Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “blogging”

The importance of blog comments

Most bloggers really appreciate comments on their blog posts — provided that they are intelligent, on topic, and not spam.

Now one blogger has been investigating this, and asking bloggers to say what their favourite comments are, and why — Why Reader Comments Are The Cat’s Pajamas | Voxate Writing & Editing:

Although time is scarce and we’re often reading other blogs between other must-do’s on our daily schedule, making the time to comment is important – both for the link it may allow you to include to your own blog or site, and to the blogger.

Speaking for myself now, one of the reasons that I write blog posts is that I have some half-baked ideas floating around, and I’m hoping that others will read them and help me to bake them. So it’s pretty discouraging when there are no comments at all. So please read this article on blog comments, and resolve to write a comment on a blog today, or at least this week.


How US Net Neutrality affects the rest of us

Those of us outside the US may have observed their debates on net neutrality, and wondered whether it would affect us.

Even if it is something confined purely to the US, however, the loss of net neutrality there will affect people all over the world. But when people speak of the loss of net neutrality, there are many ways in which it has already been lost, or rather, it is an ideal that has never been fully realised.

This article helps to explain what it means for people in the US — Someone Finally Illustrated What The Loss Of Net Neutrality Really Looks Like, And You Won’t Like It:

Net neutrality has become a volatile, high-profile news story, and with good reason: Americans are in danger of losing it. But what is net neutrality, and why is it important? Why are some lawmakers fighting so hard to make it a thing of the past?

The answer is complex, rooted in technological progress, a changing economic landscape, and a society and culture that is seeing greater class divisions than at any other time in our history. Some in our government are determined to make the internet a profit-driven product, and while this may sound understandable in a capitalist society, the dangers are very real.

Aptly illustrated by this picture:

If you live in South Africa, say, and you post some family photos on Facebook, the loss of net neutrality in the US might mean that your cousin in the US may not be able to see them, because their ISP has decided to charge more for access to Facebook.

Of course even with net neutrality your cousin in the US might not have been able to see your photos, because Facebook’s algorithm already decides who gets to see what you post, and who doesn’t get to see it.

Think of another example. An academic researcher in South Africa posts a research query in a blog, trying to verify some fact, or get reactions to a conjecture or hypothesis. With net neutrality, anyone with a web connection can see the blog and respond to the post. But without net neutrality, an ISP can decide to make that particular blogging platform only accessible to some of its subscribers who pay extra for it.

Even without legal protection of “net neutrality”, there have been all kinds of attempts to corral users into a closed system. Facebook’s Messaging app is an example. Get people to use that, and people have to join Facebook to communicate with you. Others may have attempted the same thing, but it might have backfired on them. In an earlier post, The decline and decline of tumblr | Notes from underground, I noted that tumblr had gradually reduced the functionality of their site to make it a closed world. Perhaps they did this in the hope that they, like Facebook, might be able to lock users in to their site, though the actual effect was to remove the incentive for many people to visit their site at all. To lock people in successfully, you have to be big like Facebook, not small like tumblr.

We had something similar in South Africa. A few years ago people who used MWeb as their ISP found it difficult to access certain web sites, because MWeb was trying to lock them in and steer them towards its own offerings. I don’t know if they still do that, but there was quite an outcry at the time.

Something similar was seen back in the 1990s, when dial-up BBSs were popular. Telkom, whose phone lines were being used for it, wanted to charge more for data calls to BBSs than for voice calls, but the counter argument was that Telkom was a “common carrier” — their job was to provide the connections, for which they could charge, but the content of the calls was none of their business. The “common carrier” principle is the same principle as net neutrality — an ISP charges you for the internet connection and the band width you use, but the content of your connection is none of their business.

The “common carrier” principle provided a great deal of freedom, because anyone could set up a BBS, and so BBSs were a great enhancement to free speech. It was one of the factors that helped to topple a lot of dictatorial regimes in the annus mirabilis of 1989. It was how news of the Tianamnen Square massacre in China reached the rest of the world; pro-democracy activists used a BBS conference called ASIAN_LINK to communicate with each other and the rest of the world.

So the loss of New Neutrality takes the USA another step further away from the “free world” that it once claimed to be the leader of.




The decline and decline of tumblr

When I joined tumblr in November 2010 it was an amazingly versatile and useful site.

Its most useful feature was as a blog aggregator.

It would automatically collect posts from my other blogs and make linked summaries of them. That meant that all I needed to put in e-mail sig and the like was “Follow me on tumblr” and friends could check to see if any of my blog posts looked interesting enough to read in full.

It did even more — it would post announcements of things on Facebook, Twitter etc.

And that was not all. It was a blog in its own right.

It could capture links to web pages, or quotations from them and save them for future reference or for sharing with others.

In addition to all this, tumblr had a feature that let you post to it by e-mail. That was useful for times when you ran out of bandwidth at the end of the month, and web access slowed to a crawl. You could still post to tumblr, even if only to let your friends know that you couldn’t do much else on the Internet.

So tumblr promised to become a kind of centre of the web, a kind of exchange that everything else passed through. It could become a central reference point to which you could refer all your friends.

But then it gradually began to lose functionality.

It stopped posting on Facebook and Twitter.

It stopped aggregating other blogs.

And finally the feature of quoting and linking web pages stopped working. The feature was still there, but it no longer worked. As soon as there was text in the quotation window, the “Post” button disappeared below the bottom of the screen and there was no way you could click on it.

Now, however, it isn’t even there any more. So I now use another blog, Simple Links, for that function. It doesn’t work as well as tumblr did, but its better than nothing at all.

And the last time I tried to post to my tumblr account by e-mail it said “Mail not delivered”.

With all this loss of functionality, there was less and less reason to visit tumblr, or to invite other people to visit it.

But the last straw came when tumblr told me it was time to change my password.

It said I should wait for a link that would be sent by e-mail. I waited, carefully copied the link and pasted it into my web browser, and the response was:

There’s nothing here.
Whatever you were looking for doesn’t currently exist at this address.
Unless you were looking for this error page, in which case: Congrats! You
totally found it.”

On trying again, I got another message:

Sorry, this isn’t a valid password-reset link. You’ll need to request a
new link from Tumblr.

Eventually I managed to contact Support, and they gave me another link that eventually let me enter a new password.

It responded “Password is too short”

I typed a longer one. “Password is too short”

I typed the longest Enlish word I could think of (Antidisestablishmentarianism) with a couple of non-alphanumeric characters tossed in. “Password is too short”

I give up. Having lost all functionality, tumblr is entirely dysfunctional.

tumblr is boiled cabbage

You know about boiled cabbage?

It’s a joke.

Only on tumblr it’s no joke. It’s deadly serious.

I wonder if anyone is still using tumblr.


What happened to WordPress’s Form Response?

A few years ago WordPress added a useful form response feature — you could add a response form to the end of a post, people would fill in the information, and the information would be sent in an e-mail. It saved them the hassle of having to compose an e-mail message to the blogger on whose blog the form appeared.

It was very useful for people who did not want to respond in a public comment, but wanted to discuss the matter in the blog post further.

I found it easy to import the responses into a database without retyping (which brings dangers of typos).

Then WordPress began adding HTML to the responses.

That was a bit of a hassle, because I’d have to save it, and strip out the HTML before it could be used.

Now they seem to have farmed this out to something called POWr, which is completely unusable.

I just don’t have the time or the inclination to jump through all the hoops they want me to jump through.

They don’t send the information in an e-mail. They send a link to a web page that is so full of lazy HTML and other unreadable spammy stuff  that it invariably gets tossed into my spam queue.

If I happen to notice it when I’m bulk deleting my spam, what I see is this:

How do you prefer to communicate?
View Form Responses

This is your 2nd submission this month. Your plan allows for 25 submissions every month.
Click here to upgrade your account and receive more submissions.

Have you tried the new POWr Chat?

I must have deleted lots of them without noticing, because the subject line “How do you prefer to communicated?” gives no indication at all that this as a form response from WordPress. And then again, if I do happen to notice it when I’m bulk-deleting my spam, I find I have to click on a link to a web site so I have to wait for a browser to load up and then they want me to sign into a web page, which means looking up in another program to find if I have a user name and password for that particular site.

It’s just not worth it.

If I could, I’d remove all the “Form Response” thingies from all my blog posts, as they are now useless, but that would be extremely time-consuming and difficult.

So if you see a response form at the end of any of my blog posts, please don’t be tempted to use it. Just send me an e-mail instead.

Why do people provide something simple and useful, and then replace it with something complex and useless?



Akismet and persistent spammer

For the last few days someone calling itself MichaelDes or MichaelDus has been desperately trying to post spam comments on one of my blogs, and I’ve been getting notifications of each attempt.

Normally such things are just marked as spam without any notification, so I’m wondering why the Akismet spam checker isn’t handling these in the normal way. Any other bloggers having problems with spam comments from MichaelDes?

I’ve set my mail reader to automatically delete the notifications, but I still have to go to the blog and mark the comments in the moderation queue as spam.


Abandoned Blogs and Internet vandalism

This morning I spent several hours going through the blogroll of my other blog, Khanya, removing dead and broken links. It was sad to see how many blogs had been abandoned or closed.

I knew that some of them had not had new posts for a while, but had kept them in the hope that one day the owner might take up blogging again.

Vandalised library books

But saddest of all were the ones that had been deleted or made “private”.

The problem with that is that all sorts of people make links to blog posts they find interesting. Deleting the blog, or making it inaccessible, is a bit like going to a library and snipping out a whole lot of the footnotes and bibliographical references in a lot of books. It’s a kind of vandalism. It’s actually worse, because it in effect removes the footnote from every copy of that book in the whole world, and indeed from every other book in which that book has been cited.

So even if you abandon your blog, and no longer want to write any more, try not to delete it. Of course if it is a “hosted blog” (something self-styled blog fundis recommend, but is generally a bad idea) you might no longer want to go on paying for the hosting, or you may die and your heirs may not want to go on paying. And of course a free hosting site may go belly-up, like Yahoo abandoning Geocities. Fortunately some others came to the rescue for that, though of course lots of the original links were still broken.

One of the broken links I found offered me the domain name for $1575. Imagine paying that for a “premium” domain name like “”! I wonder how much they paid for it originally before abandoning it?

But it’s all a form of Internet entropy, and makes me wonder what will happen when there are more broken links than working links on the Internet.






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?


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