Farewell Matthew Buckland

It came as quite a shock to hear this afternoon that Mathew Buckland had died.

I first met Matthew at the Digital Citizens Indaba (DCI) in Grahamstown in September 2006, where I was speaking on the Web 2.0 panel. Matthew was editor of the Mail & Guardian Online at the time. Mail & Guardian online was then the pick of the local online media, punching way above its weight, and much of this was due to Matthew’s leadership.

I remember him passionate as we explored the possibilities of new media, and friendly and generous with his time.


Matthew Buckland at the DCI in September 2006. Picture by Gregor Rohrig.

Thinking back to when the DCI took place, it was a dynamic time, full of possibility and new creations. Muti had come out in January 2006. Written by Neville Newey, apparently I inspired him to write it and offered some ideas, but in reality I had little to do with it. I think such was the vacuum in those early days that this was why I was invited to DCI! The Rat and Parrot, and many great conversations. My first encounter with the famous Mushy Peas on Toast. Blogging was revolutionary and everything was possible. In the weeks, months and years following the Digital Citizens Indaba, there was a burst of innovation. And Matthew was at the heart of much of it.

Amatomu, which Mathew co-founded, and Afrigator launched within days of each other. Thought Leader launched in 2007. Memeburn a few years later, and he was MC at the launch of Silicon Cape.

The word inspire can be defined as to fill others with animation, a quickening or exalting influence. Reading the outpouring of support since the announcement, it’s clear he touched many people’s lives, and left a legacy far more influential than he probably realised.

Go well Matthew.

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Election arithmetic

It’s almost election time, and with 48 parties standing nationally (and a further 32 standing only at provincial level), there are lot of hopeful party leaders out there.

It’s safe to say the majority of them are going to be very disappointed when the results are announced. Let’s look at some election arithmetic:

First, nationally:

Year Parties contesting Parties that won seats Parties that didn’t win seats
1994 19 7 12
1999 16 13 3
2004 21 12 9
2009 27 13 14
2014 29 13 16
2019 48 (14?) (34?)

Even if the vote is split more than ever before, and, optimistically for the small parties, a record 14 parties are returned to parliament in 2019, that still leaves 34 parties that will fail to win a seat. 34 parties, more than have even contested before, that have spent R200 000 just to register, and who knows how much more to campaign (judging by the activities of some of the parties, that figure will be close to zero) for the promise of making a difference, or at least a cushy job in parliament, and will be sadly heading back to reality the day after.

What exactly did it take to win at least one seat in previous elections? The following table shows the smallest party (all earning one seat, except for the ACDP in 1994), and the number of votes they won to earn this.

Year Votes Smallest Party
1994 88,104 ACDP (2 seats)
1999 27,257 Azapo
2004 39,116 Azapo
2009 35,867 APC
2014 30,676 APC

Election queue 2004
Even if everyone in this queue votes for the same party, it’ll take almost 1000 of these queues for that party to earn a seat

What about provincially? In the Western Cape province:

Year Parties contesting Parties that won seats Parties that didn’t win seats
1994 14 5 9
1999 15 5 10
2004 20 6 14
2009 22 5 17
2014 26 4 22
2019 34 (5) (29?)

Do parties have a better chance of getting elected in the smaller pond of a province?

Here’s the Western Cape equivalent of the earlier table.

Year Votes Smallest Party
1994 25,731 ACDP
1999 38,071 UDM
2004 27,489 UDM
2009 28,995 ACDP
2014 21,696 ACDP

Looking at just the Western Cape, the answer’s a resounding no, parties don’t have an easier time provincially. You can even say it’s harder, as parties have to win a much higher percentage of the available votes to win a seat. Every party that managed to win seats also won seats nationally, leaving no room for the smaller, provincial only parties, while the reverse was very much not true. The majority of parties that won sets nationally failed to win a seat in the Western Cape. The most parties that have ever been represented was 6, and currently there are only four represented. Bad news for the 10 hopeful parties that have registered for the Western Cape only.

Again, even if we see an increase to 5 parties winning representation, a record 29 parties, more than have ever even contested before, will be sorely disappointed.

Notice that the number of votes won by the smallest parties is not much less than nationally. And in 1999, it was a lot more.

New parties have a hard time breaking into parliament without something major happening. A major split from an existing party, or a high-profile personality entering politics. Looking through the years, there are very few exceptions

1994

1994, as the first non-racial election, can’t be compared to a previous election, but of the seven parties winning representation, only one, the African Christian Democratic Party, didn’t have a substantial political presence before.

1999

In 1999, the number of parties elected nationally lept from seven to thirteen. All seven represented parties were returned to parliament, while the six new parties were:

  • The United Democratic Movement, made up of prominent former ANC and NP politicians.
  • Azapo, a prominent liberation movement which had boycotted the 1994 elections.
  • The Minority Front (MF), a party led by prominent politician Amichand Rajbansi, ex-leader the of the National People’s Party, the dominant party in the House of Delegates election (available to South Africans classified Indian/Asian only) during apartheid.
  • The United Christian Democratic Party (UCDP), led by Lucas Mangope, president of the Bophuthatswana bantustan during apartheid, who had also boycotted the first election (putting it mildly).
  • Federal Alliance, led by South African rugby supremo Louis Luyt
  • Afrikaner Eenheidsbeweging (AEB). Probably the lowest profile party to win a seat, leader Cassie Aucamp was still a relatively prominent Afrikaner nationalist and I believe church leader.

2004

In 2004, the number of represented parties was reduced to 12. One new party, the Independent Democrats, was led by the well-known PAC politician Patricia de Lille, and who had increased her national profile with her work in exposing the arms deal.

Two parties were not returned to parliament, both newcomers in 1999.

  • Federal Alliance – the party ran jointly with the Democratic Alliance, and later merged with the Freedom Front Plus
  • AEB

2009

2009 saw an increase to 13 again. The New National Party folded, while two new parties were elected:

  • COPE were formed from a major split in the ANC after the ousting of President Mbeki
  • The African People’s Convention were formed from a split in the PAC, with the deputy president leaving to form his own party

2014

2014 saw the number of return parties remain static, but some churn amongst the makeup. New additions were:

  • National Freedom Party, formed from a split in the Inkatha Freedom Part, and led by the former IFP chairperson.
  • Economic Freedom Fighters, formed after prominent ex-ANC youth league leader and President Jacob Zuma supporter Julius Malema was expelled from the ANC.
  • Agang, led by high-profile Mamphela Ramphele, a prominent anti-apartheid activist, managing director at the World Bank and former partner of murdered activist Steve Biko. Her dalliance with the Democratic Alliance before the election also increased her visibility.

Out went:

  • UCDP – Mangope was expelled in 2012
  • MF – Rajbansi died in 2011
  • Azapo – probably a victim of the EFF’s success.

The point is, it’s extremely difficult to get elected. Once you’re in, with all the resources and free media coverage, it’s a little harder to leave again, but the death or removal of a prominent leader puts the personality parties in particular at risk.

2019

So, what does this mean for 2019? Putting on my soothsayer hat, the following parties are in danger:

  • Agang is at risk after Mamphela Ramphele left shortly after the 2014 elections. Although new leader Andries Tlouamma has been making the most of his media coverage, and perhaps his twerking will be enough to keep the party in parliament.
  • PAC – again experiencing bitter infighting, as they have before every recent election, will this be one election too far for them?
  • AIC – some thought their surprising result in the 2014 election was due to being placed right next to the ANC on the election ballot. With similar colours and a similar logo, perhaps people were confused while voting? But their results have been steady since, and with their new national profile, they may be on track to at least retain a seat.
  • APC – the party seems to be quite active on the ground. but their aim of a million votes (up from thirty thousand in 2014) is pie-in-the-sky stuff. They rather need to look behind them to hold on to their seat, with Azapo running again, the EFF gaining prominence, and other new entrants such as Black First Land First, the Land Party, all playing in the same zone.

So, who are the possible 2019 newcomers to parliament?

  • Good, the party formed by Patricia de Lille on her expulsion from the Democratic Alliance, are very likely to earn a seat, and will be hoping to do as well as the Independent Democrats in 2004 and 2009.
  • The Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party have prominent trade union backers, and if they can tap into their organisational capacity, they should win representation.
  • The ATM is backed by the South African Council of Messianic Churches in Christ, who have a hefty following. If they can tap into this, they also have a good chance of representation.

Beyond that, I struggle to see any of the newcomers gaining a seat. There’s still some time left, and things could change, but most seem to be relying on wishful thinking that the support of a few people close to them, or in their community, will get them over the line.

And most are going to be horribly disappointed.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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Wondering who to vote for in May?

It’s very rare that you come across a political platform that jumps out at you in the way this one did. From the moment I first set eyes on it, I knew this was the one.

Meet the Alliance for Transformation for All.

ATA logo

They have two main policies:

1) Subsidies for taxis (we’re talking minibus taxis here of course, not sedan taxis)
2) Less government regulation for taxis. Taxi drivers should regulate themselves.

What more needs to be said. The surefire way to cure all of South Africa’s ills is to give more money to the taxi industry, and at the same time back off on those annoying regulations, and let them decide what to do with it.

I’m sold, I don’t need to look at what the other 47 parties are up to.

OK, so maybe ATA are not for you. I present another surefire winner…

“Prisoners go to the Badlands where they grow their own food, build their own accommodation. Prisoners are chipped and cannot remove the chip or leave the Badlands without it exploding.”

Wait, which party is this? Perhaps the Death Penalty Party is getting soft and now thinks prisoners should rather just have bombs attached to them?

Well, to my dismay, it’s the Green Party of South Africa. If I had to pick a political home, it would be a Green Party, but a European-style Green Party, such as the German Greens, which were born out of the environmental, peace, new left, and new social movements.

Not one that thinks strapping bombs to prisoners is a good idea.

Did I misinterpret things? No, it’s a direct quote from their website. A combination of Mad Max and Survivor (just don’t get voted out, or kaboom), I can only hope this will be televised. It’ll be a great foreign exchange earner.

Except that “Banks and use of money suspended”.

Hmm, there may be some chaos, and the Badlands will be getting a little full, but don’t worry:

“A state of emergency is declared…” To deal with the collapse of the financial system, starving hordes trying to break into the Badlands where at least some food is being grown?

No. “A state of emergency is declared till we have set South Africa onto a path to reduced population”

Except that the country will immediately be on a path to rapid depopulation, since women will be permitted a maximum of two children, below the replacement rate, because “Women giving birth to second child have tubes tied”. Forcible sterlisation of women, not men. Maybe a kind of reverse Handmaid’s Tale?

GPSA logo

Continuing the weird sexist theme: “Women volunteer to be trained for running local clinics in skin, nutrition, common ailments to adjust behaviours that are destructive to health and pick up medical problems before they become too bad and direct them to professional care.”

In case you’re worried that suspending money overnight will lead to some disruptions in the food supply, and the country may need to rely on food aid from the rest of the world, fear not. I can assure you, no food aid will be arriving, because, “within a month, no fossil fuel powered ships may dock in South African ports”

So there may be a shortage of things like computers arriving too, which won’t be a problem, because we’ll be experiencing a cultural revolution II, with “De-urbanisation for anyone prepared to work with renewing the biomass of the soil, or plant and grow organic food, reforest or care for animals will hopefully motivate many to disperse over the land.”

It’s a little unclear what that means – there no mention of coercion, but what exactly will attract everyone to a life of toil on the fields isn’t specified.

But wait, maybe we need those computers after all, because “Schooling will be over the air so the necessity to be near the city for education of kids will be reduced/ This will mean that families prepared to work on the land or on any of the above, can move out into the country.”

If working on the fields doesn’t appeal, there are other options. You can register as a plumber:

“People with aptitude register to be trained as plumbers and plumbing parts manufacturers. The whole country is to be replumbed for circular systems of use naturally treated in wetlands. This means that the same water will be used over and over again for toilets, paper and solids will be separated locally and composted. No more pit latrines, chemical toilets sewerage in aquifers, rivers or sea and plenty of food for microbes.”

And also no composting toilets and biomass incinerators?

Plumber doesn’t appeal? How about drug manufacturer?

“Because drug abuse shortens life span, people who wish to take drugs and are prepared to watch a film showing what eventually happens to drug takers get a licence for free drugs.”

Good to know that the motivation behind free drugs is not primarily reduction of harm to society, or care for the addicts, but because it’ll speed them on their way off this plane leaving more space on the fields for the rest of us to toil on.

I think I’ll choose the free drugs.

(On the off chance that the party doesn’t sweep to power and their website doesn’t stand the test of time, here’s a screenshot of the page as of 19 April 2019)

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Images from Wikipedia:

March 2019 African language Wikipedia and Wiktionary update

It’s been quite a long time (four and a half years in fact) since I looked at the state of the African language Wiktionaries. For those new to Wiktionary, the idea is that it will describe all words of all languages using definitions and descriptions in the particular language edition. An ambitious task!

So, how are the projects progressing?

A portion of the Octateuch in Ethiopian

African Language Wiktionaries

Language 30/5/2010 15/5/2011 29/10/2014 22/3/2019 % +
Malagasy 4,253 3,599,084 5,482,632 52.33%
Afrikaans 14,669 14,731 15,794 20,831 31.89%
Swahili 13,000 13,027 13,903 14,029 0.91%
Wolof 2,689 2,693 2,310 2,312 0.09%
Somali 1,635
Sotho 1,389 1,398 1,343 1,343 0.00%
Lingala 673
Zulu 131 510 586 599 2.22%
Igbo (incubator) 375
Kinyarwanda 306 306 367 366
Tsonga 359 363 92 359 290.22%
Oromo 218 264 322 335 4.04%
Swati 371 377 290 292 0.69%
Amharic 319 377 206 217 5.34%
Egyptian Arabic (incubator) 195

In short, although it’s been so long since the last update, there’s not much to show. The only project to more than double its articles in four and a half years is Tsonga, off a minute base. Malagasy has always had a huge amount of bot activity, and is still growing from a large base, and Afrikaans shows some signs of life. But overall, the state of the African language Wiktionaries can be described as dormant.

Perhaps the African language Wikipedias will fare better?

African Language Wikipedias > 1000 articles

Language 26/6/2015 5/9/2017 30/6/2018 2/4/2019 % +
Malagasy 79,329 84,634 84,996 91,528 7.68%
Afrikaans 35,856 46,824 50,275 76,965 53.11%
Swahili 29,127 37,443 42,773 49,555 15.86%
Yoruba 31,068 31,577 31,672 31,867 0.62%
Egyptian Arabic 14,192 17,138 18,605 20,405 9.67%
Amharic 12,950 13,789 14,286 14,558 1.90%
Northern Sotho 1,000 7,823 8,050 8,018 -0.40%
Somali 3,446 4,727 4,898 5,456 11.39%
Shona 2,321 2,851 3,630 4,278 17.85%
Hausa 1,345 1,525 1,856 3,494 88.25%
Lingala 2,062 2,915 3,023 3,113 2.98%
Kabyle 2,296 2,887 2,844 2,986 4.99%
Kinyarwanda 1,780 1,810 1,823 1,821 -0.11%
Kikuyu 1,349 1,357 1,358 0.07%
Igbo 1,019 1,384 1,320 1,392 5.45%
Kongo 1,176 1,179 1,193 1.19%
Wolof 1,023 1,157 1,166 1,184 1.54%
Luganda 1,153 1,162 1,169 0.60%
Zulu 683 942 959 1,067 11.26%
Language 26/6/2015 5/9/2017 30/6/2018 2/4/2019 % +

The Zulu Wikipedia is the latest addition to the 1000 club, having reached this milestone just before Wikimania last year, and progress has been steady since then.

At first glance, Hausa looks like it’s in great shape, with an 88% increase in the number of articles. But this is misleading, as many of these are one line articles on football players, the entirety of which translates as, for example, “Kenny Allen (footballer) is an English football player.” No disrespect to Kenny Allen, but I’m not sure he and the 100s of other footballers listed there are critical components of Hausa knowledge. There’s a move to delete these articles (you can see the impressive list here while it’s up), but even if they survive, it’s not a sign of a healthy project.

Leaving aside Hausa, it’s once again Afrikaans, growing at an impressive 53% over the period, that provides an example for the rest. At current rates, it’s on track to pass Malagasy and reclaim its position on top in about a year or so.

Besides Afrikaans, only Shona, Swahili, Somali and Zulu show a growth rate above 10%, while quite a few sit idle.

Moving on to the South African language editions specifically:

South African Language Wikipedias

Language 26/6/2015 5/9/2017 30/6/2018 2/4/2019 % +
Afrikaans 35,856 46,824 50,275 76,965 53.11%
Northern Sotho 1,000 7,823 8,050 8,018 -0.40%
Zulu 683 942 959 1,067 11.26%
Xhosa 356 708 738 789 6.91%
Tswana 503 639 641 641 0.00%
Tsonga 266 526 562 585 4.09%
Sotho 223 523 539 546 1.30%
Swati 410 432 439 467 6.38%
Venda 151 256 256 265 3.52%
Ndebele (incubator) 12 12 11 -8.33%
Language 26/6/2015 5/9/2017 30/6/2018 2/4/2019 % +

Afrikaans remains the only project that could be described as a usable Wikipedia – the other languages are still very much in the formative stages. Zulu is also showing signs of life. Besides these two, only Xhosa and Swati see growth rates above 5%. It’s sad to see the stalling of Northern Sotho, while Ndebele shows no signs of getting out of the incubator anytime soon.

2019 has been proclaimed the Year of Indigenous Languages by the UN, but so far there’s not much sign of a change in the status of the African language projects. Later today sees the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources, in collaboration with the Academy of African Languages and Science from the University of South Africa, present an interactive day workshop on contributing to Wikipedia in South African languages. It’s great to see this initiative, which arose with no help that I’m aware of from Wikimedia South Africa. I’m always hopeful with events like these. Generally very few people to stay around to edit Wikipedia, but as projects like Northern Sotho and Swahili show, one person can make a huge difference in the early stages, and it justs needs a committed editor to stick around. It’s a lonely job editing in the early stages, wondering if it’s worthwhile, no community, no idea if their work is being read. Hopefully someone will take on the challenge!

If you are looking to contribute, but don’t know where to start, please reach out to Wikimedia South Africa and we’d be happy to assist.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

A Seasoned Travellers Guide to Jet Lag

As a seasoned traveller I’ve mastered the art of avoiding jet lag, and will share it in this blog post. The solution is simple – no need for sleeping pills. I will try and catch some sleep on the plane if it’s night time at my destination, but usually this is sporadic, and I arrive tired, so this isn’t necessary.

The real secret is just to push on until night time in the new time zone, no matter how tired I’m feeling, and, exhausted after the long day, get a good night’s sleep, waking up refreshed in the morning of the new time zone.

Travelling east is usually more difficult than travelling west, and so it was I began the long journey home from New York to Cape Town, via Brussels and Doha. Leaving the hotel in New York in the afternoon, an hour on the subway, the JFK Air Train, a meal at the airport, before catching the 7.30pm flight (0.30am Brussels time, 1.30am Cape Town time). I had an aisle seat, but usually don’t manage to sleep unless I have a window seat and free space next to me. I tried to nap on and off during the flight, rather unsuccessfully.

The plane arrived in Brussels 9am (10am Cape Town time), and I was already pretty tired. I had a long wait at the airport before the 3.40pm flight (4.40pm Cape Town) to Doha, barely functional, nodding off a few times in the airport.

A late flight should be the perfect time to sleep. Except it arrived at 11.55pm Doha time (10.55pm Cape Town), and the connecting flight was 1.45am (0.45am Cape Town), boarding at 0.45am (11.45pm Cape Town). With only 50 minutes between arrival and boarding, and the need at Doha airport to scan one’s luggage in-between, the changeover gets the adrenaline pumping, not ideal for sleeping the rest of the way.

Finally I’m boarded – exhausted, ready to sleep for most of the final leg – a 10 hour 20 minute flight to Cape Town.

Except, besides the Doha-airport induced adrenaline, I’m in the middle seat, squashed between two men, legs cramped up against the seat, and little prospect of sleep. A movie it will have to be, but since it’s the 8th flight in a month, I’m all airplane movied out.

I land in Cape Town 11h05, and get back to my house, about 37 hours after leaving New York. Right, all I need to do is push on till 20h00 or so and get a good 12 hours sleep…

No chance, I fall asleep at 2pm, waking up 9pm. Waking up refreshed at 9pm is not the recommended way to avoid jet lag. From then on, my body didn’t know what was happening.

Day 2: Sleep 2.30pm to 5.30pm. I needed to be somewhere by 6, so used the dreaded alarm.

Day 3: Sleep 3.15am to 2.30pm. A long, much-needed sleep, and it looks like the times are improving, right?

Day 4: Sleep 7.45am to sometime late afternoon. Considering drugs right now.

Day 5: Sleep 3am to 10am. Woohoo! Back to normal. 5 days of hell, but all worth it.

Day 6: Sleep 11pm to 2.30am. Awake till 7am, sleep till 2.30pm. Hmm, maybe not…

Day 7: Sleep 8.40am till 3.40pm. Aaargh!! I have a party in the evening, but don’t feel up to it, so head to bed early.

Day 8: And fall asleep 1.30am, waking up 6.30am. Have I cracked it yet?

Day 9: Sleep 11.30pm to 6am.

Six and a half hours is not usually enough, and I was nodding off in the day. As I write this it’s 11.35pm, and I feel alarmingly awake. Time to finish this off and find a boring book…

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Images from Wikimedia Commons 1 2

The Emerald Isle?

At its peak, following the last ice age, Ireland was covered in forest. The first humans, initially hunter gatherers, arrived around 9000 years ago. About 6000 years ago the forests began to disappear as farming began to take hold. By 1600, forest cover was still substantial, but as population pressure grew, and in particular clearance for sheep grazing, by 1800 less than 1% remained. Even by European standards of destruction, this was an impressive feat.

Sheep farming in Ireland

Today, Ireland has around 10.5% forest cover, still placing it at the bottom in the list of European countries. The average in Europe is about 30% – Finland leads with 73%, and even heavily developed Germany has 32%. Ireland trails even the Netherlands, with a population density of 416 people per square kilometre, compared to 69 for Ireland.

Ireland is nearly unique among developed countries in that its population is far below its peak. In 1841, the current area of the Republic of Ireland had a population of 8.51 million. The Great Famine initiated nearly a century of population decline, as both starvation and emigration took their toll, and by 1926 the population had been reduced to less than 3 million.

The causes of the Great Famine are complicated. The best land was reserved to meat production for primarily British consumers, and when a potato blight struck, destroying around half of the potato crop, exports of potatoes to Britain continued apace as impoverished primarily Catholic Irish could not pay the required prices. Ireland always produced enough food to feed its people, but most of it was exported to Britain, similar to what happened with other famines under British rule, such as in India. Some Irish saw and still see this as a form of genocide.

But back to the forests.

Ireland is now afforesting quite rapidly, and aims to get to 18% cover by 2046. The government has policies in place to support private landowners planting forest, and now almost 45% of Irish forest is privately owned. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this is non-native, mostly Sitka Spruce, planted mainly for its potential use for timber and paper.

The non-native Sitka Spruce

Wandering around Ireland, the Sitka Spruce ‘forests’ feel dead. Almost no birdlife, and an acidic soil that prevents anything else growing under them. The largest patches of natural forest grow in Killarney National Park, which by contrast is lush and alive, supporting a wide range of flora and fauna. However, the entire reserve is a tiny 102 square kilometres.

Wild forests in Killarney National Park

It was Ireland’s first national park, created in 1932, and until 1984, the only national park in the country. There are now 6 in total, protecting just under 1% of the country. Ireland is certainly lagging in this regard,

But it’s intriguing to me too see how much sway meat production has in the country. I have visited three national parks while here. Killarney, which is heavily wooded, as well as the Burren and Connemara. The latter two have almost no tree cover. What’s more, they don’t look like getting any soon. In the Burren, the reserve seems to find it important to preserve the concept of winter grazing, and is concerned about animal farmers moving to less taxing means of production, and no longer grazing the Burren.

The Burren is unique – beautifully stark and rocky, with numerous rare species. The famous quote “There isn’t tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man” purportedly comes from one of Oliver Cromwell’s general during his campaigns in Ireland in the 1600s. And yet once it too was covered in forest.

The Burren

Connemara National Park is similar. Sheep and goats graze right to the top of the highest peak. I can understand that it’s been thousands of years since trees grew in these areas,and so conservation has a different meaning that in an area much more recently touched by humans, but I still find it strange that, with such a demand for afforestation, and government subsidies, there seems to be so little attempt to regrow the ancient wild forests that would once have covered the Emerald Isle.

Sheep grazing just below the highest point in Connemara National Park

Images from Wikimedia Commons (1 2 3 4 5 6)

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Simple hosting?

ENIAC

All I want is a simple website!

OK, I have a website, and you’re probably reading this on it.

But I want a simple website. Since 2006, I’ve had a server hosted with Asergo (previously EasySpeedy). It ran a lot at one stage. Huge mounds of organic food found new homes through its circuits. Today it’s not so busy, but stands ready, waiting to handle any imminent Slashdot Effect when my latest masterpiece goes viral. Except it never does, and I’m basically paying for a private jet when I could make do with a rusty bicycle.

In other words, a bog standard WordPress hosting offering will do just fine these days.

Moving from total control of my own server to a tiny hosted offering seems limiting, and its kept me from moving for a while. But gradually I’ve come to make peace with it, and will make do with a tiny instance offering limited functionality.

So what am I looking for?

* a reasonably new version of PHP
* a reasonably new version of MariaDB, or similar
* perhaps even hosted locally? Other sites I help with that host locally have made me wary, but there must be some good ones out there?

Space (my current server feels like it’s got backups going back to the dial-up days, so this will be a good chance to clean up), bandwidth etc. are all much of a muchness, as most offerings give some flexibility here

Let’s look at some of the options.

As a starting point, seeing as another site I manage is hosted there, 1-grid. They’ve gone through some wobbles. At first part of Web Africa, the hosting division got spun off into Gridhost, which then got renamed 1-grid.

1-grid
* R89 a month
* Unlimited MySQL databases
* PHP 5+. Really? What does this mean? PHP 5.6 and PHP 7.0 reach EOL in about a month… I happen to know PHP 7.1 is available, but sites really need to publicise this stuff!
* No mention of MySQL version. The instance I manage has the venerable but still supported MySQL 5.5, with no mention of possible upgrade.
* But, the dealbreaker. A measly 5GB storage. The next tier, offering 50GB, is R219 a month.
* Another big dealbreaker – they charge an extra R519 for SSL, for one domain only!

Hetzner
* Hetzner were one of the first locally to move to MariaDB, a major plus in my books (yes, I know I work for the MariaDB Foundation so perhaps I’m slightly biased)
* Another plus is they offer Lets Encrypt SSL with all hosting packages
* R99 for 5GB, 10GB costs for R149 a month
* However, they only mention MariaDB 10.0, which, while a version above MySQL/MariaDB 5.5, is still quite old. In discussion with them, they do offer MariaDB 10.1, but again their website lags with no mention of this.
* PHP 5.6 and PHP 7.0 only.
* Only offer Debian 8. Debian stable is itself already pretty venerable when it comes out, and Debian 8 came out way back 2015. I don’t need cutting edge, but Debian 9 came out in Jun 2017, so this makes Hetzner’s offering a little on the old side.

Ok, moving internationally. I moved my domains to Gandi a few years ago. They offer a Simple Hosting service as well.

Gandi
* Unusually, they offer Percona Server as a MySQL equivalent. Based on MySQL 5.7, which came out at about the same time as MariaDB 10.1.
* Support PHP 7.2
* 20GB for ~R45 a month (a discount as I have domains with them)
* In price, space and up-to-date software they absolutely blow the local offerings out the water
* They also offer a free 10-day trial.

Their Simple Hosting seems to be just that, really simple, not offering as much as the full CPanel or KonsoleH services offered by 1-grid and Hetzner but hey, I did start by saying I wanted a Simple website.

I spend way too long investigating the governments of Luxembourg and France to decide which of the two server locations to choose, but in the end I’m sold (I chose Luxembourg for those interested).

Except I’m unable to sign up, as their interface isn’t working (I tried on three browsers) and I cannot actually sign up. I contacted them a few months ago, pointing out inconsistencies in their documentation (the site mentioned MySQL/Percona 5.5, 5.6 and 5.7 being the latest available version in various different places). The site still lists MySQL 5.6 as the latest release in at least one location.

So not exactly getting a good feeling from them either.

Am I destined to keep paying for my jumbo jet hosting, as it least I know it works?

Any personally recommended hosting suggestions?

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

Written in the Stars

When meeting someone through online dating for the first time, things can go a number of ways. You can decide to meet them again, or not to meet them again. You can have a fun time together, or not such a fun time together.

I thought it time to expand on the possible outcomes.

I check Google Maps – damn, it’s a little further than I thought, but I should just about make it on time. Last minute review to see I don’t have toilet paper on my shoe or yoghurt on my nose, and hop into the car.

The driveway gate doesn’t open. I’ve had to try once or twice recently – probably the battery – but it usually opens eventually.

Not this time.

After about 100 presses, including walking right up and shoving the remote into the sensor, I’m not getting anywhere. I’m going to be late. I message her explaining I’m stuck in my house, and not yet sure whether I’ll actually make it out, but will keep her posted.

It occurs to me that as first impressions go “I’m stuck in my house” is not a particularly good one, but what can I do.

I go back inside to look for a spare battery. Multiple hidden cupboards and draws see light for the first time in years, but no spare battery makes an appearance. I open the remote and jiggle the battery around, and step outside to try again.

It doesn’t budge. Back inside, mostly walking around aimlessly hoping a battery will manifest on the floor. It doesn’t.

Back outside again for more aimless pressing. No response to my message yet, she should be there by now.

I press again. This time the gate lurches into motion, violins play as the battery opens the gate for the last time in its existence.

I’m now outside the house. I suppose I should close the gate. No go. I disassemble the remote, perform CPR on the battery, whispering sweet nothings to it while visualising lightning storms. Reassemble for a final go. Miraculously, the battery coughs up its last sliver of life, and the gate closes. I’m on my way, sending a quick message about being there in 20 minutes.

Which is also about 20 minutes too late.

At some point I decide I should call to make sure she’s got the message. There’s been no response, and she may not have data. I see my message about being there in 20 minutes has not gone through. In fact I seem to be out of data. I try call, the call gets dropped and I’m told I can dial emergency numbers only.

This shouldn’t theoretically be possible, but it’s almost full moon, every second person seems to be pre-menstrual, and my phone has decided to join the party.

I reboot the phone, hankering for an ancient Nokia where switching it on and off again was almost instantaneous. The phone crawls through its reboot process. Happy days – just the interminable animation from the manufacturer to go.

I could almost have been there already!

The phone is back, and I have voice and data again. I dial. The phone goes straight to voicemail. Great. Has she left her phone behind? Or is she calling a friend to complain about her idiot Tinder date who’s kept her waiting for 20m.

The reboot and animation has overtaxed my phone, and, taking inspiration from the remote, the battery is about to die. I scramble around for the car charger, and remember it sitting in the draw at home where the spare remote battery should have been. I think the Singularity is close and the batteries are communicating with each other, messing with the humans.

There’s enough life to send an old-fashioned SMS. If she’s got her phone, she’ll get the SMS. – no data needed. Finally I’m driving again. I picture her, pre-menstrual, and me arriving 25 minutes late, slightly flustered. This is going to be an entertaining evening.

I drive past the place we’re meeting, adding another minute or two to the delay.

Finally I pull up, race inside. The owners are standing around. They tell me the place is closed, but describe my date and ask if I’m meeting her?

Yes, she’s here! It’s destiny, a classic romantic tale of overcoming obstacles before the happy ending.

Actually no, she’s just left.

Her phone had been stolen, so there was no way for her to get hold of me, and she wouldn’t have got any of my messages.

I decide to go walk on the beach, on the off-chance I may randomly bump into her. Every second person looks like it could be her, but most have screaming kids, affectionate partners, friends (and they’re not talking about being stood up by some idiot on Tinder).

I’m getting a few glances as I stare at everyone, listen in on their conversations. I really should be paying more attention to where I’m walking, and discover that not all owners clean up their dog’s shit.

Enough asynchronicity for one day, time to head home.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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Six days of the Merry Wives of Windsor

Falstaff and the Wives
The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of Shakespeare’s less well-known, and less well-regarded, plays. Some believe this to be because Queen Elizabeth instructed Shakespeare to write a play featuring Falstaff (the lecherous main character, who also appears in the two King Henry IVs) and complete it in fourteen days, in which case it’s a remarkable achievement.

Thanks to my son’s class putting it on as the school’s annual Class 9 Shakespeare, and me taking the opportunity to see more of him than usual, I went to see it 6 days in a row, as well as read the play for the first time.

In spite of at least one online review stating that the play is highly unsuitable for a family audience due to its adult themes, it’s a great play for teenagers, starring the hopeful Falstaff as he attempts to woo two married women, and the desirable Ann Page being wooed by multiple, mostly unsuitable, suitors.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve never seen a Shakespeare, or any other play, 6 days in a row, and I really enjoyed the intense experience of seeing it daily. Each time I picked up more subtleties, plot features I’d missed, and more puns that had previously gone over my head. And I got to see the students grow in confidence and develop into their roles.

There were two casts, so each student got to play a reasonably major role, and it was fascinating to see the different dynamics on stage, and the different touches both casts brought. The students were clearly told to express themselves, and many had fun improvising in the last performances in particular.

The purpose is not to put on the best play possible, but as part of the curriculum for the children, who’re around 15 years of age. They learn to express themselves in new ways as they take on their own unique roles, all as part of something much larger.

I read the play over the last two days, and seeing it in text helped me understand even more, as well gain a greater appreciation for the edits that the director made to the script and how it was directed on stage. Parts that would read quite drily on the page came alive on stage.

The director did an excellent job. Most of the audience are parents, relatives, friends and the greater school community, unfamiliar with Shakespearean English. So the play lives to a greater degree on the children’s physical performances, rather than their verbal expression.

Take Sir Hugh, a Welsh parson in the original, and Doctor Caius, a French physician. Much of their time on stage involves having fun poked at their accents. With the school version being set in the 70’s, and with most unlikely to distinguish a Welsh accent these days, Sir Hugh became an Afrikaans priest, and many of the lines were rewritten.

From the original:


Pless my soul, how full of chollors I am, and
trempling of mind! I shall be glad if he have
deceived me. How melancholies I am! I will knog
his urinals about his knave’s costard when I have
good opportunities for the ork. ‘Pless my soul!

Sings
To shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sings madrigals;
There will we make our peds of roses,
And a thousand fragrant posies.
To shallow–
Mercy on me! I have a great dispositions to cry.

The first part works quite well with an Afrikaans accent, but the song…

Here’s a version of the song I could find:

Probably pushing it!

In the school’s version, the song is changed to “By the Rivers of Babylon”, with some comic relief added by Simple, a servant.

While Welsh cuisine would have gone over most people’s heads, jokes about biltong and koeksisters hit the spot.

Or take this piece, which pokes fun at Caius’s French accent:

Sir Hugh
If there is one, I shall make two in the company.

Doctor Caius
If dere be one or two, I shall make-a the turd.

The joke is easy to spot written, but could easily be missed when spoken out loud. A small minority in each audience got the joke immediately, but thanks to a pause and a helping hand from the band, everyone had time to realize what had been said.

Some lines I just couldn’t understand, even after the multiple viewings and reading the play.

There’s a part where the boy William is being tested by Sir Hugh.

SIR HUGH:
William, how many numbers is in nouns?

WILLIAM PAGE:
Two.

MISTRESS QUICKLY:
Truly, I thought there had been one number more,
because they say, ‘Od’s nouns.’

I had no idea what Od’s nouns was referring to, but it turns out that in Shakespeare’s time, nouns and wounds would have rhymed (it seems English once made more sense) and Mistress Quickly has misheard the colloquial form of the oath, “God’s Wounds”, or “Od’s ouns”.

She then mishears “pulcher” as “polecat” (a slang term for a sex worker), “vocative” (as in vocative case) as “fuckative”, “horum” as “whore”, and “genitive case” as “Jenny’s case”. “Case” euphemistically means vagina, so “Jenny’s vagina”. She’s outraged at what Sir Hugh is teaching the child!

Naturally none of this was understood or garnered many laughs, and I’m not sure how it would have been possible to convey without major rewriting.

Although those ones would have been missed, the play is full of suggestive jokes, often physically highlighted by the children, and part of the humour for me was in seeing the reaction of some of the more shocked members of the audience, as well as how the cast gained in confidence, embarrassed and very aware of the audience in the first performances, to confidently playing up the jokes in their later performances.

I found myself enjoying the play more with each viewing.

In writing this post I almost got side-tracked and watched a 2011 version by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I did however come across The Cockerel Song. I suppose the line had to be drawn somewhere, and this wasn’t performed by the children, but some of them may have had fun with this version!

While some of the cast, and probably most of the staff, may have been relieved when the run finally came to an end, I found myself mildly depressed the next night, and wishing for more. I’ve never come close to wanting to go back to my own schooldays. But wanting to go to Dorje’s school? I think Dorje and I would be happy to trade…

Since it did take up about 24 hours of my week, it’s probably a good thing it came to end when it did.

Well done to everyone involved for what I thought, in my totally objective opinion, was a magnificent showing.

And if you do happen to be in London, this version looks hilarious too:

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

Cape Town Wikimania, and some Wikidata observations

The 2018 Wikimania was held in Cape Town from July 18 to July 22.

Wikimania is the annual conference of the Wikimedia Foundation, the foundation supporting Wikipedia and other hosted projects, such as Wikimedia Commons, WikiVoyage, Wikidata and Wiktionary.

I’ve never been to a Wikimania before – the closest I came was almost going to Taipei in 2007, and leading the Cape Town bid in 2008, which I’m very grateful ended up second to Alexandria.

Wikimania session

It was the best conference I’ve attended, and according to a few anecdotes, the best Wikimania for some of the regular participants as well. It was hosted in the Cape Sun in the central city. The entire hotel was booked, with a second nearby hotel for some of the overflow, so most of the attendees were right there, and had easy access to various tourist activities. For some participants, it was their first visit to Cape Town, South Africa, or even Africa, and judging from the stream of photos on videos on some of the channels, people were enjoyed the experience of visiting a new place.

The wifi was excellent, surpassing many other, even commercial, conferences I’ve attended before. Food was great, and the masterstroke of serving lunch from 10am to 4pm meant lunch fitted into everyone’s schedule. And yes, if you arrived at 4pm, there was still ample food.

Another huge benefit was that, to my knowledge, everyone that wanted a visa got one. The last few Wikimanias have seen delegates, even on full scholarships, not able to attend after experiencing visa hassles. Last years Wikimania in Canada was particularly disastrous in this regard. The local organisers put effort into ensuring visa applications proceeeded smoothly, and of course South Africa, being a poorer country, is far more welcoming of visitors than most previous hosts.

There was some talk of making visa accessibility a priority criteria for upcoming Wikimanias, so we could see a number of new locations on the schedule in future. While attending in a location such as the USA is great for attracting lots of people already involved, the Wikimedia projects need to grow beyond their traditional strongholds. About a quarter (by my visual reckoning) of attendees were at their first Wikimania, so Wikimania Cape Town certainly helped reach a whole new audience.

I didn’t want the conference to end. I was torn between attending multiple great sessions, meeting lots of new people, and the role I took on for the event, tweeting up a storm for the Wikimedia South Africa Twitter account, which felt like a fulltime job at times, with tweets pouring in from multiple sessions at once. Wikimedia South Africa also signed up lots of new members.

I was happy I got time to make progress on helping integrate Wikidata into the Siswati and Xitsonga Wikipedias in particular (and if I can find people to work with for the other South African languages, will help there as well).

Wikipedia has always been unstructured data, and Wikidata corrects that by structuring the data, making it much easier to use across projects. Before using Wikidata, updates had to be done on each individual Wikipedia language edition.

For example, in mid-July, the latest South African population estimate was released. At the time of writing, Wikidata and the English Wikipedia have the updated figure, 57,725,600. The German Wikipedia has the figure from 2017, 56,521,900. The French Wikipedia states the figure from 2016, 55,653,654. The Sotho and Afrikaans Wikipedias give 54,956,900, the 2015 estimate. Xhosa and Northern Sotho go back to 2013, giving 52,981,991. Zulu goes even further back, to 2011, with the census figure of 50,586,757.

Swati, thanks to Wikidata, gives the 2018 figure. It’s a huge boost for everyone, with content needing only to be updated in only one location, and filtering through to all language editions.

However, there are downsides.

Installing the templates require admin permissions. I am not an administrator on any Wikipedias, and some of the smaller South African language Wikipedias don’t have any admins at all, so installing them needs a helpful person with rights. Luckily it’s a once-off task, and Wikimania was a great place to find help – thanks to User:Theklan, from the Basque Wikipedia, for his assistance.

But there are other downsides. Firstly, of course the templates themselves will need to be translated (you may have seen some of the terms in the Tsonga and Swati Wikipedia templates are still in English). This is inevitable, whatever method is used, and is also a once-off task, but what makes it tricky is that its’s unlikely an inexperienced user will know where to translate them. Translations can be done on either Wikidata, on the template, or on both, and without personally showing someone how and where to do this, it’s unlikely an editor will discover this by themselves

Once the templates are translated, the results may need to be translated as well.

Editing Wikipedia is supposed to be as simple as clicking the Edit button. It was in the early days, but now with nested templates within templates, or with templates pulling in data from an entirely different project, it’s not nearly so simple anymore. The English Wikipedia has built up a great deal of complexity, all with good reason (to remove needless repetition), but it can be difficult to make a change, even for experienced editors. Introducing Wikidata introduces similar complexity to smaller Wikipedias, where there can be little expertise to overcome obstacles.

There is no simple link to click, so a user has to navigate to Wikidata, find the correct term themselves, and then navigate the slightly more difficult Wikidata interface, in order to edit a value. I don’t see this happening easily.

The next downside is customisation, which is very limited. The format of the numbers, which fields are shown, which order, are all not possible or easy to customise. There’s no easy way to hide fields that are still in English, or fields that the language community decides are not necessary in their edition.

Making things even more tricky are that there are different implementations of Wikidata templates. I attended a workshop demonstrating something I really needed, but the demonstrated solution was not available in the implementation I’m using.

Still, overall using Wikidata is extremely positive for the Wikimedia projects, and hopefully with some attention to simplicity in actually making edits, they can live up to their potential.

Thanks to everyone involved for making Wikimania Cape Town a great success, and leaving us inspired as we build a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons