Friday, November 27, 2009

Parental controls on multiple computers

Didn't see this one coming: earlier today, Robby (my 7 year-old son) mentioned in passing: "Ricky [my 9 year-old son] knows the password on the computer upstairs." I didn't immediately grasp what he meant - after all, I'd set each boy up with their own account with a password and customized their desktop so they could get access to their e-mail, Club Penguin, etc. The two computers - one XP, one Vista - each had parental controls enabled, with an explicit whitelist indicating which sites they could visit.

Then it hit me: he knew the parental controls password.


Sure enough, one thing (on a fairly short list) Vista's parental controls does well is it provides a report of sites that each account has accessed. Since the account can only get access to sites which have been explicitly whitelisted, this list shouldn't be that interesting. Unless there are new sites on the whitelist! Sure enough, Vista shows you which sites were unblocked in the last week. Gotta give the kid credit: he's discovered a couple adventure games online (no clue where/how - that's a discussion for another day) and logged in as me to whitelist the site so he could continue to play.

Once he had the power to whitelist sites, he had the power to remove the time restrictions on his account. Turns out almost the entire time we were cooking on Thanksgiving day, he was battling ogres and advancing to a level 17 knight with an upgraded sword and a shield with magic powers. (Do I sound proud? I shouldn't, right?)

As I started poking around looking for a better solution, I had a hard time finding something that would work. Here's my wish list:

  • individual accounts for each child
  • time-based restrictions, both for time of day and cumulative time logged in
  • content filtering (i.e., no adult sites) as well as a whitelist/blacklist to enable or disable specific sites
  • centralized account config, ideally web-based (this allows Robin or I to administer from our own computers, instead of needing to log into theirs - and avoids having to set up duplicate controls on each computer for each user)
  • traffic logs

Before this sounds like I'm trying to delegate responsibility for managing my kids' online experience: I'm not. I actually want them to explore, and learn to use the machines beyond pointing and clicking on things. (Looked at that way, the whole 'figure out Dad's password and then reverse-engineer the parental controls mechanism so I can get what I want' thing looks like a big success. +1 for me, I guess.)

But Robin and I aren't always looking over their shoulders - whether we're cooking Thanksgiving dinner, or putting their sister to bed, or, yes, hanging out by ourselves - there are times when they're on their computer by themselves and I want them to be safe. The setup we had - XP & Vista's default controls - just didn't cut it. Things weren't centrally managed, there was no ability to restrict the total time on the computer (i.e., 'no more than 2 hours on the computer per day'), and the ability to override settings using the admin account password (which I've since changed, thank you very much!) all made for a less-than-ideal setup.

I asked on Twitter, and got a couple replies but nothing that seemed tailored to what I wanted. I asked on Facebook: nothing. And a couple hours of looking online produced surprisingly little: most solutions were either single-computer solutions or, in a few cases, were hardware based. Then I stumbled on a post on, of all places, looking to do exactly what I was looking to do. And the recommendation was to a service I hadn't yet found in my online research: Safe Eyes. The key for me? You can install it on up to 3 computers for no additional cost.

I've now installed it on both computers the boys use, and Robin's PC as an administrator. The accounts for the boys are managed by Safe Eyes - so when they log into their accounts on either the XP or Vista machines, the Safe Eyes app logs them in (their Safe Eyes account credentials can be saved, so that they're logged in automatically); if they're logged in during a time when they're not allowed to be online, they get a dialog box telling them that.

Controls are well done: it took about 20 minutes to configure what types of sites are OK (see below), which specific URLs are OK, whether they can IM, etc. The time limits are both time-of-day as well as elapsed-time, and various other controls let you ID specific programs you allow/disallow. A browser toolbar sits on Robin's computer (IE only, unfortunately - doesn't work for Chrome) that lets her add a site to the whitelist with one click - a nice feature if the kids hear about a new site they want to add to their list of visited sites.

(Admin screen showing summary of each account)

(Whitelist setup is centrally managed across accounts)

I had both boys read and sign the "Internet Game Plan" - a good, common-sense list of things that both boys should be aware of as they spend more time online. As tech-savvy as Robin and I both are, it was good to go back over the basics as much for our benefit to make sure that the boys felt comfortable with these guidelines.

Mostly, Safe Eyes is a nice technical solution to a problem that's only partly technical: as I explained to Ricky, by stealing our password he violated our trust. Had he asked us for permission to play that game, we could have looked at it together - but he didn't, and got caught. So we've dialed back his access - and he will earn it back. Safe Eyes will make it easier for us to manage that process, and give him more confidence that his effort will be rewarded.

Couple of things the geek in me would like to see: IM notifications that a kid's time has expired (perhaps asking for an OK to extend the time?), a simple way to see how much time remaining in a day each child has. It's also important to note that Safe Eyes is primarily focused on Internet usage, so if your interest is more towards limiting specific apps, this may not be the right fit for you. (Almost 100% of what we do on a computer is in the browser - e-mail, IM, games, etc. - so this works just fine for us.) Safe Eyes does support "program blocking" - but as near as I can tell, it's for programs that access the Internet, not any app on your computer.

In the end, Safe Eyes is pretty close to my ideal solution. I didn't need to buy new hardware, it's not hard to install, it allows me to manage everything on the web, and it will grow as we let the kids do more online without sacrificing their safety. If I wanted to install it on my Mac to simplify admin even further, though, I'd have to upgrade my license: by default, Safe Eyes allows you to install on up to 3 computers - don't get me wrong, I love their approach... but we have 4 computers. :) They also support up to 10 users across those 3 computers, which seems more than enough for any family.

(Disclaimer: I signed up for Safe Eyes' affiliate program after buying my own subscription. I'm really impressed with the service so far. If you decide to sign up after clicking on that link, Safe Eyes will pay me a few bucks as a referral fee. I've done this for similar services in the past - SitterCity, Click 'n Kids - not for the compensation, just because they're great services. What little money I tend to make simply goes to off-setting the cost of using the services themselves.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

U.S. Caselaw in Google Scholar

Last night, an important new feature launched on Google Scholar: more than 80 years of US federal caselaw (including tax and bankruptcy courts) and over 50 years of state caselaw is now fully searchable online, for free at Google Scholar.

This project is the culmination of much work, led by a remarkable engineer at Google named Anurag Acharya. Shortly after I arrived at Google, I heard about a small group of people working to make legal information available through Google. Given my background, I was particularly interested to see if there was a role for me - and thanks to Google's culture of encouraging employees finding 20% projects to contribute to, I was able to not only find a role but to dive in.

It's been a thrill to be part of this project, but most importantly it's exhilarating to know that for the first time, US citizens have the ability to search for - and read - the opinions that govern our society. Matt DeVries, a law school roommate, has a great overview of what this means for him as a lawyer here. Tim Stanley, a pioneer in this space who I first met when he built a search engine to index the articles published in the law journal I founded, said simply, "Thanks, Google!" and then did a good job evaluating what Scholar does (and doesn't) do with the opinions. Rex Gradeless, a law student, pointed out that while this may be of interest for lawyers and law students, the real winner here is citizens who've historically not had comprehensive access to this information at all.

It probably goes without saying, but in case it's not abundantly clear: working at a company that embraces projects like this is incredible. This was a labor of love for a number of co-workers (past and present), all of whom instinctively grasped why this is important and how connected it is to Google's mission. I'm very proud to work at Google today.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Daemon Sequel Freedom(tm) available for pre-order

Could not be more excited about this news: Freedom(tm), Daniel Suarez's sequel to Daemon is now available for pre-order at Amazon. Let the count-down begin: the book is available in just over 8 weeks!

In case anyone doesn't remember me raving about Daemon, here's my original review, and January's follow-up post discussing the soon-to-be re-released Daemon in hard-back.

Paramount has Daemon in pre-production, where the screen-writer who wrote WarGames is co-writing the screenplay.

University of Richmond Law School

University of RichmondImage via Wikipedia
Though I don't practice law, I'm a proud graduate of the University of Richmond Law School - it was an extraordinary three years of my life. It was there that I really learned how to think critically, learned how to argue (much to my wife's chagrin), and learned how to be an entrepreneur.

Yeah, you read that right.

Law school is hardly where one thinks about being (let alone becoming) an entrepreneur. Yet along with a group of fellow students, I founded a law journal that was the first in the world to publish online - with the Dean's active support and the encouragement of faculty. Publishing a scholarly law journal exclusively on the Internet was unheard of at the time, and represented a gamble for the law school. We (the students) received academic credit for our time - something up until that point only afforded to Law Review and Moot Court participants. The school's brand was closely tied to JOLT's, and it wasn't clear in the early days that this was a venture likely to succeed.

But succeed it has - JOLT now counts more than 400 students as alumni, has contributed to the scholarship in the technology law space, and is very much an accepted outlet for scholars to seek out when looking to publish their work. And some of my best memories of my time at Richmond were those focused on the actual creation of the Journal - working with the administration, recruiting students to join our crazy idea, convincing professors around the country that we really would pull it off and they should submit their articles to us, evangelizing to the press and academia once we'd launched to generate buzz about the Journal. All of those skills I use today - because this was in a very real sense my first entrepreneurial endeavor.

It had never occurred to me before writing this post - but the biggest gift Richmond gave me was the environment in which it was possible to be an entrepreneur. Too often you hear about entrepreneurs who fail, and fail again, and fail a third time before they find the recipe for success. But Richmond created an environment in which it was quite possible to succeed - and that became an invaluable launching point for my career.

I write all of this because the Law School has produced a 10 minute video detailing the school, the surrounding community, and what the students mean to the Law School. It's a great video, and if you're thinking about going to law school, I think it's a terrific introduction to a school that should be on your short list.

(Full disclosure: if you hang on long enough, you'll see my mug for about 2 seconds.)
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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Twitter list word cloud

I've been enjoying Twitter Lists in the last week... for those that don't know, Lists gives others the ability to "curate" Twitter IDs into groups. You can see which lists I've been added to by clicking here. It struck me that this is the first time I've had such a view into how others categorize me.

I took the words others used to describe me, and then went to Wordle to generate a word cloud based on those words. (I'll bet someone builds a service to generate these word clouds automatically within a week.)

Wordle: Twitter list word cloud

Gets it about right, actually.

What Would Augsburg Do?

A couple weeks ago I attended the fall board meeting for Augsburg Fortress. Augsburg is a publisher affiliated with the ELCA, which is the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States. My connection to Augsburg is a result of a speech I gave to a group of leaders in the ELCA several years ago, and has been a remarkable experience for the last two years.

It’s remarkable for several reasons: it’s my first experience sitting on a board, so that alone makes it a worthwhile effort. But what makes it so rewarding – and so challenging – is the difficulty of being part of a traditional publisher in 2009.

Add to that that my day job – working at a company often blamed for many of the publishing industry’s difficulties – and it has made for quite the learning process.

Last spring, Augsburg’s CEO Beth Lewis asked if I’d consider leading a discussion at our board meeting focused on Jeff Jarvis’s book, What Would Google Do? We ended up delaying the talk, in part because we’d have a new class of board members joining us in the fall and it felt like a better way to kick things off with the “new” board.

On Friday, I tweeted that I’d be leading the discussion, and almost immediately Jeff tweeted right back that he’d love to eavesdrop. A few e-mails later, Jeff and I had it settled: I’d surprise the board by starting off our session by hearing from none other than the author himself – and thanks to Skype video chat, we had him projected full screen and plugged into the A/V so he could speak to us. (Miraculously, the mic on my MacBook Pro even picked up comments from people 30 feet away, making it a completely easy dialogue from 1,000 miles away.)

Jeff had some great ideas to frame the discussion: ask what business you’re really in was the key, of course. But as a brother to a Presbyterian minister, he also had a rather good insight into the challenges faced by leaders in the church: how to admit mistakes, how to foster communities in the midst of declining church membership – he spoke to these challenges as someone more than passingly familiar with the dual challenges Augsburg faces.

Beth asked what is probably the most critical question of Jeff: how do we avoid the “cash cow in the coal mine” – the part(s) of our business that generate revenues today but are neither core to the business nor likely to be a part of Augsburg’s future.

Jeff was blunt: “pretend you needed to get rid of your print business tomorrow. Just turn it off. And imagine that there’s a kid or group of kids in a dorm room today, thinking about how to re-engage people of faith. What are they working on? What are they going to do that will threaten you?”

I wanted to be respectful of Jeff’s time – he was terribly gracious to give up a part of his Saturday morning to chat with us – and we said thanks and then dove in. While I will not go into the confidential aspects of our board discussion, I did warn the board that I’d be blogging the meeting, with the goal of inviting a broader discussion – from Lutherans, from techies, from publishing vets – to figure out if there isn’t a way to be public about the challenges facing us, and hopefully identify some creative paths forward.

Our first step was to throw out the key words that the board felt mattered most from Jeff’s book. More than a dozen words went up... several of the core themes of the book, many of which were obviously applicable to our challenge: trust, transparency, platform, links, beta, imperfect, abundance.

But I pointed out that a biggie – perhaps the biggest – was missing: free. This isn’t easy for an established business to confront: how can we just give stuff away? We talked through the mechanics of free: it’s not what you give away, but how giving things away can expand the market for your other products (and/or create entirely new ones). I recommended Free to the group (one of the many reasons I love our CEO: she had a copy on her Kindle within a minute of my recommendation), and threw out a couple examples from Chris Anderson’s book to talk about how Free can be, as Jeff pointed out in WWGD, a business model.

We also talked about data: what data could we collect – not personally identifiable data, but data about congregations, about product adoption, about customer life cycles (do families whose children attend Sunday School have adults who go to adult bible study more often? Do families who attend adult bible study volunteer more at church, donate more money to the church, or recruit friends to join?) – and how could that data be valuable to others?

What’s exciting to me is that Augsburg is already a company asking “what if?” and acting on it. The best example of this is sparkhouse, a completely new effort funded by Augsburg as an entrepreneurial startup intended to completely reimagine faith-based publishing. And that’s not the only one: Augsburg has built up a number of social networks – see Creative Worship Tour as an example of how Augsburg is connecting like-minded individuals around the world to facilitate interactions and foster community around new ways of managing weekly worship.

While these are great steps, they are by no means guarantees of success. Jeff talks a lot about the news industry: declining circulation, uncertain revenue future, competition from new players who didn’t even exist three years ago. But he could just as easily be talking about the church: membership is down, the average age of congregations is going up, and people are less and less focused on denominations at all when it comes to their faith. Add to that the well-known challenges of being a book publisher today and it’s clear that Augsburg has its work cut out for it.

Which is why I wanted to have this discussion out in the open.  In WWGD, Jeff talks repeatedly about “publicness” – and he spoke movingly of a comment left on his blog over that weekend about a widow who lost her husband to prostate cancer. (Jeff has been documenting his own battle with prostate cancer – and his successful surgery and ongoing recovery – for months.)

Someone (or someones) out there will have ideas that we need to be thinking about. If you’re that kid in her dorm room thinking about reinventing publishing and community for people of faith, I want to hear from you. What would an Augsburg platform look like? (I got to define API to the board during our meeting – I doubt there are too many other publishing boards talking about APIs!) Which questions aren’t we answering? Which aren’t we asking?

My fellow board members are going to be hanging out here; I’m hoping that we can foster an ongoing discussion about our future here. Thanks again to Jeff – for writing a thought-provoking book, for giving of his time this morning – and thanks to all of you, whose input and guidance I cannot wait to read.