Monday, May 31, 2010

Enigmatic, yet stunningly beautiful South Africa

A good friend of mine in South Africa sent me one of those items that get forwarded ad nauseam to all and sundry. Normally, I don't go for that sort of thing (with the exception of one or two people who know the difference between good and bad material), but this one was interesting. Why? Well, two audiences here, two different reasons:

South African audience: You've probably seen this many times. If not, read and enjoy - it needs no further explanation.

Everybody else: This is a somewhat pithy, trenchant view of the current state of affairs in S.A. I'm publishing this on the eve of the World Cup because, while S.A. is about to demonstrate what a wonderful country it is (and, yes, it really is, despite the reality!), I think it's important to understand the deeper, underlying problems there.

But, before my fellow U.S. denizens start gloating, please bear in mind the issues that we are currently struggling with - I need not point them out, just have yourself a bit of a think. Please also note the commonality of some of the observations below, particularly #7, #13 and #20!

Comments in [square brackets] are mine. So, without further ado:
South Africa is a great country because…

1. You can eat half-dried meat and not be considered disgusting. [This is a reference to biltong, a.k.a. jerky.]

2. Nothing is your fault; you can blame it all on apartheid. [U.S.: Substitute "segregation," or even "Bush," "Clinton," "Democrats," "Republicans," or your latest scapegoat!]

3. You get to buy a new car every 3 months and the insurance company even pays for it.

4. You can experience pathetic service in eleven official languages.

5. Where else can you get oranges with 45% alcohol content at rugby matches? [This one eludes me; guess I've been living the U.S. for too long. Can any Suid-Afrikaner help? Update June 5: See first comment by Anonymous (wink wink!) below; makes sense to me.]

6. It's the only country in the world where striking workers show how angry they are by dancing.

7. You're considered clumsy if you cannot: use a cell phone (without car kit), change CDs, drink a beer, put on make-up, read the newspaper and smoke, all at the same time while driving a car at 160 kph in a 60 kph zone. [i.e. ≈100 mph in a ≈35 mph zone.] 

8. Great accent. (!!!) [Uh-huh.]

9. If you live in Johannesburg , you get to brag about living in the most dangerous city in the world. [Well, I dunno about that...]

10. Burglar bars become a feature, and a great selling point for your house.

11. You can decorate your garden walls with barbed wire.

12. The tow-trucks are the first on the scene for most major crimes, without being called. The police you have to call about three times.

13. Votes have to be recounted until the right party wins.

14. Illegal immigrants leave the country because the crime rate is too high. [Now there's a novel solution to the U.S. immigration problem!]

15. The police ask you if they must follow up on the burglary you've just reported.

16. A murderer gets a 6 month sentence and a pirate TV viewer 2 years. [There are U.S. analogies here.]

17. The prisoners strike and get to vote in elections!

18. The police stations have panic buttons to call armed response when they are burgled.

19. Police cars are fitted with immobilizers and gear locks!

20. Condoms for free - shopping plastic bags for sale.

Ja nee!! Dis lekker hier!! ["Yes no!! It's nice here!!" Please do not ask me what "yes no" means, it's just not translatable!]
And, if you would like to see a somewhat unvarnished set of pictures of Johannesburg, click on the title of this post to visit one of my favorite sites.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bill Maher is hysterical

Bill Maher has to be one of the most perspicacious and witty commentators out there. He is noted for his recent movie Religulous and has a weekly hour-long talk show on HBO called Real Time with Bill Maher. You are most certainly not going to agree with all of his somewhat extreme views (I know I don't), but he most definitely will make you think.

For those of you not familiar with his work, his website is definitely worth a look; I have also added this link to my "favorites" list on the right. Check him out!

Bill Maher funny of the week: With all the recent criticism of the way Barack is handling the Gulf oil spill, seems that George W. called Obama and said, "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie"!

Two gay-related items

Shh... Don't Ask, Don't Tell
Did you know that the U.S. is the only defense force in the Western world with a policy, dubbed DADT, that bans gay people? [Yeah, right. No gay folks there, I'm sure...!] Now that Obama has been given permission (!) to repeal this ban, one has to wonder why right-wing Republicans in congress are resisting - after all, 80% of the country wants the repeal, including most conservative voters out there. What's up with that? Talk about self-destruction; I guess they are just clueless. Well, OK, we already knew that.

Yes, there has been a generational change with regard to the acceptance and inclusion of gays in society. For young people, who sleeps with whom is simply something they don't sweat. And that's how it should be. As someone said, "These days, being gay is about as significant as being left-handed."

I'm left-handed.

Blood donation
Another hopeful sign of the times: The U.S. is finally considering repeal of the ban on gay people donating blood. This policy has been in place ever since the scary days of HIV in the early '80s. And, of course, it's always been a ridiculous policy. There is a tremendous shortage of blood in the U.S. There are simple tests these days that can screen blood for HIV. The virus is not restricted to gays - in fact, the rate of infection among straight people and those who use infected needles to satisfy their drug habit is way higher than the rate among gay men. It is especially a problem for women because of sheer denial as well as lack of education on the topic. It would seem prudent, even with the gay ban in place, to test blood for HIV as a matter of routine.

So. Here's the trade-off, bearing the shortage in mind: Do not test blood for HIV, and deprive ourselves of donations by 10% of the population (10% being the generally accepted estimate of the gay portion). Or test all blood and increase the supply by 10%. What would you do? It truly is a no-brainer.

On a related note, the U.S. also bans blood donations from people who come from or have visited sub-Saharan Africa.

I'm South African.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Can you solve this puppy?

PreviewThere is no solution. It's a recruiting ad for Rovi Corporation, and it appeared on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) trains early this year. It drove many commuters nuts, and led to some interesting discussions on the web. Try Googling the equation itself, and you will see what I mean.

But it certainly says something about the population here. Where else would an unsolvable equation generate such curiosity?

It's not the first time we've seen something like this. In fact, Google themselves used a similar technique some time ago, posing math problems on billboards that led to websites with more math problems, eventually leading to an invitation from Google to send them one's CV. [Note to U.S. readers: I'm using 'CV' until I can figure out how to properly render the word 'resume' with its diacritics! For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it means Curriculum Vitae, Latin for, well, 'resume'!]

P.S.  I did it! I used yet another fancy-schmancy workaround. How does it look? résumé Cool, huh? [If you don't get the reference to workaround, look here.]

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A quick one

I've decided to stop moderating comments, because I understand it's frustrating to have to wait for my approval. So, for now, your comments will post immediately.

If I get hassled by spambots again, I will start using Captchas. Also irritating, I know, but at least that's a pretty good guarantee that the comment is not being dropped by a bot. I don't need Viagra, and I also doubt that my friends do!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Spelling and formatting

When I dropped the post below, I noticed a coupla things that are worth mentioning. This information should be easily available to my audience at any time. To that end, I've added a page with the same title as this post - see the "Bafflegab" page.


"New and improved." How many times have we heard that one in commercials? Think about it - that's an either/or proposition, most certainly not an "and" one!

Here's a fun pastime ... instead of actually listening to and naïvely believing the ad copy, try discerning where and how the marketers are trying to mislead you. Not only does this take your mind off the BS that they're selling, it fosters a healthy cynicism of the product in question. Some examples, most of which will be familiar to my U.S. readers:

Everyday "problems." That toilet paper (oops, toilet tissue) ad where the bear runs around with odd bits of TP stuck to his bum. I dunno about you, but that's certainly not a problem I've encountered in my day-to-day life!

Covering their ass. Speaking of rear ends, notice how marketers always adhere to the old CYA principle? A good example is that of bleach that promises to get rid of almost (sotto voce) 100% of germs. The before picture under the magnifying glass shows a host of cooties, and the after picture shows none ... well, not quite. Take a close look at the bottom right of the magnification, near the distracting text: There is a teensy-tiny speck of germ (singular) sitting there! Always mislead, never lie.

Appeasing those easily offended. This is usually prevalent in feminine hygiene ads, most often when there is a need to depict bodily fluids. While I know that Queen Elizabeth may have blue blood, I really don't think that is typical of most of the female population!

Always read the fine print. If you can. There is a maxim here: The smaller the text, the bigger the lie (oops, exaggeration). A corollary to this is that the faster the text scrolls by, the more you truly know that the advertiser is not to be trusted. And when it's more like an essay than a telegram, well ... caveat emptor, fersure! A good way to check this out is judicious use of the "freeze" button on your remote, but ya gotta be quick on the draw - they don't make it easy. I remember when two of the largest mobile phone service providers in the U.S. were pissing on each other, trying to convince us that one of them had better data coverage. On the surface, it was an apples-to-apples comparison, but the fine print told us that there was an orange or two involved...!

They're always "up to" something. This one is most prevalent these days in mobile phone ads. The service providers promise speeds "up to 32 Mbps" or "up to 4G." Well, of course they do. Never mind that they will probably never reach anything near the promised speed - the "up to" bit always covers their butts (no doubt with scraps of toilet paper!). Which reminds me:

Kiss my asterisk. This is the print equivalent of the scrolling disclaimer on TV. Same rules apply - quantity and size are the best measures of DoD*. It's also fun to observe just how many different superscript symbols they can dig up. Asterisk, double asterisk, dagger, double dagger, degree sign, caret, at sign, percent, ampersand and on and on.

* Degree of Deception (no, it's not Desirability of Dick, nor Department of Defense!).

As always, comments welcome - tell me what peeves you, along with other fun ways to play this game.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Google - how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

Anyone who knows me well knows how I feel about Google. I have been a Googler since the company's early days, and have always been impressed with the simplicity, transparency and clarity of their vision.

Sure, it's easy to carp about some things they have done but, let's face it, for a company that size, there have been remarkably few bad incidents. And, let's face it, it's the nature of the human beast - we are always quick to complain, and slow to compliment. So let me have a go at the latter.

When images, sound and all the other computing-intensive geegaws came into fashion in the '90s, people were quick to notice the spartan nature of the Google search engine interface, and predicted that this would make the company unpopular, that no-one would want to look at that almost-blank, huge, white screen. But, as time went by, I think people came to realize that substance always trumps image. And that's what Google is all about, in spades: substance.

Beyond their brilliant search engine, look at some of their recent forays into their comfort space of cloud computing:

Gmail: This quickly became one of the most popular email services on the web. Why? Well, they maintained their concept of easy-to-use, solid software. They introduced two innovations (labels vs folders, and grouping message threads into "conversations"), which, I believe, really helped propel the service to its current high degree of acceptance. I was reminded of their quality early this morning when, for the first time in many years of using Gmail, my account was compromised by a spambot, which attempted to use my contact list to spread a series of emails containing nothing but a link to a Russian chat site. Within seconds, Gmail sensed what was happening, and suspended my account. When I logged in this morning, I was presented with this fact. Fearing that I was about to descend into the fiery pit of customer-service hell, I was instead pleasantly surprised. Restoration of my account was achieved in less than a minute, and involved them sending me a validation code to my phone via text, which I then keyed in, and was then asked to change my password. Bingo, done. Safe, secure, simple. Why can't it ALWAYS be like that?

Chrome: Their answer to Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari, Chrome has revolutionized the world of browsers. It's a modern system, written with one overriding design factor: safety. While avoiding getting too technical, happy users of Chrome will know that, on those occasions when a rogue website tries to cause havoc on your machine, all that happens is that the tab containing the bad site closes. That's it. Life goes on. Fabulous. (Google accomplishes this by holding each tab in its own protected space in memory -- again, I'm oversimplifying by trying to avoid getting too technical.) The Chrome interface, some would say, is spartan. I think that's a good thing. It's an amazingly easy browser to use, and requires almost no learning curve. Try it - you will like it, I promise.

Google Docs: With the goal of making just about any file format accessible to the masses, Google is now in the enviable position of being able to offer its users the ability to (at least) read just about any document and, (at most) enjoy the full underlying functionality of each format. Many users of their search engine, Gmail, and Chrome don't even realize the amount of work Google has put into this. They just get to happily take for granted that stuff will work. Gee, what a concept!

The list goes on. I have only scratched the proverbial surface of what this fascinating company does. I just hope they can successfully ride the new wave of cloud computing well into the future. (I tell ya, Microsoft must be quaking in their boots, since they are still very much mired in the old world of client-side computing. As valiant as their recent efforts are to move forward - witness Bing - I think that it will take a major culture shift for that company to become, and remain, a viable competitor to the likes of Google.)

As always, your views are welcome - I especially enjoy dissent, so please feel free to argue with me!

Meantime, you go, Google!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Captcha? What's that?

Captchas - just what are they? The coinage is slowly moving into the mainstream, but there are a number of people who do not know what they are or understand how they work. I mentioned using them in the post below, so it's worth spending a brief moment on this topic...

The intent of a Captcha is to prevent automated systems from scouring the web, scraping up information as they go, or posting spam en masse. The idea is that, if human intervention can be imposed, we can slow down the vile intents of these systems.

But first, a brief word about the word itself. Strictly speaking, it should be rendered in all caps, because it supposedly is a backronym for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. Personally, I find the all-cap rendering ugly, so I've resorted to initial-capping it.

Computers are not very good at interpreting images. A Captcha is an image of (usually) a series of letters and/or numbers, which then have to be interpreted by human eyes, and re-keyed manually. Current technology is not at the point where machines can process these efficiently.

Needless to say, there are attempts to overcome this situation, but typically this still involves humans - essentially, it's done by paying a token sum to individuals (often in third-world countries) to interpret the images. This move is only partially successful because, no matter how low the pay is (typically about US$0.001 each), it still becomes an intolerably large amount for spammers.

Typically, a Captcha is a series of characters which are "warped" to the point of still being able to be interpreted by human eyes, but not by image scanning software. Techniques involve the use of color, skewing the image, or superimposing lines over it. There are a few variations on this theme, one being the use of pictures which then need to be identified (e.g. a picture of a camera, or an apple). A fascinating new one is the "Recaptcha", which deserves more explanation.

You may be aware that companies like Google have embarked on massive projects which involve the scanning of text and automatically converting it to computer characters, using optical character recognition (OCR). Much of this is the interpretation of old books, where the text is not always clear. As I said above, computers have trouble with this. So, why not use the legions of users out there who are asked to enter Captchas, and get them to assist with the interpretation of the unreadable stuff? Enter the Recaptcha (well, OK, officially reCAPTCHA!). You are probably familiar with seeing not one, but two words that must be interpreted, like so:
The words are presented in random order. One of these words is already known by the requesting machine; the other one is not. The first one is used to perform the original purpose of the Captcha, while the second one is the unknown word. (It's often possible to guess which is which, based purely on the relative quality of each.) Your answer then gets sent back to Google, or wherever, and, when there is enough consensus that a word is what we say it is, then it is assumed to be correct and is inserted into the text where the mystery blob originally appeared. Clever, huh?

Click these Wikipedia links to learn more about Captchas and Recaptchas. Tell me what YOU think about this idea, as well as the use of Captchas in general.

Blog reconstructed

I've revamped the "look 'n feel" of my blog, and think I prefer it. But, as is my wont, I still have one or two doubts. Main thing is the template; while I like what I've done here, I also like a format with a totally black background, something like the one here. Dark and broody, it matches my personality.

Other comments and suggestions are welcome. So hit the comments link below, and have at it! (Sadly, I have decided to moderate my comments, because our spammy friends are posting all sorts of crud. I will check in at least twice daily, so your comments will be posted pretty quickly. If this doesn't work, I will un-moderate and use 'captchas' instead.)


Saturday, May 22, 2010

And once more from the top!

Here we go: My regular once-every-three-years (do they have a word for that? triennial? tri-annual? who knows) update to my blog! Each time I do this, I promise threaten to maintain it regularly ... problem is, what to say?

It's an eternal dilemma, because clearly it must be interesting and preferably amusing, if not outright funny (funny ha-ha, not funny peculiar!). Truth be told, my life over the past year or so has not been much fun, and who wants to bring my audience down? Not I. So, for now, rest assured that I really do believe that I will update this a tad more regularly, preferably in an upbeat fashion.

The world is a mess, my life is a mess. And it seems that the problems, at least those of the world, are becoming more intractable as time goes by. The global economy, the global environment, global wars, just global nastiness in general -- notice a theme there?

So, no more downers. At least not for today. I will give this blog some thought, and when I figure out a good way to progress with this slice of my life, I will. Meantime, sterkte (ask me for a translation if you didn't get that)! Any and all comments are welcome ... you know where the button is. Click it.