Online column

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

One wedding and a funeral

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


Oops, perhaps they might need to check that name!

It’s been a busy old week or two on the interwebs, with the royal wedding popping up at every turn to fill in the gaps between the fake “Osama’s dead” and fake “renew your bank password” emails.

And there I was, naively expecting things to get back to normal now that the wedding has been and gone when all of a sudden a bunch of seals gatecrashed a party and the “Osama’s dead” hoax email is no longer a hoax. Oh, and that’s United States Navy Seals of the heroic manly variety, not the cute wee fish-loving beasties with flippers.

Not that I’m not saying US Navy Seals aren’t cute, and I’m sure some of them may well be fond of fish. But I digress.

Of course, the news has been like an early Christmas present for all the conspiracy theorists, and they’ve all dusted off their tin-foil hats and taken up residence on various message boards online. Because of course Osama bin Laden actually died five years ago, the US Government ordered the destruction of the twin towers, man never walked on the moon and Elvis is working as a meter maid in Gore.

The biggest problem with all the cyberjunk being put out there by the hoaxers (from the conspiracy theorists to the idiots showing of their terrible Photoshop skills with obviously faked photos of a supposedly dead bin Laden) is that it’s picked up by the gullible and so begins the journey of the urban myths that sites like Break the Chain and Snopes work so hard to stop.

They pick up these fake bits of misinformation and pass them on to their equally gullible friends, who believe it all over again and carry on passing off this incorrect information as being genuine.

We’ve already seen this with the 9/11 attacks, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and more recently the Japanese tsunami. There are hoaxes hitting inboxes about smaller scale dramas, too, such as the one I’ve been sent several times lately featuring photos of a lavish mansion that supposedly belongs to Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and tut-tuttingly reminds us of the abject poverty in that country.

Sure, the bloke isn’t one of the nicest people in the world and he’s certainly not on my Christmas card list but every time I get this email from someone who has simply forwarded it without looking for any proof that the information is correct (here’s a hint, use Snopes), I can’t help but drop them a little further down the list of “reasonably intelligent people I know”.

Although, I suppose that’s not quite as much of an oops as the BBC and several of the US television networks having trouble separating their Obamas and Osamas and proclaiming the president dead instead of the hairy terrorist.


iPad 2 lacks some handy features

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


Shopping for techno-goodies is always a fun pastime (nearly as fun as shopping for handbags) but I’m still undecided on whether or not an iPad will join my family of gadgets.

There’s no denying the sleek little machines are sexy to the nth degree but I’m still disappointed by the lack of a micro USB port in the iPad 2 that came out last month.

The web was buzzing with rumours about all the new, whizzy features that might be coming with the iPad 2 (cameras, USB ports and more)  and it seems the built-in cameras found favour with the Apple gurus.

The new Acer Iconia tablet is looking like it could be a good option, with its built-just-for-tablets Android Honeycomb operating system, front and rear-facing cameras and (drum roll please) USB port and micro SD card slot.

It’s all just a bit too hard to decide so I’ve put the tablet computer option on the backburner for now and instead went shopping for a new washing machine.

OK, so most of you might not think a washing machine is as exciting as buying a tablet computer but … well, you’d be right.

However, it is still a necessity and has caused some minor dramas in our household with Norman the Newbie Cat singularly unimpressed by the change from a front loader to a top loader: no longer can she sit in front of the washing machine,  enjoying the enthralling entertainment of watching the washing going around and around.

The trip to the washing machine shop did bring about one slightly more exciting purchase: a super-duper, noisy, beeping, coffee-making magic machine. It might not be an iPad but it is pretty sexy.


Illegal downloads same as shoplifting

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

I’d like to take this opportunity to raise my hand and say I couldn’t care less about the ”controversial” copyright infringement bill that seems to have everyone else getting their  knickers in a knot.

Get ConnectedIt’s been interesting-ish watching all the dramas online as all and sundry predict the end of the free world as we know it on the back of this new law that comes into effect on September 1.

For anyone who somehow missed the news last week, here’s how it will work:

  •  If you illegally download files, the copyright owner can contact your internet service provider (ISP) to complain about your naughty behaviour
  • You ISP will send a warning letter saying ”stop it, you naughty net user”
  • If you don’t stop after three warning letters, the copyright owner can take a claim to the Copyright Tribunal, which can impose a maximum fine of  $15,000 to the internet account holder

There have been online protests, predictions of technologically  challenged parents being fined because of the actions of their more tech-savvy kids and a general expectation that the sky is very likely to fall in if online file-sharing is subject to legal controls.

In the past I’ve made no secret of my opinion of the file-sharing/copyright infringement situation: illegally downloading a file is really no different from swiping a CD off the shelf at The Warehouse and walking out without paying for it. Theft is theft.

I’ve heard all the arguments about how a music CD, a movie on DVD or piece of software costs less than a couple of bucks to produce  but that doesn’t really tell the whole story. Sure, the individual disk might cost little but the company producing it has to also cover the cost of months  sometimes even years  of research and development and even after getting their product on retail shelves, they still have to provide support. It all cost money,  making the end cost of any product much higher.

Besides, if you enjoy a song enough to muck around downloading it illegally, why wouldn’t you want to pay for it? The average muso doesn’t get a huge cut of the retail price but it’s how they make a living.
And of course there’s the security issue: do you really know what you’re downloading? Is it worth risking your computer security to save a few bucks?

As for the worries about parents being held accountable for the actions of their children, what’s the problem? If your kids run up a huge toll bill, you pay it; if they crash the car it’s your problem. Why should the internet be any different?
If your kids won’t stop illegally downloading files, restrict their computer access, change the password or simply take the computer away. It’s up to parents to be the grown-ups.


Internuts: they’re out there

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

I love the internet.

Yes, I know love is one of those incredibly overused words like munted (someone’s been complaining about it on the Trade Me message board so it must be true), seriously (Grey’s Anatomy, you have a lot to answer for), literally, hate and the other one that has been so overused our editor has banned it so I’m not allowed to tell you what it is.

StraightJacketBut I digress. I love the internet for many reasons, but the main one is that so many people feel compelled to fly their freak flags and embrace their, ahem, quirks when online. (In case you didn’t get it, that was me trying to find a nicer way of saying the internet’s full of nutters).

I used to be a little taken aback by the number of homegrown Kiwi net-nutters there were but now I simply marvel at all they have to offer.

Especially on the Trade Me message board.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the board is full of special Kiwis, but there are quite a few. I mostly ignore their threads and posts (they are usually easy to spot by the titles they use, with lots of exclamation marks) because the message boards are a great little community and there are some really interesting discussions taking place there every day.

It’s sort of like talkback radio, without sound. And, like talkback radio, there are always going to be a few slightly less middle-of-the-road discussions.

My favourite one this week on the Trade Me message board was a post asking how to get a book banned from a school library. Because I guess it’s been decades since we had a good, old-fashioned book burning, and did I mention it was a Joy Cowley book? Yes, Joy Cowley. They’ll be wanting to ban Dr Seuss next.

I’m also always amazed by the number of people who don’t know the name of our prime minister.

I’ve been keeping a running tally of threads with his name in the title and so far 23 have his name as Key, 19 as Keys.

Is New Zealand the only country in the world where nearly half the population doesn’t know the name of its leader?

As I’m sure you all know, there are scammers everywhere out there trying to steal your cash.

And I’m sure you all know by now about the various fake bank/Trade Me/eBay emails that do the rounds telling you to reconfirm your login details or you account will be suspended.

phoneoldAnd I’m sure you are all intelligent enough not to fall for it.

I’m also sure you are all aware of the “this is Microsoft, you have a computer virus so please give us remote access to your computer” phonecall and won’t fall for that one either.

However, I got a new one last week and since then have had a further two calls along the same lines.

In all three cases, the caller told me how lucky I was that they were phoning on behalf of my bank, that I’d been overcharged for fees during the past few years and was due a refund of nearly $3000. I just had to supply my credit card number so they could organise the refund.

The first call, I said I didn’t have a credit card but since he was calling on behalf of my bank could he organise one for me. Or better still, could I use his? He hung up.

The second call, the very next day, I told him he’d called a psychic pet chat line and asked for his credit card number. He hung up, too.

The third call, I just said a whole bunch of rude things to the bloke that I can’t repeat here, this being a family newspaper and all. But it was therapeutic.


Apple’s timing is off

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

Apple-logoIt’s always heartening to hear that the big guns have misfired.

Apple has had another whoopsie with its sexy wee iPhones, with daylight savings time in the United States causing the latest hiccup.

Instead of the one-hour ”spring forward” that should have happened, the phones did the old one-hour ”fall back” that should happen at the end of daylight savings.

New Year was also a tough time for iPhone owners, with a glitch preventing iPhone clock alarms from sounding on New Year’s Day and they also had a hard time adjusting to the end of daylight savings time back in November.

According to the experts, the simple solution is to shut down and restart the phone or switch the phone to ”airplane mode” and then back.

I don’t know about you, but if I’d invested a good chunk of my hard-earned cash on a nice, shiny iPhone I’d be unimpressed at having to fiddle with the settings to get it to work properly.

I’m hoping there aren’t any reports of iPad 2 glitches because when I finally get around to adopting one of these lovely little creatures I want it to be as perfect as possible.

Small Disk I was holding out for the iPad 2 in hopes of getting a USB port but the Apples gurus went with cameras instead. I’d rather have the USB port but don’t really want to wait another year or two for the next model.

I’m always fascinated by new techy developments but also peeved by just how much they cost. However, I discovered a nifty wee lo-tech solution to a disturbing problem the other day that lightened by wallet by a mere $2.

Seymour the Wonder Cat likes the taste of toothpaste. I discovered this when I found him sitting on the vanity in our bathroom one day, licking my toothbrush. That Esk St store that used to be a $2 Shop sells toothbrush covers, four in a pack for $2. These little plastic wonders fit over the head of your toothbrush, thereby protecting it from floating germies and marauding cats.

Small DiskThe ill-fated television appearance of a certain self-proclaimed weather/earthquake expert seems to have boosted his profile hugely  a quick glance at the Trade Me message board shows that just about every second thread is about earthquakes and most of those have mention of his predictions.

The tragedy taking place in Japan has stirred things up even more and, sadly, the message board currently seems to be full of predictions of doom from all quarters, with TV psychics being held up as experts.

I’m as open-minded as the next person but, if I’m not mistaken, all those psychics trundled out for that murder-solving programme on the telly never actually solved a single murder, did they?

Then there are the links to conspiracy websites posted by the tinfoil-hat wearing brigade and the latest is a map that supposedly shows the projected path of fallout over the next 10 days will include the United States. However, a simple Google search shows is nothing more than a hoax and, again, it’s from one of those awful ”aliens among us/the CIA killed Lennon/they didn’t walk on the moon” websites.

Think before you link.

In this week’s video, we get a lesson in how not to do it from the world’s worst robber. The crim can’t get his mask on.


Don’t follow the advice I won’t give

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


I suppose it should come as no surprise that once again, that “triangle of life” email is doing the rounds following an earthquake.

Every time there’s a sizeable quake here in New Zealand, this email pops up.

Unlike a certain television presenter, I’m not going to claim that I’m getting all wound up over the scaremongering that goes hand-in-hand with this email while actually offering up the information that I believe is so very wrong as I yell loudly at some poor sod I’ve invited to explain the concept. Because that would be scaremongering to get ratings, wouldn’t it?

But I digress. Back to that stupid email and its discredited content.

If there is an earthquake, the good people at Civil Defence have some well-considered advice on what you should do: drop, cover and hold.

And it’s not just New Zealand earthquake experts who say this is the best advice, it’s the advice of those in the know around the world.

Except for the bloke who keeps popping up in the oft-quoted triangle of life emails. He gives such opposing advice that agencies such as Civil Defence here in New Zealand and the United States Geological Survey have been forced to respond to his unfounded claims.

But that doesn’t mean the emails stop coming. No, they are forwarded on by people who claim they are well-meaning.

And sadly, every time an official agency responds to the claims it gives them even more publicity.

Yes. I know that’s what I’m doing right now.

However, I won’t link to the email or discuss its content because over and over again I see links on message boards online to the sites that discredit the email with excited comments by the posters about this radical new advice.

That’s because people don’t always read the entire article they’ve linked to. They somehow manage to miss the parts that say the advice is dangerous.

If you ever get an email claiming to offer the best advice on how to survive an earthquake, warning of people lurking in supermarket car parks with fake perfume to knock you out or some other bizarre tale of woe, do some research before you pass it on and perpetuate the myth.


Net proves worth in quake coverage

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

The past week or so has been surreal but I can’t even begin to imagine just how bad it has been for those living through Christchurch’s devastating earthquake, dealing with it all first-hand instead of taking it all in as a reader or viewer via the new websites and TV channels.

The coverage has been amazing and I think it’s fair to say the internet has proved how powerful it can be in a breaking news story, giving ordinary people the chance to share their own videos and photos of the events as they unfold.

Because the internet is so immediate, people now expect to see what is happening when it happens, not a nicely packaged report at 6 o’clock: the way we want the news has changed and the media have changed to meet that demand.

No longer are newspapers competing with other newspapers, TV stations with TV stations. No, now it’s TV, radio, newspapers and websites all competing for the same audience and we’re all competing across all areas – newspapers shooting video for their websites and TV channels writing stories for their sites.

And it’s not just the media, we’re also competing with you: the bloke or bloke-ess on the street with a blog and a camera.

Some of the footage screened on television in the immediate aftermath was pretty raw and there are some images that as far as I’m aware haven’t been screened again since that first awful day – not because the footage lacked polish but because it was too graphic, too painful.

That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have screened in the first place – February 22, 2011, will forever be remembered as an important day in our history, a sad but memorable day when what I’ve always thought was our most beautiful city changed forever and so many lives were lost.

In years to come, all the videos and photos, all the stories, will become part of the record of that day.

Sure, there will always be some out there who take a certain voyeuristic pleasure in watching scenes of death and destruction but for most of us, those scenes were incredibly hard to watch. However, we needed to see that chaos in those first minutes after the quake to fully appreciate just how things were for our Cantabrian Kiwis.

If nothing else, I hope the earthquake has prompted those of us who had become a little too complacent to get organised and finish putting together our survival kits.

I’ll raise my hand and own up to being one of those people who had never quite got around to getting the final bits and pieces for my kit (waterproof matches and a can opener) but it’s all fully stocked now.

Let’s just hope I never have to use it.

Finally, here’s a video that relates to the quake but is a little light-hearted. The photos of this went viral on the net and there’s a lesson in all this: nothing’s ever as well hidden as you think it is.


New kid in hallowed company

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


Bieber? Really? I worry for the well-being of our youth.

I was temporarily filled with hope for the youth of today when I saw a report saying more than 75 per cent of their entertainment searches are for music.

Sadly, that hope disappeared like a sock in a washing machine when I read further into the Norton Online report and found that the No 1 top “entertainment” search was Justin Bieber.

Really? Justin Bieber?

That qualifies as entertainment?

Even more surprising is that John Lennon ranked No 2: so are we to assume there are children out there who do have halfway decent taste in music but they aren’t Googling quite as often as those who have Bieber fever?

Lennon was a top term here in New Zealand as well as Australia, India, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Singapore and the US, so well done Kiwi kids.

Although, I’m not even sure how Lennon can end up in the same list as that Bieber child and his floppy hair.

I see his fans were none too impressed with him missing out of the big gong at the Grammy Awards, launching a web attack against Esperanza Spalding after she took the best new artist title.

They got stuck into her Wikipedia page, editing it to include some not-very-complimentary comments, and also took to Twitter to make the odd death threat. As you do.

Oh well, they’ll be relieved that he got something at the Brit Awards so at least the world should be safe from marauding, sad little kiddies who want to cry and stamp their little feet because the Bieber didn’t win.

I’m sure that will come as something of a relief for us all.

But enough of my ranting about musical entertainment, how about some gaming entertainment?

The second annual Xbox LIVE Arcade House Party kicked off yesterday, which means there will be a bunch of new downloadable games launched on Xbox LIVE every Wednesday during the next month.

This week it was Hard Corps: Uprising from KONAMI for 1200 Microsoft points but during the next month you can look forward to Bejeweled Blitz Live!, Beyond Good & Evil HD, Torchlight and Full House Poker.

And while we’re on the subject of Xbox LIVE, songs from Missy Elliott, Rick James, Chic and Amerie were made available from Monday for Dance Central, the Kinect controller-free, body-tracking, fully immersive dance video game.

Wow, I feel exhausted just thinking about that description.

Dance Central is a top-selling game for Kinect for Xbox 360 that features routines for all levels of expertise (including those who have trouble not tripping over their own feet) along with a 32-song soundtrack that covers a wide range of dance music.

And now for something completely different: are you a Monopoly player?

We have a well-worn Monopoly board at home that has seen plenty of action but it’s nowhere as fancy as this one on show at the 2011 New York Toy Fair. It’s very smart but I’m not convinced it would be any fun: it shakes the dice for you, tells you what to do every step of the way and (I reckon) is just a little to smart for its own good.

I prefer my board games don’t speak to me. Besides, I like shaking my own dice.


Scams, spams: it’s hardly cricket

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

HeartsValentine’s Day is nearly upon us and it looks like the scammers see the day as a perfect opportunity to rip people off.

And you thought romance was dead.

Symantec has been keeping an eye on what’s happening in the world of online scams and reckons Valentine’s Day and the cricket World Cup have got all the spammers and scammers busy.

I suppose you’d need something of interest to do while the cricket’s on and at least the possibility of getting ripped off is likely to be exciting. Unlike cricket, which (according to some of the people I work with) is a sport. However, I’m not convinced.

Apart from the “is cricket a sport or a way of making drying paint and growing grass seem exciting” debate, I’m keeping a close watch on my email inbox in the hope that my usual spam collection might get a little more interesting. I reckon spammers have become quite lazy, with the same old subject lines over and over again making for a boring array of spam.

Although, I suppose the “increase the size of your package” deals might fit in (no pun intended) with the Valentine’s Day theme.

Apparently, Tuesday was Safer Internet Day and we’ve got Scam Awareness Week to look forward to at the end of the month (February 28 to March 4) so make sure you keep yourself safe online and be aware of the scams that are doing the rounds.

As an aside, who comes up with all these themed days and weeks? There are so many of them now it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all, and many of them seem to be quite similar. Maybe we should have a Send Your Local Internet Columnist $20 Week, or a Taser Appreciation Day.

Don’t forget to check out the Tangled Web blog. Send us your links, we’d love to hear from you.


Unending Explorer security woes

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

To further prove my point from a couple of weeks ago that yes, they really are out to get us and that my healthy level of paranoia is a good thing, Microsoft has announced another security hole in Internet Explorer.

Now, I could be unkind here and say something about it being nothing more than the latest in a long line of security holes and that there are message boards out there with sections dedicated to Microsoft’s security hole of the week, but I’ll resist the temptation because at least they’re trying to be up-front and honest about their shortcomings.

Anyway, Microsoft says the estimated 900 million users of the browser are at risk of having their computers hijacked and their personal information stolen by hackers.

As yet there’s no permanent fix for the security hole but there is a temporary fix that stops hackers exploiting a hole to install malicious scripts. Users could be targeted simply by visiting an infected website.

Microsoft announced the flaw in a security bulletin and in an accompanying blog post said:

The main impact of the vulnerability is unintended information disclosure.

‘For instance, an attacker could construct an HTML link designed to trigger a malicious script and somehow convince the targeted user to click it. Such a script might collect user information (eg, email), spoof content displayed in the browser, or otherwise interfere with the user’s experience.

Windows users who don’t browse the web with Internet Explorer are safe so if you haven’t taken one of the others for a test drive yet, now might be a good time.

I used to be a staunch Firefox fan but have been seriously impressed by the speed and friendliness of Google Chrome.

And now for something completely different, did you all remember to mark Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day on Monday?

The event is into its 10th year and if you’ve forgotten to do something special to mark the day, head on over to the Virtual Bubble Wrap site to do something about it.




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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