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.

Friday, September 05, 2014

"Never Trust a Phone Company That Makes Fridges"

Deon Meyer is a great author, and in his latest thriller, "Cobra", he has some interesting throw-away comments about smart phones. The first one deals with Samsung becoming "the new Illuminati and taking over the world".
This comment is made by a cop with an opinion about everything. I laughed out loud when I heard it on the audio book, and then looked it up on Google Books for the screen shot shown here. Does the comment "Never trust a phone company that makes fridges" apply to Hisense as well as Samsung? I wonder ...
Tyrone is a pickpocket in the novel. He keeps and uses the Windows phone because it has zero resale value and because he stole it anyway, but he won't pay for a replacement one, even though the money was stolen. Microsoft definitely has a marketing problem: "Nobody wants a Windows phone". And Microsoft used to be really good at marketing. Nokia too, until they started making unreliable phones. My last one is only 18 months old and it reboots at random.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Miners Shot Down in Cold Blood

Two years after the Marikana massacre, nothing has changed. The government owes us an explanation and apology, and it needs to name (and fire) the people responsible.
The problem is that the government responsible for this atrocity is too busy robbing the country's resources to worry about a few dead bodies. So much for getting rid of Apartheid.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My So-Called "Dual SIM" Hisense Phone

I have had a love-hate relationship with my Hisense HS-U970 phone. It's my first smartphone, and so I have enjoyed all the toys and goodies that come with Android. But it has also been a monumental disappointment in one crucial respect: it claims to be a "Dual Sim" phone. It isn't. It's a one-and-a-half sim phone.
If you look at the photo above, you can see it has slots for 2 sim cards, but only one of those slots is capable of 3G data. Nowhere on the Hisense product page or the press release or the Kalahari or Takealot pages does it say anything about this. Neither does the box:
The official Hisense product page claims under "Network" that the phone is "Dual SIM card, dual standby (HSPA/WCDMA/GSM)" and the press release waxes lyrical about how "Prime 1 has dual SIM capabilities, allowing users to simultaneously run two SIM cards from different accounts and networks off a single mobile device." But that's where the hype and the truth diverge. Badly. Sure, there are 2 sim card slots, and each of them can take a sim card, but only one of the slots has (HSPA/WCDMA/GSM) capability. The other slot is GSM only. That means it can do voice, sms messages, and EDGE internet data. EDGE can carry a bandwidth up to 236 kbit/s under ideal circumstances. In practice it's closer to 64k-128kbps.
HSPA provides peak data rates of up to 14 Mbit/s in the downlink and 5.76 Mbit/s in the uplink, twice that of WCDMA. So the difference between HSPA and EDGE is significant: HSPA is theoretically 60 times faster than EDGE. So its not the kind of detail that should be overlooked on a product description (see screen shot below). In my case the problem was even worse, because the phone was faulty and it would not accept my MTN sim card in slot 2 at all. A visit to the Hisense stand at Decorex convinced me that my phone was faulty, because their stand phone (the same model and software version) would accept each sim card in either slot. Not even a factory reset of my phone would fix the problem.
Here is a screen shot of my Telkom Mobile/8ta data connection speed when it is plugged in to slot 2 and only able to connect using EDGE. Not exactly awe inspiring. The same sim card in a USB modem gets excellent speed from the same location (my desk).
Hisense is a multinational company based in China, and the Chinese are notorious for poor quality control, so I knew there was a risk when I bought the phone. But still, I paid R2000 for the phone, so I expect the thing to work as advertised. Unfortunately Hisesnse are lying about the capabilities of the phone. They omit to mention to their prospective buyers that you can select between sim cards, but only one sim card will give you good internet speeds. The other one gives you v-e-r-y s-l-o-w internet speeds.
Note to Hisense PR department: lying by omission is still lying.The box says "HSPA High Speed Internet Acces", not "HSPA High Speed Internet Acces on slot 1 only". It should.
It's only when you open the box and insert two sim cards that you find out that one slot is GSM (good for voice and sms messages) and the other slot is good for voice, sms and data. If you are only going to use the internet for WhatsApp chatting and so on, then slot 2's internet will probably suffice. But don't expect your phone to work properly on the Internet.
The other problem I had with my phone was that whenever the signal strength went below 2 bars (as measured on my old Nokia phone) the Hisense phone lost connection completely. "No Service" it said. This happens in the gym change room (where other users on other phones could make and take calls), in Cresta shopping centre, and in my own office at home. In all these places I have not encountered any problems with the same sim card in my Nokia phone. I will wait and see what happens with the replacement phone.
Update Thuesday 4pm: The courier company has collected the faulty phone for return to Waybill no 600684278. In the meantime I am back to using my cranky 18 month old Nokia phone. At least it gets decent reception, even if it reboots at random.
Update Friday: I found a post on Google Plus for a Spanish retailer:
New Arrival @Select Mobiles
Hisense U970 Smartphone
• Model: HS-U970
• Sim: Dual Sim card
• Display: 5.0 inches TFT Capacitive touch screen
• Platform: Android v4.2 Jelly Bean
• Processor: Quad Core 1.2GHz CPU MTK6589
• Ram: 1GB RAM,4GB internal & expandable up to 32GB
• Camera: 8.0MP autofocus LED flash rear & VGA front camera
• Network: GSM/EDGE 900/1800/1900; WCDMA/HSDPA/HSUPA 900/2100MHz GPS: GPS/AGPS
• Connectivity: USB:Micro USB
• Wifi:802.11b/g/n
• Bluetooth: Bluetooth 3.0 EDR
• Sensors: Proximity sensor,Ambient light sensor,G-sensor
• Audio: Headphone: 3.5mm headset connector
• Additional features: MMS,Email,Push Email,Wi-Fi hotspot
• Battery: 2000mAh
• Dimension: 142 x 73.2 x 9.4mm
• Weight: 144g
It seems to me that Hisense global is not being entirely honest about the capabilities of their phones. Deliberately ambiguous specifications are deliberately dishonest.
Update Friday 22nd August: A month after buying the (faulty) phone, I have been told that Kalahari will refund me the full price within 5-7 working days. This is getting ridiculous. On top of that the marketing geniuses at Hisense have asked me to remove my blog post. They really don't "get it", nor do they understand the outrage of a customer who was sold a device that doesn't work, and can't work as advertised.
Update Friday 29th August: The refund from Kalahari finally came through. That was not a good buying experience. Fortunately we have had better experiences with them in the past, so we will be buying books from them in the future. And they can't be blamed for the poor quality control at Hisense.
Update Friday 5th August: I've had the new phone for a week and it seems to be working correctly, except for the slow speed on the second SIM. I'll post a review in a few days.

Monday, August 11, 2014

How Bitcoin Got Me A "Free" Smartphone

I first heard about Bitcoin on the "Security Now!" podcast episode 287 in February 2011, and then in January 2013 episode 388 mentioned Litecoin. I installed the basic Litecoin QT software on my FRAGG computer and asked it to try "mining" Litecoins. I struck it lucky a few months later and earned LTC50, which is worth around R3600 in today's currency. In those days there wasn't much I could do with it, other than use the exchange to buy Bitcoins. LTC10 buys around BTC0.11, so it isn't exactly a fortune. Litecoin is to Bitcoin what Silver is to Gold.
Later, when I bought my new SQL Server I was able to use the minerd program to do "mining" with a "mining pool", and thereby earn further LTC.
With 8 cores, the Intel Xeon processor was sitting around doing nothing much of the time, so now at least the server could do something useful when it wasn't being a server. I joined the CoinHuntr mining pool, and have been earning a small trickle of currency since April 2013. Unlike Bitcoin, where you need custom hardware to do "mining", Litecoin uses a "memory hard" algorithm that allows ordinary hardware to stand a chance of successfully mining coins.
More recently I heard that PayFast, the payment gateway for (and thousands of other online stores), was able to accept payment in Bitcoin. While investigating this for Bookdealers, I discovered they use the exchange. That was the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and finally allowed me to convert my LTC via BTC to ZAR, i.e. turn some of my Litecoins into local currency. Finally I had a means to splash out on a smartphone without spending grocery money. has been advertising their Gobii Android smartphones starting at R999, but when I wanted to actually buy one there wasn't any stock. So I looked at the Hisense HS-U970 "dual sim" smart phone instead, since it was only R1,999 and the Gobii 4.5" phone was R1,699. The Hisense phone is slightly bigger, with a faster processor and bigger battery, so it looked like a good deal.
Over the weekend of 20 July I sold some of my Bitcoin (0.5117BTC) on, and was paid out on the Monday. I ordered my phone on 21st July 2014 from After some delay, I had the phone and its free cover by Friday 25th July 2104.
Update: The phone I got was faulty, and has been sent back to Kalahari. Also, Coinhuntr has closed its doors, so I am now mining with WeMineLTC. The degree of difficulty is much harder this year than last year, so I don't expect to earn more than 1 or 2 LiteCoins this year.
Update Friday 29 August: The refund came through from Kalahari, and I bought a replacement HS-U970 from the M-Web store in Cresta. This one seems to be working, and I'll post a review in a week or so. 
Update 9 December 2017: If I had kept my 0.5117BTC instead of using it on the phone, I could have paid for my car at today's outrageous exchange rate. 0.5117 Bitcoin equals R105,257.46. Hindsight is a cruel thing.