Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

So who do I vote for now?

Put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man, for there is no help in them, says the Psalmist.

So we should know by now that one can never trust a politician. Entrust them with the government of the country, yes. But don’t trust them. So one is always looking for the least of many evils to vote for.

I was beginning to think that the least of many evils might be the EFF, but, as they say in the clickbait cliches, nobody expected this, South Africa’s Julius Malema warns Zuma government – AJE News:

South African politician Julius Malema says the opposition “will run out of patience very soon and we will remove this government through the barrel of a gun” if the ruling African National Congress (ANC) continues to respond violently to peaceful protests.

Malema is the commander-in-chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition party he founded in 2013 after being expelled from the ANC, where he had served as president of the Youth League.

We fought for democracy all those years, only to abandon it now? Come off it, Juju!

Julius Malema Launches EFFBut then who can one vote for? What are the alternatives?

For a long time now I’ve never considered voting for the UDM because its leader, Bantu Holomisa, actually did what Julius Malema is only talking about — he staged a coup in the former Transkei “homeland”.

There’s the DA, born of crosstitution, whose former leader, Tony Leon, was urging us to “fight back” against democracy only five years after it had been introduced.

There’s Agang, which staged a coup against its own leader so a couple of non-entities could get parliamentary emoluments and pensions even if no one ever voted for them again. I suspect that a lot of people voted for Agang because they thought that its founder, Mamphela Ramphele, had things to say that needed to be heard in parliament. Well, we can see how that worked out, and perhaps that’s something that the people now saying “Thuli Madonsela for president” need to bear in mind.

Neither Mamphela Ramphele nor Thuli Madonsela have what it takes to be a successful political leader — the infighting, the backstabbing, the wheeling and dealing. Jake the Fake has that in spades, and comes out of the same mould as P.W. Botha — something worth remembering when people blame our electoral system of  proportional representation for the calibre of political leaders who rise to the top. We didn’t have proportional representation in P.W.’s time, but we still got him, even though the media voted for the other Botha, Pik.

One of the great theoretical advantages of proportional representation  is that if gives one a wider choice, and every vote counts equally. You are not disenfranchised because you happen to live in a constituency that sends the same unopposed member back to parliament year after year.

But even under proportional representation, once you’ve crossed off all the people you don’t want to vote for, there’s not much left. I think I’ll just have to learn to COPE with that.

Better the Congress of the People party than the Congress of the Guptas party.

Grumpy old git recommends The Guardian

When I look at what I have posted on this blog recently, I realise what a grumpy old git I have become.

grumpyHalf the posts seem to  complaining about things that used to work, but don’t (or soon won’t, like Dropbox). Or things that you used to be able to buy in the shops, like peanut butter and gooseberry jam, and apple and quince jelly, but no longer can.

But today I want to say kudos to The Guardian for their web site.

I visited the site today because someone posted a link to a review on Facebook. I thought the review was worth reading so I’ll post the link here too: You Could Look It Up by Jack Lynch review – search engines can’t do everything | Books | The Guardian.

And while I was there they asked me to complete their survey on the “user experience”.

Normally the term “user experience” drives me up the wall.

There’s an example right here on the page as I type this in WordPress. It says “There’s now an easier way to create on WordPress.com! Switch to the improved posting experience.”

I tried it for about two sentences and switched back immediately, because the “improved posting experience” translated into English as “increased frustration”, I couldn’t read what I typed. I couldn’t read the menu options. I couldn’t read a damn thing. That, they told me, was an “improved posting experience”.

Nevertheless, after reading the article in The Guardian, I completed the survey, which meant I had to actually look at The Guardian‘s pages, and I realised just how good they are.

For a start, it was legible.

It was in a readable font, and there was enough contrast between text and background to read without holding a magnifying glass up to the screen to find out that that “ll” was actually a “bb” (yes, that happens quite often). Sometimes I just mark/define/select the text as if I’m going to copy it — you know, Ctrl-C + Down Arrow. That usually gives light-coloured text on a dark background, which is much more legible. But why should one have to resort to such things just because some idiot declared that light grey text on a white background was fashionable?

But The Guardian‘s web site isn’t like that. It’s legible right off the screen.

And another thing, the text doesn’t jump around for a minute before you can read it.

That happens a lot on other news sites that I get to by following links from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Someone posts a link to an article that looks as though it might be interesting reading. You read half a sentence, and it jumps up or down off the screen. You try to scroll to find the bit where you were reading, and nothing happens. Firefox is “not responding”. Eventually you try to close the page and Firefox bombs out, and then Windows advises you that plugincontainer.exe had a problem and had to close, and invites you to tell Microsoft about this problem. That’s my “user experience” most of the time these days. I suspect it would be more use telling Mozilla about the problem, but the best thing would be to tell the web page designer who tried to fit 10 litres into a plug-in container that was only designed to hold one litre.

I noticed that The Guardian site didn’t seem to have these problems, or it had them to a much lesser extent than a lot of other news sites.

OK, this post is also a bunch of complaints about a lot of websites from a grumpy old git.

But not The Guardian.

Kudos to The Guardian for creating a site where the web pages are legible, hold still while you are trying to read them, and scroll when you want to read more.

That sort of behaviour is quite exceptional in news web sites these days, and deserves an honourable mention.

 

Farewell to Dropbox!

I’ve just had notice from Dropbox that it will cease functioning on my computer at the end of August.

Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.

I’m just wondering if there is any other similar “cloud” computing system that will work across different platforms, including different versions of Windows.

I’ve found Dropbox useful for making files available on different computers, so that my wife and I can work on the same file at different times, and always find the latest version, as well as having a cloud backup in case things go wrong. Perhaps we need to study the working of our home network a bit more to see if that can accomplish the same thing.

Here’s the message I received from Dropbox:

We noticed that you’re running the Dropbox desktop application (client) on Windows XP. We’re writing to let you know that as of August 29th, 2016, Dropbox will no longer support this version of Windows. You can find which devices connected to your account are running Windows XP by visiting your account page.

Don’t worry — your files and photos aren’t going anywhere! But you’ll need to update your computer to Windows Vista or later to access them through the Dropbox desktop application. You can find instructions on how to update your operating system on Microsoft’s website.

If you don’t want to update your operating system, your files will still be available through the Dropbox website. However, on August 29th, you’ll be signed out of your Dropbox account on your computer and the Dropbox desktop application will no longer be accessible.

We apologize for the inconvenience this may cause. For more information, please see our Help Center.

cloud1Well, it will cause quite a bit of inconvenience, but not nearly as much as reinstalling Windows would. Reinstalling Windows would take me the rest of my life, which I’d rather spend doing other things. Spending days and days searching through hundreds of CDs and DVDs looking for installation discs, and editing setting everything up all over again is no fun.

Dropbox was especially useful when travelling: we could enter notes and collect data on research trips, and sync them to Dropbox whenever we found and Internet connection, and everything would be waiting on my home computer when I got home. I suppose one could revert to the pre-cloud practice of backing up to small DVD discs, and mailing them home by snail mail.

And for the rest we’ll just have to forego the convenience of Dropbox and go back to using USB flash drives for everything.

When cloud computing is no longer available, can you call it a drought?

Can we blame El Nino?

 

Boo! Hiss! to Corvus publishers and Phil Rickman

CrybbeCrybbe by Phil Rickman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just got a new Phil Rickman book for my birthday, called Curfew. I was looking forward to reading a new Phil Rickman book, but when I opened it I discovered it was one we already had, but just sneakily published under a different title to con the public into thinking it was a new book, and so getting people to buy it twice.

Boo! Hiss! to Corvus publishers for this dishonest and fraudulent practice.

And Boo! Hiss! to Phil Rickman for letting them do it.

As The Byrds used to sing:

As through this life you travel
You meet some funny men
Some rob you with a six gun
And some with a fountain pen.

View all my reviews

Removing a bad president

Since the Constitutional Court has officially declared that we have a bad president, how does one get him to go? As that terror of the football field, Mosiuoa Lekota, put it, he has been given a red card, and it is time for him to leave the field. But he shows no signs of going.

According to the constitution, the National Assembly can vote to remove the president by a 2/3 majority. That’s unlikely to happen. The DA is muttering about impeaching him. I’m not sure what that means, but I think that’s unlikely to work either.

But there is a precedent.

Thabo Mbeki was removed as president by the ANC leadership, without consulting the country, the National Assembly or anyone else. So why can’t they do the same to Jake the Fake?

ANCflagThey can’t do that with Jake because he has done precisely what they accused Thabo Mbeki of doing (with less justification) — filled the top positions in the ANC with his cronies and sycophants. They owe their positions to him, so they are unlikely to vote for his removal.

Removing Jake is not like removing Verwoerd, or Vorster, or any of that lot. It’s much easier, as easy as removing Thabo Mbeki. All it needs is for the ANC to have the political will to do so.

And what will give the ANC the political will to do so?

Not burning tyres.
Not toyitoying students.
Not service delivery protests.

Votes.

Think about it.

We fought for democracy, for votes for all, for years, decades, centuries even.

So why not use it.

Vote.

Vote for anyone but the ANC.

And think about this.

In every municipality where the ANC loses control, the tenderpreneurs and those who benefit from them will be hit where it hurts most.

If that happens in a lot of places the parasites will of course desert the ANC and try to influence the new rulers, but they’ll have to bribe a whole bunch of new people to do that, and if a lot of municipalities are governed by a UDM-EFF-DA coalition they’ll be watching each other like hawks and stinging each other like scorpions if they catch anyone engaged in bribery and corruption. That’ll make it harder and more expensive for the tenderpreneurs. And by the time the parasites have managed to infiltrate, the ANC will be purified and fit to govern again.

Isn’t democracy marvellous?

demonsAnd while everyone is talking about the Guptas at the national level, remember that this year we are due to have local government elections, and it is the small-town Guptas who offer people positions in local party branches who are just as bad as the big-time ones. I think C.S. Lewis, in his book The Screwtape letters, referred to one of the tasty dishes on the demonic menu as “municipal official with graft sauce.”

We all (those of us over 18 anyway) have the vote now, so we do have the power to remove that dish from the menu of some demons, at least. And if we have the power, why not use it?

And, while we’re about it, can’t we bring back the civic associations of the 1980s, and keep local government local? And clean.

<./political rant>

 

That was the weekend that was

It was the Western Easter weekend, but for us today was the second Sunday in Lent, when we recall St Gregory Palamas. Friday was the Feast of the Annunciation, and perhaps an opportunity to go to the Divine Liturgy on a public holiday, when traffic was lighter, but we had been invited to join our hosts at Atteridgeville, the African Orthodox Church at their Good Friday service, so we did. We contributed the singing of the Third Stsis of the Lamentation, which are part of Holy Saturday Matins in the Orthodox Church (sung on Goof Friday evening by anticipation).

And on Sunday we joined the Malahlela family in Mamelodi, where half the people were away for the weekend.

We go there every second Sunday, and it occurred to me that the Malahlela family are the people we see most outside the home, apart from our immediate family. Most other contact with people is via the Internet, rather than face to face, and that was one of the things we talked about. In Mamelodi you can go outside in the street, and you will see people. People are walking around, and you can see and meet your neighbours. In Kilner Park, where we live, you can walk all the way round the block and not see a soul, just hear different dogs barking as you pass the houses where they live. This came up in converstion because they asked when our daughter Bridget might come home from Greece. And we said there wouldn’t be much for her to do here. Athens is more like Mamelodi, where you can see people, and has a good public transport system, so there are places to go.

The Malahlela family and visitors, Mamelodi /east, Sunday 27 March 2016

The Malahlela family and visitors, Mamelodi /east, Sunday 27 March 2016

While we were having tea Grace Malahlela’s sister arrived, and then daughter Hellen and her children came back from wherever they had been, with loads of luggage. Since all sorts of people were there now, it was time to take a picture.

During the service there had been lots of noise from the next-door neighbours. They had a tent and lots of visitors, and periodical beating of drums and much noise. Grace sang louder than usual, perhaps to ward off the competition. Afterwards I asked what it was, a funeral perhaps, or a memorial for the dead. No, Grace said that the daughter of the house, who was about 15, was becoming a sangoma.

We come home and resume out everday occupations, family history research, and , in my case, also editing a doctoral thesis. Simon ios composing computer games, and Jethro is relaxing after a busy week at work, as a service advisor for LandRover.

That was the weekend that was. Tomorrow is also a public holiday, but it probably won’t be much  different, and, now that Val and I are both retired, neither will the rest of the week. The lawn needs cutting.

A ship posessed (book review)

A Ship Possessed, ValueA Ship Possessed, Value by Alton Gansky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My eye lit on the title of a book in the library, Vanished and so I looked again, it appealed to my sense of mystery. But then I saw it was II in a series, so I looked at the books on either side, and saw this one. So I took it out and began to read it. It’s a sort of mystery-suspense-horror story, with both bodily and spiritual villains.

I very much like the novels of Charles Williams, whose works have been described as spiritual thrillers, and have often wished that someone else would write books in the same genre. I wondered if this might be such a book, but it isn’t, not really. I don\t know if Alton Gansky intended to write in that genre, but I suspect not, though at times there are echoes of it. In some ways it is a bit closer to the writings of Frank Peretti, though quite a bit better than those. But those who like Peretti’s books might like this one.

It’s not a bad book, and an entertaining read, but Williams it isn’t.

View all my reviews

Improving your user experience

If there is one thing guaranteed to annoy me on the Internet, it is people offering or promising to “improve your user experience.”

At the top of this page, as I write this, WordPress exhorts me: There’s now an easier way to create on WordPress.com! Switch to the improved posting experience.

I had as look at the “improved posting experience”, and found that it was absolutely dysfunctional. What do these people think “experience” means? And “improved”? Do they regard increasing people’s frustration levels as an “improvement”.

To all web page designers out there, there are two ways of improving my user experience. These two ways are:

  1. make pages more readable, and
  2. make pages more readable

The first way of making pages more readable is to increase the contrast between text and background.

The second way of making pages more readable is to make the text stand still long enough so that one can read it.

Get that?

  1. increase contrast between text and background

  2. stop the text from jumping around when people are trying to read it

The first problem is the main problem with the new WordPress editor. I can’t use it because I can’t read the instructions or even find them on the page.

Fortunately the old functional editor is still available, but in order to make up for the high levels of frustration that are essential to an “improved posting experience” they have hidden it away so it is hard to find.

pushI have two ways of enjoying the enhanced user experience of low contrast between text and background.

One that I use with short pieces of text (a line or two) is to hold a powerful magnifying glass up to the screen and try to work out what is written in that way.

For longer pieces of text, like a full article, and only if I’m really motivated to read it, I mark the text as if I am going to copy it. This usually reverses it, and instead of illegible light grey text on a white background it often gives white text on a blue background, which is usually more readable.

There doesn’t seem to be much that can be done about the jumping text.

uxguideIt usually jumps when pictures are being loaded, and if it hasn’t stopping jumping within 30 seconds, I usually close that screen and give up trying to read it. The only solution is for web designers to design their pages better.

When I first started designing web pages 20 years ago one of the cardinal rules was that one should use graphics sparingly, because too many clutter up the page and take longer to load. Too many graphics is bad taste, and, what’s more, it leads to a bad user experience, but will web designers learn that? No.

And one of the first things to know about “user experience” is to stop talking about it! Just make our pages readable and make your pages readable and move on to something else. And, if you must, read this article

20 things you can do this year to improve your user’s experience:

With all of this emphasis on ‘experience’, don’t lose sight of the fact that most people use technology to get stuff done. Frankly, most people don’t want an ‘experience’ with a car park machine, they just want to buy a parking ticket and move on.

Remember that. Write it out 10000 times: most users don’t want an “experience”, they just want to get stuff done. When I’m writing a blog post in WordPress, I don’t want a posting experience, I want to get my stuff written and posted. I want to accomplish a task not have an experience.

A couple of months ago I got a new cell phone. It took me two weeks to discover how to answer it when it rang. My old phone had a red phone icon and a green phone icon. You pressed the green one to answer when it rang, and the red one to hang up. Simple.

But that didn’t work on the new one. It had green phones and red phones and flashing dots in expanding circles, but no matter which one you pressed it kept on ringing until the caller gave up. A marvellous user experience that — I really have nothing better to do than watch flashing dots while the phone is ringing and I’m wondering how to answer it.

I’ve also encountered user surveys, many of which claim to be trying to provide an “enhanced user experience” — “Help us to learn more about our users so we can provide an enhanced user experience.” But most of them don’t want any kind of user feedback at all. They just want to know how they can sell you stuff. They are not seeking to provide an enhanced user experience, they are wanting to have an improved marketing experience. It’s their experience, not yours, that they are concerned about.

One was from the Daily Maverick which I had thought was one of the least unreliable news sources in South Africa today. It was very disappointing. One question was about what you used the Internet for, and most of the things I use the Internet for were not even among the options, just subsumed under “Other”.

It turned out to be all about online shopping habits, and one question asked you to choose 3 advantages you saw to online shopping. None of the suggested answers seemed to apply, so I clicked on “Other” and moved on. It want back, and said you have to give three. I closed it. If it had been allowed, I would have said “None of the above”, but I was disappointed that the Daily Maverick seems to have joined the ranks of the shameless manipulators. That doesn’t enhance my “user experience” at all, at all.

Nouns, adjectives and political allegiance

According to a UK newspaper web side, the way people use language can show how politically “left” or “right” one is:

Quiz: Can we guess your political allegiance –

with three simple questions?: New research published by the University of Kent suggests that the way you use nouns and adjectives is indicative of how right- or left-wing a person is.

If you haven’t already done so, go to the site and do the test, and see how accurate you think it is.

The web site claims to have a simple answer  determined by a simple test, but it actually opens a huge can of very wriggly worms, and raises far more questions than it answers.

leftyWhen I did the test, the page told me “You are a lefty”, and went on to say “Research suggests that left-thinkers tend to use more abstract terms, and are less likely to use nouns.”

That’s OK, in the sense that I do tend to think of myself as more “left” than “right” politically, but the answer, and the reason behind it, bothered me.

If you’re willing to follow my convoluted reasoning, here’s why it bothered me.

I read quite a lot of whodunits, and enjoy watching detective stories on TV. Recently we’ve been watching two crime investigation series we have on DVD — Silent Witness and New Tricks. And one recurring theme in that genre is that if a person is guilty of one crime, they are not necessarily guilty of another. Evidence that shows that they committed one crime is not necessarily sufficient to prove that they committed the crime they are now suspected of committing.

This is an elementary principle of justice: Produce the evidence.

It’s the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning.

Deductive reasoning works from the general to the particular: this person is a thief, therefore this person must have committed this theft.

Inductive reasoning works from the particular to the general: evidence shows that this person stole various items on several different occasions, therefore this person is a thief.

Both types of reasoning have their place, but the three questions in the quiz call on us to make a choice between two kinds of judgement: judging people and judging actions.

And it is that, rather than nouns or abstraction, that the quiz tests.

The choice in the answers is clearly between saying “this person is bad” or “this behaviour is wrong”.

And the quiz is therefore clearly prejudiced against conservatives, because it is saying that “conservatives” are more prejudiced than “leftys”.

My answers are also influenced by my Christian outlook. As Christians, we are told “Judge not, that ye be not judged”, and are told to be merciful to others, just as God has been merciful to us. Most Christians pray every day “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Man judges by the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Publican_PhariseeAll this is summed up in the adage one sometimes hears, “hate the sin but love the sinner”.

And that is precisely what the quiz measures — the extent to which you hate the sin but love the sinner.

And what the interpretation of the quiz tells you, categorically and unequivocally, is that “leftys” are Christian, and “conservatives” are not. So just when you are feeling smug about how unprejudiced you are because it tells you you are a “lefty”, it encourages you to become the most prejudiced of all and say, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this conservative (Luke 18:11).

How’s that for a Catch 22?

And that’s only the top layer of the can of worms. Wait till you get further down.

At the level of the quiz, one can quite easily say that it is better to judge actions rather than people. If we are to judge, or condemn, then we are to judge or condemn behaviour, not people. It is what people do that can be condemned, not what people are.

But if you go a bit deeper, it’s actually the other way round. What we are is more important than what we do.

As Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway put it in their book Up to our steeples in politics, “We agree with those who have reminded us in recent years that the Christian faith is indicative (the fact that God reconciles the world in Christ), not imperative (Go to church! Do not drink bourbon! Feed the hungry! Search and destroy!). But we believe that St Paul’s use of “reconcile” calls attention to a special kind of behavior by the Christian toward the world. Behavior which “does” by being, “acts” by living – that is, being and living as God made us in Christ.”

When we look at other people (as the quiz invites us to do, for the most part) we are to look at actions, at behaviour, and make judgements about what the person does rather than what the person is.

But when we look at ourselves, when we confess our sins, it is the other way round. Yes, I should confess that I lied, I cheated, I fornicated, I slandered, I got angry, but the really serious thing, the root of all this, is what I am, alienated from God. The root of the matter is not so much individual sins, but the sinful state, the fallen state, that I have fallen short of the glory of God.

The Publican in the story realised this, the Pharisee didn’t. And the quiz tempts me to emulate the Pharisee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Underground People

Underground PeopleUnderground People by Lewis Nkosi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me a while to get into this book, and it took me 100 pages to work out what period it was set in, but the interest and pace picked up as the story went along, and in the end I enjoyed it very much.

At first the descriptions seemed over the top, like one of those old TV sets where the colour and brightness levels were turned up too high. For example, “She was slim but strong, with long haunches like a well-bred horse, impressive in a solemn kind of way, shy yet provocatively earthy, painfully reticient but when drawn into converstion likely to unfold suddenly, as a quick responsive mountain flower after rain.”

It’s set in the dying days of the apartheid era (OK, I’ve given the game away, but it’s not really a spoiler, just a puzzle I had, trying to work out if it was set in the 1960s or the late 1980s). The National Liberation Movement sends Cornelius Molapo to his home ground of Tabanyane, to coordinate a local uprising with the national liberation struggle. To account for his disappearance they put around the story that he had been detained by the Security Police, which brings Anthony Ferguson, who works for an international human rights NGO, to South Africa to investigate his disappearance. For Ferguson, a South African expatriate who had been out of the country for 15 years, it was as much of a strange homecoming as going home to Tabanyane was for Cornelius Molapo.

There are many surprising twists in the plot, and eventually Anthony Ferguson comes face to face with Cornelius Molapo, in circumstances he could never have imagined.

______

A couple of extra notes, not included in the Good Reads review.

One of the things that makes books by South African authors more interesting is that they are likely to be set in places one knows, and sometimes, as in this case, one may even have met the author. I met Lewis Nkosi when he spoke at a Progressive Party house meeting in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. It was in October 1960, just after the republican referendum, and he was asked to speak to the predominantly white audience on “The African and the republic”. He was then a journalist on Drum magazine, and said that Africans were not much interested in the republic question, as it would not make much difference to their oppression. I got to drive him to the meeting, and found him an interesting person to meet. Soon after that he left South Africa, and spend the next 30 years in exile, and perhaps that was why I found it hard to work out the time his book was set in — he may have been drawing on old memories in writing it.

One example of this is that in the book white people refer to black people as “natives”, but during the 1950s the politically-correct Afrikaans term became “Bantoe”, and among English speakers it became “African”, and remained so during the 1960s. In the 1970s “black” became more common, and “native” was seldom heard, and by the 1980s “native” seemed to have vanished completely.

I was sad to learn that Lewis Nkosi had died; you can read his obituary here.

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