Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Incommunicado

For more than three weeks we have had a faulty ADSL line, and have been virtually incommunicado.

Every time we tried to connect to a Web page, the following message appeared:

Secure Connection Failed

The connection to notepad-plus-plus.org was interrupted while the page was loading.

The page you are trying to view cannot be shown because the authenticity of the received data could not be verified.
Please contact the website owners to inform them of this problem.

Learn more…

Report errors like this to help Mozilla identify and block malicious sites

Today the problem has been fixed, and we can communicate again.

Instead of reporting it to the Website owners or to Mozilla (how would we do that when we are unable to send e-mail?) we reported it to Telkom. They sent a couple of people round who informed us that our router was at fault and pushed off. We spent R1000 on a new router, and installed it and it had exactly the same problem. So we reported it again to Telkom.

The people came back, restrung the wire between the house and the pole, and tested various other things, but could not solve the problem.

huaweiWe were able to communicate to a limited extent with a mobile WiFi gadget supplied by Telkom, which works on 3G. We’ve previously used it when travelling, but it proved quite useful for emergency use when the ADSL line wasn’t working. Unfortunately, however, it only has 1 Gb a month on our contract, and when that was used up, even our limited emergency access to the Web came to an end. We asked Telkom if we could transfer some of our bandwidth from the ADSL line to the 3G mobile WiFi device until the ADSL line was repaired, but in spite of their advertising such devices in their brochures as “failover”, they said it wasn’t possible. We’d only get another 1Gb at the end of the month. They would give us a credit on our phone bill for the time the line wasn’t working. In the mean time, of course, there is still snail mail.

I’ve actually been able to download most of my e-mail, usually after 5-20 attempts. But none of the queued replies were sent.

 

Telkom subcontractors trying, unsuccessfully, to repair our line

Telkom subcontractors trying, unsuccessfully, to repair our line

I’ve been thinking uncharitable thoughts about who ever it was who invented and recommended outsourcing. On a previous occasion when our phone line was down, we got two different subcontractors, who could not sort out the problem. The third one came in a Telkom van, and fixed it. This time it was the second subcontractor. But outsourcing such things seems to be a remarkably inefficient way to run a telecoms business.

But my main purpose in writing this is not just to complain about Telkom’s rigidity in being unwilling to allow us to use the 3G device while the the ADSL line waa not working (if you ever see this, it will be working again). It is about the bad advice from Mozilla.

Reporting such errors to Website owners or to Mozilla, as the error message suggests, could be not merely misleading but could cause a lot of unneccessary problems. There is nothing a Website owner can do about a line fault, which might be in another country or another continent.

Similarly, the line fault does not necessarily mean that a site is malicious, and so reporting such things to Mozilla could lead to a lot of quite innocuous sites being identified as malicious and blocked.

So I suggest that Mozilla add a line to their error message along the lines of “if this error is reported for several sites, report it to your ISP, as your connection may be faulty”.

 

Robert Goddard: pastiche and parody

The Ends of the Earth: (The Wide World - James Maxted 3)The Ends of the Earth: by Robert Goddard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book of Robert Goddard’s spy trilogy. I’ve just finished reading the second and third books one after the other, so will comment on the series as a whole rather than on each volume separately.

It’s quite an enjoyable read, even though it has more plot holes than a colander and more loose ends than a bowl of spaghetti. It’s not up to Goddard’s usual standard, where the books are more carefully and believably plotted. Most of his best books are written to a formula in which a mystery in the past influences events in the present. There are echoes of that here, but in this book the “present” is itself in the past, as the main action of the story takes place immediately after the First World War, during and following the peace conference at Versailles, though it is influenced by events that had taken place nearly 30 years before.

But in most of Goddard’s other books the protagonist is usually an ordinary person who gets involved either accidentally, or in an unsuspecting way. Here, however, the protagonist is James “Max” Maxted, wartime flying ace and and James Bond-type swashbuckling hero. The second volume starts off reading like a sequel to The Thirty-nine Steps, which was set before the war, and this one is set after it. One of the characters even mentions The Thirty-Nine Steps. Perhaps the mention of the book is a hint that Robert Goddard is self-consciously writing a pastiche and a parody of the spy story genre, with hints of John Buchan, Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum. Perhaps the real challenge to the reader is to work out which bit is imitating whom. And perhaps in some parts he’s even parodying himself.

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Cellphone blues

I have three cell phones. This puzzles people who try to phone me, and are not sure which number to use, But I’m sure I’m not the only person how has acquired a number of cellphones as “upgrades” of a previous model.

The problem is that the perfect cell phone has not been developed. Each one has particular features that the others lack, and which makes it useful, and very often the “upgrade” is actually a downgrade.

I don’t know if it will help anyone who wants to call me, but here are my three phones, with a kind of catalogue raisonne of what they are good at, and what I try to use them for. Perhaps if any cell phone manufacturer happens to read this they might use it as a resource for designing the perfect phone, with all the good features and none of the bad.

My current cell phones

My current cell phones

Here they are, with the newest on the left. The leftmost one (Phone 1) I’ve had for a year. It’s from Vodacom, but I think the manufacturer is LG. I got it as an upgrade for the middle one, an Alcatel (Phone 2), which was in turn an upgrade for an HTC Cha Cha (since lost). The one on the right, the Samsung (Phone 3) was one Val got as an upgrade back in 2008, and she gave it to me when it was itself upgraded in 2010.

The main advantage of Phone 3 (the Samsung) is that it has a good quality 5 megapixel camera, which actually works. The main disadvantages are that its battery life is pretty short, and if you want to send an SMS you have to press the same keys multiple times. Also, its ring is not very loud, so if it’s at the other end of the house I often don’t hear it ringing. I use it mainly for family members, and for sending SMS messages to remind people about church services. And, of course, as a notebook camera for recording all kinds of things.

The main advantages of Phone 2, the Alcatel, is that it’s battery lasts for several days, and it has a loud and unmistakable ring. It also gives me 100 minutes a month (on our Telkom contract) so I use it for outgoing calls where possible. It also has a comprehensive keypad, which is good for typing SMSs, but I’m not sure how many one is allowed to send, and it will suddenly offer 50 free ones, to be used the same day, but then no more till the end of the month. It has a crummy 2 megapixel camera, with no easy way of getting pictures off, so I usually carry the Samsung along as well. It’s not so good for incoming calls, however, because it tends to switch itself off when it’s in my pocket, so there are sometimes missed calls.

The main advantage of Phone 1 is that it a smartphone, and so can theoretically connect to the Internet and send photos of gravestones to BillionGraves. Like the Samsung it has a 5 megapixel camera, but the quality is not so good, when it does take a picture, and most times it doesn’t. It will take any number of test pictures of nothing in particular, but when it’s something you really want, it doesn’t work at all, so I always carry the Samsung with it. It also has no keypad at all. When I first got it it took me a month to discover how to answer it when it rang. The other two have a green button you push to answer the phone. This one has a virtual button that appears randomly, and pushing it makes not a blind bit of difference. After a month or so I discovered you had to swipe right, if you can find the screen you are supposed to swipe right from. So I get a lot of missed calls on this one too.

The Internet connection on Phone 1 is also useful for times (like now) when our ADSL connsction isn’t working, but connecting to the Internet by 3G is pretty expensive.

Phone 1 is also good for receiving SMSs and replying to them. Unfortunately it often gives me phantom notifications for SMSs that are not there. It is also not so good for sending SMSs to groups. The other two are good for that, except for the Alcatel’s tendency to suddenly offer 50 free SMSs on the 3rd of the month, and nothing for the rest of the month. I realise that’s not the phone’s fault, but some inexplicable policy of the service provder (Telkom).

Phone 1 also likes to show photos of some of the people in my contacts list. They are not people I often phone, except by accident, because when I put the phone down on the table I may accidentally touch one of the pictures and the phone dials their number without my being aware of it.

So if I get a missed call on one phone, I might return the call from one of the others (usually the Alcatel, because that’s cheapest). And if I get an SMS on the Alcatel, I might reply on one of the others, because the Alcatel may have reached its monthly limit.

And if any phone manufacturer is thinking of producing the perfect phone, then I’d like to see one with a decent camera, and an easy way of getting any pictures I take from my phone to my computer. The Samsung (the oldest) does that best. It has a cable, and an SD card you can remove without having to open the phone and take out the battery and put in the computer’s card reader slot.

I’d like to see one with an easy and intuitive way of answering the phone when it rings.

But until I get one, whenever I buy trousers I look to see if they have enough pockets for three phones.

The Red Queen

The Red QueenThe Red Queen by Margaret Drabble
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“One does not expect a run-of-the-mill academic conference to have such a far-reaching effect.”

The first part of this book is the memoir of an 18th-century Korean princess, describingn the cloisered but eventful life of the Korean royal family, incorporating a modern and postmodern commentary on it..

The second part describes, in minute detail, how Dr Babs Halliwell travels to and attends a run-or-the-mill academic conference in Seoul, Korea. On her journey she reads the account of the Korean princess, and in breaks in the conference she visits some of the scenes of her life. Until the events that cause the far-reaching effect, however, one might think Margaret Drabble‘s main purpose in writing was to record the early-21st century academic conference experience for posterity, perhaps as raw material for a furtire historian of academic conferences.

I’ve attended enough academic courses and conferences to find it familiar territory, very familiar territory, even though most of the ones I’ve attended have not been held in such posh hotels. As I read, I kept having flashbacks to this or that incident at this or that conference.

“One does not expect a run-of-the-mill academic conference to have such a far-reaching effect.”

And most of the academic conferences I’ve attended have had no effect at all.The participants exchange e-mail addresses, and promise to keep in touch, but almost never do. Some of the papers may be published, and may appear on the Internet in one form or another, and probably have more effect there than being read at the conference, as the book notes.

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Beaufighters over Burma

Beaufighters Over Burma: 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force, 1942-45Beaufighters Over Burma: 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force, 1942-45 by David J. Innes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I spotted this book in the library, thought “That’s interesting”, then took it out and read it, interrupting all my other reading to do so, and found it more absorbing than many novels. Having finished it, I’m left wondering why.

It’s not particularly well written, and has the rather annoying habit of some writers of military history of putting a list of all the medals a person was awarded after their name in the text. But I still found it fascinating, and I find aircraft of the Second World War particularly fascinating.

I’m not sure why I, a convinced pacifist, should find that particular conflict so interesting. Perhaps it is because I was born during the war, and I was four years old when it ended, and so war seemed to be part of the normal state of things, and when it ended, the world seemed to be in an abnormal state. My uncle, who had been in the paratroop regiment, had a couple of books called Aircraft of the Fighting Powers and I read them with great interest when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and had the specifications of several of the aircraft memorised, even though some of them were probably inaccurate to confuse the enemy.

One of the things that struck me about Beaufighters over Burma, however, was the logistics and bureau7cracy of war, with people being posted into and out of squadrons for no apparent reason. That must have been an enormously costly exercise in itself, and I wonder who decided such things and why. There was this squadron with trained crew and pretty expensive aircraft, and they would have pilots and navigators transferred in and out and all over the place, for no apparent reason. And in the days before computers, who kept track of these things, stores and supplies and personnel, not to mention petrol and ammunition to keep the planes flying and shooting up the Japanese occupation army in Burma, and trying to disrupt their supplies of petrol and ammunition and personnel.

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The Whistler: corruption unmasked

The WhistlerThe Whistler by John Grisham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of John Grisham‘s better novels, dealing with an investigation into allegations that a judge is corrupt, which uncovers a major crime syndicate.

It isn’t really a detective novel, since the investigators are not detectives, and their breakthroughs in the case mainly come from informers or lucky accidents, with activities and suspects being caught on video, or careless slips by the criminals.

While I have linked this post to my review on Good Reads, I’m adding more here because it has less to do with the book itself than my reaction to it.

Central to the story is the building of a casino in an Indian reservation in Florida, USA, and the way in which the corrupt judge smooths the way for a crime syndicate to profit from it in various ways. And it seems that many Indian reservations in the USA built casinos, which were to some extent, at least, not subject to the local state or federal laws of the United States.

I found this part of the book very interesting, since something very similar happened in South Africa before 1994, where there were “Bantu Homelands” that were the equivalent of the Indian reservations of the the US, and they also had a penchant for building casinos. I can quite easily picture the process of planning and building the casinos in such places being very similar to that described in this book. Many of the casinos built back then still exist, and in some cases the descriptions fit remarkably well.

One of the visions of the National Party regime in South Africa was of a “constellation of states”, which resulted in newspaper cartoons about “Star Flaws”, and snide comments about the “Constellation of Casinos”.

Nowadays we hear a lot about corruption, but much less is heard of corruption before 1994. That is largely because we now have a free press, and press freedom guaranteed by the constitution, whereas before 1994 the corruption was much easier to cover up.

In addition, a lot of the civil servants who were around at the time of the building of the casinos, and who cut their teeth on corruption in the “homeland” governments, were simply absorbed into the civil service of the new South Africa.  So South Africans might find this book an interesting read simply for the insight it gives into how the system worked back then, and even, to some extent, how it works now.

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Neoinklings: Tolkien in South Africa

At 10:30 we went to Cafe 41 in Eastwood Road for our monthly Literary Coffee Klatsch of Neoinklings, and David Levey joined us to inkle, as he put it. It seemed a rather felicitous term.

He told us of a thesis someone had written, or was writing, on Tolkien’s South African connections, and we had a rather discursive discussion about that — Tolkien had left South Africa when he was 3 or 4, and as far as I know he never returned. Most of one’s memories of that age seem to be a series of still pictures. I recalled Leo Aylen, a poet who was the son of a former Anglican bishop of Zululand, who visited there about 35 years ago. He said the Australian aborigines had a concept of early childhood as one’s dream time, and he was revisiting the scenes of his dream time to give him something to write about.

Goanikontes, Namibia

Goanikontes, Namibia

We talked of the landscape — the Free State, where Tolkien was born, seems to be like the land of the Rohirrim in Lord of the Rings, and Val said that Goanikontes, in the Namib desert, was like Mordor though it seems unlikely that Tolkien would have visited it. Goanikontes had been where Val’s great great great grandparents, Frank and Frances Stewardson, had lived for a while, in the 1850s, and it may have been there that Frank Stewardson had been mauled by a lion.

We talked about the identity, or lack of it, of white English-speaking South Africans. It will be interesting to see if the thesis mentions whether Tolkien had such an identity, but generally speaking white English-speaking South Africans do not have a distinctive identity or a distinct culture. There is no consciousness of being a “volk”, like the Afrikaners. Though one could put them in a Venn diagram, it would be far less significant than a set of white Afrikaans -speaking South Africans, or Zulu or Tswana-speaking South Africans. I mentioned a friend who had recently written of “we”, referring to white South Africans, and that I find that to be one of the primary markers of racism, using “we” to refer to a group defined by race, and “they” or “these people” to refer to the outgroup. David said that John Lambert, one of the former history lecturers at Unisa, was writing about white English-speaking South Africans, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with.

He also mentioned that the history department at Unisa has now been reduced to one lecturer, which is very sad, and does not augur well for the future of South Africa — all of history before 1994 will, in effect, become dream time, and labelled “Van Riebeeck”.

 

Political correctness

I have always understood the primary meaning of “political correctness” to refer to the subservience of burrowing apparatchiks who try to align their opinions with those perceived to be in power.

A primary example in South Africa today would be ANC members of parliament, and of provincial and municipal councils, who do not dare to criticise Jacob Zuma, even though they may have private misgivings about him.

I believe the term originated in Marxist or Communist party circles, where people might precede some criticism of the party line, however mild, with an ironically self-deprecating phrase such as, “It may not be politically correct to say so, but…”

From there it spread to other groups and other power structures, but with the same general meaning of unwillingness to criticise those perceived to be in power, and an unquestioning adherence to the party line, whatever the party might be.

Then the meaning seemed to become restricted to the use of language.

The Vicar of Bray

The Vicar of Bray

Undoubtedly political correctness did get expressed in language. When South Africa was ruled by the National Party, “natives” became “Bantu” and later “Blacks” (with a capital B), and the politically correct changed their usage in accordance with the approved pattern. When “Native Reserves” became “Bantu Homelands” the politically correct changed their terminology accordingly. The politically incorrect would precede “Homelands” by “so-called”, or would use air quotes when they said it.

The primary example, the paradigm and model of political correctness is the Vicar of Bray.

But now there seems to be a further narrowing down of the meaning of political correctness, especially in the USA, for example in the following article, in which it seems to be defined solely in terms of “offense sensitivity” — The Personality of Political Correctness – Scientific American Blog Network:

The researchers found that PC exists, can be reliably measured, and has two major dimensions. They labeled the first dimension “PC-Egalitarianism” and the second dimension “PC-Authoritarianism”. Interestingly, they found that PC is not a purely left-wing phenomenon, but is better understood as the manifestation of a general offense sensitivity, which is then employed for either liberal or conservative ends.

It’s an interesting article, but I think it is a pity that the term is narrowed down in that way. It seems to leave a gap in the language. If you reduce political correctness to offence sensitivity, what do you call real political correctness?

Protesting against US president-elect Trump

There are reports in the media about people protesting in the streets against the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA Thousands take to the streets to protest Trump win – CNNPolitics.com:

They chanted anti-Donald Trump slogans. They flooded city streets. They gathered near the White House, disheartened and dismayed. Not my President, not today, many across the nation yelled. In cities from Boston to Los Angeles, thousands of demonstrators gathered Wednesday night in protest of election results that mean the billionaire real estate developer will be the next president.

And American online friend, Paul Ilechko, responded on Facebook as follows:

I voted for Hillary Clinton, and I’m upset that she lost and the orange baboon won, but I don’t understand why people are out in the streets protesting against democracy. Once he’s actually president and does something evil, that will be the time to protest. Doing it now makes you look like a jerk and a sore loser. And it perpetuates all the stereotypes that conservatives have of liberals (my emphasis).

I agree with him.

trump-protestProtesting against his election makes it look like you are protesting against democracy, and besides, most politicians don’t actually fulfil most of their election promises. Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay. So the advice to wait until he’s actually president and does something evil seems good to me.

Also, protesting against the mere election of a person seems to be anticipating evil actions that may or may not occur, and by the time something evil does happened, the public will be satiated with the protest and will think the protesters are just crying “wolf!”

Those who feel inclined to protest at Trump’s mere election, as opposed to any evil he may do when he is actually president, should read this — The sneering response to Trump’s victory reveals exactly why he won | Coffee House:

This response to Trump’s victory reveals why Trump was victorious. Because those who do politics these days — the political establishment, the media, the academy, the celeb set — are so contemptuous of ordinary people, so hateful of the herd, so convinced that the mass of society cannot be trusted to make political decisions, and now those ordinary people have given their response to such top-down sneering and prejudice.

Oh, the irony of observers denouncing Middle America as a seething hotbed of hatred even as they hatefully libel it a dumb and ugly mob. Having turned America’s ‘left behind’ into the butt of every clever East Coast joke, and the target of every handwringing newspaper article about America’s dark heart and its strange, Bible-toting inhabitants, the political and cultural establishment can’t now be surprised that so many of those people have turned around and said… well, it begins with F and ends with U.

And the biggest irony of all is that in America these cultured despisers of the masses as “a basket of deplorables” are often thought of and spoken of as “the Left”.

No doubt some of Trump’s supporters are racist and sexist, and some have and will engage in violent acts against members of minority groups. But protesting against Trump’s election is not likely to deter such behaviour. What might be more effective would be to urge Donald Trump himself to publicly condemn such behaviour. For good or ill, Donald Trump has been elected president of the USA. It would be better to urge him to good rather than to condemn him for ill that hasn’t happened yet.

“Stranger Things” Live Video Chat with Dr. Corey Olsen (Signum Series)

A Pilgrim in Narnia

Stranger Things is one of the hottest new series on Netflix this year. My wife and I don’t always overlap in tastes, but this show drew us both in. We zoomed through the series in late night sittings, and I honestly can’t wait until my son is old enough to watch it with us. Even Stephen King, the childhood horror version of literary Wheaties for me growing up, thinks Stranger Things is worth some time:

stephen-king-loves-stranger-things

stranger-things-dvdStevie, Kerry and I are not alone in loving this show. It has a Rotten Tomatoes ranking of 95%, and is the 3rd most watched series on Netflix behind Orange is the New Black and, well, I don’t know how to say this: Fuller House.

So it’s obvious that fan quality isn’t everything, there are a few reasons for its massive popularity, I think. The hero–I think she’s a hero though we won’t know…

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