Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “technology”

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



Technology addiction?

This morning at TGIF Dr Marlena Kruger spoke on the impact of our technology addiction.

I think she made some useful points, for example that young children learn more from playing with hands-on toys that from playing with simulations of them on a computer screen.

Shape sorting toy

Shape sorting toy

When our kids were small, they had one of these shape sorting toys. It would be possible to design a computer app to match the same shapes to spaces on the screen, but kids learn a lot more by handling the shapes, coordinating their sense of sight with the sense of touch by feeling it, and yes, putting it in their mouths.

So playing with computer apps is no substitute for playing with actual things in the real world.

But the problem with this kind of talk about “technology” is that people seem to get locked into a narrow two-dimensional world like a computer screen. What do we mean by words like “technology”?

Consider, for example, this article, which seems to be making a similar point to that made by Dr Kruger — 10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12 | The Huffington Post:

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics state infants aged 0-2 years should not have any exposure to technology, 3-5 years be restricted to one hour per day, and 6-18 years restricted to 2 hours per day (AAP 2001/13, CPS 2010). Children and youth use 4-5 times the recommended amount of technology, with serious and often life threatening consequences (Kaiser Foundation 2010, Active Healthy Kids Canada 2012).

Think about it for a while, especially the heading, because it is an example of tunnel vision — like limiting yourself to the number of pixels on a computer screen, and seeing nothing outside that.

What is a “handheld device”? A pen, a pencil, a crayon, a pair of scissors — all these are handheld devices. All these are technology. Specialists in early childhood education have been saying that children should learn to handle such things long before they start school.

Ah, you say, but those are mechanical devices, and we are talking about electronic devices.

But experts in early childhood education say that listening to music is important for the development of young children. Does that mean you are going to take your toddlers to symphony concerts? No recordings, because playing recordings nowadays usually requires electronic devices — when last did you hear a wind-up gramophone played? No discos, because there they use electronic devices to amplify the music.

I’m not simply being pedantic here. Before making huge generalisations about “technology” and “hand-held devices” we need to see the three-dimensio0nal world beyond the computer screen. When you dig in a garden you are using a hand-held device and a spade is technology. Technology is part of what makes us human. Saying that children under 2 should have no exposure to technology is insane. No cooked food, because cooking uses technology.

huntgathEven hunter-gatherer societies use technology, at least for the “hunter” part. Without technology we would just be gatherers.

So when we talk about being “addicted” to technology, we need to think about the wider meaning of technology, and the extent to which technology has made us human.

And when we speak of a remedy for addiction to technology, we need to think about whether the addiction is to technology, or to something else that the technology is used for.

When television was invented, people learnt how to send images to a cathode-ray screen (later LCD) in a remote location. At first, in television, the image was controlled by the sender. The receivers were passive. They could perhaps choose between images sent by different senders, but they had no control over the content of the images received.

Technophobes lamented the bad influence on children — “the flickering blue parent” was one phrase bandied about.

But it was not the TV that was generating the images. They were being sent by people who decided on what was sent, to serve their own purposes. It was one-way communication, yes, but it was one-communication from one group of people to another. The technology facilitated the communication, and to some extent determined it (yes, I’m old enough to have been influenced by Marshall McLuhan, and maybe I’ll say more about him some other time) but it was still communication from people to people.

For me it was a huge liberation when personal computers came along.

Yes, there I was looking at images on a cathode ray tube (CRT), but they were images that I put there. They were things I could control. For a while the rest of the family thought I was opting out of family life. I was “playing with the computer” instead of being sociable and watching TV with the family. That was tantamount to being accused of being addicted to technology. But it wasn’t. If I wrote a letter on the computer, I was no more addicted to the computer as technology than I was addicted to the typewriter before I had a computer, or addicted to a fountain pen before I had a typewriter.

In every case I was “using technology” to communicate with other people, and what I was doing was not “playing with the computer” any more than a handwritten letter is “playing with a pen”. Yes, I do sometimes play with a pen. I twiddle it, I idly click a ballpoint pen so the tip comes in and out.  But using it for a task is not “playing with it”. Is doodling “playing with” a pen? Idly and absentmindedly drawing little pictures? Is sketching fellow participants at a meeting playing with a pen? Perhaps great art exists because some people were addicted to playing with the technology of paint and paintbrushes.

One of the things Marlena Kruger said was coming home and putting your cell phone down and not touching it. Abstain from using the cellphone, because people are more important than the device.

But on Wednesday night we went to church in Brixton, Johannesburg. On the way home at 9:30 pm, on a badly lit road, with cars with bright lights coming the other way, we hit a pothole which dented the wheel rim so the tyre went flat. It was the first time in 11 years and 250000 km that we had had a flat tyre. Where is the jack? We’ve never had to use it before.

So I phone my son, who is a Toyota mechanic and knows these things. And ask where is the jack (it’s dark, you see). It’s under a plastic cover under the front passenger seat. You’d never find it by feeling for it. And how do you remove the cover, and how do you get it out?

But if he switches off his phone, because he’s not going to be addicted to it, it’s not a mere device. There is a person at the other end of the device. So by switching off the phone, you are switching off the person.

So speaking of “technology addiction” can be a bit simplistic. Your addiction can be to the device, like a cell phone, but more often it is addiction to what you do with the device. A cell phone is mainly used to communicate with other people. And you have the stereotype of a group of people all sitting together, all using their cell phones. Are they addicted to their phones? Not necessarily. What it means is that they prefer to communicate with people elsewhere than communicate with the people they are close to at that moment. The problem is not so much with the device used to communicate, but with human relations, that you would rather communicate with someone other than the people you happen to be with.

I said personal computers were a liberation, and its true. I can store information on my computer and find it much more quickly than if I had written it down on bits of paper. I’m writing an essay or an academic paper or even a blog post, and I need to verify the date of a historical event. Google leads me to that information much more quickly than trying to see if I have a reference book that has it.

E-mail was a liberation too.

I used to hate phoning people, and still do. I don’t know if I will be interrupting them when they are doing something important. If I send them e-mail, then they can read it and reply to it at their convenience.

But the people who liked the one-way, one-to-many model of broadcasting did not like this liberation. They wanted their captive audience. And Microsoft developed Windows 98 which was the first version of Windows to be integrated with the Internet, and the developed “push” technology for it. It was an attempt to re-enslave people that personal computers had liberated — by networking those computers and then pushing stuff at them.

And now cell phones use “push” technology too. My smartphone had “push” notifications for Facebook and Twitter, which drove me mad until I found how to switch them off (they don’t give you a manual, so it’s not easy to find out how to do that). So yes, cell phones are useful, but they can drive you mad. And there’s even a cell phone advertising itself with the slogan “Never miss a moment” — you’ll be so busy not missing moments that you’ll never have a moment to do anything.

But even though this is labelled “push technology”, it is not the technology that is doing the pushing. It is people doing the pushing. Yesterday I downloaded 90 emails and 85 of them were spam, sent to my “junk and suspicious mail” folder and deleted in bulk. They may have been sent by bots, but it was people who programmed the bots to send them.

Then back to TGIF, where technology, even electronic technology, was not absent.

TGIF: technology addiction. Two laptops and a projector

TGIF: technology addiction. Two laptops and a projector

I’m not against using educational technology. At one time I used some quite complicated gadgets to improve students’ reading skills, or at least show them how they could improve their won reading skills. But there is also this: Universities should ban PowerPoint — It makes students stupid and professors boring – Business Insider:

Overreliance on slides has contributed to the absurd belief that expecting and requiring students to read books, attend classes, take notes and do homework is unreasonable.

Courses designed around slides therefore propagate the myth that students can become skilled and knowledgeable without working through dozens of books, hundreds of articles and thousands of problems.

I’m not sure I agree with that article either. A lot depends on the content of what is being taught. Some topics can be enhanced by the use of slides, and others not. I must say that in this morning’s presentation I paid very little attention to the slides, and can remember little of what was on them

Canon cameras: caveat emptor

As we are planning to go on holiday on Monday, and thought we might see some scenery and meet some people we had not met before, I counted my pennies and thought I could just afford a better camera, and so bought a Canon 1200d.

Canon 1200d Camera -- would not format memory card

Canon 1200d Camera — would not format memory card

When I got it home, however, it would not switch on at all. We charged the battery fully, but nothing happened. It was completely dead.

So today we took it back to the shop. They did not have a replacement in stock, so they phoned around their other branches, and discovered that their Centurion branch had one in stock, so we drove over there to collect it. I switched it on in the shop to verify that it did actually switch on, and we broughjt it home.

But when we tried to use it, it said it could not read the memory card — we should either format it, or insert a new one. So we tried to format the card, but it didn’t do that either. We tried a different memory card, with the same result. I tried formatting both cards in my computer, just to check to see that there was nothing wrong with the cards themselves, but they formatted fine. We tried a low-level format in the camera, but it gave up after a couple of seconds.

So there we were, with two dud Canon cameras in a row. It’s too late to get another one now, before we go on holiday, so we’ve asked for a refund. We’ll continue to use our cheap point-‘n-shoot compact cameras. The problem with point-‘n-shoot cameras is that sometimes it is impossible to see what the camera is pointed at at all. In bright sunlight the viewing screen is invisible, so you just point vaguely in the right direction and hope that you won’t just have a picture of the blue sky. Composing photos as you shoot is impossible. When you get home, cropping with photoediting software can improve the composition somewhat, but not all that much, if all you got was the blue sky.

Unfortunately it seems that no camera shops in South Africa stock decent brands, like Pentax. Our film Pentax cameras are nearly 40 years old, and still work fine. It’s just that film photography is so much more expensive.

Update: Third time lucky

Today (Sunday 16 August) we returned the second dud camera to the shop in Centurion, where we had got it. The staff were very helpful and found another branch that had one in stock, and we went to the Colonnade to collect it. We were most impressed by the firendliness and helpfulness of the staff at all three branches of the retailer, Photo & Beyond, trading as Kodak Express Digital Solutions. It wasn’t their fault that the cameras didn’t work, and they went out of their way to be helpful even at times when they were pretty busy. We got the feeling that the firm treat their staff well, and that they are happy in their work.

Secret Africa by Lawrence G.; Green (book review)

Secret AfricaSecret Africa by Lawrence George Green

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading or re-reading quite a lot of books by Lawrence George Green lately, mainly because of my interest in family and local history, and I’ve been compiling an index to some of them. He is, or was, a raconteur and teller of travellers tales, which are often interesting and entertaining, if not always accurate. He was a journalist, and his books often read like a collection of newspaper features, which they probably are. He sometimes recycles stories, so that they appear in more than one of his books.

Secret Africa is one of his earlier books, and was rather disappointing. It was written before the Second World War, and reprinted in 1974, I thought I might index it, but discovered that there is nothing much worth indexing. Some chapters read like a lazy journalist’s rewrites of press releases, the sort of advertorials one sometimes sees on TV. The only thing interesting about them was that they are 80 years old, so one gets a view of a different period. The title, Secret Africa is misleading. There is nothing secret about most of it, it’s just PR stuff that people want you to know.

Even the more personal chapters — a description of a trip to Mauritius, for example — have the feeling of plugging a message from the sponsor, and are full of racism and snobbery as well.

The final chapter, a description of gold mining in Johannesburg, is full of statistics, so that it reads in places like a company report — how many tons of ore it takes to produce an ounce of gold, how much bars of gold were worth, how much it cost to sink a shaft, and of course the marvelous accommodation, food, recreational and healthcare facilities provided by the benevolent mining companies for their native mineworkers. Perhaps I’m unduly cynical about this, because at the same time I’ve been reading the biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu by their daughter-in-law Elinor Sisulu, which describes how they helped to organise a miners’ strike to protest against the poor housing, pay, food and all the other stuff that Green praises from the PR blurb.

Lawrence George Green‘s best work was written in the 1950s and 1960s, and his earlier and later work seems to be dreck. This one definitely falls into that category. It seems to have been written before he hit his stride, and in the later ones he seems to be coasting on empty.

View all my reviews

Are Yahoo! planning to pull the plug on Yahoogroups?

If you go to Yahoogroups web pages they tell you:

Welcome to the new Yahoo Groups
We’ve improved your Yahoo Groups experience. Check out what’s new:

Well that’s a lie.

What they’ve done is reduce the functionality of the whole site. Much of the reduced functionality only affects group owners and moderators, but the biggest problem is for users who want to read messages at the web site.

If you go to a particular message, you see it momentarily, and then it disappears. Then there is a button that says “View source”, and if you click that, you can read the message, but with distracting things like the full message headers, which are of little interest to most people.

Then you are shown a button that says “Show message” — and if you click it, it hides the message again.

Real intuitive, huh?

A really improved “Yahoogroups experience”?

Yahoo have never heard of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Their motto is, “If it ain’t broke, break it. ”

You can still read messages OK if you subscribe by e-mail, but it also seems that Yahoo have made it difficult for new subscribers to join. A friend of mine has been trying to subscribe to one of the groups I moderate for months, and hasn’t managed to do so.

I think they’ve decided to get rid of Yahoogroups, as they have with so many other things (Geocities, Webrings, MyBlogLog), but because it has been one of their more popular services, they want to make it unpopular before they pull the plug, so that no one will miss it when they finally do so.




A tale of two cameras — or is it three?

In August 2008 I bought a new digital camera. It was a discontinued model, a Samsung S630, going cheap. It was an improvement on the one we had, though. It had a zoom lens and autofocus, and 6 megapixels, whereas the old one was fixed focal length, fixed focus, and 4 megapixels.

It worked fine for a couple of years, and then started to get unreliable. It wouldn’t take photos, it wouldn’t shut down half the time, and so my wife and I bought a couple of new ones to take on our holiday last year, Olympus X44. They were similar to the Samsung, but had 14 megapixels, though we kept them set on 8 megapixels for ordinary shooting to save disk space.

Here they are:


That one was taken with my HTC ChaCha cell phone.

But I have since discovered that that the Olympus has its own problems. The autofocus seems to be pretty erratic, and produces pictures like this:



The Samsung, on the other hand, seems to have started working again. Replacing the batteries, rather than simply recharging them, seemed to do the trick.

The Samsung is also easier to operate.

It has a knob on the top that you turn for the main settings — auto everything, movies, reduce camera shake, manual setting and so on.

On the Olympus, these settings appear on the screen, except that in bright sunlight you can’t see a thing on the screen, not even the picture you’re trying to take, so you just have to hope for the best. Even when you can see the screen, finding the setting you want can take a long time, by which time whatever you want to take may have vanished. A killer wildebeest could have cantered away. The hit-and-run driver could have run long ago. With the Samsung, one turn of the knob and you’re there — movie, still, whatever.

But the cell phone camera seems to be more reliable than either! It even takes movies, with sound.

E-mail is becoming erratic and dysfunctional

It looks as though spammers are beginning to succeed in making e-mail useless.

Several people have told me recently that e-mail that I send to their Gmail addresses ends up in their spam box. That is something new. One of the things that I thought was good about Gmail in the past was that one never had to check the spam box, because there were so few false positives. But now it seems that one will have to look in the spam box for mail. And also, when sending mail to anyone with a Gmail address, also send a text message to say “Did you get my e-mail? If you didn’t, please check your spam box.”

But when I tested it by sending a message to my own Gmail address, it came through OK without going to spam.

I am quite unable to send e-mail to people who have iburst addresses though. It doesn’t even reach their spam box, it just bounces right back to me. The only way to communicate with them is through a direct message on Facebook, or SMS.

Oh well, I think I’m going to have to start buying stamps again.

Technorati tags and the penal substitution atonement

There seems to have been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about the theory of the atonement recently, so I thought I would throw in my 2c worth, when discussion on other topics seemed to turn to that.

The trouble was that for more than a week I couldn’t remember the “p” word — my memory was turning into a forgettory, and I thought of “praeterist atonement” “praeternatural atonement”, and “preeminent atonement” but the phrase seemed to have slipped my mind entirely.

Then someone made a comment that triggered my rusty synapses, and I posted it on my Khanya blog here. It’s an Orthodox theological response to the theory of the .

Then I thought I’d look on to see what others had been saying about it, and responded:

There are no posts in English tagged penal substitution”

So it seems that didn’t only slip out of my memory for a week or two, it slipped out of Technorati, and maybe out of the blogosphere generally, and maybe out of the universe!

Now there’s a thought!

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