Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “computing”

Your 25 friends on Facebook

Many Facebook users are concerned that Facebook only shows them posts from about 25 of their friends. And Facebook will probably only show their posts to about 25 (or fewer) of their freinds unless a lot of those friends “like” them, or react to them in some other way.

One thing that is a bit concerning about this is that Facebook is always nagging me to add new friends by showing “People you may know” prominently — but if I add them, which of my friends will drop off the radar?

Some people have thought the solution is to post things like this:

Fixed my blocked posts …….. I wondered where everybody had been!

This is good to know: It’s ridiculous to have so many friends and only 25 are allowed to see my post.
I ignored this post earlier, because I didn’t think it worked. But…. it WORKS!! I have a whole new news feed. I’m seeing posts from people I haven’t seen in years.

Here’s how to bypass the system FB now has in place that limits posts on your news feed:

Their new algorithm chooses the same few people – about 25 – who will read your posts. Therefore, Hold your finger down anywhere in this post and “copy” will pop up. Click “copy”. Then go your page, start a new post and put your finger anywhere in the blank field. “Paste” will pop up and click paste.

This will bypass the system… I thought I’ll try it and hey presto!

The problem it describes is real, but the proposed solution is not. Copying and pasting text like that will do nothing to change Facebook’s algorithms.

Some have claimed that the “25 Facebook friends” meme is a hoax, but it isn’t. The exact number of 25 may not be accurate, but there is certainly some such limit, and it doesn’t even seem to be affected by “likes” or other reactions.

How do I know this?

Well a couple of years ago Facebook forced me to have two accounts[1]. When I opened the second account I linked to some of my friends so I could still keep in touch with them while my main account was blocked. One of those friends is Koos van der Riet, who is a friend on both accounts. But Facebook never ever shows me his posts on my main account, no matter how many times I “like” them. It always shows me his posts on my secondary account, even though I deliberately refrain from “liking” them or reacting to them in any way. But to see his posts on my main account I have to type his name in the search bar and search for his account, otherwise Facebook never shows me his posts.

This problem will not be solved by copying and pasting a bit of text. It can only be solved by Facebook improving their algorithm. One way of doing that would be to rate every person you link to as a friend, say on a scale of 1 to 10, to show how much you wanted to see their posts.  The algorithm could then add their value for you to your value to them to show how much value to give to posts. It could also introduce a classification of kids of posts, family news, general news, news commentary, to let one indicate which kinds of posts one was most interested in from which people. Such a scheme would take a bit of work and research to develop, but would make it more useful to its users.


Notes

[1] Why I was forced to have two accounts. Facebook blocked my main account on my main computer, and semanded that I download and run some software before it would allow me to see it. I could still, however, see it on my laptop. So I opened a new account. Later I discovered I could still access my main account on my main computer using a different browser. So I use two browsers, one for each account.

Sorry, Twitter. You did something wrong

Update 25 August 2019

This now seems to be fixed, and Twitter is accessible again.

Thanks to the people at Twitter who made it accessible again.


For the last couple of days, almost every time I’ve tried to read Twitter, I get the message:

Sorry! We did something wrong.

It seems that the “new” Twitter has been introduced, and it no longer works on my old computer.

For the moment I can still post links to things on other web sites on Twitter, though perhaps that will soon stop working too. But I can no longer read my Twitter feed on my computer, so I won’t be “liking” or retweeting stuff posted by other people, or seeing the links they post. I won’t be able to search for hashtags dealing with news items that interest me, and get different points of view on the same event.

At least I’ll still be able to look at my daily digest on paper.li, but that is selected for me, and isn’t quite the same thing. And for my literary friends, like the Inklings fans out there, I’ll still ber able to follow in the #Inklings daily digest, provided they use the #Inklings hashtag, which they don’t always remember to do.

It seems that we pensioners who can’t afford to buy the latest and greatest hardware every year are now excluded.

It reminds me of my youth, and the planned obsolescence in the motor industry. Back then South Africa;s roads were filled with small British cars and big American ones, and most of my posh school friends boasted that their parents traded their cars in for a new model every year. Then along came the Japanese, who didn’t believe that it was obligatory for cars to break down, and people started keeping their cars for longer.

My wife’s Toyota Yaris, which is 13 years old and has done nearly 300 000 km, still has its original front brake pads. My mother’s Wolseley 4/44 needed decoking and its valves ground when it was only 2 years old.

Those American cars that were traded in every year, the Dodges and Desotos with their huge tail fins, were snapped up second-hand to become second-class taxis. But the Japanese put a stop to that in 1969 with the Toyota Hi-Ace, which lasted longer, used less fuel, carried more people, and came with two nuns as standard equipment (those who are old enough to remember will understand).

But it seems that social media, like TV sport, are being placed beyond the reach of pensioners like us, and being reserved for the rich who can afford to upgrade their computers every year.

CounterPunch goes over to the Dark Side

For several years now I’ve followed the web site CounterPunch on Twitter.

CounterPunch claims that it is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas, and I’ve sometimes found it a useful antidote to the blandness and cover-ups of the “mainstream” media.

But today it announced that it had gone over to the Dark Side when it published an article In Defense of the Satanic.

The word “satan” means “accuser”.

The primary meaning of “satanic” is the making of false accusations.

In Christian mythology, the satan is a jumped up public prosecutor who wants to take over the judge’s job because he thinks the judge is too soft on criminals (see Zechariah 3). He is typologically mirrored in the earthly prosecutors who judge their success not by justice, but by their conviction rate, whose motto is that “it is better that the innocent should suffer than that the guilty should escape”.

If you want a picture of an ideal satanic world, read The Trial by Franz Kafka. Is that is the kind of world that CounterPunch is choosing to advocate and defend? Thanks, but no thanks. I’m unfollowing. What were they thinking?

The satanic world is the world of the Gestapo, of the KGB, of the Special Branch, Some of us remember the darkness from which we have come, and some of my own memories are here and here: Tales from Dystopia XVI: The SB | Khanya. That is the Kafkaesque world of the secret police who send secret accusations to those in power against which there is no defence. That is the essence of satanic — and CounterPunch is defending it, thereby taking the side of injustice and oppression.

Telkom Internet scam warning

To those who use Telkom Internet, a got a somewhat different phishing scam e-mail today, which could easily lead people to be unaware that they had been scammed. This was the e-mail:

telkomsa.net Notification

Hello User,

We have stopped processing incoming emails

Due to your refusal to update your account and as a result, we are forced to lock your account and all your services will be suspended.

Use the link below to update your account.

 

Image result for orders buy

 

 

NOTE: This email will be closed if ignored.

 

Kind regards,

 

Supported by telkomsa.net

 

If you clicked on the link, this is what you would see:

With a space to enter your log in details.

You might think that this was a Telkom Internet login, but the actual address was:

http://informatique-securite.website/screenconnect/Bin/telkomsa/telkomsa/Login.htm

I you filled it in, you would be taken to the actual Telkom site, and perhaps, if you entered yourt actual log-in details, it would actually log in to Telkom, and you wouldn’t be any the wiser, except that the phishermen would now have your name and password.

As I usually do in such cases, I filled it in with a bogus name and password (and I advise you to do the same if you ever find yourself on such a site.

My e-mail reader and anti-virus program usually warn me about bogus bank statement phishing attempts, but it didn’t warn me about this one, so be careful.

 

The Moaning Meme and the Freelance Cynic

About 12 years ago I posted about The moaning meme | Notes from underground:

The Freelance Cynic complains that most memes that circulate in the blogosphere are about things that people like — your favourite book, movie, or whatever. But if you overheard conversations on the bus or in public places, they are usually complaining — about the weather, politics, other people’s habits and so on. One of the major aids to social bonding is moaning, grumbling and so on.

Someone seems to have looked at it recently, so I went to have a look at what I had written, and in the original blog post there was a link to the Freelance Cynic’s blog at FreelanceCynic.com, but when I tried to go there the blog had gone, and I was informed that the domain was for sale at $695. I assume that is US dollars, and that is R9728.47 at the current rate of exchange.Now there’s something to moan about.

Did the FreelanceCynic die and bequeath their domain name to whoever is selling it now? Or did they simply abandon their blog and drop the domain name? How much of that $695 will the actual Freelance Cynic get?

Another thing to moan about, if you feel like moaning: Communications:

Meraki Research would like to find out more about the way you communicate in this digital age. The survey will take less than 8 minutes to complete and we have kept it interesting. All answers will be kept anonymous.

If you are in South Africa and see this in February/March 2019, please follow the link and fill in the survey. After that it probably won’t work. Basically what it is about is how you prefer your spam. If you are like me, you will answer “Never” to how you prefer your SMS spam, and so participating in the survey may help to get the message through to SMS spammers.

So here’s my moaning meme for this Week. I’m not tagging anybody in it, anyone can take part.

And, for what it’s worth, I find SMS (“Text”) spam the most annoying.

E-mail spam can usually be removed by filters, though that is becoming more difficult now as more and more people seem to be trying to make their legitimate mail look as much like spam as possible by using HTML and especially “lazy HTML” that tries to incorporate something from a remote site into the body of a message. My e-mail reader automatically tosses those into the “Junk or Suspicious Mail” queue, and is set not to display anything on remote sites.

Newsgroup spamming can also be annoying, most of it these days seems to come via GoogleGroups, and no matter how much you report it to Google, they do little to stop it.

But SMS spam is the most annoying of the lot, because it is immediate. If you are travelling, and expecting an important message about an event you are going to, and you have to pull of the road to read it (like taking the next freeway exit), and then discover it is just some stupid ad, it really is annoying.

Speaking in bones

Speaking in BonesSpeaking in Bones by Kathy Reichs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a rather disappointing book. It features Dr Temperance Brennan, who, like the author, is a forensic anthropologist, trying to assist in the solving of crimes through the examination of human remains, especially bones.

It started off quite well, and introduced me to several things that I didn’t know — that there were such things as websleuths, amateur detectives who use information from the Internet to try to match unidentified dead bodies with reports of missing persons. It sounds like quite a good idea, until you discover that there is also a great deal of rivalry and sometimes hostility among them. But that kind of thing appeals to the family historian in me, because a lot of family history is in effect looking for missing persons.

Colin Darlington Rogers once wrote a book on Tracing missing persons and found that most of the readers were actually genealogists and family historians, so he wrote another book called The Family Tree Detective which was a pretty good how-to book for its time (pre-Internet), in England and Wales, and has followed it up with several more.

So I was thinking that this might be an interesting missing person’s mystery, but then it seemed to fall apart as I read further. The first thing that struck me as strange was that the author seemed to be enjoying commercial sponsorship. I kept wondering about that, when the protagonist didn’t just make calls on her cell/mobile phone, but we were told specifically that it was an iPhone. And when she was searching the Internet for websleuths, she opened her Macbook to do so. And her mother didn’t just go on a computer course, it was an Apple computer course. So I was wondering if she was getting paid for each mention of the brand name.

That was slightly irritating. But it was also annoying when the author tried to end every chapter with a cliff-hanger, and when you read the next chapter the “cliff” turned out to be nother more than a nine-inch wall. One was led to expect dire and perilous happenings that turned out to be quite banal.

And then quite a lot of the plot turned on the beliefs of a weird religious sect that majored on exorcism. Now there are lots of weird religious sects out there that do very strange stuff, like spraying people with insecticide and getting them to drink rat poison. But the one in the book seemed inauthentically weird. It struck me that that is one of the problems of using the web for research. It is great for verifying information when you have a framework of knowledge to put it into, but if you try to research from scratch without knowing what you are looking for, but can get seriously led up the garden path. And while there is a considerable difference between social anthropology and physical anthropology, reading a book by a social anthropologist, like Demons and the devil by Charles Stewart might have been a better preparation.

So yes, it was disappointing in the end.

View all my reviews

Stuff you don’t see any more: 3×5 index cards and the metrication blues

The other day I wandered into the CNA (a local newsagent/bookseller/stationery chain) in search of 3×5 index cards, and a couple of other things. There were no index cards there. A sign of changing times, perhaps — people use computers for that sort of stuff nowadays.  But I’ve been using computers to store data for more than 30 years, and I’ve still been able to buy index cards.

Talking of computers reminds me of something else you don’t see any more — computer magazines. I started buying those 35 years ago, before I even had computer. At one time there used to be a large selection, and I would browse through them to see which had the most interesting articles that month, and buy that. Then they started to come with disks (and later discs) with free or shareware software and other good stuff. I then started buying the ones for the most interesting software selection, rather than the most interesting articles. But there was only one in the CNA this month — Linux Format.

This morning I went to a different branch of the CNA hoping to find index cards. I couldn’t see any. They did have the same computer magazine, so, rather rashly, I bought it. I do have Linux on my computer, but I don’t use it much, mainly because it doesn’t run the software I use most of the time (and please don’t tell me, as some people are wont to do, that I could find another program that does something similar and use that and “move on”. Thinking that having your programs in one operating system and your data in another is a good idea is really not a sign of intelligence).

But this other CNA branch did have index cards — in A6 and A7 sizes.

Just think of it — 47 years after South Africa switched to the metric system, and it was illegal to sell rulers marked in inches or milk measured in pints, they suddenly decide it’s time to switch index cards to metric sizes. For 47 years we’ve being buying cards (and boxes to store them in) that are 3×5 inches (76.2 by 127.0 mm), and now we need to replace them by “metric” cards that are 74 by 105 mm. They can’t easily be stored together, so it would mean you can’t easily add new cards to an existing file — you’d have to copy all the existing cards to the new size.

But why use index cards when you can use a computer?

Computers are much more efficient at searching and sorting information than a card system. You can search and sort in different ways and on different fields, while cards can only be sorted one way, and searched on one field. It’s a no brainer, isn’t it?

Well, not quite.

Computers are very good at storing, searching and sorting information, What they are not so good at is displaying it in a way that makes it easy for human beings to interpret it.

When you have index cards, you can lay them out on a table cloth (or even a carpet or bedspread), move them around, lay them out in patterns and change the patterns to look at the information in different ways. Two or three people can look at the information and discuss it while they are doing so. One of my mentors, Professor David Bosch, used to recommend this as a research method for masters and doctoral students.

There was a time when computer programmers used to think that everyone knew about index cards, and used icons of card indexes on their screens, and some programmers even used to make their input screens look like index cards. But they had grasped the wrong end of the stick. Index cards were useless at the input end, but very few programmers grasped that that they might be very useful at the output end. Very few wrote their programs with the option of producing index cards as printed output, yet that would have been a far better use of computing power.

There were a few exceptions.

There used to be a genealogy program called Personal Ancestral File (PAF). It stored genealogical information, and produced reports. In the 1990s various people produced supplementary programs that accessed the PAF database and did more things with it. I have two of those supplementary programs on my computer. One prints reports on 3×5 index cards, and the other produces them on 6×4 index cards. The down side is that the PAF program they work with was not Y2K compatible, and so does not accept dates after 31 December 1999. And no one else has seen fit to include such reporting facilities in more up-to-date programs (or apps, as people like to call them nowadays).

My main use for index cards now is as bookmarks. While I’m reading a book, I record significant passages, and then later use them to find the places in the book and make notes on the computer. I don’t usually read books while sitting at the computer so I can make notes as I go along. When used as bookmarks, I use one card per book, but if the computer could spit out one card per note it might improve considerably on David Bosch’s research method.

But at least part of this story ends well — after failing to find 3×5 index cards at the CNA I went round the corner to Archneer Stationers, and they had 3×5 and 6×4 index cards in stock. And no A6 and A7 ones at all.

There are lots of other things you don’t see any more, like gooseberry jam, quince jelly, tinned mutton breyani, real peanut butter, 8mm film projectors, Beta video tape players, and many more.

But 3×5 index cards are the ones I’d really miss.

 

 

Is life without Facebook even possible?

There have been lots of “social media” sites on the web, but Facebook has undoubtedly been the most successful. Some years ago Yahoo made my account inaccessible for 6 months. They hosted my web pages (because they had taken over Geocities), they stopped me managing my mailing lists because they had taken over a mailing list host, and so  to be contactable on the web I registered for MySpace, but MySpace was clunky, its pages were cluttered and it was difficult to navigate. Then I found Facebook, which was clean, simple and easy — but it was only for current students at tertiary institutions. So when Facebook opened for everyone I joined.

Soon afterwards Yahoo! let me back in, but I still found Facebook useful, because Yahoo closed down most of the services I found most useful, including Geocities, MyBlogLog and WebRing. The only useful service they still provide is their mailing-list host, YahooGroups, and they’ve tried pretty hard to make even that less attractive and more user hostile.

Facebook, however, has succeeded in making itself almost indispensable, as this article shows I tried leaving Facebook. I couldn’t – The Verge:

Facebook had replaced much of the emotional labor of social networking that consumed previous generations. We have forgotten (or perhaps never noticed) how many hours our parents spent keeping their address books up to date, knocking on doors to make sure everyone in the neighborhood was invited to the weekend BBQ, doing the rounds of phone calls with relatives, clipping out interesting newspaper articles and mailing them to a friend, putting together the cards for Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, and more. We don’t think about what it’s like to carefully file business cards alphabetically in a Rolodex. People spent a lot of time on these sorts of things, once, because the less of that work you did, the less of a social network you had.

And, as the article also points out, everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook.

Facebook took over from MySpace because they did what MySpace was doing, but they did it better, making it less clunky and cluttered (they’ve cluttered it up now, but after eliminating rivals they don’t need to make it better).

Someone recently invited me to an alternative called MeWe, but they kept sending me e-mail  saying “Please read this message in an HTML capable reader”. I replied to the first couple saying “Please send me this message in plain text format”, but they didn’t, and I got tired of those identical messages, so just filtered them off to the spam bin. If they deliberately choose to make their messages unreadable, then the rest of what they are doing isn’t worth bothering about.

For a while Google had a better alternative to Facebook. It was called Orkut. It retained the simplicity of the early Facebook when Facebook began to get clunky, but it somehow only caught on in South America and South-East Asia, and Google dropped it.

So even though I sometimes find Facebook frustrating, especially when they come up with stupid ideas that make it more difficult to use, I haven’t tried to leave it, because in what it does, even when it tries to place obstacles in the way of doing what it does, it’s the only game in town.

One of the problems with Facebook is that it tries to make itself the only game in town even for the things that it doesn’t do, or doesn’t do well. One of the most egregious examples of that was when they changed everyone’s e-mail addresses in their profile to a Facebook one, and didn’t tell users that they had done so, and also didn’t tell them how to find mail that was sent to the address that they provided. So they tried to force all their users into using an e-mail service without telling them how it worked or even that it was there.

Many people are wary of Facebook because they are concerned about “privacy”. The people at Facebook are aware of these concerns, and they keep nagging me about them. My concern is the opposite — there’s too much privacy. If I want to keep something private, I don’t put it on Facebook. But Facebook doesn’t want that. Facebook wants me to use Facebook for everything. They want Facebook to be the whole Web, and even the whole Internet (as the linked article above shows).

Facebook keeps asking me “Who can read this?” and when I click on it, it tells me that anybody can read this. I’m more interested in knowing who can’t read this. I post links on Facebook thinking that some friends may be interested, but very often Facebook doesn’t show it to those people, but rather shows it to other people who find it boring or irrelevant, who then sometimes make silly or incomprehensible comments on them.

So I sometimes think of leaving Facebook, but I don’t. Why? Because, again as the linked article points out, I would lose contact with friends and relatives that I’ve found through Facebook. The contact is intermittent, scratchy and broken, like an old shortwave radio in a thunderstorm. But at least is there, and if I left Facebook I would lose it.

A couple of days ago we had lunch with Jim Corrigall, an old friend I had last seen more than 40 years ago. He told me by e-mail that he was going to be on Joburg last weekend, and we arranged to meet by phone, but it was through Facebook that we found each other, and without Facebook I would have have had no idea how to get in touch with him.

Jim Corrigall with Steve & Val Hayes, 28 April 2018

Most of my “friends” on Facebook are people like that — old friends who live far away, and in the past, if I stayed in touch with them at all, I might have sent a Christmas card, or a duplicated newsletter once or twice a year. In the days before duplicating, people would send “round robin” letters — write to one member of the family, and ask them to pass the letter on to another member of the family, and so on. Facebook has replaced those functions with something more immediate.

Facebook makes it possible, but Facebook also tries very hard to make it extremely difficult because of the obsession with “privacy”. You might write something in a round robin letter that you think will interest Aunt Joan, but Cousin Pete has fallen out with Aunt Joan and sends it to Uncle Bob instead. And Facebook often behaves like that.

Thirty years ago people use to talk about the “information superhighway”. Facebook built one, but then puts concrete blocks across all but one lane, so you have to negotiate an obstacle course.

Facebook’s “privacy” precautions are just that: obstacles to communication. If you are concerned about privacy and information leaks, then you won’t solve them by leaving Facebook. Disconnect your phone line. Get rid of all your mobile phones. Disconnect from the Internet, and build a high wall so that nosy neighbours can’t see what you are doing. Don’t go out of doors, lest a passing satellite spot you.

You used to be able to go to websites like Zoominfo, where you could find an amazing amount of information about you trawled from the Web.  At one time they used to let you edit it, and identify which applied to you and which didn’t. Now they don’t, so there’s no way of checking for accuracy, but they still sell it. You don’t need to subscribe to it or have ever logged into the site. So worrying about privacy leaks from Facebook is a bit like children playing at damming a stream when a flash flood is on its way.

And everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook.

In defence of Facebook

I’ve often been critical of Facebook in the past, and since the recent Cambridge Analytica affair many people have been deleting their Facebook accounts and challenging others to do so.

Some speak of Facebook addiction, and suggest that failure to delete your Facebook account may be a sign of addiction. But that makes about as much sense as saying that if you don’t get rid of all your telephones, you must have a telephone addiction.

For all its faults, Facebook has its uses and I use it, like a telephone and other media of communication, to communicate with people that I want to communicate with. Sometimes one has to devise workarounds for the obstacles that Facebook puts in the way of communication, often in the name of utterly bogus “privacy” concerns, but in spite of this, I think the advantages of using Facebook outweigh the disadvantages.  As one of the critics acknowledges Facebook: is it time we all deleted our accounts?:

In many ways, being able to distance yourself from Facebook these days is a privilege. As Safiya Noble, an assistant professor of information studies at the University of Southern California and the author of Algorithms of Oppression, notes: “For many people, Facebook is an important gateway to the internet. In fact, it is the only version of the internet that some know, and it plays a central role in communicating, creating community and participating in society online.”

Even if you’ve got multiple ways to communicate and participate in society online, there is not really a good replacement for Facebook. There’s no one portal that reminds you of your friends’ birthdays, connects you to relatives across the world and stores photos from 10 years ago. Deleting Facebook inevitably means missing out on certain things and having to make more of an effort to connect with people in other ways.

Deleting your Facebook account is like locking the garage after the car has been stolen. You data is already out there, and deleting your Facebook account won’t recall it.

I mentioned Facebook’s totally bogus concern for privacy. For example, it keeps warning me about “Who can see this post?” when I make posts public. But it does not warn me when I don’t make them public. I posted something recently for friends only, and Facebook failed to warn me that the next five posts were also marked for friends only.

If there is something I don’t want people to see, I don’t put it on Facebook. If I put it on Facebook, I think it’s OK for people to see it. If I make it “friends only” it’s not because I don’t want people to see it, but because I think people might find it boring. I’ve no doubt that many people out there do find stuff I post boring, and one of my biggest gripes with Facebook is that its algorithm seems to show people things that will bore them, and not show them things that will interest them. For example “Top Stories”, which has recently become the default, is what Facebook thinks are the top stories, not what I think are the top stories.

But the other day I saw a very ominous invitation from Facebook with no privacy warning. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something to the effect of “Tell people something about yourself that they don’t know?” According to my bullshit detectors, that has BIG DATA written all over it, rather than the “Who can see this?” nonsense.

Most third-party apps, quizzes and games, especially the ones that say stupid stuff like “Which of your friends will spring you from jail?” serve no other purpose than to get access to your data and that of your Facebook friends. They do warn you that the app or quiz or whatever will give access to your friends list, but true addicts won’t care about that.

 

 

Early Social Media

It was 30 years ago this month that I first encountered online social media.

I borrowed a modem from a friend and used it to access Beltel, which was run by Telkom. The modem was a Saron (perhaps made in Saron in the Western Cape, perhaps not). It is so far lost in the mists of history that a Google search produced no information. A few months later I bought one. There were two gadgets we wanted back then — a modem and a microwave oven. We could not afford both, so we got the microwave oven. But then someone who had upgraded their modem to a faster one advertised a Saron modem second hand, and so I bought it.

Ceefax screen display from the UK. The Beltel display was similar.

Beltel was accessed by a 300/75 baud modem. It would download data at 300 baud, and upload it at 75 baud. “Baud” for those who don’t know, was roughly equivalent to bits per second. The Beltel system was similar to the Prestel and Ceefax system in the UK, and lasted until 1999, when it closed because the software was not Y2K compatible.

The Beltel system produced a 40 character screen display.

One of the features of Beltel was Comnet, which was like a bulletin board, with sections for discussing various topics. It worked a lot like Facebook, except that it had very crude graphics, it was much slower, and because it used 40 characters across the screen, it was easier to read.

There was also a more sophisticated version of Comnet called “The Network” for which one had to pay extra.

Most of the discussion was about computers. The main exception was a couple of right-wing white racists Adrian and Karen Maritz, who used it for racist propaganda. The were supported by someone using the pseudonym “Computer Advisory”, whom I suspect was Henry Martin, who later also posted racist propaganda under his own name. Most of the other users were white middle-class computer geeks, who whatever they may have thought about people of other races, reacted against the very crude racism of the propagandists.

A few years later Adrian Maritz and Henry Martin booby trapped a computer, which they sent to Durban, where it blew up and killed some poor innocent computer tech who was trying to compare it. They were arrested, and made it on to the news when they had a hunger strike in prison. An investigative journalist, Jacques Paauw, followed up the story, and 30 years later he’s still around, still digging up the dirt on politicians and the like. Henry Martin and Adrian Marits scarpered overseas to the UK. Perhaps they are still involved in right-wing politics over there.

Through Beltel I discovered BBSs — Bulletin Board Systems. These could be set up by anyone with a computer, a modem and a telephone line, and could both transmit and receive data at 300 Baud, and quite soon 1200 Baud. Then Baud as a measurement became obsolete, and new modems could transmit and receive at 2400 bits per second, which could not be measured in Baud. But even at 300 Baud, seeing characters appear on my screen and realising that they were coming from another computer 150 km away was an amazing thing. Now I’m typing this and it’s being saved on a computer on the other side of the world and I think nothing of it.

One of the first BBSs I used was Capital ComTech, run by Geoff Dellow from Centurion, which was only a local call away. I visited him one day, and also met the notorious Adrian and Karen Maritz, who were visiting at the same time. Most BBSs were run by computer geeks, and the main thing most of them wanted to talk about was computers. They would make their systems available to those who wanted to talk about other things, but regarded those as irrelevant fluff, and not the really important stuff. That seemed weird to me — like people only wanting to use telephones to talk about telephones (well, since the introduction of cell phones I think many people do want to use telephones to talk about telephones, but back in the 1980s it did seem to be ridiculous). Nevertheless, most BBSs had about 10-20 sections, called “conferences”, for discussing various aspects of computers, and perhaps one or two for non-computer stuff, which most sysops (BBS system operators) regarded as an unnecessary luxury, needed only to keep off-topic stuff out of the computer conferences.

So I wonder how many people are around who remember those early days of social media, who participated in ComNet and The Network on Beltel. Somewhere on my hard disk I’ve still got some conversations saved from those days.

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