Online column

A weekly tech column written for The Southland Times, a company that pays well enough to keep me in handbags and Drambuie

It’s nice to be told when systems fail

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

The wee meltdown that meant our lovely newspaper wasn’t published on Tuesday shows how damaging technology can be when it decides to have a bad day.

The whole frustrating situation showed both sides of technology: the agonising epic failure of no printed newspaper on one side of the coin with the ability to get the message out there via our website to let readers know what was happening.

NewspaperRollThings go wrong and, while people with a whole lot more technical ability than me are trying to work out what it was that went wrong to prevent it from happening again, I’m pleased to say we probably handled the whole owning-up-to-a-techno-drama situation much better than Telecom did when its Yahoo!Xtra online mail system had a few issues on Monday.

I was at home bonding with Norman the newbie cat, who was sleeping soundly on my shoulder. Instead of waking her to go upstairs to my home office, I decided to use my laptop to check my email.

This was late morning, and I got an error message.

A check on Telecom’s “service status and alerts” page showed there were no issues, but when I went back to check my email again, the same error-code-15 taunted me.

My next move was to see what was happening on the Trade Me message board, because if it is not being talked about there, it’s probably not worth knowing.

And yes, there they were: disgruntled Yahoo!Xtra online mail users bemoaning the fact that they couldn’t access their messages.

I went back to the mail again and clicked on the link to report the error, but simply got a message saying Telecom knew about it and it should be sorted in a couple of hours.

It wasn’t.

In fact, like a lot of those disgruntled people on Trade Me, I wasn’t able to access my email until after 6pm.

In all that time, there still wasn’t any indication of a problem on the Telecom service status and alerts page. This point was made by several stranded mail users who were starting to think there was a problem with their computer or that they had somehow screwed up their mail settings. So, come on, Telecom: when there’s an issue you know about, at least note it on your alerts page.

You might save some of your customers a whole lot of stress and frustration.

I understand that things go wrong and so do most users, but there’s no excuse for not owning up to the problem.


Net invaluable in winter whiteout

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

That lovely wee polar blast that blew through town early this week was certainly a shock to the system.

No matter what it’s doing, we all like to talk about the weather: it’s too hot (yes, it does happen), it’s too cold, too windy, too whatever.

snow-windowI know there are people out there who think snow is wonderful stuff but I’m not one of them. Although, at least this time it happened in winter, when cold things are meant to invade our city (unlike last year’s spring surprise).

And for any non-Southlander reading this, please note: it rarely snows in Invercargill, we don’t have polar bears skating down the main street and not once in my 40-something years have I encountered a penguin in the wilds of downtown Invercargill.

Anyway, Monday was just too cold, slippery and dismal to warrant leaving the house so – embracing the wonders of modern technology – I opted to work from home. That’s one of the benefits of working online I guess. Besides, I’m sure my workmates were quite happy to be rid of my coughing and spluttering for a day.

Once again, the internet proved its worth, with many of us turning to the web for up-to-date information on the snowstorm.

The MetService was the first stop for the latest weather forecasts but the NZ Transport Agency and the AA’s Roadwatch site had all the latest on what roads were open and which were skating rinks.

Of course, I’m sure all of you out there who were after the latest news about the weather, the roads and anything else of interest (was there anything else of interest on Monday?) were checking in on our website at regular intervals.

Unless you were too busy making snowmen, naturally. In which case, I’m sure you were posting photos of your icy sculptures on our Facebook page.

This week’s video is Simon’s Cat in Snow Business. And if you haven’t heard of Simon’s Cat, make sure you check out all the videos in the series. They are hilarious in ways only a cat-owner can fully understand. Hang on, cats don’t have owners, do they? They have staff.


Tuned in to the weather

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

I suppose I should get the obvious conversation-starter out of the way now by saying ‘how about this interesting wee spell of weather we’re having at the moment”.

I was talking to someone earlier this week who lives in Singapore but had just arrived in Sydney and he was telling me how chilly it was at 16 degrees Celsius. There was a stunned silence on the other end of the phone when I mentioned it was just 3degC here in Invercargill with a “feels like” of -2C, according to the MetService website. He said he just couldn’t understand temperatures like that.

I guess it just goes to show that one person’s “chilly” is another’s “freezing your bits off”.

If you haven’t had a look at the MetService website lately, it’s worth a visit. You’ll find regularly updated forecasts, current temperatures, a “feels like” reading that takes into account the winds coming off the icebergs and a recommendation of just how many layers of clothes you might need  (four, apparently, plus one wind-proof layer, on the chilly day in question).

But enough about the weather.

While everyone’s awaiting the return of invites for the new Google+ social networking system, there are new rumours doing the rounds that Facebook is planning to launch a music service called Vibe.

A geeky-genius software developer stumbled across some references tucked away in the code Facebook’s new video chat setup when he downloaded it. Because I’m sure that we all tear apart the background code of any piece of software we use to see what makes it tick.

Let’s be honest, I’m not particularly inquisitive about the inner-workings of things, and am happy to live without the knowledge of how they work, but I have to take my hat off (and believe me, I am actually wearing a hat as I type this, because I’ve just been outside and I think my ears may have turned blue) to anyone with the brainpower to work it out.

I’m non-techy enough that I’m still impressed by my blender’s ability to turn out perfectly smooth vodka slushies time and time again.


Battle of the social sites begins

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)


A few years ago, the internet was all about email, chatrooms and pornography sites, but as the younger generation infiltrates the web, that focus has moved to social networking.

 The question has to be asked: does this mean being on Facebook is the technological equivalent of getting a dose of the pox? What with all the friending, unfriending and poking going on, it’s a wonder we aren’t all in need of a course of antibiotics.

But I digress, this isn’t going to be a personal health and hygiene lesson. This is about how to spread it around even more.

I gave in to temptation a while back and joined Twitter, but I still find it a tad disjointed and unsatisfying with its “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” attitude, so I’m still more inclined to use Facebook as my main form of online social mingling.

Google is dipping its digital toe in the cesspit of social networking with Google+, a service it reckons will tie together all its online properties, “laying the foundation for a fully fledged social network”.

Google+ works in a similar way to Facebook, using newsfeeds and profile images as the central content, but friends and contacts are grouped in circles that can interconnect.

I’m guessing Google+ will have a bit of a battle on its hands to try to get numbers that will stack up against Facebook, but there might just be enough  Facebook users feeling disgruntled over the constant battle to protect their privacy for Google+ to get a foothold.

A limited rollout of the service was launched using the same invitation-only method of joining  as when gmail was launched, but huge demand for those invitations meant Google had to pull the pin on accepting new users after less than 48 hours.

And, of course, the spammers are already sliming their way into the system by sending emails with fake invitations that send punters to sites selling assorted drugs that promise to perk up unperky peckers.

That’s the other thing the internet is about that I forgot to mention in  my first paragraph: penis pills.


Plonking: my kind of craze

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

It’s hard to keep up with all the latest fads being adopted by all those crazy kids out there but I think I’ll pass on the planking and go straight to the plonking.

“Plonking” I hear you say … ”what’s that?”

Well, I’m glad you asked. Plonking is much safer than planking (also known as the lying down game or extreme lying down) and a whole lot less messy than coning (the art of eating an ice cream cone upside down. The ice cream cone, that is, not the person eating it).

The art of plonking (or the extreme sitting down game) involves plonking yourself down on the couch, opening a bottle of plonk and enjoying the contents.

If you really want to show your talent, you could have a crack at synchronised plonking with a friend.

And then there’s the other craze that’s got everyone talking online at the moment. You know, the one that involves dodgy people claiming to be from legitimate security companies, phoning to say ”ooooh, your poor computer is at risk. It’s under attack. The sky is falling down. Let me have remote access to your computer so I can fix it (translation: so I can plant a virus on said machine) and please give me your credit card number so I can process your payment for this wonderful service (translation: so I can steal your identity and buy dodgy porn involving women with moustaches and possibly an assortment of livestock)”.

I had yet another call from one of these ”technicians” just the other day and it’s good to see that when they’re not busy trying to violate my poor computer and steal my money, they are taking the time to keep up to date on the new trends because when I used a particular term to explain what I thought of him, the bloke on the other end of the phone misheard me and thought I was talking about planking.

He told me that no, he wasn’t a planker because it was dangerous.

But back to the coning fad, which is the subject of this week’s video. Just in case you need either instruction or inspiration:


Are people tiring of Facebook?

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

Has Facebook peaked? Has the bubble burst? Will it still be part of our lives a decade from now.

I’m sure these burning questions are  on everyone’s lips after the Inside Facebook report this week that shows as Facebook gets close to having 700 million users around the world, the social networking site has actually had a decent drop in traffic in the United States and Canada.

Of course Facebook reckons the numbers might be wrong, but with all the grumbling about lack of respect for our privacy I wouldn’t be surprised if users got a little twitchy. I know I  have. However, I’m constantly surprised by just how much personal information many of my online friends choose to share with the rest of the world and by how blasé they are about their privacy.

My biggest issue with Facebook is all the apps and games and their not-so-subtle attempts to worm their way into my life.

No, I don’t want to play Farmville or Mafia Wars and no, I certainly don’t want to give some third-party bit of  software access to my Facebook login.

The Guardian has a piece on how to deactivate your Facebook account but if, like me, you want to continue to use Facebook without compromising your privacy, just make sure you keep on top of those pesky privacy settings.

And speaking of keeping yourself safe, watch out for all the scam emails floating around at the moment.

This  morning alone I’ve had messages claiming to be from Trade Me, ASB, Kiwibank and eBay. They all want me to update my login information and, given half a chance, they would all steal my accounts, my money and possibly even the cat.

Be careful out there.


iThis and iThat fatigue

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)


Apple guru and single-handed supporter of the black turtleneck jersey industry Steve Jobs has announced the latest iDevelopment and it’s got the geek world abuzz.

It’s that mid-winter “feels like geek Christmas” time of the year again when Apple holds court at its Apple Worldwide Developers’ Conference and everyone else trundles out their latest goodies at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (or E3, to us cool kids) and those of us who dream of owning all manner of wondrous gadgetry and taking over the world “ooh and aah” over their offerings.

This time around, Apple’s new iThemed announcement centres on the iCloud, which will let users store music, calendar entries and other files on Apple’s servers and have this content accessible over the air on any Apple devices they might be lucky enough to own, including the iPhone and iPad.

Mr Jobs (or should that be iSteve?) was quite excited about the service but not everyone is feeling quite so iNpsired by the system.

Some music industry types reckon it might even encourage music piracy.

Alongside the iCloud service is a new tool with the catchy name of iTunes Match, and this is where the murkiness begins. For US$24.95 (NZ$31) a year, the service will scan your hard drive for music (including files you might not have obtained in an entirely legal manner) and will match them with the authorised tracks in Apple’s iTunes library, making a “quality iTunes version of the tracks automatically accessible in the iCloud”. And that, the experts say, is allowing pirated music collections to be legitimised.

I think I’m starting to suffer from iStyle overload with iThis and iThat bombarding us.

It used to be that Microsoft had pretty much sole charge of the “we’ll try to take over your life with our software” crown but these days I find Apple is every bit as sneaky and whiny as Microsoft when it comes to trying to convince me to download the stuff they think I should have (no Apple, I DO NOT want Safari sneaking in with the latest update of iTunes, which, by the way, seems to be updated every other week).

However, it’s worth noting that there are alternatives if you want to own an iPod but not be iNfected with iTunes.

While iSteve was giving his iPresentation in San Francisco, everyone else with a cool game, gadget or bit of kit (but not black turtleneck) was in Los Angeles.

E3 had many exciting gadgets, but the one that got my attention is the new Nintendo Wii U, a high-definition version of the Wii, with a touchscreen controller that has video-call capability.


Time for crooks to show manners

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

I know the disgruntled gloom merchants out there reckon we’re all packed into a handbasket and heading for that rather warm place where the maitre d’ has horns and a pitchfork, but until recently I’ve thought their predictions were a tad negative.

However, lately I’ve noticed a level of bad temper and equally bad manners among the wannabe scammers out there that is beginning to convince me they may well be right about our possible destination.

I mean, really, is it too much to ask that those who are trying to get their paws on our money make the effort to exchange pleasantries and at least pretend to care?

But no, the latest round of phonecalls from the “we’re calling from Microsoft and need you to give us remote access to your computer” crew has included not one please or thank you or even a “how are you today” inquiry. No, all they want is access to my computer and my credit card number.

Although, I told the fake Microsoft dude who phoned last week that I didn’t actually have a computer but could buy one if he gave me HIS credit card number. He hung up.

carrot copyAnd the email scams aren’t any better: they don’t even bother with a salutation at the beginning of the particular line of bull they are chucking at my inbox, instead just getting straight into the “click here” because your bank account/Trade Me account/email account has been compromised and we need your username and password.

Come on scammers, make a little more effort or I’ll start to think you’ve lost interest.

I would never have made a career as a scammer because I’d be far too easily sidetracked and would be peppering my scam emails with  greetings and sprinkling please and thank you through phone conversations like fairy dust.

Or like carrot sticks in a prison, if you prefer.

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t embark on a life of crime (cyber or otherwise) because I’ve already given up smoking but I reckon I’d probably need some counselling and a government grant to deal with the carrot addiction.

Besides, how hard would it be to light a carrot?


It’s the end of the world as we know it

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

Well, I suppose it was a good thing that old preacher dude got his dates mixed up about the whole end of the world thing but now that we’re going to be around a bit longer I suppose I’ll have to pay that pesky power bill.

Then again, maybe it really did happen: they (the well-balanced folk spending their life savings to tell us sinners it’s all over) reckon the rapture will result in 200 million true believers being called to heaven while everyone else gets to hang out down here until the hellfire and brimstone arrives. Perhaps the 200 million have already gone and we just didn’t notice.

Perhaps I don’t actually know anyone deemed enough of a true believer to get the big invite.

And it was quite a warm day on Monday, so perhaps that was the hellfire we were promised. Because as we all know, the reality never really lives up to the hype of the advertising.

The internet is, naturally, full of borax-poking examples of rapture predictions and predicaments and now the bloke who gave us the ETA of May 21 has taken another look at his calendar and confessed to a minor miscalculation. It seems we’re looking at October 21 now, so make sure you’ve packed you fireproof undies and SPF2000 sunblock and brace yourselves for the trip of a lifetime.

Symantec is also offering a warning of biblical proportions, particularly for users of mobile phones and devices. Android.Smspacem is a “Trojanised” malware version of the legitimate Holy F**king Bible app that ties in with the May 21 end-of-times drama by automatically replying to text messages sent to infected devices with “Cannot talk right now, the world is about to end” before randomly selecting one of several other similar predefined messages and sending those to users’ entire contact lists, trying to contact a host service and changing the wallpaper display on the infected device.

The mobile nasty is spreading via unregulated Android marketplaces so Symantec recommends configuring devices to stop the download of apps from anywhere but the official Android Market, which is configuration is the default on most devices.

This week’s video shows how the news might look on October 21:


Star wars: Celebrities and their super-injunctions

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

As the internet grows, it is becoming close to impossible to control, making for some interesting dramas.

Here in New Zealand, our most high-profile case has probably been the the court name suppression breaches that got the legal fraternity’s knickers in something of a knot via Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil blog.

On the other side of the world at the moment, there’s big debate going on over Twitter and the outing of naughty celebrities who had what are being called super-injunctions, stopping the media from publishing details of their sordid sex romps (is there any other kind of sex romp?), lies, cheating and dirty dealings. In fact, the media hasn’t even been allowed to name the celebrities who have won these “super-injunctions”.

Then along came Twitter. The internet, and in particular social networking, has become the go-to place to get all the dirt. Want to know which celebrity was paying hookers or in court? You’ll find it online.

Slater is not a fan of New Zealand’s name suppression laws and now has the claim to fame of being the first Kiwi blogger to be charged with breaching a name suppression order after he revealed the identity of an entertainer and an Olympian who were both facing sexual offence charges.

Sure, he was fined and the average Joe Bloggs might think twice about breaching one of these court-imposed orders as openly as Slater did, but that doesn’t mean the information isn’t being shared via emails and on message boards, Twitter and Facebook.

On Twitter, the names of the British celebrities and their super-injunctions are out there and while I’m not going to name any of them here who haven’t commented on the situation themselves, I don’t really care much about who or what they are doing anyway. Except for poor old Jemima Khan, who is denying the rumours that she is one of the celebs to have a super injunction, in her case to stop publication of “intimate” photos of her with Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson.

She’s denying the photos and relationship even exist and says it’s been like waking up to a nightmare.

Poor girl. If they’re going to start rumours about her getting up close and personal with some dude, surely they could have made it someone like George Clooney.



Jillian "George" Allison-Aitken

I live in the deep south of New Zealand, where smelly dairy cows are taking over from sheep in the livestock stakes. My hometown is the small but perfectly formed city of Invercargill, which is also the hometown of the original boy racer, Burt Munro. Find out more about me here.


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