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A new survey shows that teens in the Ontario average seven hours a day of “screen time”.

The study grouped together time spent watching TV and Internet use as “sedentary behaviour” and suggests a link to a decline in physical and mental health among the students.

What’s interesting here is the implicit suggestion that a person’s entire use of a computer could be considered as a bad thing. Grouping all computer time together with watching TV as “screen time” is, I think, somewhat irresponsible and fails to recognize the diverse roles computers play in our lives.

It’s true that computers can be used for consuming content (YouTube videos or internet TV channels for example) as well as for solitary activities like playing games. These things should perhaps be moderated as you might TV use.

But computers can be used for so many other things now – researching homework assignments, communicating with friends, collaborating with other students, planning trips or shopping. So to group all these activities together as if they are all self-indulgent activities that could be completely avoided is unrealistic at best.

The reality is that computers are now so integrated into our daily lives, and even more so with the younger generation, that to consider taking “screens” out of the equation wholly is simply not possible.

A more interesting piece of research would separate solitary entertainment activities from productive or communication activities, and also look at the differences between students doing such activities offline or online.

It’s also worth considering what the researchers might have found if they’d looked at adults. Most of the office-bound population has seven hours of sedentary time a day – it’s called doing their work at their desk! In this context, the researchers findings are nothing special.

Read more of the study at CBC News.

In other news, researchers find that people use computers a lot…

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Finland becomes the first country in the world to make Internet access a legal right for its citizens, at a minimum speed of 1Mbps, when a new law comes into force today.

This means that ISPs cannot refuse to connect someone, no matter how costly or remote. It’s a technical and financial challenge for ISPs, but great for helping the world move towards an open, connected future and avoiding a divided society with “haves and have nots”.

Meanwhile, the UK is moving in the opposite direction, with the recently passed Digital Economy Act threatening to disconnect users who are accused of copyright infringement. A new government initiative called Your Freedom invites the public to reclaim lost freedoms by voting for laws to repeal. Perhaps we will see a course-correction soon.

Read more here and here.

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The WWW of 18th Century London

A new website, London Lives, has been created by researchers at the University of Sheffield in the UK. 240,000 pages of manuscripts from between 1690 and 1800, from hospitals, courts, local governments and parishes have been digitized and made available online – that’s half the size of the world-wide web in 1996.

What’s new here though is that the documents have been cross-linked so that you can track individual people’s lives across the different institutions of 18th century London, building up a picture of London life in the period much as you might while browsing the web or reading people’s Twitter updates today.

It’s a refreshingly different way to examine the past, and reminds us the value of open data and what we get from having a cross-linked web of public data sources today.

Read more at Futurity.org or browse London Lives directly.

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Mashable has a look at how social networks are the tool of choice for divorce lawyers.

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers says 81 percent of its members have used or faced evidence plucked from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networking sites, including YouTube and LinkedIn, over the last five years.

It’s not just compromising pictures that are being used: sometimes, the evidence is nasty–parents tugging at their children’s social graphs to try and pull children away from their alienated spouse. With Overshare the word of the year in 2008, it’s no surprise that all that disclosure is catching up with us.

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Colt firearm from SZuppo on Flickr

September, 2014 was unusually cold for Boston. The chill from the Charles drifted in through an open window and slid across the floor of the one-bedroom apartment. Special Agent Ross took in the mess of books, records, and DVDs scattered around the room, framing the dead body of Janet Somers.

Back at the office, he started filing in the forms of the homicide report, detailing the execution-style killing—one shot to the back of the head—and signs of struggle. He’d barely had time to fetch a fresh cup of coffee when the PDA on his hip started buzzing. “Ross.” he answered curtly, annoyed by yet another interruption in what was already looking like a long day.

“This is Mike Lynch. I work for the U.S. Marshals,” explained the caller. “You filed the homicide report on Janet Somers, right?”

“Sure. You knew her?” asked Ross.

“Detective Ross, I work in Witness Protection. It’s not that I knew her, so much as I tried to make the world forget her. Based on what happened today, it sounds like I failed,” said Lynch.

“Yeah, it looked like a professional job: one shot to the back of the head at close range. What’s up?” asked Ross.

“I need you to tell me what music Janet listened to,” Lynch replied.

Ross scowled at the thought of spending hours in Janet’s frosty apartment. “Oh, come on. She’s dead. What difference does that make?”

“Listen, we’ve had six other killings this week. Same M.O. I need your help here.” replied Lynch.

And I thought I was having a bad week, muttered Ross under his breath.  “All these victims were under your protection?”

“Nope, none of them were,” said Lynch. “But the other six victims were all women in their mid-thirties, like Janet. They were all killed, execution-style, late at night, just as Janet was. And most importantly, all six of them liked the same music.

Ross took a sip of coffee and furrowed his brow. “I don’t get it,” he said, “what does their music have to do with it? You don’t shoot people for bad taste.”

“Listen, Ross,” growled Lynch, clearly annoyed. “If Janet liked the same music as the other six, then that means the killer’s using wishlists, iTunes, Last.fm and other online services to find people we’ve spent years working to hide.” The Marshal paused, letting it sink in. “We can change their faces, their cities, their jobs — but we can’t stop them listening to shitty music. And that might just get them killed.”

The US Witness Protection Program has hidden nearly 20,000 people since it was launched in the 1970s. So far, nobody in its custody has been harmed, despite Hollywood’s love of this plot device. Witnesses change their names, their appearance, and even their jobs — anything to hide their past. But can we hide who we really are?

Read more »

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iPads at Breakfast (picture from the source article at NYTimes.com)

This article in the New York Times looks at a typical “connected” family’s life, and how the constant pull of e-mail, Twitter and Facebook has interfered with their business and family lives. Here’s an example:

Recently,[Mrs Campbell] was baking peanut butter cookies for Teacher Appreciation Day when her phone chimed in the living room. She answered a text, then became lost in Facebook, forgot about the cookies and burned them. She started a new batch, but heard the phone again, got lost in messaging, and burned those too. Out of ingredients and shamed, she bought cookies at the store.

Is technology diminishing the amount of empathy and the quality of contact we have with each other? As an expert quoted in the article says, “The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other. It shows how much you care.”

The more challenging question of course, is what we can do about this. I’m guessing abandoning technology is not really an option!

Read the full article at NYTimes.com.

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Patently absurd

If patent attorneys continue unabated, we may one day have to be careful how we think, lest we run afoul of patents.

Patents control how inventions are used and sold. Initially covering new products, the scope of patents was expanded by the US Congress to include processes.

Today, patents reach far beyond simple processes. Companies are patent genes and mathematical algorithms. eHarmony, for example, has patented a mathematical formula for compatibility; now, other companies are rushing to patent the application of math to everything from finance to energy.

This documentary looks at the expanding definition of patents, and how it might change society.

As we incorporate technological inventions into ourselves, we may find the patent-holders in control of our lives, and be forced to pay someone in order to think in a particular way.

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We’ve all grown accustomed to a free web, but the reality is, content creators including bloggers, artists or musicians, need to get paid if the creative economy is to flourish. But attempts to charge for newspapers online showed that people are not inclined to pay for access to lots of different sites. Here is a possible solution, Flattr – a flat rate payment which is split between all sorts of different creators by just clicking an icon.

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The recent elections in the UK were plagued with problems, with many citizens complaining that they weren’t able to vote, as this BBC article points out.

Most aspects of government–from how we elect leaders to how we survey the citizenry to how we communicate legislation–are hopelessly outdated. The Internet promises huge efficiencies, but it’s up against potential fraud and a generation of elected officials who worry how it will change their political fortunes. With political reform a key part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s manifesto, a manifesto which also includes the abolition of ID cards & associated citizen databases, this is sure to be an issue for lively discussion.

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This episode of Digital Planet, from the BBC World Service, includes an interview with the director of the FutureEverything festival in Manchester UK about the winner of the Future Everything Award, a collaborative project called EyeWriter which is a collaborative project using eye-tracking technology to allow graffiti artist Tony Quan, who is paralyzed due a condition known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, to continue drawing his tags and art from his hospital bed.

The episode also features looks at how to design software for cerebral palsy sufferers, and how to re-use old computers in new ways.

Listen to the episode (28 mins audiostream)

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