Last night many Aucklanders switched off their electricity for Earth Hour. It wasn’t an unusual event.

That’s because there have been at least four major power cuts in my North Shore suburb since I moved there at the end of 2004.

In the last five years, the power would have been off for roughly one day in every year. I’ve also seen two disruptive power cuts while working in Auckland’s central business district. In at least one case, the city, and my newspaper, lost an entire day’s production.

Earlier this year the upmarket suburbs of Newmarket and Parnell suffered two more power cuts. The New Zealand Herald covered the story on February 19 in Power restored to Auckland suburbs saying shopkeepers’ confidence in Vector (the local power company) was at an all-time low.

As we shall see, that is saying something.

Not good enough

To be frank, it just isn’t good enough. Admittedly things in Auckland aren’t as bad as, say, Manila or Jakarta, but for a first world country like New Zealand, frequent power cuts are not a good look.

Ten years ago when US President Bill Clinton visited Auckland for the APEC meeting he brought a portable electricity generator. It parked outside his chic city centre hotel on the back of a large, dark, unmarked truck that some locals dubbed the ‘stealth generator’.

In any other major western city, Clinton’s precaution might have seemed a little over the top. It would have insulted his hosts.

But Auckland is different. A year and a half before the leader of the free world flew into New Zealand’s largest city, the locals were checking their shopping change by candlelight when the Auckland’s lights went out and stayed out for almost six weeks.

Wikipedia entry on 1998 Auckland power crisis.

Even now, more than ten years after that blackout, many Auckland residents fear their city’s power supply is still not secure. With good reason because at 8:30 on 12th June 2006 the power went off again. Half of Auckland including the entire CBD was without power for over four hours. Some parts of the city suffered a longer outage.

Wikipedia entry on 2006 Auckland power cut

The problems are partly a result of overzealous free-market reforms. The greed and arrogance of power company managers are also a reason.

There’s an obvious parallel here with the global financial crisis.

And then there are New Zealand’s planning laws. These mean generators have built no new power stations to meet booming demand. Thankfully this looks set to change with the new Kaipara gas-fired power station finally getting the green light. But that’s only the start. We need more.

Electricity hampered by bureaucracy

The robust networks needed to move power from where it is generated into the city are still often held up by endless bureaucracy and over the top planning processes.

At the time of earlier crises, Auckland’s power supply depended on four cables: two gas-filled cables and two oil-filled cables. On 22 January 1998, a gas-filled cable failed. Power wasn’t disrupted as the remaining three cables took up the load.

On 9 February, the second gas-filled cable was cut. The power went off and Mercury Energy Limited, which operated the cables, asked its customer to voluntarily cut power consumption by 10 percent.

On 19 February, the emergency started in earnest when a fault in a oil-filled cables caused both remaining cables to shut down, cutting off all power to the city.

Mercury repaired one cable quickly, but it could only supply a reduced load. Power rationing was introduced to the city centre, which saw rolling two-hour power cuts.

At 5.30pm on Friday 20 February, the last cable failed. Mercury issued a statement that it “could no longer supply the Central Business District with electricity”. A limited standby cable managed to provide power to the district’s two hospitals and other emergency services.

For more than five weeks the nation’s largest city was plunged into chaos. Many businesses had little choice but to close down temporarily. Others relocated staff to other New Zealand cities or even flew them to Australia.

50,000 workers affected

At least 50,000 workers and 8,500 businesses were affected. Estimate costs were around $NZ400 million, though that figure does not include tourism, international trade and financial services. In a small nation like New Zealand, the shut-down was serious enough to tip an already fragile economy into recession.

Who knows how much investment hasn’t happened because of the flaky infrastructure?

At the time of the blackout, Jim Macaulay, chairman of Mercury Energy, the company that supplied Auckland’s electricity, told the media it was “the most incredible, freakish bad luck you could ever imagine.” However, the government inquiry into the blackout found that there were many warnings that such an event could occur.

Well, it could happen again. Earth Hour should have acted as a reminder to people living in a city where electricity and light can’t entirely be taken for granted

While the latest upgrades to Xobni give Outlook another shot in the arm, they underline the shortcomings of desktop email. Giving up on Outlook and moving to Gmail may be a better option.

Xobni (inbox backwards) turns everyday email into a relationship management tool by focusing on people and not messages.

The program is a Microsoft Outlook plug-in. It sits on top of the application and digs into Outlook’s data, slicing and dicing it to emphasis your links with contacts.

Xobni’s toolbar occupies the right hand side of Outlook’s main display providing contact information about the person who sent the incoming message.

Are they important?

You’ll see the person’s name at the top of the Xobni pane along with their photo if you’ve stored one in your Outlook Contacts. You’ll also find statistics on your communications with them and a rank – so you’ll know something about that person’s relative importance to you.

If there is a phone number anywhere in the messages or contact details, it’ll be shown – it’s clickable. Likewise a link allows you to quickly schedule a calendar appointment with that person.

Xobni shows recent conversations and email threads between you and the person in question along with clickable links to any attachments that have travelled between you. There are also improvements to Outlook search – though Microsoft’s updated desktop search nullifies the value of this.

Xobni’s instant productivity pay-off

On their own, none of these features are earth-shattering; together they deliver an instant productivity payoff. You’ll find you won’t need to switch between your messages and contact database – that’s a time saver in itself. You’ll also need to run fewer searches – just about everything relevant to an email is quickly to hand.

Some of Xobni’s features seem advanced. For example, the program does a good job of figuring out when someone uses more than one email address and lumping all their messages together. Another neat trick is the way it mines emails for the names of other people in your contact database, then displays them in a clickable form.

Xobni isn’t only about improved productivity; it also delivers a fresh people-oriented way of looking at information allowing you to build better relationships.

So why am I not convinced by Xobni?

I used Xobni for a few months when it first appeared. While the application looks good and can boost productivity for some users, I found it didn’t help me in any practical way. If anything, Xobni reports are a distraction. They are pretty to look at and interesting at first – but that’s about it.

What’s more, Gmail has improved to the point where its now perverse for a person working alone to prefer Outlook. Ironically, Gmail’s weakness is the way it handles people. If Xobni worked with Gmail, the developers would have a killer product on their hands.

Finally, Xobni slows Outlook down and on occasion stops it from working — albeit temporarily.

Xobni makes sense if you work for a company where you have to use Outlook, live in Outlook and the support policy is liberal enough to allow you to install it.

To me Xobni is the chrome plated hub caps and giant tail fins on those beautiful, but dinosaur-like American cars from the 1960s in an era when we’re all driving more practical Toyotas. It is an anachronism.

Eric Brown picked this up from CIO magazine.

The publication’s recent survey shows serious impact to IT budgets.

This looks like a US survey. Australian and New Zealand IT budgets are falling, but not by as much. At least so far.

Top three points are:

  • More than half of IT heads (53%) now plan to slash budgets in response to unfavourable economic conditions
  • 59% of CIOs are implementing IT hiring freezes
  • A little over one third (34%) have begun reducing IT headcount

via CIO Survey shows serious impact to IT budgets | Eric D. Brown – Technology, Strategy, People & Projects.

A guide to the most common computer security threats facing home and small business users in 2009:

Malware:

A generic name for all malicious software. Some people include greyware which is software that’s annoying rather than dangerous.

Virus:

A program designed to automatically copy itself from one computer to another so that it spreads. Viruses attach to other pieces of software or hidden inside images, games and music files. They usually travel from machine to machine by email, instant messaging or file transfers.

Although some viruses are harmless, most are disruptive or dangerous. The worst can stop a PC from working.

Worm:

Another kind of self-replicating program. Unlike viruses, worms can automatically travel from machine to machine without being attached to other pieces of software. This means in addition to any other damage, they slow networks because they can consume bandwidth.

Trojan:

The name given to a program which looks harmless, but has an unexpected malicious purpose. Some start their mischief immediately, others may lurk for a time, possibly collecting data without the computer owner’s knowledge.

Spyware:

A program designed to collect information about a computer and its user that the spyware author can use to make money. Typically spyware may watch your web browsing and target pop-up advertising at you or divert you to other web sites.

Rootkit:

A program designed to change a computer’s operating system, usually to hide the behaviour of other malware.

Keylogger:

Software that collects keyboard input – possibly to collect passwords or important account information. Keyloggers send this information back to criminals allowing them to impersonate users and rob their online banking accounts or do other mischief.

Botnet:

Programs used to control, update or trigger activity in previously infected systems. Often hundreds or thousands of related botnets are triggered simultaneously to create vast amounts of traffic and take sites offline in what is known as a denial of service attack.

Backdoor:

A way of getting undetected access to a computer system.

Zombie:

A computer controlled by another user to do malicious tasks online.

Spam:

Unwanted email, instant messages or other form of electronic communication. Spam clogs email inboxes and the sheer volume of spam (as much as 95 percent of all email traffic) slows networks.

Phishing:

When someone fraudulently tries to get hold of important information such as passwords and bank account details by pretending to be a trustworthy source. Phishers may send authentic-looking emails asking for the data or with links to a fake website.

Adware:

Strictly speaking this isn’t a threat, but an annoyance. It refers to any software that bombards you with unwanted advertising.

Computer virus spreads to humans
Computer virus spreads to humans: yeah right

Computer security is about outwitting criminals. We know they target your devices, networks and online accounts.

The question is: How successful will they be?

Your devices can be vulnerable from the moment you hit the on button.

It’s worse online. Threats multiply. Your data, your online accounts and your privacy are under attack all the time.

While there’s no sure way to make your systems, account and data safe, there’s plenty you can do to minimise risks.

Computer security

The risks are real. At the less worrying end of the spectrum, neighbours might hop on your wireless router and surf the web at your expense using your broadband account. Or pranksters may load your PC with troublesome viruses.

There are people, including some seemingly respectable companies, who spy on your online activities. That data, some may be private, is valuable to others.

More seriously, crooks want to control your devices so they can suck money from your bank accounts.

Others want to hijack your machine so they carry out their crimes or even terrorist acts at arm’s length leaving a trail that investigators may track to your front door.

Getting Started

It sounds scary, but an industry has evolved to help keep you safe. These days you need a variety of tools to fight a complex range of security threats (see the next post: Computer security: what are the main threats).

Depending on your level of expertise, an anti-virus might help. You may also get value from anti-spyware tools or a virtual private network. You may already have a firewall. Make sure you are using it.

This may sound complicated and expensive, but all-in-one security suites can make life easier and help you sleep at night.

There are free security suites, some are as good as paid for versions. However, if you pay, you’ll get support.

Suites are particularly helpful if you’re not a security expert because the separate tools in security suites should interact smoothly with each other and offer overlapping protection from today’s nastiest threats which can use a blend of techniques to probe your defences.

Technology companies talk up their products and technologies. Let’s not mince words: they are hype merchants.

They hire professional public relations consultants and advertising agencies to whip up excitement on their behalf.

Sometimes they convince people in the media to follow suit and enthuse about their new gizmos or ideas.

Occasionally the media’s constant search for hot news and interesting headlines leads to overenthusiastic praise or a journalist swallowing a trumped-up storyline.

Hype cycle

None of this will be news to anyone working in the business. What you may not know is that the IT industry’s shameless self-promotion has now been recognised and enshrined in Gartner’s Hype Cycle.

Gartner Hype Cycle

 

Gartner analysts noticed a pattern in the way the world (and the media) viewed new technologies. This is a huge initial burst of excitement rapidly followed by a sigh of disillusion and, eventually, a more balanced approach.

This observation evolved into the Hype Cycle represented graphically in the diagram. The horizontal axis shows time, while the vertical axis represents visibility.

Five phases:

In the first phase, Garter calls it the “technology trigger”, a product launch, engineering breakthrough or some other event generates enormous publicity.

At first only a narrow audience is in on the news. They may hear about it through the specialist press and  start thinking about its possibilities.

Things snowball. Before long the idea reaches a wider audience and the mainstream media pays attention.

This interest gets out of control until things reach the second phase, which Gartner calls “the peak of inflated expectations”. At this point the mainstream media becomes obsessed – you can expect to see muddle-headed but enthusiastic TV segments about the technology.

You know things have peaked for sure when current affairs TV shows and radio presenters pay attention.

At this point people typically start to have unrealistic expectations. While there may be successful applications of the technology, there are often many more failures behind the scenes.

Trough of disillusionment

Once these disappointments become public, the Hype Cycle shifts into what Gartner poetically calls the “trough of disillusionment”. The mainstream press will turn its back on the story, others will be critical. Sales may drop. The idea quickly falls out of favour and seems unfashionable.

Occasionally ideas and technologies sink beneath the waves at this point, but more often they re-emerge in the “slope of enlightenment”. This is where companies and users who persisted through the bad times come to a better understanding of the benefits on offer. As a rule of thumb, most of the media has lost interest and may even ignore things, the good stuff just happens quietly in the background.

Finally, the cycle reaches the “plateau of productivity”. This occurs when the benefits of the idea or technology are now widely understood and accepted.

One day a device will do for newspapers what the iPod did for music. I haven’t seen it yet.

Mark Fletcher at the excellent Australian Newsagency Blog does a great job of warning people in his industry about the disruption they face from digital technologies. In this post he points to a ComputerWorld story about the future of ePaper, which the author says is “just around the corner”.

E-paper has potential. It could disrupt publishing business models which are already under attack from the internet. Australian, and other, newsagents need to keep an eye on how publishing technologies develop.

Just as iTunes killed off record shops, a newspaper and magazine equivalent could reduce newsagencies to selling lottery tickets and bus cards.

It threatens everyone working in newspapers, magazines, books, related businesses and their associated food chains.

“Just around the corner” – yeah right

Yet I question whether ePaper is “just around the corner”. Claims like that can never be taken seriously until practical products hit the market.

Moreover, I question whether this kind of ePaper is the most pressing threat.

I’ve been  writing about technology since 1980. In that year I saw my first voice recognition system and the first example of what are now called electronic books.

The proud makers of the 1981 voice recognition device told me the hardware would be “ready for prime time” within two years and keyboards would quickly be a thing of the past. In 2008 voice recognition technology is still around two years away from prime time.

Likewise, in 1981 electronic book makers were confidently predicting we’d soon be cuddling up at night with their hardware. It’s 2008 and to date I still haven’t seen anything as impressive or as easy to read as ink stamped or squirted on crushed, dead trees.

One day we may get there – not yet.

In the meantime, the internet continues to build momentum delivering news and other information to desktops, laptops and handheld devices like Apple’s iPod-derived iPhone. Although none of these are anything like as satisfactory an as paper, people can and do use them to read news.