surf's up
SOMETIMES we all need a little advice - what lottery numbers to choose, how to dump a lover, how to make pounds 47, 000 in a week to pay for the damage you've caused to someone else's property - you know, those everyday nightmares. Citizens of the Internet are fortunate enough to have access to a swathe of agony aunts and uncles whose sole raison d'etre is to impart their wordly wisdom to the scared, the confused and the lost. "I have a friend who says he got cat scratch fever from kissing his cat. I don't (usually) kiss my cats, but sometimes they like to smell my mouth after I've eaten something particularly smelly and wonderful, like goat's cheese. Is this dangerous?" writes "xxoo", expressing a concern that has undoubtedly worried us all at some point.

For many, the Internet offers a stepping stone to curing their problems. Revealing your secrets can be almost impossible in real life. On the Internet, however, where no one knows your name, the fear of reproach or, worse, ridicule vaporises. You might be scared to tell your spouse of your suspicion that an office fling might have left you HIV positive, but on the Net you can track down "Alice" who uses the health professionals at Columbia, USA, to provide an anonymous question and answer service. It's not as good as visiting your doctor, but then life isn't always straightforward. "Alice" will do no more than reassure, and send the poor boy or girl in the right direction.

Health problems are by no means the only issues tackled by would-be agony aunts and uncles on the Net, though. All life is here, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Here are typical questions that clutter the Net's binary arteries: "Is it possible for an armadillo to die a natural death or do they all end up dead on the side of the road? I must admit, I've run over a few over the years."

"I have a boyfriend. I like him a lot, but at camp's dance, I danced a lot with another boy (about the same height) and I like him too. What should I do? Will I go to heaven?"

The quality of the answers depends, on the site you go to. Would you take advice from this person? "Miss Hane here, Beauty Queen extraordinaire. One morning I woke up, looked at myself in the mirror and said: 'You know, you ARE a beauty queen!' Thus began the annual Miss Hane Beauty Queen competitions. And you too can be a beauty queen... follow my advice and you are well on your way to wearing that tiara. So, if you've got a question about romance, or don't know what to wear... your parents think your dream date is a loser or you're tired of pleasing everyone but yourself... well then Ask Miss Hane!"

The majority of net agony aunts excel in appalling advice. Could they be poking fun? Maybe. To the question "Why are men so stupid?" for example, Agony Jane responds: "In the beginning, God created the world and all the plants and animals. And He looked upon His creation and saw that it was good. Then He moulded man out of clay and breathed life into him. And He looked upon man, who was already wandering around chasing sheep and beating up trees, and said: 'Jesus... I've made a right bollocks out of that, haven't I?' 'You certainly have,' said Jesus, 'what are you going to do about it?' 'Hmmm... damage limitation, I suppose. Let's try making an improved version.' And God created woman. And she saw that man was mostly a waste of time and went shopping."