Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Heads & Tails (1.2)

Facebook has now embraced the Tor network







HUMAN LIFE is full of ironies. A friend of mine, who lives in Europe, is terrified of identity theft and religiously shreds his snail mail and deletes his email. Another friend, this time in the states, is angry at his government's Big Brother approach to citizen management. He's especially upset by the NSA's mass-monitoring of electronic communications. But of course it's a world-wide phenomenon: under the umbrella of 'anti-terrorism', governments everywhere have been inventing ways to spy on people, and been trying to control what a person can or can't do on the once-freer Internet. As an unexpected result, we are being collectively taught to think like activists and hackers.

Now private networks and the murky dark corners of the web are beginning to appeal to us all -- those of us with dark hearts and also those of us who breathe in the light.

The TOR network is not new (it already has around 2.5 million daily users) but it has been gaining popularity for a while, especially because of governmental attention paid to wikileaks, sharing sites, and the emerging acceptance of bitcoin. This morning TOR became famous (or infamous) because of the news that Facebook has embraced it.

TOR is an anonymising platform, one designed to protect you whenever you go online. Your name and details can be hidden, as well as your address and location. By address I mean not only where in the world you are, but also the mac address of your machine.

The accommodation by Facebook would seem at first to be odd, since surely the whole purpose of using social media is to be social; but there is of course a difference between social and sociable.

If you're interested in trying out the TOR browser, I suggest you download and install a complete OS that sets it all up for you: Tails. [This is why this article is named Heads and Tails (1.2); Heads is Facebook and Tails is... duh...]

Tails and the new Facebook portal work fine together. Tails is a live OS: it's designed to run from a flash drive and when you go offline it removes all traces of your online activity. Tails can be found here.


Monday, October 27, 2014

The story of Samson is a tragic one



All literature deals with the joy and the terror of what it is to be human. Joy, for example, means happiness, love, success, belonging, a sunny day, and so on; Terror is about the darkness without and within, isolation, fear, rejection, failure... Classically, joy and terror are represented by the two dramatic masks of Comedy and Tragedy.




The plots of both classical forms are characterised by a reversal of fortune: in Comedy, from low to high (the character's fortunes improve); in Tragedy, from high to low (the character's fortunes fall). But these transformations are not simply the result of pure luck. Always, the character's actions contribute to the rising or falling movement. So, for example, in Twelfth Night, Viola, through her ingenuity, charm, and skill goes from destitution to riches, getting married in the process (the play actually ends with three marriages); in the story of Macbeth, the great man of Scotland suffers a calamitous downfall through his own 'vaulting ambition'.

Following these models we can view the biblical story of Samson as a tragedy. Samson is favoured by God even before he is born, with his mother receiving instructions about him directly from an angel. He is endowed with great strength and becomes successful from an early age. All he has to do is to obey God's instruction that he lives as a nazir, that is to never cut his hair, avoid strong drink, and presumably also avoid corpses. In the biblical story he has his hair cut off, eats honey from the corpse of a dead lion, and (presumably) drinks wine during his marriage feast. But these things happen primarily through his own weakness, which happens to be a predilection for foreign women. He just can't resist their looks. It's ironic therefore that once he falls, the first thing the Philistines do is gouge out his eyes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Samson Comics




 Since I was a boy I've collected comics: I'm interested in the art of course, but also the form and the fact that they are a great way of telling stories. Recently I had an opportunity to talk about the biblical story of Samson and remembered that I had a couple of comic versions.

One of the versions is from a complete volume of the Old Testament in comic form. It dates from the late 1940s and was given to me by my parents when I was around ten years old. I always loved reading that book and learned the stories thoroughly by reading it.

The other version I used in my talk is a more recent version (you can tell from the way the panels are used that it's more recent) and it naturally gives its own spin on the Samson story.


Both are recommended. Because...











...it's still a strong story (pun intended).


Essentially, it still entices because its twin themes of violence and sex always appeal to human societies. And the subplot of Samson and Delilah is just as famous as that of Romeo and Juliet.




The full scans of both Samson comics are here and here.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Peppermint 5: I'm disappointed

I was an early adopter of Peppermint OS, and a big fan. This was in the days when Peppermint was not numbered, but known as Ice, and other innovative browsers like Flock were recognising that the mushrooming of social media sites and the emergence of cloud computing were going to take us all into regions that we hadn't even thought of. Ice had a small footprint, the Ice app, cloud-centric design, and was fast -- even on under-powered machines. I loved it. I loved One, Two, and Three as well. But then came Peppermint Four and Peppermint Four was ultimately too finicky and frustrating for me to use. I I always seemed to have problems with panels and the Chromium browser the OS was built on. Well, I was triple-booting as usual, so I just stuck to Mint and whatever else I was running as an alternative. I was sad to lose Peppermint but content. Yet I wanted Peppermint to do well.




Recently Peppermint Five was released, to some acclaim. Most reviewers wrote as if Peppermint Five was a new OS, not a revamped one, and I was encouraged enough to download the ISO and run it. The live CD worked well and so I installed it...

But for me the same problems are there. Compared to Mint and elementary Freya (my current first choices) Peppermint 5 is sluggish, crash-prone, unreliable and user unfriendly. It doesn't help that Mint (Cinnamon) and elementary Freya look better too.

I'm very disappointed, especially since I believe the real mobile revolution is not in hardware but a move away from desktops to browsers (as in Google's Chromebooks) and Peppermint could be a real leader here.

One final word. On Mint and Freya I use Mozilla's Firefox, and with the power of its add-ons, these have become very browser-centric for me and easy to sync with my android phones. Perhaps Peppermint could try using Mozilla again?


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Vehicles and Students: an analogy

[source: Times of Swaziland]
I live in the beautiful Pine Valley, just where the main road begins to sharply snake its way up the side of a mountain on its way into Mbabane.

At least twice a week, vehicles break down outside my gate; four of five times, vehicles have rolled backwards down the road and crashed through my fence; and everyday, decrepit or even glamorous-looking vehicles find the climb so tough that they either stop on the hill or move so slowly that there's a tailback behind them sometimes as far down as my house.

Whilst thinking about the traffic on this road, I realised that it provides a simplistic but useful analogy to different types of students:

the breakdowns

Vehicles break down because they are poorly-maintained or run out of petrol; in other words, the root cause is usually negligence. Negligent students are those who are seldom prepared for their lessons, who don't have complete notes, who don't follow-up by doing homework and don't learn from past mistakes. Their progress breaks down almost before it starts.

the fallbacks

The vehicles that go backwards down the hill do so because they are overburdened or develop faults or because they are being pushed too hard. These are students who have achieved some measure of success, but, for one reason or another, fail to sustain that success and build on it.

the strugglers

Most vehicles look roadworthy when the road is flat and easy, but when the road gets tough some struggle to make it up the hill. Likewise, some students start well but struggle as soon as the work piles up or the material becomes challenging.

the finishers

These are the vehicles that complete the journey, that can handle the easy and the tough, that are prepared for the road ahead. They are maintained and full of fuel. Students who are up-to-date with their work, willing to learn and creative will usually succeed.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Reed Dancing


I was sitting at home this week watching the kombies and open-backed lorries go past, cram-full of excited singing girls on their way to umhlanga, and thinking, ‘Yes, it’s that time again.’
 
Tomorrow the public and plenty of tourists will be watching these girls, along with thousands of others, dance and dance and dance until the excitement is in everybody’s heads and streaming from the skins of perspiration into the air. There will be noise and glamour and all the thrill of a big day long-awaited. But that will not be the main event. The main event is today, when the reeds are delivered to the Queen mother’s kraal.
 
One of the earliest cosmological narratives collected from this part of the world is that of God creating people from reeds. In this story, the world was already formed but without people and so God went down to the river’s edge and created humans from the tall reeds that were growing there. It is Southern Africa’s parallel to the Genesis account of people being made from clay.
 
The story is remembered in the clan praise-title, Wena Weluhlanga, ‘You (people) of the reed’, and this is the true significance of Umhlanga, the Reed Dance. The week’s events are in fact a celebration of our common beginning and continued existence, a modern echo of an ancient story. When the tribes began to settle down in this region and build more or less permanent homesteads and collect cattle, the defining technology was in the creative use of reeds and grass for building and thatching. That is still a defining technology in the rural areas because cattle and their kraals are still central to Swaziland’s homesteads and culture (think, for example, of the old Tinkhundla elections, when candidates sat in front of kraals and voters went inside those kraals to be counted). Reeds therefore are one of our central focusing images.
 
The dancing, then, is not what the event is really all about, although it is the flashing breasts and plumping buttocks—framed in the vibrancy of blue and overwhelming red—that attract the eyes and the cameras of visitors.
 
Yet the dancing is not without significance, for dancing is a sign of vibrant life: if you look at a bed of reeds moving in the wind you can imagine them dancing, and that’s an apt image for life itself. The reeds are animated, alive because they have movement. Death, after all, is supremely a stillness. Life can be seen therefore as a kind of dance: sometimes a noisy, crazy, careering one, but still a dance.
 
There are, I know, many critics of this annual national event, who either believe the Dance belongs too firmly in the past to make sense in the present or else squirm uneasily to see so much young flesh shaking and quivering in public view. But the Dance—precisely because it has links to the creation myth—is one of the bedrocks of what it means to be Swazi and southern African. In an era when so many trumpet the call of being unique and presenting an authentic voice within our global village, it is only Umhlanga and iNcwala (and really not so much else) that provide the links and foundations for national and individual identity. It is when the nation’s origins and persuasions are on display. Today and tomorrow then, it is not only the girls but also the whole nation that will be dancing. By watching the swaying, jostling, singing girls at Umhlanga and imagining them as that amazing thing, a bed of living reeds, we can deepen our understanding, and perhaps regain something of the wonder of life itself.

© Kenneth Rowley 2014 (originally published Saturday, September 02, 2006)