Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

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.

 

 

 

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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.

The proliferation of unreadable e-mail

I’m getting more and more unreadable e-mails.

About a month ago I noted that WordPress’s response forms, which used to be a useful feature, are now unreadable and unusable.

More and more people seem to be sending e-mails with little more than long URLs that take up several lines of text, and make the actual message, if any, very hard to read, and have to be copied and pasted into a web browser because they haven’t bothered to enclose them in angle brackets. Don’t they know that Tiny URL is free? — please use it.

http://tinyurl.com/create.php

And then more and more people, especially church organisations and banks and the like, are sending HTML-only messages that are not only very hard to read, but also contain Lazy HTML, which prompts my mail reader to display the following warning:

What’s more, these messages are usually sent from a no-reply e-mail address, so you can’t even ask for clarification.

Whenever that warning pops up, I usually delete the message unread.

If they really wanted me to read the message, they would not have:

  1. Disguised it to make it look like spam or malware
  2. Deliberately made it hard to read
  3. Made it “no-reply” so you can’t ask for clarification

So if you are sending e-mails, please remember some courtesy rules:

  • No Lazy HTML
  • No HTML-only messages
  • No long URLS

To which I might add “No Comic Sans”, except that if you feel an irresistible compulsion to use HTML in e-mails, Comic Sans is a lot more readable than some of the squitty and faint fonts that some commercial firms feel compelled to use.

 

Saving a tokoloshe and jumping the shark

Tokoloshe SongTokoloshe Song by Andrew Salomon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It took me quite a while to get into this book, because the characters and their roles in the story are introduced in separate chapters, with no apparent connection between them. Richard Nevis helps out at a shelter for abused tokoloshes. Toby is intimidated by Kras (who appears to be very rich) into stealing something for him. Two midwives wander round in long coats. A bloke is conducting surveillance on someone (who has nothing to do with the story) in Mumbai. Another bad guy has a couple of hangers on who are not midwives.

When the characters come together and you see how they connect, the story starts to move a bit, and eventually moves out of Cape Town to Nieu Bethesda, though it doesn’t stay there for long. What was quite nice about that was that I could actually picture several of the places, having been to some of them, though following the directions in the book will not get you to Nieu Bethesda from Graaff Reinet.

The tokoloshes in the book are not the fairy-like creatures of popular folklore, but rather shy and rare animals that are calmed down by singing, hence the title.

I was enjoying it and was getting ready to give it four stars, but then in the penultimate chapter it jumped the shark, literally as well as figuratively, so I gave it three instead.

View all my reviews

Steinbeck: American or British?

Cannery RowCannery Row by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cannery Row in Monterey, California, is a place of fish processing plants, a marine biology lab, a grocery shop and a brothel. Steinbeck describes some of the characters who live there, and the efforts of a group of semi-homeless people to organise a party for the marine biologist who runs the lab, and is regarded as a benefactor by most of the people who live on the street.

It reminded me of Last Exit to Brooklyn, which is written about the other side of the USA, and may have been inspired by Cannery Row, but this one is much lighter, and there is more humour.

One thing I did find rather annoying, however, is that the edition I read was published in the UK, and the publishers had decided to use their own British house style for spelling and terminology. House style is all very well, but when it is obviously alien to the setting of the book it is distracting. So “curb” has been changed to “kerb” (or has it? Maybe Americans in general, or Steingback in particular, spelt it that way in the 1930s). It made me pause and wonder what other liberties the publishers had taken with the text. Would a bunch of down-and-outs living in California in the 1930s really have filled a truck with petrol? Or would they rather have used gasoline? Or did Americans actually speak of petrol back then, and is gasoline thus a more recent innovation?

In some books this might not be so important, but Cannery Row is mainly about the place and the people who live in it — the plot is pretty sketchy. So inauthentic dialogue is a distraction for the reader.

View all my reviews

On the Eve by Turgenev

On the EveOn the Eve by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read quite a lot about Ivan Turgenev, especially in connection with nihilism, but this is the first book of his that I’ve actually read, mainly because it’s the first one I’ve seen. I picked it up from a toss-out box at the Russian Church in Midrand. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.

It’s a story about romantic love and romantic nationalism during the build-up to the Crimean War There’s not a breath of nihilism in it that I could discern.

Concerning nationalism, I was once inveigled into joining a web site called Quora, where people ask questions and other people try to answer them, though most of them are quite unanswerable, and if you want examples of “begging the question”, you’ll find plenty on Quora. One of those questions was Why is nationalism bad?. I was tempted to respond with corollary question: Why is imperialism good?.

On the Eve will not answer either question. But what it does do is give a sympathetic portrayal of the nationalist hero, which, I think, shows insight into the mindset of 19th-century romantic nationalists. Though the hero is not a poet, and is in fact rather prosaic, he did remind me of romantic poets like Byron and Shelley who sympathised with nationalist struggles in the Balkans.

Twentieth-century nationalism seems somehow to have been less romantic. There were plenty of nationalist struggles in Africa and elsewhere against imperialist powers, and some of them generated poetry and novels, but nothing, to my knowledge, as overtly romantic as this.

To the person who asked “Why is nationalism bad?” on Quora, I would recommend this book. As I said, it won’t answer the question, but it may show why it is the wrong question to ask. When it comes to the question whether nationalism is good or bad, a brief answer is “It’s complicated”, and I’ve written more about it here Orthodoxy and nationalism and here Nationalism, violence and reconciliation, but that goes a long way beyond Turgenev’s book.

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Facebook recovery must wait

Today’s the day I thought I might try to regain control of my Facebook account, but it looks like it may have to wait till payday when we may be able to afford to buy more data.

Oh well, more time to try to finish the library book I’m reading.

We do have an emergency device that can be used for such things as blog posts (pre-written and uploaded), and reading email on sites like Gmail, but quite hopeless for reading stuff online, especially graphics-heavy stuff like Facebook.

 

 

Liberal Party relaunched?

Yesterday we attended the launch of South Africa’s newest, and possibly smallest political party — the Liberal Party of South Africa.

The party congress was held in Newclare, Johannesburg, and was attended by about 30 people from the Eastern Cape and Gauteng.

The founder and interim President of the party, San-Mark Trimble, explained his vision of the party, and in the election of office bearers was re-elected as President. He said he had worked as an auditor with South African Airways, and had been active in the ANC, but had not liked the willingness of people to participate in corrupt practices. He wanted a party that would be founded on sound moral values.

The meeting voted to accept a party constitution that had been distributed to members by e-mail beforehand and the following officers were elected:

National President: San-Mark Trimble
Chair: Eugene (Gino) Williams
Secretary-General: Basil Leverment
Deputy Sec-General: Marc Kotze
Media & Communications: Colin Fibiger
Organiser: Craig Leman

Liberal Party office-bearers: November 2017
Craig Leman, Marc Kotze, Basil Leverment, San-Mark Trimble, Gino Williams (standing), Colin Fibiger

San-Mark Trimble said that when he had first thought of forming the Liberal Party he had been unaware of the old Liberal Party (1953-1968), but had later discovered it, and I was asked, as a former member of the old Liberal Party, to say something about its history. I think all the surviving members of the old Liberal Party must be over 70 now.

Facebook hacked, distributing malware?

I got a very weird message on Facebook, saying that my last post was spam and I should check it.

I was curious to know what that was, so went to look at it.

I then got this message:

Let’s check your device for malicious software
Hi Steve, we’re continuously working to keep your account secure. We’ve noticed that this device may be infected with malicious software. To continue to use Facebook, you can either use other devices or clean this device by downloading the scanner provided by Facebook and Trend Micro.

Note, no information about the alleged “spam” message, but an invitation to download an unknown program and run it.

So I suspect that the initial message was a ruse to grab my Facebook password and hack my account.

I advise anyone receiving such a message to ignore it, and warn others about it as well, and try to find out from “Facebook Site Governance” what is going on.

Tweet and retweet this, and share a link to this post on Facebook before you too are locked out.

Appendix

I thought it might be useful to others to describe exactly what happened, in case they encounter the same thing.

  1. I got a “notification” that something I posted was suspected spam. It wasn’t clear if it was a post or a comment on someone else’s post.  It said I could click on the notification to see the suspicious post.
  2. I wanted to see the suspicious post, because I wanted to see if it was something I had posted, or if it was someone else impersonating me. Several of my friends have had people impersonating them on Facebook in the past.
  3. I clicked on the notification, and was asked to log in to Facebook. That made sense. If someone was impersonating me, they would want to make sure it was actually me, rather than the impostor.
  4. But when I logged in, I was not shown the offending post, but the message shown above. That sounded all the alarm buzzers, like the terrain warning alarm on an aircraft flying too low “Terrain! Terrain! Pull up! Pull up!”
  5. This was not showing me a post that was suspected spam — it was asking me to download something to my computer.
  6. I copied the message displayed, and saved it, and then went out of Facebook, and tried to go in again afresh.
  7. It asked me to log in and then displayed the same message I had copied.
  8. I concluded that when I had logged in, expecting to see the spam message, they had stolen my password, and changed it, so I could no longer log in to Facebook.
  9. It was at that point that I thought I should warn others of this.
  10. I’m pretty sure that whatever it is they asking me to download is malware of some kind. So if you see a “notification” that something you’ve posted is suspected spam, whatever you do, don’t click on it!

 

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?
——————————————————————————–
E-mail
——————————————————————————–
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?

 

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