Metal (Technical)

Defending the Fox

After my post on Banking and Open Source in South Africa I’ve been made aware of the Defending the Fox site, which lists non standards-compliant offenders. It’s an awful design (they say they’re changing it soon), but I like the principle, especially the ability to contact the owner. Hopefully they’ll take the criticism constructively.

Here’s an example of a reply I got from my complaint about the Government Retail Bonds website not working. All quite polite, but clear they’re not going to fix their site:

Dear Mr Ian Gilfillan

Thank you for the query that you forwarded. The National Treasury appreciate the interest in this secure and safe investment.

Kindly note that the recommended software and hardware requirements as recommended by our Privacy and Security Policy document is clearly stated as follows:
“We recommend that Users use:
* At least Internet Explorer Version 5.5. or higher.
* Device/computer with a screen resolution of at least 1024 by 768.”

Should a potential investor not have this recommended software and hardware required , the other options available are to:

* Call the National Treasury at 012 31 55 888 for an application form
* Apply at the Post Office closer to you

etc etc

So Firefox 0.10.1 is not higher than IE 5.5? Maybe they’re right, it’s not higher, it’s on a different plane!

Earth (Arts and Literature)

Kim McClenaghan – Revisitings

I recently bought two poetry books, both written by recent graduates of the UCT Creative Writing MA. I studied creative writing in my second and third years at UCT as part of my BA – a course I enjoyed more and found more valuable than my IT studies. In spite of the intellectual snobbery that is directed towards arts and social sciences from the science and commerce worlds, I felt I learnt more in that course, and feel tremendously grateful for having the opportunity. Not too many have majors in both IT and Arts, and the combination has given me an important perspective on the strengths and failings of both disciplines.

Having read one of the books, Revisitings by Kim McClenaghan, I did some searching on the web, and found surprisingly little. So much of todays knowledge does not yet exist on the digital media. Books are written, sold to a small audience, and forgotten, doing a disservice to the content. Poetry doesn’t work for me online – it’s best read besides a stream, in a forest, as I did today, but there needs to be some sort of digital presence. So, doing my bit, I’ve added the author to Wikipedia. There was a slightly different version of one of Kim’s poems at Michael Cope’s Virtual Anthology – a great idea, but seemingly a once-off.

I enjoyed Kim’s his poetry – if the term romantic incorporates the cliche of pining after lost loves, it clearly applies to him, and not to me. I found the theme repetetive at times, but there were moments of inspiration, especially in the first few poems. In That Time “all poems are about endings,/words cease only in death”, he develops the idea of writer as being forced to write “we choose either/to write or die”. In Only Night “I write to live/or live to write of life”. Mentions of CP Cavafy, Guy Butler, Arthur Nortje and Douglas Livingstone betray his influences, and probably the influence of UCT MA course director and well-known poet Stephen Watson. A solid work, I look forward to reading the other, Personae by Sarah Johnson. Just to give myself some balance I’ve also recently bought two works by old masters – History is the Home Address by Mongane Wally Serote, one of my favourite South African poets, as well as Even the Dead by Jeremy Cronin.

Earth (Arts and Literature)

Visited Countries

Thanks to a link I discovered at Forest Blog, I’ve created a Visited Countries image. I’ve visited all of 4% of the world’s countries. And that includes a bus drive through France on my way from Holland to the UK. At least I excluded Brazil – Sao Paulo airport is not something I want to remember. These kind of things do encourage a list mentality of course. Been there, ticked it off, next please. I don’t even feel I’ve explored much of South Africa, or even Cape Town. There’s a whole world of discovery right outside your doorstep – how many of my neighbours names do I even know?

But back to the link – there are some interesting projects at (onetime?) Google employee Douwe Osinga’s site.

Fire (Social)

Banking and Open Source in South Africa

Now that I’m finally moved off the Windows2000 machine I’d been using at work (all of the developers have been using Linux a while, either Gentoo, Mandrake or Fedora, as have most of the editorial staff, so it was disgraceful that the IT Manager who got everyone to run on Open Source hasn’t been doing so himself!), and am running Mandrake on my laptop, it’s time to look at that ‘hall of shame’ I’ve been meaning to put together a while. How do South African banks shape up when it comes to Open Source.

Sadly, pretty badly.

The obvious 2 are the ‘online’ banks, 20Twenty and Icanonline. They offer better interest rates, lower charges – surely they would support open standards? I currently use Icanonline, and have been very happy, but plan to retire all Windows machines from my life. I’ll keep this discussion simple: do the sites work on Linux (or anything besides IE), and what interest rates do they pay with a R10 000 positive balance, and with a R100 000 positive balance (perhaps I’m being a tad optimistic here). Bank charges are another story altogether. I’d suggest looking at the Bankmonitor site for more on this.

Great interest rate of 6.05% for anything above R10 000, but the menus don’t work, making the site unusable. Interest of R50.41/R504.16 per month if you have a R10 000/R100 000 balance.

Not quite so good interest rate: 3% at R10 000, 6% at >R20 000. I’ve been assured by a Wired Warrior that the site works on Mozilla, but I can’t even complete the application form successfully (don’t oops me, I assure you that radio button was checked!). Interest works out to R25/R500 per month at R10 000/R100 000.

Works on Linux and a fairly wide variety of platforms. I was going to write ‘impressive tech’, but I’m feeling churlish today – just since most of the banks don’t do it, doesn’t mean it’s impressive. This should be standard! So FNB meet the minimum standards. However, dismal interest rate of 1.25% at R10 000, moving up to 4% at R100 000. That’s R10.41/R333.33 interest per month at R10 000/R100 000.

Standard Bank:
Dismal interest of 1.5% and 3.8%. Site doesn’t fill one with hope, talking only about IE 5 or higher, but menus seem to work with Mozilla, and I’ve heard the site does work. If anyone knows more, please let me know. R12.50 and R316.66 interest respectively.


It gets worse! Interest of 1% and 3.5%, and the site seems up the pole. I can’t find a page mentioning browser requirements, the site map has one page on it, and the interactive demo is a tiny window that I can’t click on. So I can only assume this site isn’t working on Linux. If the interest rates don’t chase you away, the tech will! You’d earn a whopping R8.33/R291.66. Don’t fool yourself that with bank charges you’ll come close to a profit!

1.2% and 3.8%. After Icanonline and 20Twenty I would have called this dismal, but it doesn’t seem so bad after the other misnamed ‘Big Four’. Can’t find specific information about the browsers, but the demo seems to work, although some of the rendering is a little off. Does anyone know more? R10/R316.66 interest earned.

So, what am I to do? Icanonline and 20Twenty both offer tempting packages, but the tech doesn’t work. Do I have to effectively pay hundreds of rands more (with bank charges) to be able to bank on Linux? These banks happily chase away the 1 in 25 people who can’t use their sites (based upon the September IOL figures, probably a good overview of general South African readership). Perhaps I should apply for a 20Twenty account on IE, and then test whether the actual banking works on Mozilla. How many customers would go to this much trouble 🙂 I’ll keep you posted.

Metal (Technical)

MySQL certification

A number of my staff are doing the MySQL certification. When I came up with the idea, I planned to do some training, but working 3 days a week doesn’t leave me much time to do anything besides sit in meetings anymore, so that hasn’t happened. But, I’m sure they’ll all do well in the Core exam. 2 wrote today and I know that at least Aubrey has passed – well done! I plan to do the test too, mainly because I’ve had quite a few offers to do training since writing my book, Mastering MySQL 4. Many students will want to certify, and I figure I should know what they’re up against.

A good warmup for the MySQL certification is the Brainbench MySQL test. It’s for MySQL 3, but many of the basics are the same. I’d imagine it’s tougher than the Core exam (as it covers administration topics as well), but perhaps easier than the Professional.

Earth (Arts and Literature)

Creative Commons Licence

I’ve decided to use a Creative Commons licence for my blog. Coincidentally, Tectonic has just published an article comparing the GNU GPL and the creative commons licenses. So as not to repeat everyone else, read the Creative Commons website on why to use a creative commons licence.

Fire (Social)

Media ethics in South Africa

Recently the great debate amongst South African media organisations has been on whether to show/link to the beheadings in Iraq.

It all began when SABC showed the video in their Xhosa news. The producer was suspended and the SABC fined. Later, Vincent Maher, a lecturer at Rhodes University, ran a poll amongst his final year journalism students to see whether websites should link to the video. 75% approved

The other main media companies, IOL, News 24, Sunday Times and Iafrica, all disapproved of linking, claiming variously that it would give publicity to the perpetrators, or is simply gratuitous and would not add to the reader’s understanding. The Mail and Guardian was the sole main exception, claiming that it brings home the horror, and is an active choice as opposed to the SABC TV example, where the video was foisted upon viewers.

In trying to formulate my own opinion, I first examined my behaviour. I saw the link in the Mail and Guardian article I referred to earlier, but chose not to view it. I know my reaction would be horror and disgust if I actually viewed it, and I choose not to. I can’t say for sure if my view of the invasion would become more sympathetic, as IOL’s Babs Abba Omar says of his ‘leftist’ friends but I doubt it. The militants are religious fanatics with a warped understanding of life, and the US occupation encourages their actions – an emotional reaction to the video will not change this opinion.

So, back to the main question, whether I support linking to the video. Firstly, what are the main consequences of viewing the video

  • publicity for the militants
  • shock for the viewers, and an emotional reaction.

How will people react? In a variety of ways. Will they change their views, and become more or less supportive of a particular view? I don’t think that should be a consideration, as determining whether to show something because of it may shift an audience position is simply censorship. Media does this all the time, and the idea of an objective reporter has long been challenged, but it’s at least something to strive for (just as free will is a tenuous concept, but things quickly fall apart if you don’t believe you have it – but that’s for another day). So then, why not link? That leaves two main reasons:

  • to protect readers from harm
  • to not support the actions of the murderers.

Protecting readers from harm is a difficult one, we take elements from the age old pornography debate, and it comes down to the unknown. The problem, another old one, is that of the individual versus the group. Many individuals can watch pornography and murderous videos without harm to themselves or their understanding. Some societies protect children from pornography because they believe children are influenced by what they see, and without a well-developed understanding they will be influenced to imitate the behaviour. Since children learn to a large degree from imitation, I believe this is true. I also believe adults do the same, and many ‘adults’ are not able to understand or control their reactions. Watching a violent video, they may feel anger, and lash out with this anger, just as many in the US did at innocent people they associated with the killers after the World Trade Centre attacks.

I have less faith in people these days, at the same time as I have more. Human development is about awareness, growth, understanding ourselves. Many are at differing levels, and a rough seperation of adult/child puts many on the wrong side (some children are of course more developed in ways than some adults). As does no line at all – linking to the video allows many who aren’t ready to view it. Not linking disallows many who are ready from viewing it. And of course, putting myself in the latter camp, I would be annoyed at not being able to should I wish to. I’m trying to extend this beyond the video example, which I won’t view, to perhaps something like pornography, which I may view, but the principle is similar.

Hoever, the consequences to someone ready, but not able to view the video, are less than those to someone not ready but able to view the video.

So does that mean I support not linking to it, and in fact not linking to pornography either? And I haven’t even got to supporting the murderers, which doesn’t apply to the consenting pornographers.

I’m not entirely comfortable with that, and this exercise is reminding me of the pitfalls of this sort of philosophical thinking. The rational mind is only way of understanding, and it has serious limitations. It can convincingly and coherently argue on behalf of most viewpoints. I can quite easily separate the porn and beheading example by looking at the plus side of viewing porn – sexual exploration, overcoming unhealthy attitudes to sex passed on from parents or a repressive society. With the experience I’ve had of living in South Africa, moving from a highly repressive society to a much more open one, I saw how pornographic magazine sales shot up after they were legalised (horny people seeing what they had missed out on, the forbidden fruit) and have since collapsed again as people got bored (though some may blame the Internet). This is healthy to my mind. Most people have an ‘adult’ attitude to pornography – they choose whether to view it or not, and this is healthier than the sexual repression that came before. But I’m sure too it does some harm. So the choice there is between levels of harm. Let’s leave it at that, I’m not writing a book!

The video is a different example, as the benefits of viewing are much less obvious to me. The Mail and Guardian’s “bringing home the horror” doesn’t wash. So there are less, if any benefits, and some (I’m not going to delve into whether it’s more or less) harm to viewing.

So, without even needing to explore the question of whether the video supports the actions of the murderers (which simply adds to the harm side of the equation), I seem to be on the side of not viewing the video. As a further difference with pornography example, pornography is barred to children (a decision that makes sense with my harm argument, as children are, or at least should be in theory, more susceptible to the harm caused by a limited understanding). The Mail and Guardian links to the video without any attempt to bar it from children (would they do the same with a link to a hardcore porn site if they found it newsworthy? Surely not if they’re consistent).

So a rational investigation can bring up a fairly coherent viewpoint. But as I said earlir it’s easy to rationally support differing views, and these will mostly be based upon a highlighting of different facts. Rationality works well in a limited scientific environment, where an experiment is tightly controlled, leading to limited empirical evidence, which allows a simpler conclusion. The video question relies on all sorts of other facts, most of which we don’t know. How much harm is caused? Very difficult to settle that one. So, other factors help us decide. I’ll call them emotional and spiritual intelligence.

Not claiming much of them myselves, I find it difficult to bring them in on a global scale. It may be easy to decide whether to show the video to someone I know well, or a limited group I know well, and can draw upon these two other sorts of intelligence to make a better decision (will my child be able to view pornography when he is 18 without harm? I hope so. Can he now, at age 1 – probably, as he’s too young. Will I let him see pornography at age six? Probably not. Those decisions to me seem relatively easy, but to make a decision like this for the entire Internet community requires a level of spiritual intelligence I don’t have.

So, coming down to it, I don’t know. Always an honest answer. If I was to make the decision I would choose not to link directly to the video, based upon my earlier evaluation of harm caused. But, perhaps after some more years of developing my awareness, I may come up with a better answer. If you believe in a form of global consciousness, then the fact that we have the technology means we are ready (or better damn well learn fast). As the Mail and Guardian argues, the link is out there already.

But the argument forks into other arguments, the allure of this sort of thinking. Let’s leave it for another day.

Some links to further discussions, looking more at the media angle than my rambling investigation:

Water (Personal)

Touching the Void

Just come back from watching Touching the Void (also available as a book. It’s a superb film, leaving me exhilirated to be alive. The trailer hadn’t appealed to me, but a friend had told me the whole story in great detail over lunch. She recommended I see it anyhow, and I’m very glad I did. Today of all days, it was good to put things in perspective with a film like this. The human mind is capable of wonderful things, as I know from my practice of tai chi. Observe it all around – circus performers, athletes, scholars – anyone at the peak of their humanity is capable of extending this tapestry of life that much further. Joe did the impossible, hauling his body through unimaginable agony and extremes to survive, in part because of his stubborness and his technique of breaking down the impossible large task into small steps. While the whole seemed impossible, by aiming at a single rock, giving himself 20 minutes to get there, he achieved it.

Although brought up Catholic, Joe had lost his belief, but there were interesting snippets of an awareness of something greater – a voice commanding him to move, the presence of Simon behind him. Similar to the trance awareness of different parts of the mind, the awareness separate from the doer, Joe’s awareness was separate from the voice commanding him, another part of himself. I see an individual as a continuous part of a whole (If you had to pin me down, I’d describe myself as Taoist), our conscious mind providing a limited level of awareness. More developed individuals are more conscious of what is beyond the individual, more empathetic and likely to act when others suffer, or when the system itself is suffering. At the same time, in extremes the consciousness is reduced, as it can get in the way of other forms of awareness. So people in a trance state can have revelations that were drowned out in the everyday conscious chatter. But to get to the point, to me the question whether that voice is part of Joe or not isn’t relevant, as we are all part of Joe. At that point it was separate to the watching mind, but then so are all of our thoughts if we actually had to watch.

Metal (Technical)

Happy birthday Perl

Perl turned 10 on the 17th of October. I’ve still got a fondness for the language even though I haven’t programmed in it for years. An internet course I developed around 1998 had Perl as the core, and I had great fun teaching it to people who’d either never programmed, or had limited programming experience. Quite scary how little I knew at the time, but they say the best way to learn is to teach, and I’m glad to say some of them are now much closer to Perl-guruhood than me. One particular student used to mail me often with Perl problems. At first I could help him with a quick glance at the code. But sure enough to me his queries soon came to resemble an unreadable mystery, and he was on his own.

Freshmeat has an article discussing Perl 6, written by Shlomi Fish. I tend agree with the consensus amongst the responses though, especially that of Schwern.

Fire (Social)

Why blog

I’ve been thinking, as many new bloggers seem to, about why people blog, as I mentioned briefly yesterday. I haven’t got around to formulating my own views (perhaps I don’t have one), instead I’ve been reading some others. Most discussions aren’t very satisfying, but here’re a few that are:

  • Riba Rambles:`MORE Musings of a Mental Magpie
  • Jennifer’s weblog, which turns into a discussion on blogs versus wikis

    Another reason for me is to keep in shape. I used to write a lot, from late evening to sunrise, long manic ecstatic sessions exploring all sorts of aspects of myself. Since I have a child and an ‘ordinary’ job, that’s been difficult, though just how ordinary is a 3-day working week, and a 4-day weekend?. The 4-day weekend started about a month ago, so it’s time for new things, and reconnecting with old.