Sajjad's Blog

Tuesday 19th April 2005

The bright side of Pakistan

Someone sent me a link to this news blog with comments along the lines of "no strikes, agitation, long marches or bad news. Just good news". It really is nice to see something positive about this country:

http://dareecha.blogspot.com/

Something I've noticed since coming here is that things have improved a lot and are constantly improving in most places. Though it might not be best to let your guard down, the security situation is much better and there haven't been any big incidents in a while.

At least in and around the big cities, there's lots of development going on. There is cut-throat competition between mobile carriers which has made communications very easy. Technology is fast becoming affordable for the masses and the quality of IT professionals seems to be improving. There's even talk of an "Internet City" though it must still be in initial stages.

Just hope the traffic situation improves soon.

Posted at 14:56pm PKT Comments(5) |

Saturday 16th April 2005

English words derived from Persian

Wikipedia is a siren that lures you deep into a maze of interesting articles and causes all productivity to drop to zero. It should be blocked by all self-respecting enterprises that want to get anything done. I happened to open it today after Stuart posted a link and ended up wandering to my favorite subject, Languages, and spending hours just reading all this stuff.

Now to bore you with my great interest in languages. I also love to study history and a recent historical movie prompted me to learn more about Persia and Persian. Here is one Wikipedia article about English words that were influenced or derived from Persian, some via Urdu:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_of_Persian_origin

Urdu borrows heavily from Persian so there is a lot of relation between these three languages. Here are some examples that I never even thought about until now, though the origin of some is questionable:

  • Aubergine - "bengan" in Urdu
  • Checkmate - from Persian "shh mt". In Urdu "shamat" means "trouble"
  • Chess - an abbreviation of "shh-mt"?
  • Julep - from "gulab" for rose in both Urdu and Farsi
  • Lemon - "limoon" in Urdu
  • Orange - from Persian "narang", "narangi" in Urdu
  • Scimitar - from Persian/Urdu "shimshir", though more commonly called "talwar" in Urdu
  • Spinach - from Persian "isfanaj", "ispanak" or "aspanakh". "Palak" in Urdu
  • Sugar - "shakar" in Urdu
  • Typhoon - "tufan" in Urdu/Persian, though ancestry may be far-eastern

I used to think that it was the other way around. That Urdu borrowed a lot from English, but didn't think Persian was involved. I also started compiling a list of words that have the same sounds in Urdu and English, but different meanings. Should put up a language page someday.

Posted at 19:32pm PKT Comments(28) |

Tuesday 5th April 2005

The Suicidal Mobile

These days, I carry two phones with me. The multi-function Samsung x600, that I bought almost a year ago, and a very cheap, but long lasting Motorola that I usually only use to receive/make calls. One is so I can continue to use my reliable and high quality (though costly) Ufone number and the other is to take advantage of the low call rates of PakTel. The Ufone connection is a pre-paid one so there is no monthly fee for it, nor any extras like free minutes or free SMSs. With PakTel however, I have a monthly package that includes lots of free minutes and about 150 free SMSs. It's quality however, is atrocious and I can hardly talk to anyone from inside my house and certain other areas.

But this post isn't about my mobile service. It's about this morning's incident. The last few days of unrest and sleepless nights at the office finally caught up with me and I had a severe headache this morning. It was past noon that I started to feel a bit better and could start getting ready to go out.

I've developed a habit of taking my phone into the bathroom, just in case somebody important, like the President, calls. I usually put the phone high up on a shelf in the corner and that's what I did this morning with the Samsung. Half-way through my shower, Majed called from the office and the phone started it's usual vibration dance. But then it did something I didn't expect. It dived off the shelf, skipped off the bathroom sink, disengaged it's battery and crashed onto the steaming wet floor.

But the mobile's battery had other plans. My bathroom isn't that big, but the shelf is in one corner, while the urm ... toilet seat is in the exact opposite one. That was what the battery decided would be a good landing spot. Unfortunately, it didn't take into account the murky abyss at the bottom and promptly disappeared down the drain.

At first, I stood scratching my head, wondering what had actually happened. Then quickly picked up the phone and wiped it off as best as I could. The thought of reaching into the abyss to retrieve the battery did cross my mind, but it was immediately dropped and I got a brand new one this evening. It needed replacing anyway. I put the phone on the unsheltered car's dashboard and let the sun bake it for a while.

To my relief, the phone turned on using the new battery and seems to be ok, though I'm charging it in off mode to dry out any remaining moisture. It might be time to sell it and get a new, flashy one, but I'll still have to get the camera fixed before that.

Posted at 23:35pm PKT Comments(49) |

Wednesday 30th March 2005

State of my blog and referrer Fun

I was just going through my web server logs for http://sajjadzaidi.com and was delighted to see that instead of reducing due to my infrequent blogging, hits to my blog are increasing at roughly 10-15% per month. Average number of hits per day for last month were just over 600.

Checking the referrer logs, I realised that most of the hits coming in through Google search were due mainly to Python and secondly due to people searching for info on Pakistan.

Some interesting Google searches that I found in the referrer logs (sorry, had to leave out the really bizarre/interesting ones for obvious reasons):
advantages of working late in the office after office timings
Cafe Grind Islamabad
Funny Text messages
Passphrase generator
japan pakistan blog
my id of yahoo is hacked what should now i do
python generate easy password
python blog software
rat poison window manager
sublime backyard fighting

Posted at 19:28pm PKT Comments |

Saturday 26th March 2005

My trusty Thinkpad and Mrxvt

I've started using my laptop again after letting it rest for a few months. My sitting area was starting to become a marketplace where different departments kept bothering me with trivial stuff and the high noise levels were driving me crazy. I had to seek a quieter place to work where I could retreat to when working on critical stuff (which it is most of the time these days). Good thing there was a WiFi access point lying around that allowed me to find a corner for this.

Now I've had my tiny, yet durable IBM Thinkpad for over four years and Celeron 400MHz with 128MB RAM just doesn't cut it anymore, but it's good enough for most of my work. I usually just need to login to a dozen or so systems (where most of my actual work is done) and maybe keep a browser and instant messenger open.

The machinery in question had a very basic Slackware Linux 10 installation with a minimal desktop (fluxbox) and I was using the lightweight rxvt as my terminal. After upgrading to Slackware 10.1 and changing the window manager to IceWM, I realised that maintaining even a few open rxvts becomes a tedious task and I just had to have tab support.

Since Gnome Terminal requires Gnome libraries and all the extra bloat that's part of the Gnome package, I tried searching for a lighter, simpler solution. Lo and behold, a little gem called Mrxvt popped up:

http://materm.sourceforge.net/

It functions in almost the same way as Gnome Terminal (Alt + <number> to quickly change tabs etc.), but didn't require any additional packages on my system. Plus, it seems pretty light. I'm also thinking of using it on my higher-spec desktops.

Another thing. Firefox 1.0.1 seems to have some memory leak issues which causes the system to run out of available RAM after letting it run for a while. They have released version 1.0.2 and I'm getting it now. Let's see if it fixes this.

Posted at 16:19pm PKT Comments(1) |

Friday 25th March 2005

Nascon Gaming Tournament

Last Saturday, FAST University held Nascon again. It was even bigger, better and more poorly organized than the last one. I was at the last one representing iinix while this time around, I was there on behalf of Dancom Online Services, which was the sponsor of the gaming tournament.

Though nothing on the scale of the Linux Worlds, PC Worlds and gaming shows I've seen in England and Japan, I thought overall it went pretty well. They couldn't have done the scheduling in a worse way and in the end, we decided not to make our presentation at all because of all the delays and last minute changes, but the final look and feel was somewhat grand.

The highlight (at least for me) was the gaming tournament, which included Quake III and Warcraft III. I'd been out of touch with gaming for a while due to time constraints and it was only recently that I got some interesting projects where gaming was involved.

Warcraft III is one of my favorite games of all time. Until now, I had been playing against the computer at easy difficulty levels without realising what I had to do to get better at it. Thanks to Nadeem and watching a few professionals play, I have a better idea of what to do and seem to be slowly improving. Quake III will take a little longer to get good at.

Back to Nascon. The tournament was still on when I left at around 10pm, but by then, things seemed much more relaxed. People looked like they were having fun and it was a good chance to do some networking as well as catch up on old friends. Hope it's better organized next year.

Posted at 11:37am PKT Comments(1) |

Tuesday 15th March 2005

SPF Records for domains

Phew, I've been a really busy bee for the last few weeks and haven't even had time to blog. One of the things I finally managed to study and implement during this time are SPF records (Sender Policy Framework).

SPF records are used to verify if an email was sent from where it claims to originate. Since most spam and viruses try to fake this information, SPF can help fight these menaces. Gmail and Hotmail have already started checking for these, though no action is taken against messages with invalid or non-existent records (at least not for Gmail. I didn't test Hotmail).

More details at these links:

http://www.zytrax.com/books/dns/ch9/spf.html http://spf.pobox.com/howworks.html

It looked like something that might require a lot of work, but it turned out that all I needed were a few entries in the domains' zone files. At least it's that simple if you're the sender of an email message and have some level of control over your domain's DNS. I have yet to see how I can use SPF to control incoming spam and viruses. It also might be as simple as adding an ACL in Exim's conf file, but it's a job for another day.

Posted at 23:21pm PKT Comments |

Saturday 26th February 2005

Earthquake

Just had an earthquake. Not that big, but pretty big for Islamabad. They're not as common here as in places like Japan, but the buildings aren't designed to withstand much more than a minor tremor. Almost all houses are constructed from simple brick and cement with concrete only being used for the ceilings and in larger buildings.

Hope it wasn't any worse in the Northern Areas or Peshawar and its surroundings, which is where the epicenter of most quakes lies. The unusual amount of snow up north is bad enough.

Update: 04:54 PKT The epicenter was in Tajikistan and the earthquake had a magnituted of 5.9. I'm surprised Tajikistan is so close to Pakistan.

Posted at 04:32am PKT Comments |

Thursday 24th February 2005

The "Just Lose It" Competition

Found this while reading Live from Yokohama. The Eminem competition was to ring someone you know and make them "just lose it". The two linked mp3s are of an Aussie girl's call to her father who really does "lose it":

http://www.users.on.net/~truckfins/

I don't know, but it looked like the dad got too mad too quickly over a simple speeding ticket. My dad didn't "lose it" even when called to tell him about my car crash. Maybe speeding (or doing anything wrong with your car) is a bigger issue down under. "Under-speeding" is what you should be worried about when in Pakistan.:)

Posted at 23:14pm PKT Comments |

Monday 21st February 2005

Snow in Pindi

A strange thing happened last night. I was driving home through Rawalpindi after attending the 10th Muharram (Ashura) mourning and everyone was commenting on how cold and rainy it is. There's been some snowfall on the tips of Margalla Hills that cradle Islamabad, but I've never seen it come down to the capital, let alone Pindi which is just south of it and devoid of much vegetation. People have said that it snowed in Islamabad over 20 years ago, but I wasn't here to witness it.

Back to the car ride. Imagine my surprise when right after I muttered something along the lines of "I wish it snowed instead", something white started to fall out of the sky together with the rain. At first I was worried that it's hail (pretty common here), but instead of the distinct sound of stone hitting glass, there was a splotch and a squishy sound, followed by a few more.

It was only after I got home and saw the news alert that it was confirmed. There had been snowfall in Pindi yet strangely none in Islamabad. Ali, my cousin, joked that had I wished for something even better, I would have gotten it.

As I was discussing with Majed this morning, just a couple more years and we should have full snowfalls in Islamabad. So much for global warming (not disputing it, just observing the effects here). Actually, Islamabad is having hotter and hotter summers so there is something strange going on. Maybe we are heading for another ice age. Not that I would be very disappointed. Remember, I love snow and my favorite sport is snowboarding which I haven't been able to do for a while.

Posted at 23:16pm PKT Comments(2) |

Tuesday 15th February 2005

Slackware 10.1 is out

Just noticed the announcement yesterday and promptly started the bittorrent download though haven't tried it out yet. Upgrading to it might solve the problems I'm having with my personal PC. Things as simple as "less" have started acting pretty weird after numerous power outages.

"Highlights of the 10.1 release include the Linux 2.4.29 kernel (with Linux 2.6.10 as an alternate choice in /testing), X11R6.8.1 from X.Org, Mozilla 1.7.5, KDE 3.3.2, and Xfce 4.2.0. For a complete list of changes since Slackware 10.0, check out the Slackware 10.1 ChangeLog."

Interesting that 2.6 still isn't the default kernel. One of the things I like about Slackware is that the default software is pretty much upto date, yet stable. And they don't take much risk with critical things like the kernel.

Get the torrents for the ISO images here:

http://slackware.com/getslack/torrents.php

Or use one of the mirrors:

http://alphageek.dyndns.org/linux/slackware-mirrors.shtml

Posted at 14:06pm PKT Comments |

Sunday 13th February 2005

Pass Phrases to Replace Passwords

I was reading this blog entry by Robert Hensing of Microsoft's PSS Security Team on how difficult to remember paswords should be replaced by long, but simple pass-phrases. Despite all my efforts, I still can't get people to set secure passwords so maybe getting them to use pass phrases will solve the problem.

After that, I thought about PyKey and decided to add this little feature to it. A few minutes of work and random phrase generation from dictionary words was ready. Some of the results were quite amusing:

  • "repeaters and glowingly replayed by cruises"
  • "maintains roughness by adoptions and hastened by leafy for sublime"
  • "shippers by fountain and backyard"
  • "deprecate an infested nutria"

You can try it out for yourself here (choose the "Pass Phrase" option).

Posted at 14:45pm PKT Comments |

Friday 11th February 2005

Elusive Domain Reliability

I currently "lease" three domain names, two of which are (or were) in active use until very recently. That's nothing compared to what I used to have (you might remember filesystems.org, plaintext.net, sysdot.com and pylogger.com). One by one, I let them expire after I didn't make full use of them, or couldn't renew for one reason or another.

The first big issue cropped up when I tried to renew zaidi.jp, the domain I thought I'd keep for a long time. Due to weird Japanese banking procedures, my transaction was declined and on top of that, the registrar suspended the domain for a whole month. By the time I could renew and reuse the domain, it was too late since I had already started relying more on my other domains and the need just wasn't big enough to get someone in Japan to go through the renewal process.

This time, the DNS server I was using for all my domains suddenly stopped working. It wasn't being looked after well so I should have expected it, but it had been running without problems for a very long time. This outage prompted me to find another DNS server or two, which I did, but another problem came up. I had no trouble updating the information for domains I had registered online, but the most important domain was through a local ISP and they still haven't responded to my requests to update the info.

As of now, my blog and personal email is working, but the commercial domain remains unreachable. If only certain domain names could be registered for lifetime use and a more lasting solution found for problems which take this long to fix. That would bring up problems like trademark infringement or other forms of abuse, but workarounds can be found to avoid those. Maybe you could really own a domain (as opposed to "leasing" it) after using it actively for a certain number of years and if no one else contests its use.

Another advice I have is to keep at least two, geographically separate DNS servers that you can update (or have updated easily). I was doing this for a while, but in time, one server went offline and I didn't bother to find an alternative until this one suddenly became unusable.

Posted at 13:05pm PKT Comments |

Monday 24th January 2005

Happy Eid

Eid-ul-Azha Mubarik (or Selamat Hari Raya Haji for those who speak Malay) to everyone. It's a three-day celebration to remember the sacrifice made by the prophet Abraham and the first day here was last Friday. Though you are supposed to make a sacrifice on one of the three days, the price of live animals has sky-rocketed in Islamabad and has put it out of reach for many people. It's also almost impossible to find a goat/sheep/bull with everything intact (animals being sacrificed can't have broken horns, cut ears, be too young or have other anomalies).

Sorry you couldn't see it this year Victor, but maybe once was enough for you.

Posted at 12:45pm PKT Comments |

Wednesday 19th January 2005

Linux Harder to Crack

This article talks about how Linux distributions have improved in the area of out-of-the-box security. From the tests a group of researchers ran, only 4 out of 19 Linux boxes were compromised while only one of the four Solaris systems was left standing secure. More details on the Honey Net project's homepage and this PDF.

Brute password attacks were responsible for cracking two of the four Linux systems compromised. This points out the importance of having strong password protection.

The tests do seem a bit dated since they were using older distributions, but maybe that was part of the test. Anything before and including Red Hat Linux 9 doesn't have official support from Red Hat and therefore should be considered insecure unless an alternative, such as the Fedora Legacy Project, is being used. Other distributions, such as Slackware and Debian, which have a good track record for security, were missing and probably would have fared even better.

Another thing I saw today. Someone turned "Linux" into one of those recursive acronyms: Linux Is Not UniX.

Posted at 19:09pm PKT Comments |

Tuesday 18th January 2005

Thank you Poland

According to this page, Mr. Wlodzimierz Marcinski, the Undersecretary of State at the Polish Ministry of Science and Technology, is single-handedly responsible for blocking the dreaded European software patent vote on 21st December last year. This means that Europe will remain software patent-free which in turn will help open source software and software innovation in general.

Since a lot of good, free software ( Mplayer, Linux, Knoppix to name a few) has come out of this region, the benefits aren't limited to just the EU. Countries like Pakistan, which are starting to rely more and more on open source software, have a lot to gain from a patent-free Europe.

Thank you, Poland!

Gnu has issued banners to thank Poland for this effort, one of which I'm putting here. Looks like Poland doesn't have an embassy in Pakistan so we can't write a thank you note to them.

Posted at 11:50am PKT Comments(1) |

Monday 10th January 2005

Rahat and Gastronomic Issues

Rahat Bakers recently made their debut in Islamabad after running a popular and successful outlet in Rawalpindi. Their new setup in Blue Area has the same design as the one in Pindi with the addition of a spacious parking lot and a nice exterior. They have a huge variety of junk food (burgers, sandwiches, breads, pizzas), salads and sweets, not to mention the "Safilo" ice creams, coladas and shakes next door. Unfortunately, the only thing missing is a proper seating area which was also a big problem at the Pindi outlet.

After it's opening a week or so ago, my colleagues and I have found a delicious and affordable solution to the lunch problem. As I mentioned earlier, there aren't many good options around our office. The likes of Cafe Grind and KC Grill have excellent menus, but are just a bit too costly for regular lunches. Rahat is about a 5 minute drive/ride away and their salads, though high in creamy, meaty stuff, taste good.

That brings up an important issue. Once we started having regular lunches (before we moved to F-7), some of my colleagues started gaining weight dangerously fast. I usually tend to eat more than them while doing a similar amount of work, but there was hardly a change in my physique yet they continue to count tires around their wastes. My first problem is that I can't work when hunger pangs set in and secondly, I need good, relatively healthy food which rules out most commonly available Pakistani dishes.

Once I start planning for lunch, the others usually can't resist the temptation to follow me. The week I was in Karachi, my colleagues usually skipped lunch, but it's coming back into full gear again. All this makes me feel a bit guilty about fattening up these poor souls by tempting them with gluttony while wondering why I'm (thankfully) immune from these after-effects. One fear I have is that the extra energy is being used by my remaining and slowly dwindeling muscle tissues and once they are gone, I'll suddenly turn into a Homer Simpson (or that inflated tire mascot).

Majed and I have been looking around for gyms/swimming pools nearby though admittedly, not too actively. I better find something fast before time runs out.

Posted at 20:33pm PKT Comments(7) |

Saturday 8th January 2005

Einstein Year

2005 marks 100 years since Albert Einstein published his papers on Brownian Motion, the Photoelectric Effect and his theory of Special Relativity. This year has been marked as "Einstein Year" and there seem to be lots of fun things happening. This site has lots of interesting facts about the man and physics in general:

Posted at 20:48pm PKT Comments(1) |

2004 in 25 Words

It was a turbulent year and I didn't achieve much of what I was aiming for. Was reading Mediatinker after quite a while and saw Kristen's summary of her year in 25 words which reminded me that I haven't done mine yet. I did one a year ago (when I was a more active blogger and blog reader) so here it is for 2004:

Got married
Blogging decreased
Took on another job
Made more friends
Had a scary car accident
Got aquainted with Pakistani law
Attended lots of weddings

Posted at 19:43pm PKT Comments |

Thursday 6th January 2005

Silly Exercise Video

Via Jim's blog:

http://nimportequi.com/v_d_o/lecteur.swf?vid=126

Silly, but fun.

Posted at 20:50pm PKT Comments |

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