28 November 2011

Notes from underground: six years old today

Today is this blog's blogiversary, six years old today. I called it Notes from underground because I'd just re-read Dostoevsky's novel of that name, and thought it would be rather nice.

Here are the first couple of posts, rather experimental Notes from underground: November 2005.

The world has changed a bit since then.

Back then I was saying that our President Thabo Mbeki, for all his faults, was a lot better than George Bush and Tony Blair.

Now I would say that our President Jacob Zuma, whatever his good points, is no better than Barack Obama and David Cameron, and in some respects a lot worse.

I don't know how many posts I've written in this blog over the last few years, but different statistics report somewhere between 110000 and 138000 page reads, and visitors mostly come from:

United States - 45,166
United Kingdom - 9,163
South Africa - 6,393
Germany - 4,645
Canada - 3,004
Russia - 2,267
Denmark - 2,045
Australia - 1,836
Netherlands - 1,673
Slovenia - 1,394

The puzzling one there is Slovenia. Why Slovenia, I wonder?

Before starting this blog I used LiveJournal, but it was a bit clunky and difficult to use. It was intended more as a journal than a blog, and after seeing quite a lot of Blogger blogs I thought I'd try it out, and I was impressed with the ease of just sitting down and writing something.

What was most impressive was tools like the "Blog this" one, which made it easy to save the URL of a web site and comment on it, which is what blogging was originally all about.

At that time Blogger had just been taken over by Google, and about three months after I began using it Google decided to "improve" it, which meant that many features that I liked most, including "Blog this", stopped working. Google seemed to be taking their time about bringing in the replacements for the missing features, and at that time many bloggers switched from Blogger to WordPress, because Blogger was broken for about 18 months.

Eventually I too started a WordPress blog, mainly to see how it worked, in case I too had to switch, but quite soon after that Blogger was fixed, and so I began using both in parallel. Each of these blogging platforms had its strong points. WordPress was better for graphics, and also used straightforward HTML markup, whereas blogger used about a lot of commands just to display something like italic text (what it puts behind the scenes for that is italic text, whereas Wordpress uses the straightforward italic text).

But Blogger is much better at displaying third-party Javascript widgets, some of which are quite useful.

So where I posted something would depend largely on which features of the blogging platform I wanted to use. If I wanted pictures with captions, I'd use Wordpress, while for pictures without captions, Blogger would do, though if there were many pictures you would have to move them individually to where you wanted them, whereas WordPress puts them where in the post you want them to go.

Blogger remains better for quick and dirty web-logging -- using "Blog this" to post a link to a web page and comment on it.

I'm not sure why, but my WordPress blog, though started later, gets about twice as many visitors as this one.

And for quicker and dirtier stuff I've found Tumblr even better, so both this one and the WordPress one feed into Tumblr to be summarised.

26 November 2011


When I got my first computer some 30 years ago (a NewBrain with a whopping 32k of memory) one of the things people used to say when one got stuck was RTFM -- Read The F*** Manual (where "f" was a variable to which you could assign a word of your choosing).

In other words, when all else fails, read the instructions.

Now, however, there are no instructions to read.

We recently installed Microsoft Office 2010.

It is useful for reading those .docx files people keep sending me.

But Microsoft office has no manual. There are no instuctions to read.

Recently a document opened with a fat blue stripe down the right-hand side. I wanted to get rid of it. When I hovered my cursor over it, it said "markup area". So I typed "markup area" into the help file to find out what it is, and how to get rid of it. Nothing, zero, zilch.

My daughter has been raving about Microsoft OneNote, that comes with MS Office. It sounded interesting, so I had a look at it. It has a blurb that tells you how easy it is to use. You just dump all your information into it. That's a bit like telling you to toss all your stuff into an abandoned well and cover it up. It's easy to put it in, but not to get it out again.

I browsed through the computer books in a bookshop the other day.

There was not one on how to use Microsoft OneNote. There were books on MS Office on offer, ranging in price from expensive to exorbitant. Only the exorbitant ones mentioned OneNote on the cover, and I couldn't look inside to see how many pages they devoted to it because the whole thing was wrapped in plastic.

But there were whole books on how to use Facebook and Twitter.

Back in the 80s we bought computer books to learn how to use computers and programs. But now you can only get manuals for web sites.

I wondered why anyone would need a manual for a web site, when you can't get a manual for a program. Then I saw this:

This applicaticon will be able to:
  • Read Tweets from your timeline.
  • See who you follow, and follow new people.
  • Update your profile.
  • Post Tweets for you.

That was from Mashable. All I wanted to do was vote for something, once, yet in order to do that I had to let them do all that. I had to allow them to update my profile -- so hey, if someone at Mashable wants to update my profile to say that I'm an international money launderer, wanted in sixteen principalities and native states, I must let them do it? Not a chance.

There are two buttons - Save and Cancel. I click Cancel -- but no, they won't let me do that before I've filled in my e-mail and password. Eventually I entered a bogus username and eight asterisks for my password (Ha! Those password crackers will never guess that!). Then I could click cancel and depart.

So perhaps one does need a manual to understand web sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Only problem is they keep changing them, so the book is probably out of date before you've bought it.

For weeks Facebook has been telling me that I can no longer notify people about my blog posts in my "Notes", but I will still be able to do it on my "Wall" but when I want to share something that someone else has written by putting it on my "Wall" it tells me it has been posted to my "Profile". So are Walls, Profiles and Notes all the same thing?

Perhaps I really do need to RTFM.

Meanwhile, instead of OneNote, I'll continue to use askSam, which I've been using for the last 20 years, and I still haven't managed to exhaust its capabilities.

24 November 2011

Cairns, Queensland, spam capital of the world?

Is the town of Cairns, in Queensland, Australia, vying for the title of Spam Capital of the World?

It sure seems like it, to judge from the number of spam comments about it people keep trying to post on my blogs.

I always delete them before anyone sees them, so I don't know why they bother, but it makes me wonder. It must really be a crummy dump if they have to pay spammers to publicise their town.

Still, I suppose being Spam Capital of the World must be better than remaining completely unknown, though even that title is probably beyond their reach.

21 November 2011

EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration

It has long been known that bureaucratic language is diseased language, and this is just one of the latest instances of it

EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration - Telegraph
Brussels bureaucrats were ridiculed yesterday after banning drink manufacturers from claiming that water can prevent dehydration.

NHS health guidelines state clearly that drinking water helps avoid dehydration, and that Britons should drink at least 1.2 litres per day

EU officials concluded that, following a three-year investigation, there was no evidence to prove the previously undisputed fact.

Producers of bottled water are now forbidden by law from making the claim and will face a two-year jail sentence if they defy the edict, which comes into force in the UK next month.

Last night, critics claimed the EU was at odds with both science and common sense. Conservative MEP Roger Helmer said: “This is stupidity writ large."

The actual text, from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which has been discussed in the alt.usage.english newsgroup is a true masterpiece of bureaucratic obfuscation, a classic example of bureaucratese.

For reduction of disease risk claims, the beneficial physiological effect (which the Regulation requires to be shown for the claim to be permitted) is the reduction (or beneficial alteration) of a risk factor for the development of a human disease (not reduction of the risk of disease). However, undersupply with water would not be considered as a risk factor for dehydration (the disease) in this context as the beneficial alteration of the factor (increased consumption of water) is not a beneficial physiological effect as required by the Regulation.

Can you make sense of that?

I can't.

But the bigger danger, it seems to me, is that while we are straining at the gnat of bureaucratic jargon, we can overlook the camel of the privatisation of water implied in the term "drink manufacturers".

The claim that I refuse to accept is not the one complained of by the bureaucrats. It is the claim that there are "drink manufacturers" who are in a position to make such claims in the first place.

The only "drinks manufacturer" I recognise in that sense is God, who makes rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.

Atheists who reject that as naive "creationism" are, of course, free to disagree. Perhaps for them "drinks manufacturers" are a product random evolution. Viva Coca Cola! Viva! Viva capitalism! Viva!

19 November 2011

Goodbye peanut butter

For a long time Black Cat peanut butter was the only brand in the South African market.

Then other brands began appearing, which tasted horrible. One of them was "Yum Yum". It was American-style peanut butter, with added sugar and other nameless ingredients.

Then Black Cat was taken over by Tiger Foods, and they too started producing the horrible American-style version. Some people objected, like The Black Cat | andrewdotcoza: "They changed my favourite peanut butter and they made it taste like crap!"

I stopped buying peanut butter.

Then I saw a new and unfamiliar brand, Thokoman.

I looked at the list of ingedients: peanuts, salt.

I bought a small pot, and took it home, and rejoiced that it tasted like the real thing. After that, whenever we went shopping, we looked for Thokoman. If we couldn't find it, we didn't buy peanut butter. We bought both smooth and crunchy varieties because some members of the family liked one, and some liked the other.

Then one day I opened a new pot of Thokoman, spread it on bread, tasted it, and gagged. It tasted horrible. I looked at the list of ingredients, and saw that sugar had been added. I threw my slice of bread, and the whole pot of peanut butter in the dustbin. Once again we stopped buying peanut butter.

Then my wife noticed that Black Cat were advertising the "original" peanut butter.

We bought some, but the taste and texture were different from the original.

Instead of the ingredients being "peanuts, salt" they were now listed as "peanuts, stabiliser".

So it still has a weird taste and texture, not quite as revolting as the ones with added sugar, but not pleasant either.

At this time of the year (the Nativity Fast) we used to eat peanut butter several times a week, but now I have it only once every 2-3 weeks. Instead of peanut butter, I spead my bread with hoummous or chakalaka. They are probably also made by Tiger Foods, so it's no skin off their nose.

And I still wonder about the mysterious "stabiliser", and why they are so coy about what it is. It was certainly no part of the real original Black Cat peanut butter (as opposed to the fake "original" that they are selling now). I suspect that it may be something very unhealthy, like this: Ban Trans Fats: The Campaign to Ban Partially Hydrogenated Oils: Trans fat (which means trans fatty acids) is the worst kind of fat, far worse than saturated fat.

So if anyone knows where one can buy real peanut butter, with nothing other than peanuts and a little salt, please let me know.

18 November 2011

The white lioness (book review)

The White LionessThe White Lioness by Henning Mankell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unlike most of Henning Mankell's "Wallander" novels, this one is set at least partly in South Africa, which gives it additional interest to me. It is set in the period between the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and the first democratic elections in 1994. It was a period of great uncertainty, when no one knew quite what would happen. Though the National Party had already shed its ultra right wing (to the HNP in the late 1960s), and its far right wing (to the Conservative Party in the late 1970s), the bulk of its support was still pretty much on the right, and the unbanning of the left opposition parties tended to make its supporters nervous, including many in the security forces and the army. One of the possibilities was a right-wing military coup, and attempts to create disorder in order to facilitate such a coup. And there were such attempts, by the mysterious "third force", and others.

So Mankell's main plot, which is based on the training of a South African political assassin in Sweden, is quite believable. After all, Chris Hani was assassinated in just such a plot about the time that the novel was published. Mankell does a fairly good job of showing some of the tensions and ambiguities of South Africn society at that time.

But I also have the problem that I tend to read novels set in places that are familiar to me more critically, and tend to find it more jarring when things are oui of place. Because relatively few novels of this type are set in South Africa, its not something that happens very often, but I wonder how people who live in places where lots of crime novels are set feel when they read them. It's OK with Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford novels, which are set in a fictional town, but when actual places are mentioned, I wonder how people who live in them feel when there are inaccurate descriptions. Perhaps I'm also more sensitive to such things than most readers, having worked as a proofreader and editor, where it was my job to detect and correct such slip-ups.

Another novel I read, set in the same period, and with a similar plot line, was Vortex by Larry Bond, which was spoilt for me because some of the action took place in locations that were geographically impossible.

At first Henning Mankell's slip-ups were relatively minor -- a car parked under a baobab tree in the Transkei (I've never seen a baobab tree in the Transkei), someone working on a mine in Verwoerdburg (I lived there in the 1980s, and there were no mines there then). These are minor errors, and concerned only minor characters, but they are jarring none the less.

But there were some things that did affect more important characters, and the plot.

One is that Mankell refers to the "Transkei Province", where it affects police looking for suspects in the Transkei. Yet at that time Transkei was an "independent" homeland, and though its independence wasn't recognised by anyone but South Africa, police procedures at that period would surely have to take some account of the "independent" status of the Transkei, and so in a novel whose genre is a "police procedural" rather than a whodunit, this is a more serious error.

Some of Mankell's descriptions of African culture also strike me as somewhat odd. South Africa is a very multicultural country, and I'm not familiar with every single cultural nuance out there, but still, I wonder what Mankell's conception of a sangoma is. He has characters talking about "my sanhoma" the way some Americans talk about "my shrink", and though there are some ways in whch a sangoma's role in South African society is similar to that of a shrink in America, I've never heard anyone speak of "my sangoma. Mankell also writes about people's relations to spirits that also don't fit, especially since the character in question is a Zulu, and one of the better books on the topic, Zulu thought-patterns and symbolism was written by a fellow Swede, Axel-Ivar Berglund.

Mankell also has urban African characters using using rural imagery of wild animals. I think he underestimates the extent of urbanisation in South African society. I once took a group of students to a work camp in rural Zululand, and one of them, from Soweto, wondered how the local people could survive when they lived so far from the shops.

Never having been to Sweden, I have no idea whether there are similar discrepancies in the Swedish settings, but there do seem to be some rather large plot holes relating to the villain-in-chief, but to say more about that would reveal too much of the plot.

In spite of these flaws, however, it is an enjoyable read.

View all my reviews

15 November 2011

Greek mythology

Postcolonialism perhaps needs to come to the rescue of Greece now.

Hat-tip to Notes from a Common-place Book: Rethinking Greece: "Greece has been in the news a lot recently, and not in a good way. This article, by George Zakardakis, puts the crisis in historical perspective--always a refreshing touch."

Modern Greece built on myth | The Japan Times Online:
When the Greek crisis began two years ago, the cover of a popular German magazine showed an image of Aphrodite of Milo gesturing crudely with the headline: "The fraudster in the euro family." In the article, modern Greeks were described as indolent sloths, cheats and liars, masters of corruption, unworthy descendents of their glorious Hellenic past.

The irony was that modern Greece has little in common with Pericles or Plato. If anything, it is a failed German project.

In 1832, Greece had just won its independence from the Ottoman Empire. The "Big Powers" of the time, Britain, France and Russia, appointed a Bavarian prince, Otto, as Greece's first king. Otto arrived with German architects, engineers, doctors and soldiers and set out to reconfigure the country to the romantic ideal of the times.

It seems that no sooner was Greece decolonised by the Turks than it was recolonised by the Western European countries who imposed their own ideas on it, rather along the lines of Edward Said's Orientalism.

For romantically-minded Westerners of the 19th century monasteries like those at Meteora (above) were not the "real" Greece.

Modern Greece built on myth | The Japan Times Online:
the intellectuals dream of a truly Westernized Greece through some miracle of economic and social science. When the loan referendum was announced, most of them opposed it. Greece had to show that it belonged to the European family of nations, whatever that may mean. Rebellion was not to be tolerated, lest the country was kicked out of the euro, the symbol of Greek westernization.

Ultimately the intellectuals and politicians, with persuasion from angry European leaders and technocrats, had the referendum quashed. Besides, the invention of fantastical modern Greece demanded that its people, the third division of society, also remained imaginary.

Naturally, they are real as anything. They despise the loss of their sovereignty as well as the bitter medicine prescribed by their European brethren for their "rescue." Austerity enforced by unelected officials from the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank is perceived as not remedy but punishment, a distasteful concept to the orthodox Greeks whose core value is mercy.

And that is one of the primary differences between the Orthodox Christianity of the Greek people and the pagan Greece of the Western romantic imagination. Mercy is indeed a core value of Orthodoxy.

You only have to attend a few Orthodox servicesw to become aware of this "Lord have mercy" Kyrie eleison repeated three, 12 and sometimes 40 times.

Orthodox Christians know a God who says "I desire mercy and not sacrifice", but the Westerners demand more and more sacrifices, human sacrifices, of the ordinary people of Greece, and "mercy" is an utterly foreign concept to them.

14 November 2011

Peter Roebuck: the plot thickens

Ther has been a series of conflicting and increasingly weird news reports on the death of Peter Roebuck, the cricket commentator.

An early report, in The Guardian said simply that he had been found dead in a hotel room in Cape Town, where he had been covering the current test series between South Africa and Australia

The former Somerset cricketer Peter Roebuck has been found dead in a hotel room in South Africa.

Roebuck, who was 55 and played alongside Sir Ian Botham and Sir Viv Richards at Somerset, had built a reputation as an acute observer of the game since retiring from playing in 1991, and worked as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age. He also worked as a broadcaster for ABC radio and had been covering Australia's tour of South Africa.

"He could describe a game of cricket in such a way that even if you didn't like the game, you liked the way that he went about his business," said Craig Norenbergs, the ABC Grandstand manager.

Roebuck was known as a solid batsman, passing 1,000 runs in nine out of 12 seasons and was Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1988.

The BBC put a different and more ominous slant on it BBC Sport - Ex-Somerset captain Peter Roebuck dies at 55:
South African police said Roebuck had taken his own life and are investigating the full circumstances surrounding his death.

The Sydney Morning Herald, who Roebuck had written for since 1984, reported that he fell to his death from a hotel window on Saturday night after being questioned by police.
... leading one to wonder how he could have been found in his room if he had jumped to his death from the window.

But that's not all.

Roebuck falls to death after sex assault questioning - Sport - NZ Herald News:
Renowned cricket writer Peter Roebuck reportedly fell to his death from a South African hotel balcony while being quizzed by Cape Town police over a sex assault on Saturday night.

Australia's The Age news website said an agitated Roebuck had asked another cricket writer to help him, after police began speaking with him at a hotel near the Newlands ground.

"Can you come down to my room quickly, I've got a problem," the website reported Roebuck as saying.

Roebuck then fell to his death while a police officer was reportedly in the room.
I wonder what really happened.

05 November 2011

Give a dog a bad name

"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me."

Such was the reply often given to playground taunts and insults in my youth.

But a recent discussion on the alt.usage.english newsgroup puts a new slant on it.

People were discussing the remake of the film The Dam Busters, a true story of how the British attacked German dams in WW2 by using an ingenious technique to drop bombs where they would be most effective.

Apparently the remake hit a snag.

Squadron Leader Guy Gibson, who led the raid, had a pet dog, a black Labrador called "Nigger", and it was decided to use the dog's name as a code name to indicate that the first raid had been successful.

The WikiPedia page on the film, and the proposed remake, describes the problem as follows The Dam Busters (film) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
The British Channel 4 screened the censored American version in July 2007, in which the dialogue was dubbed so as to call the dog Trigger, this screening taking place just after the planned remake was announced. For the remake, Peter Jackson has said no decision has been made on the dog's name, but is in a "no-win, damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't scenario", as changing the name could be seen as too much political correctness, while not changing the name could offend people. Further, executive producer Sir David Frost was quoted in The Independent as stating: "Guy sometimes used to call his dog Nigsy, so I think that's what we will call it. Stephen has been coming up with other names, but this is the one I want." In June 2011, Stephen Fry mentioned in an interview that the dog would be called Digger in the remake to avoid offending modern audiences. In September 2007, as part of the BBC Summer of British Film series, The Dam Busters was shown at selected cinemas across the UK in its uncut format.
The discussion on alt.usage.english was mainly concerned with the issue of the dog's name. The original name is now regarded as offensive in America, so using it might harm the film at the box office. But changing the name of the dog would be historically inaccurate.

Discussion went back and forth for a while, and eventually someone said:
I don't see what harm it does to change the dog's name consistently in the dialogue, just so people don't repeatedly cringe until it gets run over. (I haven't seen the original film; I'm trusting what someone else said in this thread.) They could put a note up at the beginning or end of the film briefly explaining the deviation from historical accuracy.
And Peter Brooks of Cape Town made a comment that put the whole discussion in perspective:
Cringe? There's a film showing people getting ready to kill tens of thousands of innocent civilians by drowning and people watching it cringe because of the name given to a dog? What kind of perverted system of values could lead to that?
Another Wikipedia article describes the results of the first raid Möhne Reservoir - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
The resulting huge floodwave killed at least 1579 people, 1026 of them foreign forced labourers held in camps downriver. The small city of Neheim-Hüsten was particularly hard-hit with over 800 victims, among them at least 526 victims in a camp for Russian women held for forced labour.

04 November 2011

650,000 Americans Joined Credit Unions Last Month -- More Than In All Of 2010 Combined | ThinkProgress

650,000 Americans Joined Credit Unions Last Month -- More Than In All Of 2010 Combined | ThinkProgress: "One of the tactics the 99 Percenters are using to take back the country from the 1 percent is to move their money from big banks to credit unions, community banks, and other smaller financial unions that aren’t gambling with our nation’s future.

Now, the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) reports that a whopping 650,000 Americans have joined credit unions since Sept. 29 — the date that Bank of America announced it would start charging a $5 monthly debit fee, a move it backed down on this week."

Now there's an interesting thought.

The South African equivalent of a credit union was a building society, but the building societies all went commercial, turning themselves into banks in about 1987.

Building societies specialised in one thing -- lending money for building and buying houses; in other words, mortgages. It was something they were actually quite good at, and something commercial banks are very bad at -- much of the economic crisis of the last four years or so was caused by American banks playing fast and loose with mortgage finance.

So the news that Americans are moving their money to credit unions might herald the beginning of a return to sanity.

As I understand it, a credit union is like a general putpose building society, lending money not only for building and buying houses, but for other things as well. I believe that, like the building societies, they are cooperative rather than commercial.

Can South Africans do the same thing?

Are there any building societies left? Perhaps this is their opportunity to make a come-back. If anyone reading this knows of any South African bulding societies, please post a link in a comment. And revived building societies could even help to solve the housing shortage.

There are, of course, stokvels, but they usually have to keep their money in commercial banks, with the ever-increasing bank charges. I saw that my bank now charges R25.00 for a cash withdrawal.

That's a good and sufficient reason to move my money to a building society... if there was one.

02 November 2011

USA dumps Unesco

Yesterday, 107 member nations in UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, voted to admit Palestine as a member. UNESCO protects world heritage sites and leads global efforts to bring clean water to the poor. They even manage a tsunami early-warning system in the Pacific.

The U.S. was one of just 14 countries that voted “no” to Palestinian admission.

But within hours of the vote, the Obama Administration announced it would stop paying its $80 million in total yearly dues to UNESCO, which amounts to over 20 percent of UNESCO's total budget. Why? Because the vote triggered decades-old U.S. legislation that
requires that the U.S. stop paying any UN body that accepts Palestine as a member—even though official U.S. policy is to support a Palestinian state.

That has to change.

You see, the Israeli government and its right-wing supporters in the United States don't even want a symbolic recognition of the Palestinian's right to self-determination or participation on the world stage. That's what the law is really about. The Israelis have already announced that they are expediting the construction of even more settlements and withholding life-sustaining tax monies that belong to the Palestinian Authority as punishment for the vote.

The U.S. is endangering its status at the UN and impoverishing critical global program needs simply because Palestinian admission to UNESCO angered Israel.

Please write your U.S. representatives now. Tell them to waive the portion of the law that bars the president from making funding decisions based on the national interest, and to work towards repeal of the law.

If you live outside of the United States, send a message to the Obama administration that this policy is harmful for the whole world.

Don't let this go unanswered,

Cecilie Surasky, Deputy Director
Jewish Voice for Peace

from A Jewish Voice for Peace


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