Online column

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

What is life without Cerf-ing the net?

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

vint-cerfThe internet has become so much a part of everyday life so quickly that it’s probably hard for the average young-ish person to imagine a time when it wasn’t around.

But there was a time, and I remember it because I’m not particularly young-ish.

Yes, I remember the days when there was great excitement over the arrival of that radical and exciting TV3 on our screens, when those young private radio upstarts at Foveaux Radio turned up, when the Goodnight Kiwi said “put the cat out” to mark the closing of our television channels each night, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was a muscle-bound actor and when the only kind of mail was the snail variety.

How things have changed.

The bloke who is known as the “father of the internet” (hi dad) reckons we’re going to run out of internet addresses very, very soon – within weeks, in fact. He also claims the blame for this worrying turn of events.

Vint Cerf was one of the people at the forefront of web technology and in 1977 came up with an experiment that connected computers all over the world.

The problem is the experiment never ended and here we are, 34 years later, with nearly all the 4 billion-ish available addresses in use.

The IPv4 protocol, which is what gets us all Googling, tweeting and searching the porn sites, provides numbered IP addresses that allow our computers to talk to others. Since 1977, the number of web users has exploded and now there are just a few million IP addresses left.

Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon in the form of IPv6 – a new, improved technology that the experts say will offer trillions of addresses.

It’s great that they are coming up with something to fix the problem, but surely they knew about it years ago? You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist (or indeed a computer scientist) to figure out a decade ago that the internet was here to stay. Anyway, much like the whole Y2K bug thing, we’re having a wee panic attack at the last moment and hoping like hell it gets fixed before the sky falls in. Or the web falls off.

Because, let’s face it: life without the web would be unimaginably bad. I can cope without nicotine (nearly six years now, yay me), I can cope without caffeine (just, although I did leap excitedly off the wagon after a five-year break a few months ago but am holding my intake at three a week), I can cope without television.

Without the internet how would millions of web-users embarrass themselves for the entertainment of millions of other web-users on YouTube?

Without the internet, my life would be a little less rich.

Thank you, Mr Cerf.


Everyone is out to get you on the web

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

They say that it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you (they being those who are out to get you), and that’s never more true than on the web.

It seems like everywhere you turn, there’s some lousy bugger wanting to break into your computer, wipe your hard drive and steal your collection of porn and/or pirated music.

Facebook, never far from controversy, is back in the spotlight with the news that it has allowed developers of apps access to sensitive information including telephone numbers and addresses.

I suppose it should come as no surprise: the social networking site hasn’t exactly got a fantastic track record when it comes to protecting our privacy.

According to a story on the Mail news site, internet security analysts and privacy experts are now advising people to remove their phone numbers and addresses from the site, so check your privacy settings people.

However, there is some good news on the social networking front: German company X-Pire has come up with software that will automatically put an expiration date on your online photos.

The digital eraser software will delete personal photos uploaded to websites such as Facebook and MySpace.
Just the ticket to protect the unwary from the dangers of posting too much of their lives online.

Now we just need something to stop people uploading a gazillion photos of themselves taken while gazing into their webcams or cellphones while performing the infamous duckface pose.

Finally, one more safety warning but this time it doesn’t involve Facebook. If you must text, make sure you are in a safe place: don’t text and walk, people have been known to fall into fountains.


Vanished online friends

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

The web is great for making connections (being nothing more than a whole bunch of connections itself) but there are also disconnections to think about.

Last week I mentioned that through the wonders of the web, I’d caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen for more than 20 years. This week the news was pretty much the polar opposite.

I was one of about a gazillion people around the world who used the early version of the VP Chat program way back in the mists of time before Facebook was around.

social-networking-movie Yes gentle reader, there was a time before Facebook.

Anyway, the chat program had many different chat rooms available but somehow a group of around 40 regular chatters used to dodge all the sleazy types looking for someone to talk dirty to them and the internet trolls looking to pick fights and we’d take over our own little corner of cyberspace to talk about anything and everything.

We shared stories about our partners, our kids, work and day-to-day life. In fact, we were a regular little community of people from all corners of the world who just got together to shoot the breeze. Just like Facebook now but without the privacy woes and Farmville requests.

When the program fell over somewhere around 10 years ago most of us moved on to use other methods of chat, including Paltalk and MSN Messenger.

VP did eventually end up back online through the efforts of some of the former employees of the company that ran the program but by that stage we’d all gone our separate ways. And while some of us have kept in touch over the ensuing decade, some of us lost touch.

This week I got an email at my  Hotmail address from one of the old crew from all those years ago.

He’d been clearing out some files from an old computer he had tucked away in his attic when he found a text document listing a bunch of passwords, including one for an email address he hadn’t used for nearly 10 years.
That login gave access to an address book packed with contact details for long-lost chat friends from the past, so he sent us all emails.

Some didn’t reply, most likely because the email address are no longer active, but one reply didn’t come for a much sadder reason: our old friend bellaboo had died a couple of years ago at the hands of someone she should have been able to trust.

While she was someone I’d never actually met in the flesh, and I hadn’t chatted to her online for so many years, I was still a bit gobsmacked at the news.

Out of curiosity, I Googled one of her other online usernames and discovered an old Blogger account still active, with posts every week or two right up until just a few days before her death.

And that got me thinking about just what happens in the online world when someone dies in the real world.

A couple of the message boards I use have had regular contributors die during the past year and in those cases, someone passed on the news via the boards.

While the news can shock at least we knew what had happened.

However, after getting the sad news about my old chat friend from years ago I got to wondering about the other people I’d lost touch with online.

Some of them had seemingly fallen off the face of the earth, leaving behind unfinished blogs, unanswered emails and unexpected questions.

There has been much talk online about United States computer guru Bill Zeller, who chose to end his life in a very public way on January 2, posting his suicide note on his Facebook account before hanging himself. As awful as it was, at least his online friends know what has become of him.


Looking forward to another year

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

Well, here we are then, staring down the barrel of another year.

I’ll get the cliche over and done with by trundling out that oft-quoted old chestnut here about time going fast and be done with it (although, to tell the truth, I used to think that was just something old people said, now I know it’s true. Either that or I’m old).

But I digress, back to the column.

While I’m looking forward to what 2011 has to offer, I’m also happy to say 2010 was a pretty good year for the most part.

Oh sure, there were some glitches and unexpected unpleasantness  for example, the incident with Seymour the Wonder Cat and my toothbrush springs to mind.

And then there was my personal website falling over and the hosting company I’d been with for the past eight years or so suddenly ignoring me.

And let’s not forget the second buggered luggage incident with Air New Zealand in less than two years (and here we are four months down the track from the most recent incident and I’m still awaiting their promised form that confirms for my insurance company that I did actually fly with them because Air NZ’s insurance doesn’t cover for damage to things that stick out of luggage, like handles, because really, who needs silly, pointless things like handles on their luggage).

But never fear, gentle reader, it’s not been all bad.

Even the bad things had good points: I’ve now found a new, better host for my website and at least I now know our national carrier has a policy of consistency.

Not surprisingly, the web was a big part of my year: like everyone else, I spent far too much time lurking between Trade Me, Facebook and Twitter. Oh, and You Tube (the biggest but most fun time-waster out there).

I also reconnected with an old friend I haven’t seen for more than 20 years. We had been writing letters to each other until eight or nine years ago but simply lost touch so it was absolutely fantastic when she suddenly popped up on Facebook during the leadup to Christmas.

Another web connection for me has been my new online stalker, who sends the occasional email and dozens of comments to my blog every week telling me about his fashion choices (doesn’t like wearing underwear, apparently) and some of his, um, personal habits.

However, I really wish he’d invest in a decent dictionary because I’m not happy with a stalker with such bad spelling.

As I look forward to the coming year, I’m hoping for one that is as busy as the last one, that all the spammers out there get projectile diarrhoea, that the moron who has phoned me three times now claiming to be from Microsoft and asking for remote access to my computer gets a rash on his dangly bits and that my stalker will learn how to use an apostrophe.

Hope 2011 is good to you all.


Trade Me: the gift that keeps giving

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

It’s that awkward time of the year where Christmas is wrapped up (no pun intended) and the New Year is looming on the horizon.

There’s really not much to do except eagerly await news of whether this is my year to get something in the New Year honours (I live in hope), work your way through a fridge full of leftovers (luckily Seymour the Wonder Cat likes trifle) and plan the Christmas pressie book/music voucher spending spree.

However, spare a thought for those less fortunate: yes, not everyone got exactly what they wanted for Christmas.

As Kiwis chomp on their indigestion tablets after too much ham, pavlova and bubbly, they are also listing thousands of unwanted Christmas gifts for sale on Trade Me.

A press release from the auction site on Boxing Day estimated that since 4pm on Christmas Day, more than 12,000 items had been added to the site’s auction listings.

And they reckoned most of those were from punters trying to ping off unwanted gifts.

In fact, Trade Me spokesdude Paul Ford says Boxing Day listings were up 20 per cent on last year, with  most items added between 8pm and 11pm on Christmas night.

So is it that the gift-selecting abilities of Kiwis have turned to crap or are the intended recipients simply more mercenary these days? And which came first: the desire to get rid of undesirable pressies or the ability to sell them online?

I guess the fear of being caught out stops us from regifting those unwanted socks or other festive undesirables and being able to sell to a total stranger at the other end of the country makes the whole online auction thing look like a pretty good way of dealing with it.

However, knowing my luck, if I tried it I’d end up with the person who gave me the unwanted gift bidding on the item so they could give me a matching set next Christmas.


Festive consideration

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

Is everyone feeling all festive and tinsel-riffic yet?

It’s getting dangerously close to the big day and with all the shopping chaos and weirdly muggy weather it wouldn’t be any great surprise to find everyone in a bad mood but to be honest, I’m finding things are the exact opposite: everyone’s very chirpy and, even better, considerate.

I went out for lunch the other day with a friend and we were both impressed by the nice manners of several drivers who stopped and waved pedestrians across a very busy Esk St and a nice bloke at the Kiln who held the door for us. Well done to you all, I’m sure your mums would be proud and that Santa will be impressed.

Yes, I know Christmas is about more than just the gifts (there’s the opportunity to have a festive Drambuie with the extended family, too). I know it’s the big guy’s birthday but I’m not particularly religious.

Note to all those about to flame me with comments and emails about how my soul is now destined to spend an eternity getting crispy and Lucifer’s BBQ and Grill Shack: I didn’t say I’m a heathen, I didn’t say I believe we’re all going to be picked up by a big spaceship, I didn’t say I had a pet sacrificial goat, I simply said I wasn’t particularly religious. I can appreciate the “reason for the season” but I’m not going to head off to church to sing about it.

Anyway, according to a story on the Mail Online website, Christ is being ”airbrushed out of Christmas” by retailers, so I guess I’m not alone.

The paper checked out Christmas cards on offer at major supermarkets and found that less than 1 per cent stocked cards with religious themes.

If you’re looking for something special for that hard-to-buy-for person in your life, I have a few wee suggestions that might do the trick:

  • No 1 on my list is to aid with, well, number ones. Ladies, have you ever wanted to have that very bloke-ish ability to pee standing up? Well now you can with the Shewee, the ”portable urination device for women”.
  • If that ”wee” idea doesn’t float your boat, how about the Emergency Yodel Button? Because isn’t that something we’d all love to find under the tree?
  • OK, maybe not.  My final gift suggestion is perfect for the gluten-intolerant out there: an inflatable fruitcake.  What more could you want?
Have you checked out the Tangled Web blog? We’re posting a Christmas song every day until December 25. Is your favourite there?

An iPad by any other name

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

ipadIt might be the new product with the stupidest name ever but there’s no denying just how excited all the tech geeks get about the iPad.

Sure, it sounds more like a feminine hygiene product than a grunty little piece of technological treasure but it’s taken the world by storm (both online and offline) and even I’m considering whether or not I should add one to my family of computing devices at home.

But not until Apple adds a few more features to the wee beastie, of course.

Rumours are rife online that the iPad 2, initially expected in January, will be in stores by February. I’m not sure what that will mean for Kiwi consumers, but other rumours are suggesting the next generation of Apple’s latest success story might  include cameras, FaceTime video chat and a mini-USB port.

Despite the current model’s lack of features (my iPod touch does more), Apple has sold more than 7 million iPads this year.

I reckon I probably will buy an iPad when I’m ready to replace my old laptop, and by then it should represent much better value. For now, I’ll probably consider an e-reader to make holidays a whole lot easier: on my last holiday I got through eight books in seven days so an e-reader would keep the luggage weight down.

I see Mr WikiLeaks himself, Julian Assange, is now in custody but not before providing plenty of headlines and giggles. A fake @alqaeda profile on Twitter, featuring everyone’s favourite cave-dweller Osama bin Laden, tweeted earlier this week:  “Came home to find a blond Australian sitting in my cave. Says he just needs a place to hide for a few days.”

And the ever-interesting Sarah Palin has taken to her Facebook page to suggest Assange should have been hunted down with the same urgency as al Qaeda and Taleban leaders.

If that had been the case, he’d have been safe for another decade or so.


Sheltering from the leaks

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

I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I was when I realised the latest batch of leaked WikiLeaks documents didn’t give away any of my secrets.

I might not have been spying on foreign governments or plotting nasty things against other countries but I do have a secret stash of Drambuie that I’m quite fond of and I’d hate for that information to get into the wrong hands. Or glasses.

News reports say the United States might be facing something of an uphill battle if they want to charge WikiLeaks head honcho Julian Assange over his leaking of all those oh-so-sensitive documents.

However, he is now on Interpol’s most-wanted list after those rape allegations in Sweden.

No one actually knows where the Aussie-born Assange is right at this very moment but the experts say the reason America would have such a hard time charging him if he ever pops up in the States is that there would have to be proof he was not only in contact with representatives of a foreign power but also intended to provide them with secrets.

For example, an email to some foreign power (like my husband) telling them a juicy secret (like the Drambuie’s in the cupboard behind the glass fruit bowl).

That might be the case, but I’m sure the “authorities” would be keen to take him on a waterboarding tour of that ever-so-popular tourist spot: Guantanamo Bay.

The whole thing’s been interesting and while I’m as fascinated as the next nosey bugger at some of the information that has been leaked, a lot of it has been more hype than substance.

I think we are all intelligent enough to know that yes, powerful countries are eavesdropping on the business of other countries. However, I don’t necessarily believe we need to have every detail of their nosiness confirmed: it doesn’t do anything to stop potential spying (they will just get better at hiding the evidence) and creates a lot of scandal, suspicion and bad feeling.

Even worse, it gives the tin-foil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists more to obsess about.

Small DiskHow important do you reckon beauty is to a website?

As a way of promoting Internet Explorer 9, Microsoft has launched the Wuglies: the search for our ugliest website.

Go to thewuglies to check out the nominations and vote for your favourite ugly site.

The wining Wugly will get a much-needed design makeover.


Facebook email may struggle to grab users

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

It’s always good to see new, free web tools available for us consumers. However, I don’t know that I’ll be rushing to join the Facebook email/messaging revolution.

The social networking site has announced a new messaging service that it hopes will handle email and other communications across different services.

In other words, Facebook is taking on the likes of Google and Yahoo in the email and messaging stakes.

Yahoo has been around for a long time so I’m guessing a lot of people will probably stay there out of sheer convenience: if you’ve had the same email address for years you are hardly likely to want to change it now.

As for Google’s Gmail, it’s a fine example of a well-thought-out email system that offers huge chunks of storage space and integrates beautifully with all of Google’s other goodies.

Yes, Facebook has the whole social networking thing going on that could integrate nicely with an email system and yes, Google Chat hasn’t really gained any traction, but I still think Facebook will be hard pressed to pull loyalty away from Gmail.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg gave a speech earlier this year saying email was on the way out and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg echoed that sentiment yesterday.

Zuckerberg reckons that while the new messaging system will let users have their own email addresses, its main focus won’t be email. Instead, he reckons the new system will let users send instant messages and text messages.

That’s all very well, but anyone who uses Facebook will know that the already-built-in chat system is at times quite slow, and often simply locks up if you look at it the wrong way.

Another point the Facebook dudes have made in the past is that going by information from their users, just 11 per cent of teens check their email daily and that if you look at the current habits of teens you’ll see the future habits of the rest of us. That might be the case but surely we shouldn’t forget that the older age group is a rapidly growing group and still like to check their email daily.

Besides, with Facebook’s already dodgy track record when it comes to protecting our privacy, I’m not sure how comfortable I’d feel about using the site for email or messaging.
I think I’d rather use other more established platforms for that: sites that have already shown they won’t treat my privacy like a joke.

Yes, I’m a Facebook user but as things are now, I choose what information I have on the site. I don’t want to change that.

» I see Stephen Fry has managed to land himself in hot water again, this time around with a bit of a Twitter rant where he called a student who wrote about him a “cynical ignorant  … ”  er, think of a word that rhymes with trucker. Be careful out there in Twitter-land, you never know who might be watching.

» Have you checked out the Tangled Web? Send us your links, we’d love to hear from you.


Plugin sinks drunken tweets

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

There’s some good news for those of you who drink and browse in the form of the Social Media Sobriety Test.

A news report on Stuff this week says the plugin for Firefox web browsers has been devised by an American internet security firm as a way of stopping us making dicks our ourselves on Facebook while liquored up.

Webroot reckons nothing good happens online after 1am (really? I do some of my best browsing during the wee small hours) so it allows you to block access to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter during set hours.

If you try to post to one of the nominated sites during the blocked hours you will haveto pass a test to prove your sobriety: typing the alphabet backwards perhaps, orfollowing a circle with your cursor.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’d have some difficulty typing the alphabet backwards even when sober so I’d be buggered. z x y w v u … er, I give up.

Besides, some of those drunken burbles on the web are fascinating reading. You only need to look at the gems that appear on Failbook and Facebook Humor.

And let’s not forget the likes of Tracy and her message typed in the wrong box on Facebook.

The post is now legendary online. Warning: don’t click the link if you’re of a sensitive disposition.

Don’t forget to check out the Tangled Web blog and send us your links.



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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