Archives for November 2011

Christmas shopping tips

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Sandra Vogel Sandra Vogel | 17:11 UK time, Wednesday, 30 November 2011

More and more of us are doing shopping online and finding there are some great benefits. To list just three: you can shop from the comfort of your own home, stuff gets delivered to your door so you don't have to carry it from shop to home and you can find things that it might take you an age to source (or be impossible to find at all) using traditional high street methods.

 

Father Christmas in his grotto

Then there are the price differentials. Shopping online can save you a huge amount of money. My most recent example was buying a single long term wear gas-permeable contact lens. I lost one, and the optician quoted me a price for a replacement. I decided to shop online and I got the replacement for half the price. It took about two weeks to arrive from 'foreign parts', but I'm very happy with it.

At this time of year many of us will be thinking about buying somewhat more exciting items than contact lenses and many of us will turn to the internet, some for the first time ever, to help lighten the load of Christmas shopping.

It's worth remembering though that not everything is rosy in the online shopping garden and, to keep the metaphor going, little insects can jump up and sting you. Thankfully there are some basic guidelines that'll help keep you shop safely.

  • When you find something you want, and have moved to the checkout, make sure you double check the total price. Do delivery costs seem fair or will you end up paying more than you'd anticipated and does the cost seem high or low to you?
  • Check delivery times. You may find sites sign you up for first class or courier delivery automatically when you don't really need these. Switching to a longer wait can save a few pounds. In some cases it will make delivery free.
  • Check the terms and conditions of the seller. Make sure you are satisfied with how they handle your personal details - and you have checked or unchecked any boxes that authorise or stop the seller passing your personal details on to third parties.
  • Popular ways to pay online are by credit and debit card or by PayPal. PayPal is not difficult to set up, and it is a sort of holding account for your money, though it does make small charges on some transactions. Check their website for the full details. The UK Consumer Credit Act means that credit card purchases between £100 and £30,000 are protected regardless of where the seller is located. Faulty, broken and undelivered goods are among those purchases for which the credit card company shares responsibility with the seller to refund you. Note that debit card transactions are not protected so it is not a good idea to use a debit card for online shopping.
  • Be healthily wary of any seller you have not used before. Novel and distinctive items often come from sellers you might not find on the high street, and that's one of the great joys of buying online. But how can you be sure the seller you like the look of is bona fide? There are a few rules of thumb. Web sites which have been around for a while are probably OK. Newer ones are probably OK too, in fact, but you might want to be a little more circumspect about them. All web sites should have a real address - in a location that actually exists.
  • One of the reasons we buy online is to reduce costs. And as my contact lens example shows, you can save quite a lot of money over high street prices. But do check prices before making a purchase to be sure that you are getting a good deal. Online doesn't always mean cheaper. There are online price comparison web site that will automate some of the checking process for you, but they don't do all the leg work. Depending on the overall cost of what you're buying, shopping around could reap substantial savings.
  • Keep a record of everything you order, so that you are ready to chase anything that doesn't arrive when it should.

Don't let any of this put you off doing some of your Christmas shopping on the internet this year. It really can result in some wonderful gifts. Just bear in mind some basic common sense. If a web site looks dodgy, a price too good to be true, a product specification way beyond what you'd expect, be sceptical.

Oh, and please don't leave all to the last minute!

WebWise news report - ICT in schools

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 10:26 UK time, Wednesday, 30 November 2011

When I was at school, ICT (information and communication technology) lessons took up one hour a week over three years. Starting with typing, I gradually got my words per minute rate up to a no-excuses-for-not-doing-homework standard, before learning basic skills on Office software and moving on to simple HTML and web pages. For me, those lessons were a solid foundation on which to build my computer skills further – not just showing me various functions, but also helping me to think in a way conducive to picking up new programmes and technology.

 

Schoolchildren using a computer at a, a secondary school in London

Schoolchildren using a computer at a secondary school in London

Ten years on and it seems little has changed. According to a government-backed report, the current school curriculum "focuses in ICT on office skills rather than the more rigorous computer science and programming skills which high-tech industries like video games and visual effects need."

The Next Gen findings point towards a need for more exacting teaching of computing in schools to help the UK's digital and creative industries. Written by Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope, leading lights in visual effects and gaming, the report proposes to put computer science on the national curriculum alongside physics and maths, with the expectation that students can further progress their technical knowledge and land jobs in the digital sector.

Bigger than even the film and television industries, video gaming in the UK is worth £2 billion in global sales, but has fallen from third to sixth place in the global development rankings, while the UK visual effects industry sources talent from overseas due to skills shortages at home. The report seeks to address these issues and looks to schools to develop talent for these fields to draw on.

Cynics may think proposed changes would dumb down the education system or even glamorise 'non-academic' subjects, but I find it an extremely exciting development. Anything that gives students a fuller picture of the real range of career possibilities available to them – and encourages them to start learning right away – is a step towards creating a more fulfilling educational experience, not to mention strengthening industry.

It sounds like a golden opportunity to fully engage youngsters in the very things that can so often distract them from their studies in the first place: computer games.

If computer programming feels a bit far off, then start learning the basics on BBC WebWise.

WebWise news report - Bionic contact lenses

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 12:10 UK time, Wednesday, 23 November 2011

If you can't get enough of futuristic films or TV, then you'd be forgiven for thinking that one of the most recent technological advances has been around for years. This week Washington University announced that bionic contact lenses had reached a crucial stage in their development and could be well on their way to projecting anything from video games to emails in front of the wearer's eyes.

Having been tested on rabbit eyes, researchers believe the device is suitable for humans and could be used to provide medical information to the user by linking to biosensors in their body. It's also expected it could achieve both its practical and recreational potential as an alternative to sat nav for drivers, as well as having a large impact on video gaming.

Still needing to overcome obstacles like battery life, lead researcher Professor Babak Parviz said: "Our next goal is to incorporate some predetermined text in the contact lens."

This could mean no more looking down at your phone or laptop to check your emails, but instead reading them in the supermarket aisle while examining salmon fillets.

In the video gaming world it sounds like it could be a fantastic way of feeling right in the middle of the action, but in the rest of our lives - even for medical updates, it seems our eyes would become just another screen. I struggle to see how looking through a lens rather than spending 30 seconds retrieving a phone from our pockets would be that much of a time or space saver. Are we on a path to de-cluttering our lives at the expense of our bodies?

Compared to current sat nav technology, such an invention could be seen as a safer alternative to flicking your eyes between the road and a screen, but surely there are risks and indeed legal issues to contend with? There are enough horror stories - OK, testaments to idiocy - of sat nav followers driving up railway tracks or into lakes because of incorrect instructions; but having a roadmap projected on your windscreen sounds like it could be more distracting, and even faintly hypnotising.

With every development come new questions about what it could mean for the future. How long before we become walking computers, using search-engine supported brains to answer questions we used to know the answers to?

The possibilities afforded by technology are fascinating, and no one can predict how new creations will eventually be used; but for all the speculation, it's important to keep the ideas flowing, for researchers to continue to push boundaries, and then for the individual to decide whether it could improve their life.

Online wedding planning

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 13:10 UK time, Friday, 18 November 2011

If you're planning a wedding and you don't have much money then you need the internet. Luckily, I have the latter and in the five months since being proposed to (and if I'm honest some months before) I estimate I've clocked up around 800 hours browsing all things bridal online. Yes, 800. 20 weeks of a full-time job. And no, I'm not proud.

Unless brides-to-be have paid a planner to take care of absolutely everything, or the happy couple have just booked into a register office with the corner shop cashier and the cabbie as witnesses, weddings - particularly for brides - are all-consuming affairs.

When my married friends told me "planning a wedding is so much fun", I stupidly believed them. The odd conversation about themes and colours, trying on the first three wedding dresses, thinking of speeches, is fun. But dreaming of turning up in a green velour medieval costume with white satin cowboy boots, is not fun. Getting headaches and sore eyes from staring at the screen too long, is not fun. Screaming at people for daring to think that I haven't already considered every single colour in the spectrum or every possible vegetarian alternative, is, OK, a little fun. But it's not cool.

What's done this to me? Those 800 hours on the internet. It started out as helpful. A forum here, an online moodboard there. A few tips on keeping costs low from brides who'd been there. But then. Then it went too far.

It stopped becoming a way of helping me check off tasks and became a new world. A big fat overwhelming world filled with other people's expectations, ideas and budgets. I even signed up to a wedding forum. I never sign up to forums. I get in, take what I need and get out before I'm too attached. But no, being a bride-to-be has changed me. I'm one of them. Them that worry, them that mull over every second of the day, them that think friends and family care about the font their name's in on the invite.

If you want more than 10 guests it seems, it's really hard to suppress the Bridezilla and certain forums let you think that it's OK to be that way, when it's really, really not.

There's a lot to be learnt from the web with people offering handy hints and ideas, but remember 100 people offering you advice is 100 people who can criticise or question your decisions. It's 100 people telling you 'oh but you HAVE to have a cake' or 'it's YOUR day, you deserve a £2000 dress'. The last thing brides want is extra pressure, but by frequenting such places we run the risk of just piling it on ourselves and forgetting what was on the original checklist.

If you're going for a DIY wedding, there are some great online shops selling all things arts and crafts to help you realise your theme. Second hand dresses can also be a good money-saver, and Preloved is full of newlyweds and divorcees selling on their gowns for a fraction of the original price, but make sure you're clear on the returns policy and are given an accurate image of item. Don't fall for the too-good-to-be-true deal and think you can get a designer copy for under £100. I decided paying £25 return shipping was worth satisfying my curiosity over a dress made in China. I wasn't surprised when it turned up looking nothing like the photo and made of cheap fabric, but at least I know. Some brides report good experiences with such dresses, but I would urge caution.

Don't forget, second-hand weddings also work both ways and if you're buying things new, don't think it's money you'll never see again. When you're back from your honeymoon and the thank you cards have been written, take the time to pack up your wedding napkins, table cloths and decorations and sell them on.

Spending too much time in the e-world of weddings can leave you feeling isolated from the real people who actually want to help. So far, the most enjoyable part of the process for me has been going through craft ideas with my mother - who until two days ago, I had no idea had made a scrap book of fabric samples and ideas. Talking themes and food ideas with my mother-in-law left me feeling positive rather than bewildered, as did a calm word from the man whose stupid idea this was in the first place, reminding me that things will get done step-by-step. The web should be used to assist you with your decisions, not confuse and delay you while you make them.

If you're planning a wedding online, by all means take inspiration, take ideas, take the discounts, but take a break.

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

 

WebWise news report - Children in Need

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 15:24 UK time, Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Fill your bath tub with beans and stock up on baking ingredients! Yep, it's that time of year again when people up and down the country raise money for Children in Need. This year sees celebrities taking part in a range of fundraising activities - with One Show presenter Matt Baker on his 484 mile rickshaw challenge and pop stars storming the West End in Pop Goes the Musical.

 

Fearne Cotton, Tess Daly, Sir Terry Wogan and Alesha Dixon prepare for Children in Need

Fearne Cotton, Tess Daly, Sir Terry Wogan and Alesha Dixon prepare for Children in Need

 

If you can't quite bag your own performance in Ghost, or if your legs aren't up to a strenuous cycle, lots of venues across the country are hosting events to raise cash for the charity. And of course, even if you can't make it out the house and would prefer to watch it all unfold on TV, you can still do your bit and donate.

The Children in Need website has lots of information on all the ways you can give money, but once again the web's making it simpler.

To make an online donation, just go to the donate to Children in Need page and click on one of the two icons in the centre of the screen.

A quickway to pay - especially for all the online shoppers out there - is by clicking the yellow icon and paying by PayPal. For this you simply fill in how much you want to donate and enter your PayPal username and password. If you don't already have an account you'll need to register.

Alternatively, just click the red icon and fill in your credit or debit card details, ticking the Gift Aid box if you're eligible.

There are lots of other ways to donate - from your payslip, by text, phone and good old fashioned post.

When giving money online to any charity, make sure you're on a genuine and secure website and that the organisation you're donating to has a registered charity number.

Last year Children in Need raised over £18 million. To help beat that number, go to www.bbc.co.uk/pudsey and see how your donation can make a difference.

 

WebWise correspondent Sandra Vogel explores how crowdfunding can help charities.

Helping older people online

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Wendy M Grossman Wendy M Grossman | 09:49 UK time, Friday, 11 November 2011

Over half of the UK's 10 million over-65s are not online. Yet older people are among those who can benefit most from the increased social interaction and access to services that the internet provides. Those whose sight, hearing, or mobility is impaired may find it difficult to socialise in person where online they can participate as equals. Getting this group connected is a priority for both Age UK and the government's Race Online 2012 programme run by UK Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox.

Older people are as varied as any other population group. While some have a good grasp of how to use computers already, many lack confidence in their ability to learn something new. Some have visual impairments that make reading small type difficult or limited manual dexterity due to arthritis or other conditions. And finally, some may have cognitive impairment that makes it hard to remember complex commands. The web can help you find solutions to all these problems.

The first question to ask is: what does the person you're helping most want to do online? For many older people, pictures and video clips of grandchildren are the killer app. Email and social networks to stay in touch with family and friends are also a likely motivator, as well as access to news and entertainment, especially Internet radio and podcasts. Although the convenience of online shopping ought to be a benefit, concerns about privacy and security may make this something to explore later. You should agree in advance on priorities before getting started.

You will need to start with the right equipment. Although many people prefer laptops, for this situation a desktop computer may be a better choice so you can attach a large, good-quality monitor, an imperative for anyone with visual impairment. A full-size keyboard is less fiddly for shaky or arthritic hands. Alternatively, if typing-intensive applications (word processing, messaging) are less of a priority or if sitting at a desk is a problem, a tablet may be preferable. These make it easy to surf the web, view pictures and video clips, listen to music, and read books.

Many assistive technologies are available. Within standard software, Windows and Macs both have built-in accessibility settings you should explore together. Beyond that, there are specialty items, such as adapted keyboards, software that reads out the text on a screen (for those with visual difficulties), and speech recognition software (for those who can't type).

But the key is making it as easy as possible to use the system. Set the computer to load automatically the most frequently used software and sites: web browser and favourite pages, email software, perhaps video conferencing. Set up a browser home page with bookmarks to the user's favourite sites and set cookies so they're logged in automatically. If letter-writing is a priority, have it load a word processor with a template ready to go. For social networks, go through the privacy settings together; these are complicated at any age. Use the web browser settings to specify a default typeface and minimum size to ensure that web pages will be readable.

Make a crib sheet with commonly needed commands. Include, for example, the command to enlarge the type size on the web page being viewed and the basic commands needed to operate their favourite software. For email, that might be creating and sending a new message; for word processing how to open and save a new document. Keep it as simple as possible, but make sure to cover all the main points.

You will wind up spending some time providing technical support, but will have enriched someone's life.

Find out how you can help someone get online with the BBC's Give an Hour campaign.

 

Wendy M. Grossman is a freelance technology writer and author living in London and is founder of The Skeptic magazine.

WebWise news report - Preventing viruses on your mobile phone

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 09:34 UK time, Wednesday, 9 November 2011

So you've got all your anti-virus software on your computer and you never miss an update. Finally, you think you're ahead of the game and have got to grips with how to keep yourself safe online. The only way anyone's going to get all your information now is if they steal your smartphone, which never leaves your side.

Unfortunately, just because it has the word 'phone' in the title, it doesn't mean it's not susceptible to viruses. They're still computers that can be hacked, potentially leaving users with extortionate phone bills or a loss of personal data.

Although smartphones already have their own default anti-virus settings, hackers constantly develop malware to get around such obstacles, so our security may need to step up a notch.

The Get Safe Online campaign says that as the market for smartphones has grown, so too has the number of viruses, and security firm Symantec reports they've found six varieties of malicious software launched on Android phones.

The campaign - a joint initiative between the police, government and industry - hopes to raise awareness of the risks around downloading apps. Criminals, it says, are developing Trojan copies of existing apps which trick users into downloading them and then run in the back-end of the phone without the user knowing. Typically these viruses send premium rate text messages to scammers, with some cases showing they were sent every minute.

The BBC's technology correspondent Mark Ward advises that although most apps are vetted before a user can install them, it doesn't necessarily provide bullet-proof protection. He also suggests that when downloading an app, be sure to check it's from a legitimate source and keep an eye out for battery life. If it's lower than usual, it could be a sign that an application is running without you knowing.

It's quite normal for apps to ask for access to certain information (like your location), so don't see this as a sign that the app is a virus, but do make sure you're happy for it to have that data.

Extra anti-virus software for smartphones has already been developed and if you're a bit of an app-holic, it might be an idea to investigate what's out there. But when downloading these, the same safety rules apply.

Get tips from BBC WebWise on how you can protect yourself against computer viruses.

Websites for dads

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Charlie Swinbourne Charlie Swinbourne | 11:43 UK time, Friday, 4 November 2011

Recently, I've started looking after my two young daughters for three days a week. Yep, I'm now a part-time house husband, and I wouldn't change it for anything. One of my children is a toddler and the other is a baby, and I love seeing them growing up, changing and developing. Just last week, our baby started crawling for the first time, which was amazing.

But when I think back to three years ago, when my wife was pregnant, the idea of becoming a dad was scary. I knew next to nothing about how parenting would work. While my wife had a host of magazines, books and friends offering advice, the most I seemed to get was dark mutterings from other men telling me that my life "was over." They were joking. I think.

I ended up learning on the job, which worked out well, but I wish I'd realised back then just how many websites there are out there aimed specifically at dads. It would have helped a lot in those early days. Whether you're about to become a father for the first time, or you need some extra tips for looking after the children you've already got, there's plenty of resources you can find at the click of a mouse. Here's just a few of them.

Dad.info is a great site sponsored by the Fatherhood Institute, with a range of sections dedicated to areas like work, money, kids, relationships and much more. The site is incredibly positive about what dads have to offer - one comment article I read sought to dispel some myths about fathers not being good with babies. The articles are informative and easy to read, often making complex information like the law and fathers' rights much easier to understand. Best of all, Dad.info is designed in an attractive yet clear way. An invaluable site for dads at any stage in the process.

Before I became a dad I had no idea that there was a magazine out there just for us. It's called FQ magazine and its website even has a problem page called 'Dear Dad' which looks to solve issues dads are facing, and there's a lot of fun to be had in the top ten dads section, whether you're a sporting dad, a cartoon dad or a funny dad.

Stay at Home Dads aims "to provide some advice, information and chill-out time for all stay at home dads everywhere." There's a great top tips article for house husbands like myself, advising you not only about consistency in parenting but also how to maintain a sense of your own identity, which isn't easy for mums or dads. There are news, advice and money sections and also a great page of links to other sites for dads.

The BBC has a pregnancy website which also features some tips for dads in the lead up to the big day. You can find out how to prepare to become a dad, how to balance work and home life, and what to do when you first take your baby home.

Finally, Contact a Family is a fantastic site for parents who have a child with a disability. You can get medical information, advice about benefits, and most important of all, get in touch with other families for support. There's fact pages and the chance to find out about resources in your local area, and there's a dedicated Dad section.

Being a father can be exhausting but the truth is, bringing up your child (or children!) is the best job in the world, and you're always learning new things. I hope the sites I found have given you some advice and tips that you've found useful - they've certainly helped me.

Charlie is a journalist and scriptwriter specialising in articles and films featuring deaf culture and sign language. He has written for the Guardian online and has contributed to programmes for Radio 4, while his films have won international awards. He also works in the arts, helping to make theatre accessible for deaf people.

WebWise news report - Turning off the internet

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 11:30 UK time, Wednesday, 2 November 2011

There is a scene in the Channel 4 comedy The IT Crowd, where technophobic boss Jen is presented with a small black box and told that it is 'The Internet'. Usually housed in Big Ben and offered to her by 'the Elders of the Internet' Jen has to take extra care not to drop or break the box that holds the entire web.

She is of course falling for a prank, but imagine if just one person had the power to pull the plug on the entire cyber-world.

According to recent reports, it was just the sort of power that David Cameron was considering using during the riots this summer, where social media and Blackberry messaging were the main modes of communication for rioters. One of the key warnings against such action was that it would have undermined the UK's position on web censorship in the international community. Aside from the tiny issue of how on earth David Cameron convinced the Elders of the Internet to hand over the goods, surely we just can't live without the internet?

Whatever your stance is on human rights - and I'm going to really stick my neck out here and say that I agree with them - we can't separate ourselves from the net.

All aspects of industry have been tangled up in the world wide web. It's sped up trade, built brands and turned companies operating from a one bedroom flat into global businesses. To say it's revolutionised how we work and play as a society is an understatement. Even if the idea had been to simply cut out social media for a couple of days until the riots died down, how would businesses have coped with the lost revenue? Social media isn't just a social tool anymore. Companies pay for advertising and employ staff to work solely on social networking sites. Recently BT used Twitter to update its users on service issues - and that was after just two hours without the connection!

The role of the web in creating a safer world - both real and online - is a matter of constant discussion, and at the London Conference on Cyberspace this week, Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke on international security and how he hopes governments will work together to establish acceptable norms of cyber behaviour. Web security affects everyone, whether you're a government organisation needing to keep confidential documents under wraps, or if you simply don't want everyone on your friends list to see photos of that Christmas party.

Yes, there are strong cases for blocking certain web content and ensuring people don't see the cyber world as outside the justice system, but to make it better we have to work with it, not against it.

See BBC Click's interview with Willliam Hague at the London Conference on Cyberspace.
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