Keeping An Eye Out

HomeCameraHow many times have you wished that you could silently check on your kids while they're with a babysitter and you're stuck at work?  How many times have you wished that you could check to make sure the cat had enough food and water to go another few hours before you got home?  There are dozens of situations where we wish we could have another set of eyes at home in order to quickly check on something but, until recently, it hasn't been very easy to do.

HomeCamera has asked that I provide a fair an impartial review about their service, and I'll be quite happy to do so.

HomeCamera is an internet-based home surveillance service that has been designed for anyone that wants an easy-to-use home monitoring solution without spending thousands on the fancy equipment, or asking the neighbourhood geek for help with setting the system up.  So long as you have both a computer and a webcam, you have everything required to start monitoring the cat dish or living room.  Oh, and did I mention that it's free right now?

Online surveillance systems have been around for a few years, but these have often had some pretty big limitations.  Most of the time a home camera comes with software that allows you to see what's happening nearby, however, these often mean you need to remember your computer's IP address, or sign up for a named dynamic-IP service.  While this is not an incredibly difficult thing to do, it's not something I would expect my parents to accomplish without a phone call or two.

D-Link DCS-2120 Wireless WebcamHomeCamera solves this problem with the help of their intuitive software and a secured website that users can visit from a PC, web-enabled PDA or smartphone.  One of the nicest features that I found with this software is the ability to connect up to four cameras to a single account (using one PC or multiples) and name them accordingly, which can be quite useful when you have multiple wireless webcams, or several PCs in key areas.  Using more than 4 computers requires an upgrade to one of the Pro packages.

By naming them, you can log on to the HomeCamera site and select "Living Room" to see if the kids are studying or goofing off, or "Garden" to see if you can catch the person that's always hijacking your vegetables.  The site is completely secure, and nobody has access to your cameras without your user name and password.

The nice thing about using this service is the limited bandwidth that is used.  Rather than broadcast streaming video to the HomeCamera site (which could potentially consume a large amount of bandwidth), video is recorded only when you want to see what's going on.  When you connect to the HomeCamera site and request a video from a specific camera, the home computer will then record a 10 second clip and send it back to you for viewing.  There is also the option to have the camera record video every X minutes and store it on the HomeCamera server.  Videos will not be kept for long (no more than 60 days) and you can set as many recording schedules as necessary for your cameras.

All in all, HomeCamera offers a pretty good solution for anyone needing a home surveillance system.  One option I would like to see is the ability to store larger video archives on the HomeCamera servers.  If I was unfortunate enough to live in an area with a high crime rate, then I would feel a little better if I could capture the faces of anyone that entered my home illegally.  Since the computers could potentially be stolen, it wouldn't make much sense to record the data on the local hard drive, and because the cameras would either be stolen or destroyed, there would be a good possibility of capturing a clearer image of the perpetrators.  While it is possible to have a JPEG image recorded every minute and uploaded to the HomeConnect servers, there is little chance that someone will rob a home at a liesurely pace.

On a lighter note, this would have been a nice option when I was still an ocean apart from Reiko.  Occasionally she would be talking to me on MSN, and I would be in the kitchen unaware that she was trying to talk to me.  It would have been nice if she could connect and see that I was home at the time.

This post was sponsored by HomeConnect.

Re-Learning French the Interesting Way

Since moving to Japan, I've been working on building some language skills.  This often involves very long sessions at a desk with textbooks and a bunch of writing (my hirigana and katakana is so much neater, now), as well as a steady focus and determination to piece together the language much faster than I did with English.  However, I've noticed something odd during all the practice ... my French is getting stronger.

Languages in their Native TongueWhen I was a child, I spoke quite a bit of French.  My mother's family were all French-speaking, and my parents thought it would be a good idea to send me to an all-French school as bilingualism is not only a cool skill, but worth quite a bit in the market place.  However, after my parents split, I rarely had the chance to use those French skills outside of the mandatory classes in public school.  In the 20+ years since using the language regularily, the skill has degraded to such a level where I can understand what I'm reading and hearing, but I cannot for the life of me put together a coherent sentence.

So why do I think these old language skills are getting stronger?  Well, it's not because Japan is plastered with French advertisements, that's for sure (though there is quite a bit of French on notebooks and at some stores).  Instead, I think it's because I'm flexing that part of the brain that controls language by cramming a bunch of Japanese vocab, grammer, nouns, verbs and adverbs inside.

I was curious to know if this was something that other people noticed, however after some Googling, I found no studies or discussions saying anything similar ... perhaps this is just coincidence?

I'd be really curious to know whether learning a new language improves existing language skills because, if it's true, then it might be good practise to learn language after language, and review whenever possible.  Far too often the problems we have are caused by communication errors.  I'd love to have the tools available to be less of an idiot when talking to people :)

Have you ever noticed unused language skills becoming better without actively trying?  Is this normal?

Hey Amazon, Let Me Save You A Few Million Bucks

Rob recently offered ten reasons why eBooks suck and, though I am an avid e-book reader, I'm forced to agree with most of his points.  Since 1998, I've purchased the majority of all fiction books in a digital format from eReader and been quite happy with the format thus far.  The reader application is a light-weight program that runs on Palm, Windows Mobile, Symbian, Mac and PC platforms (though I couldn't imagine reading a book on a huge computer screen or something as small as a cell phone), and gives me all the functionality I need from a book reader.  It shows me text, and I can easily carry hundreds of books around at any given time if I so choose to ... which I don't.

In my humble opinion, eReader's solution is perfect.  The books are readable across multiple platforms, a very simple DRM is in place and generally accepted, and we don't need to buy a seperate device to read these files, as one would assume we already own a PDA or Symbian-based cell phone if we're buying the books.  Which makes me wonder why Amazon is pulling a Palm.

Amazon’s Kindle eBook ReaderThere has been quite a bit of talk online about Amazon's upcoming Kindle.  It's going to be ugly as sin, and less usable than the eReader software.  I wish that hardware designers would take a hint from Apple and start designing things that at least look appealing.  I can live with crappy performance and an infuriatingly unintuitive interface if the machine at least has some sex appeal.  But this thing has nothing.  It reminds me of the Tandy computers from the early-80's and contains about as much power.

Just to make matters worse, this thing is going to be bulky as heck.  Sure, it'll have a 6" screen with a resolution of 800x600, but this is going to be a 4-level grey scale screen.  It will also be about 18 mm thick (0.7 inches), carry 256 MB of memory, an SD expansion slot, a standard 3.5 mm audio jack and, most surprising, an EVDO/CDMA wireless modem.  The expected sticker price for this wanna-be 80's apparatus is $400 USD.

On top of this, Amazon plans on introducing yet another form of DRM for these books, and other file formats will not be compatible.  This means that if anyone has a nice collection from eReader or other sources, they will not be able to read their legit books on Amazon's Kindle reader.

Way to kill the eBook, Amazon.

I'm curious to know who designed this thing.  Was this a design that the people at Palm threw away years ago and Amazon picked up for a bargain?  Is this just a test device used to ensure the OS is stable and us consumers will get a sleeker and more fashionable unit?  Is this Amazon's attempt to finally kill the eBook market, ensuring we continue to read paper books at premium prices for several more decades?  I'd really like to know.

Less than a year ago I was in the midst of designing a PDA that would fit all of my needs.  I've wanted something with a nice 6" colour screen, smooth lines and the standard connectivity options for years but never found one.  Often times the devices that are released seem incomplete ... as though something was intentionally left out to give consumers hope for the next model.  XDA's PDAs come incredibly close, but I don't want to wait for something as simple as a mini-tablet PC without a keyboard.  Palm was the leader in portable computers for years, then Sony, and now it's pretty much up for grabs.  It doesn't take a genius to design a good looking device with smooth lines and a nice compliment of hardware and, aside from the manufacturing constraints, my design was practically ready for prototyping after 4 weeks of research and design.  It might be time to dust off those designs and start assembling components.

Rant finished, I hope that Amazon pulls the plug on their Kindle.  Nobody in their right mind is going to pay $400 for an ancient looking brick that only reads books (which makes me wonder why it has an audio port).  Perhaps when my prototype is built, I'll suggest it to Amazon.  Not only will it be able to read books, but it'll be a nicely featured PDA running a friendly OS, too.

Cleaning Up The Corporate Inbox

Several years ago at a UN confab, Robert Horton said spam was "a disease which has spread around the world."  The International Telecommunications Untion (the telecom arm of the UN) had launched a push to put an end to the vast majority of spam by the end of 2006 and, unfortunately, ended as most UN meetings typically do.  Lots of talk.  Lots of shoulda-woulda-coulda.  Lots of nothing right after.

Putting an end to spam has been a hot topic for years, and recently there have been some pretty good software solutions to kill spam on blogs, but what about the corporate email systems?

I recently learned about SpamTitan, which allows companies to create an email appliance offering protection from virii, spam, malware, phishing and unwanted content.  What really caught my eye was the "email appliance" aspect.  Quite often, spam filters are software solutions that run on an existing operating system and shares resources with the rest of the server applications.  However, SpamTitan runs on it's own operating system and is relatively light when compared to other OSes used in the corporation.

Hardware requirements are rather light, with a Pentium IV-class processor, 512 MB of RAM and a light 40 Gig of disk space required.  At almost every place I've worked at in the last few years, there has always been some older servers collecting dust in the back that could easily fit the bill for a SpamTitan server.

If you don't have an extra computer lying around, SpamTitan also offers a VMWare image that can be brought online within minutes.  This virtual machine image is certainly worth consideration, too.  One of the biggest concerns administrators have is recovery from a server failure.  With virtual machines, if the main server fails, the images can be quickly brought online somewhere else.  This gives the administrator time to repair the main server, while the company continues operating with little percieved downtime.

According to the SpamTitan website, the application supports multiple domains, double anti-virus protection (both Kaspersky and ClamAV), fully automated backups and reporting, both administrator and end-user quarantine management, and an easy to use web-based GUI.

All in all, this is a great solution for any business that hosts their own email server and have trouble with spam or are unsatisfied with their current filtering application.  The high degree of accuracy in the filtering mechanism certainly makes SpamTitan worth a look.  Try it free for 30 days.

A Quick Look at SQL Server Compact Edition

The other day I was talking to a fellow developer about portable database solutions, and after a little coaxing, I managed to get him interested enough in SQL Server Compact Edition to at least spend an afternoon testing whether it would help solve his business problem as his previous solution (using an Access database) would have driven up the cost of operation for the end users.  I've used this light-weight database engine for years and been quite happy with the results, and I've wanted to post something about it since first starting this blog.

SQL Server CELaunched in 2000 along with Embedded Visual Basic and Embedded Visual C, SQL Server CE has progressed from a light-weight database platform aimed towards portable devices, to an incredibly light-weight database that can be used on everything from smartphones to workstation-class computers.

Judging from the white papers and documentation, Microsoft would wants to market SQL Server Compact Edition to be the primary choice for desktop and client applications.  By making it free, extremely light-weight (requires less than 2 MB of disk space, and 5 MB of memory), in-process and taking away all the licencing issues normally associated with distribution and deployment, they promote it as the smart choice for the storage of local data on many clients.  SQL Server CE can handle databases as large as 4 GB (which is the same as SQL Server Express), and supports up to 256 simultaneous connections from the host machine.  Though it's not really meant for multi-user applications, the support for multiple connections could be effectively utilized to create incredibly responsive applications.

Despite being called "CE", this version of SQL Server has nothing to do with Windows CE.  Instead, it's just the Compact Edition of the powerful database.  You will really be convnced of this when you see that is has a memory requirement of 5 MegaBytes and requires less than 2 MegaBytes of hard disk space.  What's more, is that this is in-process, which means we can embed the database engine into our applications.  Though it does come with an MSI installer, you don't really need an installer for this database.  9 DLL's are required for SQL Server CE, and so long as you include them in your install package, the database will be good to go.

Both SQL Server 2005 Express and SQL Server Compact Edition are free from Microsoft and meant for client applications, but there are a few factors that might make the Compact Edition a preferred choice in certain scenarios.  In my experience, the biggest advantage with CE is ease of development.  To deploy the Compact Edition, we just need to copy a folder with the referenced assemblies.  This doesn't even require administrative rights on a PC.  However, installing SQL Server Express needs administrative rights as it will be configured to run as a system service.  On top of that, the Express Edition is just shy of 60 MegaBytes in size, whereas Compact Edition is thirty times smaller.  In all of my performance testing, I have not found any advantage to developing client applications on the Express Edition over the Compact Edition.

A SQL Server Compact Edition database file (typically an .SDF file) contains the data which can be modified on the client machine (PC, tablet, smart device, etc).  This means that you can work with the data on a PDA one day, copy it to the PC the next day, and then move it to something else the day after.  No unmounting or mounting of databases will be required.

In every application that I've written that's required portability with the versatility of SQL and the ability to occasionally connect to a larger server to update and refresh, SQL Server Compact Edition has been the platform of choice.  This is incredibly useful in applications where data from a central server is cached locally and made available for the applications to work in an offline fashion.

Another area where we can use this engine is for application caching.  Most applications use a cache for better performance.  A cache is usually created as a collection of files identified by a key.  To access a given object in the collection, the application needs to iterate through all the items in the cache.  Using an in-memory database to store cached data will provide much better performance in terms of common operations like searching and sorting.

I've been using SQL Server CE for years and been quite happy with the database engine.  Typically it's used in applications where I was called in as a freelance programmer and after delivering the software I will not be called again (unless it's for repeat work, hopefully).  However, despite it's light footprint and versatility, there are a few things you would need to keep in mind before implementing this engine in your program.

SQL Server Compact Edition doesn't handle stored procedures, triggers or views.  For most offline applications, this is alright.  But if the application is going to be used for some serious number crunching, you might want to use a better database solution.  Also, the database size is limited to 4 Gig.  Once you reach this amount of data, no level of coaxing will open the engine up for more.

Despite these small limitations, SQL Server Compact Edition is certainly worth a look.  I've written quite a few applications that use this engine across multiple platforms (particularily the home-service application I wrote to use a combination of SQL Server Compact Edition and SQL Server 2005 across PDAs, notebooks and desktop computers) and rarely run into a situation where these limitations could have caused a problem.  All in all, it might just be the best mobile database available.

Have you used any mobile databases?  What things do you look for when choosing a database engine for your applications?

un-Googling Yourself

UnGoogleHave you ever Google'd yourself just to see what other people of the same name are up to?  How well do you rank?  This is sometimes good for a time killer, but with the number of companies Googling potentential and existing employees, you might just want to consider making those embarassing photos or blog postings fall a bit lower on search engines.

When I first started blogging, I'll admit that I didn't want my name to appear at all on this blog.  Why would I even need to share my name, anyways?  Everyone who knew my name also knew of the site, so it wasn't as though they would find me through Google.  However, after five months, this site started to appear on the 2nd page when searching only my first and last name.  When using a middle initial, I was the only result (which is pretty cool, in itself).

But what if we want to remove ourselves from these search engines?  Many people are concerned about online privacy and try pretty hard to remain anonymous.  So, to help you begin the process of quietly disappearing from search engines like Google, I have a few suggestions.

  • Stop using your full name.  This sounds pretty simple, right?  The best way to UnGoogle yourself is to not use your full name.  Abbreviate your last name when signing up for online accounts, posting from your blog, or publishing other content online.  The most common way of doing this is using a screen name.  10 years ago I went by the name of Ablematigo (a.k.a. Able`), and it stuck for years.

  • Google yourself to find out what other people are seeing when they search your name.  If you happen to have a name like James Smith, then you have a great chance of being buried in the crowd.  Don't forget to search using quotations, and any short names ("James Smith", "Jim Smith", etc).  If you have middle names as well (I have two), then include some initials to refine the search.

  • Change the content that Google's already indexed with your name.  If Google found your name because it was included on your blog, change it.  You might also want to make sure your name doesn't appear on social networking sites like FaceBook and MySpace, as well as other sites like Technorati and Alexa.  Be sure to delete any accounts you no longer  use or that may contain sensitive personal information.

  • If you host your own website and want to keep publishing content under your full name, consider using the "robots" HTML meta tag.  Add this line to the page's <head> section:  <meta name="robots" value="noindex,nofollow" />  This will only work if you have access to the underlying files of your website.  Don't expect Blogger or MSN Spaces to allow this line to be added.  Also keep in mind that this does not always work.  It will help with bots that follow the rules, but some crawlers will take your name, anyways.

  • If someone else posted a link to your site using your full name, send them a kind message asking them to change the link.  This is how started appearing on Google with my name, as I have helped quite a few WordPress plugin developers over the past year, and they've linked me with my full name (since that's what appears when I send an email).  Politely explain your situation and ask that they modify your name or take the content down.  Try not to use the "L" word, either.  If someone thinks they may get hit with some legal precedings, it will only hurt your online repuation.

Try to view the search results with your name as though you were a potential employer.  Many executive recruiters are routinely looking into candidates by searching the web.  If someone else has the same name, or you couldn't get rid of that embarassing photo from your college days, consider including your middle initial or middle name when submitting a resume.  Another item to avoid is using the same email address for both business and personal items.  Recruiters may search for you by email address right after a quick name search.  And finally, another option is to use the Google removal request tool to remove search results and cached content.

Remember that once something is online, it's often stored in so many places that the data is pretty much cast in stone.  The best way to get around this is to avoid writing incriminating articles or comments, and keeping those embarassing pictures in private collections.  If it's not something that should be seen by future employers or family, then it's not something that should be shared with the world.

Would a Global DNA Database Prevent Crime?

DNA MoleculeAll living creatures leave behind a trail of DNA, whether we're aware of it or not.  This identifier can be found in everything from old skin cells removed when scratching an itch, to saliva, to strands of hair.  Humans tend to shed quite a bit of DNA throughout the day, leaving behind a trail that can be followed by animals as well as police forces.  It's certainly an effective identification system.

But should we all be required to submit our DNA to a database that would then be used by justice systems when putting together a crime scene?

This question is currently being debated in the UK after Lord Justice Sedley said the present genetic material database was indefensible and biased against ethnic minorities and it would be fairer to include everyone, guilty or innocent.  Ministers agree that DNA helps tackle crime, but there are no plans for a voluntary or compulsary national UK database.

I think this would be a great idea, personally.  I have no intentions of commiting a crime in person.  If I want to walk on the other side of the law, I'll hack a bank and transfer some money to a Swiss account or somewhere in the Caymans (not that I have any knowledge of how to do this).  From what we see in the news regarding the incredible tools used by police forces around the world, it's almost impossible to commit a physical crime and get away with it.  There is always something left behind and, so long as it's found, the perpetrator can be identified.  Unfortunately, sometimes all the police find is a blood stain on the floor that doesn't match any DNA currently on record, and the case goes cold.

There are countless cases like this all over the planet.  Murders are committed and the police forces spend an incredible amount of time and resources with their investigations only to come up short.  Maybe they'll match DNA samples from three or four scenes and piece together that a single person is responsible for so many crimes ... but without a name to go with the DNA, the police cannot bring the criminal (or witness) in for questioning.

However, with a global database (or even a national database), the law enforcement system will have a better chance of protecting the rest of the population.  What's the worst thing that can happen with such a database?  Will the feds start creating clones of their citizens?  Will they begin mining the data to see what our family lineage has been for the last few hundred years?

I would think the worst thing that could happen would be the introduction of false-positives.  DNA is much like fingerprints.  We're all unique, but there are some cases where similarities are so close that mistakes can be made.  However, in most cases, this can be addressed with proper questioning.  Most of us are law-abiding citizens, and this little measure shouldn't be that big a deal.  As it is, people visiting some nations are required by law to submit fingerprints to immigration officers, so why not DNA?  The only people who should have a problem with this are the ones going around and assaulting others or worse.

Privacy is certainly a concern in this ever-connected world, but I don't see how it fits in with this possible requirement.  For the moment, only the UK is discussing the matter in Parliament, but a global collection shouldn't be out of the question.

A Perversion of History

Lucy's 3.2-million Year Old SkeletonOne of our most famous ancestors is about to see more of the world than they likely ever imagined possible, and it's upsetting quite a few members of the palaentological society.

Lucy is perhaps the most famous fossil in the world.  She has the diminuitive stature of a chimpanzee and a pelvis that suggests she walked upright.  The combination of these two attributes makes her a prime milestone in the evolution of modern homo sapiens.

Oddly enough, this also seems to be the very same reason the 3.2-million year old is leaving Ethiopia for the first time and embarking on a tour of America, with her first stop at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.  But some of the more respected museums have refused to participate in one of the most lucrative science exhibitions ever staged.  Both the Smithsonian in Washington and the American Museum of Natural History in New York have refused; the curators believing the damage inevitably caused by the journey is not worth the potential financial returns.

Richard Leakey, who works in Kenya and is one of the most well known fossil experts, is more blunt about the situation saying this is "a form of prostitution. It’s gross exploitation of the ancestors of humanity, and it should not be permitted."  He goes on to say that rather than take Lucy out of Ethiopia, interested visitors should instead go there to see Lucy and the thousands of other priceless artifacts at Ethiopian museums.

I agree.

Unesco, which deals with scientific and cultural matters at the United Nations, has a 1998 resolution (which Ethiopia and the United States signed) stating that homonid fossils should only be moved from their country of origin for compelling scientific reasons, and that replicas should be circulated for display.  So by packing Lucy, the oldest link to human ancestory, everyone concerned has shown that they care more about money than the sanctity and significance of our historical record.

I understand that Ethiopian museums are doing this to raise money in an effort to restore their crumbling buildings, but I fail to see why they're sending the original.  Sure, Lucy has withstood 3.2-million years already, but moving her from place to place will cause far more damage than laying buried in sedimentary rock or leaving her in place in storage (or on display) at an Ethiopian museum.  Most of us wouldn't know the difference between a replica fossil and the real deal, and this palaeontological prostitution of Lucy is unacceptable.

Hopefully the museums that display Lucy will be in the heart of Creationist America.  If Ethiopia can't raise the funds they seek for their cause, perhaps this will be a warning to all the other museums that our precious historical artifacts are best kept in their native lands.

Considering how we're not allowed to touch these exhibits, replicas will do just fine, thank you.

Saving The Planet, One Asteroid At A Time

Apophis Asteroid TrackingThe Planetary Society is hosting a contest allowing people from around the world design a mission to rendevous with and "tag" a Near-Earth asteroid that is scheduled to come dangerously close to our world in 2029, and again in 2036.

The asteroid Apophis (previously known as 2004 MN) is a 300-meter wide rock that orbits our sun and is currently millions of kilometers away.  However, in 2029, this asteroid will come so close to the Earth that it will be visible from the ground and will be closer to the atmosphere than some of our satellites.

There is a very small chance that Apophis will hit the planet in 2029 (only a 1 in 45,000 chance), but some believe that it may fall into a 400-meter wide gravitational window that would send it around the sun, then smack into the planet on the next pass in 2036.  This, of course, would be a bad thing.  The resulting death and destruction on a global scale would be almost equivalent to what killed off the dinosaurs, and worse than that, my house (which should be fully paid off by then) will have a less than 50% chance of surviving the resulting destruction ... regardless of where the impact takes place.

Seriously, though ... this would be a bad thing.

So, in an effort to collect more data and determine what can be done about the asteroid should it become an Earth-bound object, the Planetary Society is offering a prize of $50,000 to the first engineering team that can design a space vehicle that will rendezvous with Apophos and send some telemetry and other data back to scientists here on Terra-firma.  At least a hundred teams have already submitted their letters of intent, and the UK-based space firm EADS Astrium is busy at work developing a vehicle they're calling Apex, which would meet the asteroid in 2014.

I'm really looking forward to what possible solutions will be created for this.  The technologies and methods developed here can be used to maintain absolute tracking of hundreds of other Near-Earth Objects that intersect our orbit every year.  Because the goal of this project is not to develop a machine that will do anything to the asteroid itself, I would think the space craft could be relatively small.  If we could develop units the size of the Mars Rovers (though immobile), it could be possible to launch a rocket with a dozen or so of these devices strapped on.  Then, once in orbit, the tracking tags could be released and shot towards their intended targets.  This would reduce one of the most prohibitive aspects of extra-planetary vehicles (being the actual escape from Earth) and could be cheap enough that every nation could work towards supplying a certain amount.

Of course, since we would be sending a machine towards a rock in space, I wonder how much it would cost to include some basic equipment to determine the asteroid's composition.  If we had fifty years to do something about a potential collision, and the asteroid held a reasonable quantity of an ore of value, perhaps the best way to handle the matter would be to send an army of mining drones to rip the rock to pieces and refine just the ores.  From there, we could devise a way to capture the ores safely and put them to use on either the Earth or our Moon.  The remaining chunks of rock would have been demolished enough by the robots that our atmosphere could easily handle anything coming too close.

Ah, science fiction ... you make things sound sooooo easy :P

September Starts With Cash

It's All About the BenjaminsSeptember means quite a few things to me this year.  My wife's birthday is in just a few weeks.  I've been living in Japan for a full month, now.  And I was lucky enough to win my first contest ... ever.

Darin wanted to title=" - Make Money Posting Comments">substantially increase his comments before September 1 on his great Search Engine Marketing site.  To speed the process a bit, he decided to offer cash to the person who wrote the x00th comment.  In my case, I was commenter 700, which was good for a cash prize of $70.

Thanks for hosting the contest, Darin!  I know precicely what to do with this money, too.  Because my Reiko will be celebrating a nice round numbered birthday, I've been searching high and low for the perfect gift.  I knew exactly what I wanted to get her but, considering how I've been unemployed for the last six weeks (title=" - Japan Approves of Me">which will soon be rectified), I've been a little short on cash.  With this little boost, I'll be sure to get Reiko a gift that she can enjoy for many years to come :)

If you haven't been to Darin's site, he provides some great tips on SEO and SEM.  His title=" - SEO Tip Number 1">three title=" - SEO Tip Number 2">SEO title=" - SEO Tip Number 3">tips are incredibly well written and should be read by anyone that wants to get more traffic through Google, Yahoo and other search engines.  After applying some of his suggestions to this site, I noticed a traffic increase of 20% within a month and it continues to grow still.

Thank you, Darin, for hosting the contest.  The prize money will be well spent :P

Now ... time to head over to ....

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