potential sports you've not thought of trying, and you'll probably find there are far more friendly, social sports clubs in your area than you thought there were.

And if you're interested in healthy eating, there are plenty of food related websites that explain nutritional information and deliver recipes you can try out. Again, many of these have interactive elements, allowing you to see what other people think of recipes or information, and to log your own comments.

With so much on offer anyone with a new year's resolution to get healthier ought to find resources that can help them achieve their goal. Now all you need to do is make the most of them!

Remember, if you're not used to exercising take care and get started slowly. Follow this guide from the  BBC Health website to making sure you stay safe and well while working out.

For extra inspiration look at:

Wendy M Grossman's article on tennis websites.

Charlie Swinbourne's guides to football and cricket.

Sandra Vogel is a technology journalist who has written for many web sites and magazines. She's written several books on computing. As well as technology she enjoys running, growing vegetables and playing the saxophone.

In the news - digital music sales rise as CDs fall

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 10:28 UK time, Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Despite the continued decline in the music industry, digital album sales are on the up, according to figures published this week by the British Recorded Music Industry (BPI).

The ever-imminent demise of the music business has been much discussed in recent years, with industry analysts citing a range of reasons, from a digital piracy backlash against high CD prices to record labels failing to adapt sufficiently to the internet age.

Online personalised radio stations and digital music services have accustomed us to having music whenever we want it - without necessarily having to pay for it. The likes of Spotify, Rara and Last FM are just some of the sites streaming music to a user’s computer or mobile in exchange for adverts or a monthly subscription fee, saving listeners from having to directly purchase their own music.

That we can now cherry-pick album tracks online may also be a reason for the overall drop in album sales. It's now possible to buy individual tracks – regardless of whether they've been released as a single – instead of buying the whole album in a physical form.

Although album sales have dropped by almost a fifth since 2007, with digital album sales quadrupling in that time, CDs still dominate the album industry, accounting for three quarters of sales last year. Vinyl has also seen a surge, suggesting that in a digital age the music lover still feels a need to keep a small piece of the band they’re listening to.

A whopping 98.4% of singles sold in 2011 were in digital format, the easiest and cheapest way to buy music, with tracks currently priced around 79p. Websites like TuneChecker also help you to find the cheapest deal on your chosen song or artist.

Perhaps the freedom of the internet has left us devaluing music and less willing to pay artists their dues. But if the web has indeed created a monster, surely it's about time the music industry learned to tame it?

To learn more about downloading music, read the BBC WebWise guide, How to get music and photos onto your computer.

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.


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