Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “blogging”

Medium and Niume — what are they?

For some time now I’ve been hearing about web sites called Medium and Niume, and I’ve been urged to join them. The trouble is, I don’t know what they are, or what they are for.

Today I saw an article that gave at least some information about Medium — ‘The Internet Is Broken’: @ev Is Trying to Salvage It – The New York Times:

Medium was supposed to be developing its business around advertising, which would have paid for writers like Ms. Norman and made the site viable. Then it abruptly pivoted in January and laid off a third of the staff, or about 45 people. Advertising was suddenly no longer the solution but the villain.

“Ad-driven systems can only reward attention,” Mr. Williams says. “They can’t reward the right answer. Consumer-paid systems can. They can reward value. The inevitable solution: People will have to pay for quality content.”

But it doesn’t look good.

I went to the Medium site to find out more, but the main menu was unreadable — designed by web designers who firmly believe that illegibility provides an enhanced “user experience”. Holding a magnifying glass up to the screen enabled me to read enough of the low-contrast text to see that there was no “About” page that would tell you about the site and what its purpose was and how it worked. The NY Times article gives some hints at the thinking behind it, but doesn’t actually tell you what “it” is.

Niume is even worse. You have to join it before you can even see if there is an about page and decide whether you want to join it or not. How’s that for buying a pig in a poke? Whatever advantages it might have, that’s enough to put me off right there.

So my question is: Can anyone who has actually used either or both these sites tell us something about what they are and what they are for, and, if they are blog hosting sites, how they compare with other such sites like WordPress or Blogger?

 

 

An Orthodox hipster?

A few weeks ago I came across a Facebook group called Ask an Orthodox Hipster.

I’ve always had a yen to be a hipster, but I don’t think I’ve ever made it. I suppose the closest I got was a wannabe.

What is a Hipster?

My Concise Oxford Dictionary c1964 doesn’t have it, though I’d been using the word for at least four years before I bought the thing.

But my Collins English Dictionary (Millennium Edition) has:

  • hipster n 1 slang, now rare 1a an enthusiast of modern jazz 1b an outmoded word for hippy
  • hippy or hippie n, pl -pies (esp. during the 1960s) a person whose behaviour, dress, use of drugs etc., implied a rejection of conventional values.

It also gives hippy as meaning having large hips, which is why I prefer the spelling hippie for the other meaning.

Nowadays, however, hipster seems to have come back into fashion and is no longer outmoded, but probably about ten times as common as hippie.

I suppose the term hipster was first popularised with that meaning by Allen Ginsberg in his poem Howl:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

And after a few weeks as a member of the Ask an Orthodox Hipster group I can see that yes, it is a place for those burning for the ancient heavenly connection to ask questions.

Christian World Liberation Front, Berkeley, California, 1970

And even before the Internet took off, other Orthodox Christians have had a kind of hipster missionary outreach, or started a hipster ministry and then were drawn to Orthodoxy, such as Fr Jack Sparks of the Christian World Liberation Front.

From here on, this gets personal, so quit now if that’s not your thing.

I discovered that the Ask an Orthodox Hipster group differs from other Orthodox groups on Facebook, in that people do not seem to be angry, or attacking each other. If someone asks a question that people can’t answer, they don’t denounce the question as stupid and the questioner as stupid for asking it, they just pass on to the next thing.

I’ve also found that quite a lot of the questions are ones that I have already answered, at least to some extent, in blog posts I’ve written over the last 10-12 years, and if they aren’t, the question is also sometimes a good prompt for a new blog post.

And this perhaps can provide me with a useful occupation for retirement.

Before retiring one thinks of all the things one could do if one had the time, but one does not have time to do when one is working. Many of the things I hoped to do when I retired had to do with Orthodox mission and evangelism, and visiting Orthodox mission congregations and helping them along by teaching and training their leaders and so on. But they are fairly widely scattered, and visiting them costs money. And I think well, I can’t afford to get the car serviced this month, because I have to pay the doctor, or the dentist, so maybe next month. But next month the car not only needs a service, but also a new battery. And the month after that something else is broken, and the price of petrol keeps going up.

But helping people with answers to questions asked on the Internet requires no physical travel, and can actually reach much further, all over the world, in fact. So I think this Orthodox hipster business could be quite fruitful.

We still continue to visit the mission congregations at Atteridgeville (35km west) and Mamelodi (18km East) on alternate Sundays, but travel farther afield will be much more rare physically, but not necessarily electronically.

 

 

Twitter vs Facebook and blog stats

This blog got the biggest number of hits over the last 30 days on 21 February, when I re-announced an old post on Home Schooling and Bigotry on both Facebook and Twitter.

I just checked the blog stats for that day, and the home schooling post was the most popular. It was interesting, though, that 45 visitors were referred from Facebook, and only 2 from Twitter.

I’m not a great one for stats, and don’t often look at them, though I have noticed that since I moved this blog from Blogger to WordPress the number of visitors dropped drastically and still hasn’t recovered. I moved it because the Blogger editor became more difficult to use.

But another blog I read, A Pilgrim in Narnia, had an article on blogging stats, and so I thought I’d take a closer look at them. And it seems that that blog, too, gets far more hits from Facebook than from Twitter.

Perhaps as a result of this, Twitter has started trying to imitate the Facebook way of doing things, and I suspect that that will cause them to lose a lot more ground a lot more quickly. Instead of doing what Twitter did well, the people at Twitter are trying to do what Facebook does, and doing it badly.

To start with, Twitter was a quick and concise way of sharing information, if necessary with links to where one could get more detail (so great for announcing blog posts). The 140 character limit ensured that. But then they added pictures, which made nonsense of the 140-character limit. Now, like Facebook, they are deciding what to show people, which means that big organisations get more exposure than individuals, and eventually the individuals will leave Twitter to the big organisations to tweet to each other.

There were other tools that enabled one to fine related material on blogs, but they’ve all killed themselves off, perhaps by trying, like Twitter, to emulate the Facebook model instead of doing something useful and unique. There were Technorati and BlogCatalog, which killed themselves off in that way.

So statistically, at any rate, Facebook seems to be one of the best ways of announcing blog posts at the moment

 

 

Social networking and social media

Over the last 30 years or so we’ve seen a tremendous increase in electronic communication by computer networking. Thirty years ago I mainly communicated with distant friends and family by snail mail. Now I mainly use email, if I have their email address. And there are social networking web sites like Facebook and Twitter where you can find friends and family even if you’ve lost touch with them.

But though the internet in general, and social networking sites in particular, make communication easier, the owners of the sites seem to go to great lengths to place obstacles in the way, so that the potential of the internet for communication is never fully realised. One of the most notorious examples was when Facebook, without telling its users, changed every user’s email address in its directory to a Facebook address, and hid mail sent to that address in a place where no one could find it.

I’d like to make some suggestions for improving the utility of social networking to the users. They probably won’t be tried, because there is a huge clash of interests, so Facebook is perpetually fighting its users in order to manipulate them and sell them, offering them the minimum of what they want in order to keep stringing them along.

Other social networking sites have been less successful at this. They start offering something that people find useful, and gain a lot of users. They then sell the site to a big company that announces that they are going to improve the site, and remove the very thing that attracted users in the first place. Yahoo! was notorious for buying up such sites and killing them — for example Geocities, BlogLog and WebRing.

When BlogLog went, there was another similar site called BlogCatalog, but they tried making “improvements” that crippled the main thing that attracted users.

Yet another was Technorati, which was a very useful tool for finding blog posts on similar subjects by means of tags. It also showed a list of trending topics in blog posts, some of which I did not understand at all, but curiosity made me investigate some of them, and so I leant something about popular culture, and the meaning of words like Beyonce, Pokemon and Paris Hilton (no, not the hotel, the daughter of its owner). And one of the things that trended was Twitter. I didn’t see much point in Twitter at first, but when Technorati abandoned its main function, Twitter became a less satisfactory substitute.

friendsWhenever I link to a new blog from one of my WordPress blogs, there is a kind of social networking questionnaire. It’s an idea that’s been around for a long time, and I’ve filled in the information in the hope that someone will find a use for it one day. It’s called XFN, or the XHTML friends network, and you can read more about it here.

The rationale behind XFN’s categories of relationship is given here. While I don’t agree with all their decisions and categories, I think that it is a pretty good starting point, and that social networking sites like Facebook would be immensely improved if they instituted something like that.

In terms of XFN categories, all these are obviously "met". But otherwise, from left to right -- (1) friend kin colleague; (2) kin, friend; (3) me; (4) acquaintance (5) friend, colleague.

In terms of XFN categories, all these are obviously “met”. But otherwise, from left to right — (1) friend kin colleague; (2) kin, friend; (3) me; (4) acquaintance (5) friend, colleague.

The only thing I would add for a site like Facebook would be the time dimension — the “met” category can mean last week or 40 years ago. I find Facebook most useful for contacting old friends and far-away friends.

But the use of categories like the XFN ones could enable Facebook to improve their algorithms of what they show to users. At the moment Facebook shows me lots of stuff from some people in the “contact” category, people I have never met.

Allowing users to categorise posts would also help. Some categories might be family news, general news, professional news, humour, trivia, etc. And possibly an importance rating — I don’t want to learn of a death in the family after the funeral has taken place (as happened in a couple of cases recently), while a new bird seen in the garden might be of less importance.

Does anyone else think any of this would be useful if implemented by Facebook or some other social networking sites?

It’s a good thing that no one is reading this

… so why do I bother to write it?

Pointless, my favourite TV show

Pointless, my favourite TV show

It seems that when I post a link to a blog post on Facebook lots of people comment on Facebook (never on the blog itself) and haven’t read the post anyway. It sometimes worried me and made me think sometimes that blogging was a pointless activity.

Here was I taking all this trouble to write something, but nobody was reading it. And anyway the people whose opinions I was seeking never responded because Facebook never showed it to them. Facebook’s algorithms seem pretty pointless too. I have something like 470 friends on FB, and Facebook only shows me stuff from about 15 of them. I become friends with someone on FB, and Facebook shows me their posts for 3 days and then stops. So what’s the point?

But then I read this (from a link from Twitter), and thought I’d better stop worrying about it Why it’s a very good sign that people don’t read your content:

When I started out as a blogger, I had no idea what I was doing. I was working so hard, and creating content that was pretty darn good. And yet, nobody was reading my posts, commenting, or sharing. I was frustrated.

Pointless-3But if it’s all pointless anyway, what does it matter?

As that article points (oops!) out, it doesn’t matter whether people read it or not, so why bother to try to write anything coherent when no one is going to read it anyway just random stream of consciousness stuff will do and writing a blog post will be like a dog scratching itself to get rid of flees but why is my doing still scratching himself when I just put Frontline tick stuff on him three days ago? Ah, Frontline there’s a brand, and brands are the most important thing nowadays. Content is nothing, brands are all. I’ve seen web sites that ask you what you’re interested in and one of the important things to be interested in is brands not brands of anything — cars, shampoo, antitick stuff for dogs it doesn’t matter the important thing is brands. Not art literature books or anything just brands.

TelkomQuotaActually I haven’t been reading many links on Facebook myself lately either. I “like” it or not based on the headline, because if I go to the article itself this will happen –>

And waiting for web pages to load becomes like watching paint dry. Telkom does have a thing where you can buy more bandwidth and speed it up again, but it hasn’t been working for a week now, which makes Telkom Internet pretty pointless too.

So I’m not reading your content and you’re not reading my content, but that’s a good thing, according to the quoted article, which I bet you haven’t read either.

And so life is reduced to pointless click bait.

 

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.

What has happened to paper.li?

For some time now I’ve been using the paper.li web site to make sense of Twitter.

One can get overwhelmed by so many tweets on different topics, and now that Twitter has added pictures, it’s become a bit of a bandwidth hog too, producing nearly as many “a script is not responding” messages as Facebook.

Paper.li produces a digest of articles with links on Twitter, suitably formatted and headlined. My personal one is The Steve Hayes Daily, which it makes from my Twitter feed.

But what I found even more useful was the ones based on Twitter hashtags, which enabled one to follow topics of interest. So I regularly look at The #Theology Daily and The #orthodox Daily.

There wasn’t one for my own field of Missiology, but paper.li let me create one, with the URL http://paper.li/tag/missiology. And you can see it as The #missiology Daily. So if anyone posts a link on Twitter to a missiological article, and includes the hashtag #missiology in the tweet, all those links will be conveniently collected in one place.

The problem is that paper.li no longer appears to allow this. The existing papers based on hashtags continue, but it seems that it is not possible to create new ones.

Inklings

Inklings

I am interested in the group of authors known as the Inklings (who include, among others, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield). There quite a number of bloggers who blog about these authors, and there are other interesting articles on their works that people tweet about, and I thought it would be nice to see tweets about them in one place, so I looked for an #Inklings paper on paper.li, which would have the URL http://paper.li/tag/inklings.

But there wasn’t one.

But paper.li invited me to create one.

I tried to do so, but the URL wasn’t based on the tag, it was based on my name, and the content was a mishmash of stuff, none of which seemed to relate to the #inklings hashtag. I deleted it and tried again, but it still didn’t work. So it seems that the people at paper.li have removed the functionality of creating a paper based on a hashtag.

Boo hiss!

Actually the people who run web sites seem to do this quite often. They come up with something that people find useful, and attract them to start using the site, and then they remove the very thing that attracted them. They seem incapable of learning the lesson that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

10th Anniversary of Notes from Underground blog

It’s ten years since I started this blog, which I’ve kept going more or less continuously since then.

It was the day that we got an ADSL broadband connection to the Internet, instead of dial-up, with a whole 2 Gigabytes monthly allowance, so for the first time I browsed the Web instead of just going to a specific site, looking at what I needed to look at, and logging off. And in doing that I encountered the Blogger site, and so started this blog on a whim, because Blogger looked easy to use.

I already had three online journals, so I thought starting a new one was an extravagance, but Blogger looked easier to use than the others — you could just start typing stuff. The others had a much clunkier user interface. The LiveJournal one is still there, though I don’t use it much any more.  I was introduced to that by Bishop Seraphim Sigrist, who still blogs there, and what he writes is always worth reading. One of the nice things about LiveJournal is that you can have “friends”, whose journals can be presented to you in a continuous feed, so you can see what they have written. You can see my LiveJournal friends feed here. The other online journals were on Yahoo 360 (long since killed by Yahoo), and something called MyDiary, which had the clunkiest user interface of all.

But Blogger had a streamlined user interface that made it easy to just write thoughts down — ideas that you wanted to share and discuss with people, half-baked ideas that you wanted other people to help you bake by commenting on them, adding to them, or even shooting them down.

When I started this blog on Blogger I didn’t even know what to say, but a blog is supposed to be, first of all, a web log, a log of web sites visited, so I wrote about a site for finding old friends, and you can see the first post here Notes from underground: Seek and ye shall find, And yes, the “Reverse People Finder” I wrote about is still there, and you can still use it.

You may have noticed that this post is not on the original site. blogspot.com, and that is because quite soon after I started blogging there, Google, who had taken over Blogger, began messing with the blog editor, and it suddenly became a lot more difficult to use, and lots of things didn’t work any more. In 2006 there was a mass migration of bloggers from Blogger to the WordPress platform, and I started a blog on WordPress, called Khanya, just to be on the safe side. At first it was there as a kind of emergency fallback, in case Blogger became completely unusable, but then I began using it for different things, so the two blogs continued side by side. Eventually the Blogger editor stabilised, and I continued to use it for quick ‘n dirty posts. One major difference was that WordPress allowed you to use captions on pictures, but Blogger made it easier to add pictures without captions.

So it continued until Google began messing with the Blogger editor again, which you can read about here Notes from underground: Blogger’s new user-hostile interface and other atrocities. So I moved the whole blog over to WordPress, and all was well until WordPress began messing with their editor and introduced the new Beep Beep Boop one, which I found completely unusable, and at one point, when they hid the old editor so I could not find it, I began using the old site again. Bad as the new Blogger editor was, it was still better than the new WordPress one. Eventually I found where WordPress had hidden the old editor, and though it is a schlep to find, at least it is still there.

Unless your a dedicated blogger, you probably haven’t got this far, because of all that boring stuff about blog writing software. One result of the deterioration of blogging software is that people have been abandoning blogs and prefer to use sites like Facebook. It’s a pity, because there are many things for which blogs are a much better medium than sites like Facebook. For one thing you can easily find stuff again, even years later, whereas on Facebook you can spend half an hour looking for something that was posted five minutes before, and anything more than 3 days old is gone forever.

There was something else to record on this day 10 years ago. We were visited by an old friend, Trevor Stone. I didn’t blog about that at the time, so I’ll add it here. I knew Trevor from Namibia in the early 1970s. He had come from the UK as a volunteer to work at the Anglican mission at Odibo in Ovamboland as a mechanic maintaining the church  vehicles.

Monday 28 November 2005

Trevor Stone, Pretoria, 28 Nov 2005

Trevor Stone, Pretoria, 28 Nov 2005

Trevor Stone came to see us. He brought news of people from Namibia that I had not heard, and has remained active in support of the work of the Anglican Church there. I learned that Nestor Kakonda, who in the early 1970s had been secretary of St Mary’s Mission, had been killed in a South African raid on Cassinga in Angola, during the wars there. Trevor collected books about Namibian history, and collected information especially about the Kwanyama people and their history. He was arranging for collections of Kwanyama artifacts in Britain to be photographed, so that they could be sent to the University of Namibia and schools there, to be available to students so they could know their own history.

 

 

WordPress, please fix this bug!

I sometimes want to make a comment on a self-hosted WordPress blog, and I’m asked to enter my e-mail address, my name and my web page address.

When I do, I get this message:

Are you Steve Hayes?

You are being asked to login because shayes@dunelm.org.uk is used by an account you are not logged into now.

By logging in you’ll post the following comment to The Anniversary Gift:

So I log in, and it takes me to the dashboard of my blog.

I navigate my way back to the blog I wanted to comment on, and enter the information again, and it responds:

Are you Steve Hayes?

You are being asked to login because shayes@dunelm.org.uk is used by an account you are not logged into now.

By logging in you’ll post the following comment to The Anniversary Gift:

And so on, ad infinitum.

This bug has been reported before, long ago, and it is extremely annoying. And its one reason I think self-hosted blogs are a bad idea.

 

 

Youth and exile: writing a memoir

Having discovered (with a little help from my friends) where WordPress had hidden its old user-friendly editor, I’m posting this here rather than in my old Notes from Underground blog.

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed this book:

YouthYouth by J.M. Coetzee My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You can read my review here.

There I noted that Coetzee’s book was almost the story of my life, and mentioned some of the possibly interesting bits that he had left out, and someone left a comment to the effect that if I wrote my own version of the story, he would definitely buy it.

It’s a bit risky to start writing a book on the strength of one promise to buy it, but that’s exactly what I’m doing, with a provisional title of Youth and exile. You could say that my review of Coetzee’s book also contains the outline or summary of my own.

I’m also writing it using a tool I haven’t used before — Papel.

Papel is a kind of writer’s editor, where you can write stuff as you feel inspired to do, then move it around and link it later, and finally pull it into a word processor for polishing. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, things go quickly, and, as promised, it lets you just write, and leave the sorting, formatting and arranging for later. I find that creative writing goes better when you separate the writing and the editing processes, and Papel does that rather well.

Unlike Coetzee, I won’t be writing a fictionalised account. That would be too difficult, but it does entail certain limitations. Because some of the other people mentioned in my story are still living, and might possibly even read it, one cannot go into all the details of personal relationships that Coetzee does, even if only from the protagonist’s point of view.

But, Dana Ames, if you are reading this, and get impatient for me to finish it, you can always have a go at my fiction set in the immediately preceding period. You can find more about it here:

Of Wheels and WitchesOf Wheels and Witches by Stephen Hayes

or here.

View all my reviews

 

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