Friday, June 12, 2015

Microsoft Removes Google Search from Internet Explorer - Fixed

Last week I screwed up my Windows configuration on my laptop so badly I had to do a factory reset and reinstall everything from scratch. You'd think I would learn. Thanks very much to Steve Walker from SOS Support Operating Systems for rescuing all the critical data from my hard drive and saving me from losing over a week's worth of data that I hadn't backed up recently.
One thing I learnt in the process of doing the restore is that Microsoft no longer offers a Search add-in for Google. Only Bing and Yahoo search. I called their support line and had a weirdly bizzare conversation with someone who told me that if I want to use Google's search I need to install Google Chrome. Seriously?
Now I understand what the "99% Blocked" icon is all about: Microsoft blocks you from using the search tool that 99% of its users want to use. Anti-trust, anyone?
Update Saturday 20th June 2015: Thanks to Steven Quick for pointing out that the Google Search add-in is back. Thank goodness.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

SARS: We steal for Zuma

A few years ago, before Jacob Zuma became President Zuma, Julius Malema headed the ANC Youth League and famously said that the ANCYL would "Kill for Zuma" if necessary. Now have a President Zuma with a "fire pool" at his residential palace in Nkandla, built largely with taxpayer's money and other more dubious sources.
I am one of those taxpayers, and on Wednesday I was subjected to a what I can only describe as theft: an official from the South African Revenue Service took it upon herself to snoop around in my bank account, check the balance, and deduct the money she found there. No warning, no explanation, no due process. On the 9th March my balance was R3,167.75; on 10th March she issued an order to deduct R3,100 from my account. Nice of her to leave me R67 for the rest of the month. Quite generous, really.
In the meantime there were other transactions in the account, so the balance after her little "breaking and entering" stunt was R350 in arrears. Good job I have a R500 overdraft or the transaction would have bounced and I would have been hit with some outrageous bank fees. Of course the FNB doesn't have any security mechanisms in place to warn me that someone from SARS was looking at my balance to see what she could take, but they did tell me once the money was gone. Nice one, FNB. You do a great job of facilitating criminal activity, much like HSBC, another wunch of bankers.

It turns out there is a nasty little program in the SARS computers somewhere that can spit out notices like the one shown above, issued (but not signed) on behalf of the Commissioner. And of course computers never make mistakes, and the information input on the system is flawless in all respects. Never mind that the Tax Administration Act of 2011 never contemplated that such notices would not be issued by a human being, let alone not checked by one before signing it. It is quite specific that it should be an official:
179 (1) A senior SARS official may by notice to a person who holds or owes or will hold or owe any money, including a pension, salary, wage or other remuneration, for or to a taxpayer, require the person to pay the money to SARS in satisfaction of the taxpayer's outstanding tax debt.
This becomes important for the next paragraph, which states
179 (2) A person that is unable to comply with a requirement of the notice, must advise the senior SARS official of the reasons for the inability to comply within the period specified in the notice and the official may withdraw or amend the notice as is appropriate under the circumstances.
As an exercise in pointlessness I called the SARS number 0800 00 7277 and asked for the name of the official who issued my particular notice, and predictably I was told that it was issued by a computer and I should go to my nearest SARS office. That's the standard response by a call centre operator when they don't know what to do and won't put me through to a supervisor.
Not only was the notice not issued correctly, it was not sent to me either. I am told it was posted to me by regular mail during the middle of the Post Office strike, but so far no proof has been provided. Since I was told by the person who took the money, I am somewhat sceptical. Especially when that person claimed to have called me on Wednesday 25th February and left a message. Funny that, because there is no missed call on my phone, and no voicemail either. Not even a message telling me there was voice mail.
A bit of background: this is not the first time the "Collections" department of SARS has supposedly sent me a final demand. This is probably the third one, all relating to the 2003, 2004 and 2005 tax years, for which I should have been awarded amnesty 8 years ago when I applied for it under the relevant legislation. This legislation was designed to "regularize" the affairs of anyone running a small business who was not properly up-to-date with their tax affairs or who had never submitted a tax return.
It really isn't a complicated matter, but somehow during those eight years SARS has managed to:
  • Lose the application entirely;
  • Fail to notify me when the application had been processed (I found out indirectly by accident);
  • Ignore my objection letter to some of their original findings;
  • Repeatedly call me for the money even though I kept having to explain that the Amnesty application was in progress;
  • Take a year or so to realise that the third objection application form should be signed by me and not by the tax advisor;
  • Lose the revised application/objection;
  • "Agree" with my objection many months after I sent copies via email;
  • In spite of "agreeing" with the objection, they took 7 months in 2014 to decide that the 2003, 2004 and 2005 tax returns were not in business earnings but personal earnings, even though the last paycheck I received was in October 2000;
  • Write a letter to me on 15 Sept 2014 informing me of this, but not sending it via email (or post) until after the "Final Demand" of 29 Sept 2014 was already issued. Then they sent it to me via email, once the damage was already done.
During this time the "outstanding debt" of R149,218.48 has generated interest of R142,926.21, and continues to do so at a rate of R805.06 per month.
Update: Why am I writing this? Mainly because I can't sleep. I took sleeping tablets on Wednesday and Thursday nights, but on Friday morning I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep, and it's now Saturday morning and I am tired of tossing and turning and figuring out how to get SARS to fix my situation the way it should have been done in 2007. So I'm frustrated, gatvol and outraged that some low-level accountant thinks she has the right to go snooping around in my bank accounts and deducting money without my consent.
Update Thursday 12 April: Amnesty department say they can't modify my 2003-2005 tax returns because the computer system won't let them. I guess a manual calculation is beyond them any more.
Update Thursday 14 May: I had a meeting with the Debt Management department at Megawatt Park (now unofficially known as MegaWTF Park) where they casually told me that the "Final Demand" doesn't need to be issued by anyone at all, and it was purely a courtesy that it was issued to me. We'll see about that. They also made a number of other outrageous statements, which will be the subject of several other blog posts.
Update Thursday 11th June: I got a letter from the head of the Amnesty department approving my 2006 Amnesty application, and my account now shows a credit balance of R87,864.58 ;-)

See also: Tax Collectors and Sinners and SARS is making me sick.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Four months flew past

I can't believe that I haven't blogged anything for the past 4 months. Time has flown. During that time we got a cute black and white kitten, and I had a big fight with the City Council to get them to evict squatters from Aleit Street Park. I will try to catch up with the news shortly. Been spending too much time on Twitter

Friday, October 31, 2014

Sabotage! Or how to prove you're a loser

One of my customers recently fired an employee for poor performance and not showing up for work. As his "parting shot" to the company that gave him a job he wasn't competent to do, he switched off his computer, and then sneakily changed the voltage selector on the power supply at the back of the computer from 230V to 115V.
The next person who switched it on caused the power supply to burn out, frying the motherboard in the process. We're not sure if it killed the hard drive as well, but at least we have a backup of all of that stuff, such as it is. I'm very tempted to publish his name, but there are too many other people called Shaun Williams who would be wrongly implicated. Pity.
All I can say to the one who did it: we can't prove it was you, but since no one else in the office knew the consequences of doing such a thing, you just proved that you are a malicious jerk and a serious loser. I hope no one ever employes you in a responsible web design or IT job again, for their sake, not for yours. It will come back to bite you on the ass at some point in the future, I'm sure.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

DStv: Turning customers into enemies by being greedy

DStv is the local satellite TV company. Normally I use their "EasyView" option, which has a few free-to-air channels such as the abysmal SABC channels, plus a few useful ones like Aljazeera English and Classic Movies. We also have a "Walka", a 7" LED portable device that allows us to view some of the sports channels. Total monthly bill: R29 for EasyView (25 channels), R79 for the Walka (15 channels), i.e. R108 per month for a total of 39 different channels, or R2.77 per channel.
From time to time we have "upgraded" our subscription to the R665 "Premium" service, in order to watch one of the sports channels (Supersport 2) on a bigger screen, and to catch some of the cricket broadcasts on other random Supersport channels. Essentially we are being forced to pay for 131 channels, even though we may watch possibly a dozen channels, at R5.08 per channel. The only redeeming factor in this monumental ripoff was that one could "upgrade" and "downgrade" once at any time during the month, and be charged pro-rata for the Premium service. Until September, that is.
Now some marketing genius at MultiChoice (the parent company) has had the brainwave of making customers pay for an entire month if they upgrade, whether they want to or not. This customer satisfaction guru and bean-counter extraordinaire has decided that it is too tricky to provide pro-rata refunds, so they have stopped their system from doing so, and the customer can just bloody well put up with it. This up-and-coming manager clearly worked for the SABC or SANRAL before moving to MultiChoice, because he has just single-handedly pissed me off. It must have been "he" because no woman with an ounce of sense would ever do anything to monumentally stupid.
In the past I would call DStv (assuming their lines weren't all busy) and arrange the downgrade, and then ensure that the Walka stand-alone subscription was reactivated. Now to add insult to injury I can't reactivate the Walka subscription during the month I downgrade. I have to remember to do it on the 1st of next month. Or not. Since they just forced me to pay R125 extra for the week of service I don't want, I really don't see why I would want to rush back and pay them their R79 for the Walka on 1st November, since I don't use it much and Penny will be too busy with other stuff. So I'll see if we can do without it for a month or so.
So since DStv have just royally pissed me off by ripping me off, I think I'll just ignore them as much as possible. After all, I don't care if they make more or less money. I am certainly not going to force them to take any of my money. They just made an enemy by sheer arrogance, stupidity or bloody-mindedness. Pick any two. Update 13 November: It turns out that my account is now R538 in credit because they billed me on 1st Nov for the Premium service even though they knew a week before that I wasn't going to be using that service. You can only cancel the service at the end of the month, but the billing run is set up before the end of the month, so their system is designed to steal your money, and they will take 14 days to give a refund. I tried phoning their main switchboard number 011-289-3000 to speak to the head of their accounts department, but she wasn't answering her phone and the next extension I was put through to was engaged or they put the phone down, I'm not sure.
Someone called Charles phoned me to find out what the problem is. WOW! I think he handles escalations. Anyway I will be getting a refund in the next 14 days. At least someone there is paying attention.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Microsoft's one useful feature missing from Outlook 2013

Microsoft's marketing people talked up the "new features" of Outlook 2013 claiming how much more "productive" it would make users. Well, they neglected to mention how they deliberately removed one feature that has made me productive in Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2010 for years. It's the ability to preview the contents of messages that you haven't read yet. (Click on the image above to see what I mean).
The image above is how it would look if the brain-dead idiots in Redmond hadn't decided to remove it. Now I have two equally dubious choices: display a preview of all messages, including the ones I have read, or disable the preview altogether, and use the "preview pane" instead. This is a time waster because I have to click on each message to preview it, and the default is to mark it as "read" once it has been previewed. This is about as clever as it gets.
So if anyone in Redmond with a brain ever gets to see this post, listen up: either make the screen work as shown above, or at least have a "preview unread messges" next to "all" and "unread". In the meantime, can I have a refund for my purchase of Outlook 2013? I was told that it was the last major release of Office, and that from here out subscribers to Office online would get incremental upgrades with new features. So far I have noticed none. More vapourware? In this case some of the features of Office 2010 have evaporated. Huh?
Update 26 October 2014: I finally realised that this missing feature is a productivity improvement after all: now that Outlook is more difficult to use, I check my mail less often, which makes me far more productive. Genius!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Carbonite's coloured dots stop working after installing Dropbox

Last night I spent a long time with a very helpful guy from Carbonite's chat service (a major improvement over what they had a few years ago) because I have just installed a new subscription of Carbonite on my new Lenovo Z50 Windows 8.1 laptop, and the coloured dots weren't showing. I had also noticed that some of the dots had stopped working on my old Windows Vista laptop.
It turns out the problem lies with DropBox. Or Microsoft. Or something. Dropbox has a whole bunch of overlay icons that it uses, and these tend to crowd out any other programs, like Google Drive or Carbonite. Frankly, I don't care about Dropbox's little icons, but I do rely on Carbonite's coloured dots to tell me what files still need to be backed up. So after uninstalling Dropbox and doing a reboot, the dot problem went away. But I need Dropbox and Carbonite.
I was reading a Dropbox helpdesk article "Why aren't my Dropbox icon overlays appearing correctly?" when I found the answer. There is a Windows registry key called "HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\ CurrentVersion\Explorer\ShellIconOverlayIdentifiers" that stores the details of programs wanting to use Shell Icon Overlays, the technical term for Carbonite's coloured dots. If you are technically minded and brave, exit from Dropbox, delete the 8 Dropbox entries in this registry key, and start Dropbox again. This fixes the problem, at least until Dropbox updates itself with a new version.
I'm not surprised that the Carbonite tech support people didn't suggest this, but I'm not entirely sure that "uninstall Dropbox" is good advice either. But if you don't mind fiddling with your registry keys, you may want to give it a try. It works on Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8.1 and Windows Server 2012.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The President in the Room

Dear President Zuma
It should not be necessary for me to tell you this, but you seem to have lost your way and are too stubborn to resign; or something.
Our parliamentary democracy has a concept known as question time, during which the elected representatives of the people are allowed to ask you questions, and you are required to answer them truthfully and in full.
Now I know this may come as a shock to you, but there is a big difference between responding to a question and answering it. You know how to respond to a question already: that's the process by which you talk about a subject similar to the topic of the question without saying anything meaningful or important, and hope the issue goes away by itself. It's a weasel tactic used by cowards and liars to avoid responsibility. Lawyers, politicians and marketing people do it all the time.
Honest leaders (or brave ones) choose to actually answer questions in a truthful manner, even if the answer is difficult, embarrassing or uncomfortable. It's a sign of a good leader and it builds trust. As the President you are expected to be a good leader and build the nation through good and honest leadership.
You have not done so. You have lied to parliament (and thereby the people) about the finances of your home in Nkandla. You have done this more than once. So it came as no surprise when during question time in parliament, Mr Malema asked you a direct question and you didn’t answer, but merely responded with the kind of vague platitudes we have come to expect. You seriously underestimated the determination of the EFF to obtain a forthright answer, and now you look like an idiot. What’s worse its that you have handed a major public relations coup to your most vocal opponents. You deserve what you get as a result.
Do you really think that you can misuse millions of Rands in taxpayer money, especially when those Rands have been collected from the voters who pay VAT on things like groceries and fuel? Do you think the voters will let you get away with it? Clearly you think the voters are too stupid or gullible and will just keep voting for the ANC “until Jesus comes”.
I would also like to point out the “elephant in the room” of Parliament: the ANC does not have the support of the majority of eligible voters. 25,388,082 people in South Africa are eligible to vote. Only 11,436,921 people (45%) cast their votes for the ANC. The remaining 6,965,576 votes were cast for other parties, and 6,985,585 did not vote at all. So the “official opposition” is not a party in parliament, but the voters who are sufficiently pissed-off with lying politicians and their empty promises to stay away from the polls.
Do you or anyone else in the political parties understand how dangerous that is? Do you think service delivery protests or the eTolls boycott are a sign of a healthy democracy, or the sign of a country that is losing faith in its elected leaders? Is that why you had a “fire pool” installed at Nkandla, because one day a crowd may just decide to burn your mansion to the ground? Is that why you need all the extra security?
When is the ANC going to start taking seriously issues of service delivery, competent and transparent government, and alleviating poverty seriously? Time is running out for you and your kleptocratic party. And there won’t be much mercy when the mob starts chanting “Pay Back the Money” outside the gates of Nkandla.
So I think it is time for you to stop ducking and diving and start leading the nation the way you are supposed to. Quit being distracted by your wives, lovers and architects (they are all screwing you one way or another) and start leading your party like an adult.
Before it’s too late.
P.S. Being appointed to a position of leadership is not the same as actually leading. Its time you started leading.
Click on the image to see it in a readable size.

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