Pakistan, Japan, Linux and lots more
Wednesday 30th August 2006
I was getting a lot of hits looking for my Atom XML feed in addition to RSS. Most CMSs now support them and in some ways, it looks technically better than RSS (such as having an unformatted summary option). To increase the reach of this blog (as well as just to try out another technology), I have modified Pylogger to generate Atom feeds. I have yet to fix the date format, but otherwise the feeds seem to be working fine.
Better late than never.
Blogspot banned yet again
The cat and mouse game continues as the PTA once again blocks the blogspot.com domain after opening it for about a month or so. Why did they do this again? Maybe the unbanning was only to project a better image at ITCN Asia. Maybe the ban is to prevent the spread of criticism about the government's recent actions (such as the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti, the rebel tribal leader).
Whatever the reasons, censorship is not the answer and only serves to annoy people like you and me. This is like locking up a whole town because one or two people committed a crime. What are they thinking?
Tuesday 29th August 2006
Making fun of music
Thanks to Zaki from Orkut for these funny answers (in English) to the verses of a famous Hindi love song. I've added the (attempted) translation of the original for the benefit of those that don't understand Urdu/Hindi.
- “Kyon chalti hai pawan“ (why does the wind blow)
- because of evaporation.
- “Kyon jhoome hai gagan“ (why does the environment(?) swing)
- because of Earth's revolution.
- “Kyon machalta hai mann“ (why does one feel excited)
- because of excessive respiration.
- “naa tum jaano naa hum“ (you don't know, neither do I)
- But i have given all the reasons.
- “kyon aati hai bahaar“ (why does spring arrive)
- because of change in seasons.
- “kyon lutta hai karar““ (why has peacefulness been lost)
- because of mental tension.
- “naa tum jaano naa hum“ (you don't know, neither do I)
- Like i have said these are all science phenomenon.
- “Kyon gum hai har disha“ (why is disha(?) lost)
- because you have poor sense of direction.
- “Kyon hota hai nasha“ (why do you get high)
- because of drug addiction
Monday 28th August 2006
The history of Lahore's Garhi Shahu
Being a history buff, this article on Pakistaniat was a good and informative read, but for me, it goes farther than that. My mother grew up in an area adjacent to Garhi Shahu. My grandmother and the rest of the family still live there and I visit it virtually every time I'm in Lahore. I've often spent my childhood summer vacations there and have fond memories of the hustle and bustle of the area.
The old city of Lahore is ancient with its roots in a forgotten part of history. Even this area, just outside the old city, is at least a few hundred years old and retains some of the flavor of its past. I had often thought about the name, but not many people could help me with its origins. Who would have known that it is named after a baddy of yore who claimed the place for himself after the death of Abul Khair, the saint who setup a school of learning here and actually gave value to it.
Antique wooden computers
Though I'm not that much into wood-finished electronics, it would be cool to have all my gadgets disguised as expensive-looking wooden ornaments or furniture and ready to be unfurled and used in case of an emergency.
Sunday 27th August 2006
Clever way to promote your new restaurant
I've been following the story of "Hitler's Cross", the Mumbai restaurant which opened with a Nazi theme and has now been forced to change its name and remove Nazi memorabilia after protests.
Though it seems that they claim to be ignorant of the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazi regime, I think it was just a way to gain publicity (through notoriety). Without such hullaballoo, even the locals wouldn't have known about it, let alone people far far away. It would have been just another restaurant, but now, at least some people will visit just for curiosity's sake.
Saturday 26th August 2006
Prize Bond site
Here is a useful tool for those who keep their money in prize bonds. Prize bonds are issued by the government of Pakistan, in various denominations, to offset spending. They avoid the hassles of other forms of investment and are almost as good as cash since you can purchase a prize bond from any bank and sell it back to the bank or to an individual very easily. The government in turn holds draws on a quarterly basis and gives away cash prizes to those that win.
Kalpoint allows you to check winning prize bonds online and avoid the mundane task of going through the thousand-record list in the newspaper every time there is a draw. Again, the interface isn't very nice, but at least it works.
Thursday 24th August 2006
Is spam haram?
We were recently having a discussion on what business practices are haram (i.e. forbidden by Islam) and what aren't and the discussion came to marketing. A bribe in the usual sense is definitely haram, but do some common marketing and sales tactics, such as giving away free gifts to a select few, fall into this category? That would be a long and controversial discussion and I won't go into it here, but it got me thinking about spam and what the religious point of view on it would be. Not the obscene type of spam that is already forbidden due to its content, but the practice of unsolicited mailing.
Since spam, or unsolicited email, doesn't directly harm anyone (as in threat to life or limb etc.), it would be tough to classify it as haram. But since it is a major annoyance to the majority of people receiving it, I guess it should at least be discouraged or classified as makrooh (something strongly discouraged and the avoidance of which will be rewarded).
How do you classify spam as haram? How about using this reasoning?
- Since most spam is sent using other people's bandwidth and servers without their consent, it tantamounts to theft and we all know how bad that is. Strike 1.
- Since most of the advertised schemes are basically fraudulent, even if their own resources are used to send the spam, the spammers can't claim legitimacy. Strike 2.
- Lastly, spam is something invading your privacy and your personal space. Just as trespassing is punishable, so should spam be. Strike 3. Over and Out
A large portion of spam I get these days originates from within Pakistan. A number of customers also serve to make my life miserable by relaying spam through our servers (until blocked), choking the email queues and hogging the bandwidth. Maybe if it can be declared as haram, we can get a fatwa issued against spammers and have religious backing in eradicating this filthy practice. Not that it would bother spammers much, but it might make the recipients do something about it rather than just sit back and accept things the way they are.
Tuesday 22nd August 2006
The Iranian President's blog
Quite some time back, I blogged about the earlier Iranian vice-president's blog. Now, the current president himself, and one considered a hardline conservative, has his own blog. It is covered by the BBC here.
Though Mahmood Ahmadinejad's blog is in Persian (and based on awful Microsoft technologies), you can select a different language from a choice of four. It seems that even Ayatollah Khamenei has his own website. Maybe other people won't agree, but from my point of view, this is quite progressive.
For quite a while, I was under the impression that Iran was quite backward when it came to the Internet. With thousands of persian blogs online and prominent Iranians making use of it, that impression has changed. In comparison, even us geeks in Pakistan have to deal with so much crap (such as the recent blogspot ban) that you can forget about less technical people making full use of these technologies. I guess I need to market weblog.pk more.
Explosive liquids on flights
Faisal has an interesting link to new measures in airport security.
What do you do if you were an airport? focing people to leave behind liquids and gels, etc. because combination or mixing of these could be explosive?
Why - just pour them all into a big trash can… (duh!)
Besides the dangers of mixing these so-called explosives, it is just plain stupid to have such rigid and useless rules. How far will they go? At this rate, I think it won't be long before you're forced to travel without any clothes or luggage.
Reminds me of yet another South Park scene where Mr. Garrison describes his "It" invention, a new mode of transportation, and the ridiculously anal (ughum, excuse me) way it is to be used. A passenger comments "it beats dealing with the airline companies".
More comments and details here (work safe, except the language).
Saturday 19th August 2006
Death by Chicken?
Two people, a retired Air Force officer and his wife, died yesterday after eating at the Islamabad branch of KFC. Though the news has spread like wildfire here and the newspapers are reporting on it, it is strangely absent from the online media. It isn't clear yet what the cause of death was, but everything points to the food they ate from the fast food outlet.
I've always warned against eating KFC here and as mentioned earlier, it is on my blacklist of places to eat. I had even taken photos of the rotten slop they sell and had planned to blog about it, though didn't have the photos copied from my phone (see below). Granted that this could be an isolated incident and it may not be KFC's fault, but it still has their name written on it and their notoriety doesn't help.
There's hardly any food quality control in Pakistan, even in a place like Islamabad, and food poisoning is quite common. With big international brands making their way here, you would expect the quality of existing food outlets to improve to match theirs, yet it seems to be the other way around. The international brands (with some exceptions off course) end up dropping their own quality. Let's see what happens.
Tee Emm's Window to Pakistan
In my post earlier this month about spam prevention and education, I mentioned a talk that "Tee Emm" of Supernet gave about Greylisting. I had a nice, though brief discussion with him during the talk, but couldn't catch up with him after that.
I happened to read one of the SANOG handouts and learned that he's also a blogger and found his blog at pakistan.blogspot.com. An excellent read with a focus on network issues we in Pakistan face. Now that the Blogspot ban has been lifted, we can once again enjoy meaningful blogs like this without any hassles, though I have to wonder for how long.
Wednesday 16th August 2006
The (mal)practice of forwarding chain mails
I just sent a relatively harsh reply to a friend who had forwarded me a chain letter (the one about xyz company paying the parents of a sick child for every message sent). Sorry friend, but it is really infuriating to see people still committing this crime, even technically competent people.
For reference, here is a bulleted list of why you should NOT forward MOST emails that you receive:
- About 99% of "If you send this message to 10 people" emails are fake. There most likely isn't any sick or dying child and the email was started by a bored teen with a skin problem and nothing better to do.
- Nobody will pay for the emails except you and me. Shouldn't need explanation.
- You are helping spammers. All it takes is for one of these emails to be picked up by a spammer/fraudster and they get dozens, if not hundreds of email addresses and other info.
- You are exposing yourself to harm. You and others are sending out details such as your location and computing preferences that can easily be used for malicious purposes other than spam.
- You are wasting bandwidth. As the forward list gets bigger and bigger, the size of the email itself explodes and the number of people this is sent to multiplies. This wastes a lot of bandwidth and can temporarily choke low speed connections that most people in countries like Pakistan have.
- It is a big waste of time and downright irritating. You might love to scroll down a long list of email addresses and weird formatting symbols to find the one or two lines of irrelevant and unimportant text, but most of us have neither the time nor the patience.
Just think about it for a second. Why? Why in hell would Microsoft, AOL or ZDNet pay anybody for each message that circulates, or more appropriately, runs wild on the Internet? It is technically not possible to accurately track how many people get the mail and no benefit to such parties.
You would think that netiquette would improve with time, partly due to education and partly due to increasing spam and online fraud, yet all people can do is complain about these things and remain stubborn about changing the way they do something.
If you think all this is unimportant and that I need to chill, stop complaining about your email problems or network issues. And If you really, really, absolutely have to forward something, at least cut and paste the relevant part in a fresh email or simply send the link. And do verify that the information you're sending is correct. Check out any site such as Snopes or Truth or Fiction first (medical care for "Natalie-Fiction" debunked here). DO NOT forward everything. Please. We already have enough junk to go through.
Maybe there should be a netiquette test and a license requirement before allowing people online. I mean a license is a requirement for lots of other things that we do. Why not the Internet?
Monday 14th August 2006
Free Pakistani blogging service
Get your own name today and blog away. Feedback welcome.
Happy Birthday Pakistan
It's 14th August, Pakistan's independance day. The mood everywhere is one of partying and celebration. All prominent buildings in Islamabad are covered with lights and the roads are crammed with people out to celebrate. I don't remember seeing Pakistanis so happy before. Hope we continue to have more reasons to celebrate and less to worry about.
On this day, I'm launching a new service for Pakistanis. Check back soon to see what it is. Hope this builds up enough hype to make it a good launch. :)
Saturday 12th August 2006
What flying was like in the 1960s
Someone (I think Stuart) sent in this nice piece on flying in the 60s. I'm quoting some interesting facts below, together with my own experiences.
"Flying was expensive" and "Because it was so expensive, flying was rare". You can say that again. Though still out of reach of most Pakistanis, flying was very rare here, in say the 80s. Although I've been flying since childhood (thanks largely to my Dad and the Govt. of Pakistan), it was always thought of as a privilege here that nobody could afford on their own. People usually looked up to anybody who had even visited a foreign country. These days, pretty much everyone I know has done it and most have lived abroad at some time or another.
"They really had to instruct you on how to use the seat belts, because many cars didn't have them and no one was using the ones they had.". That is interesting, though judging by the passengers I've seen on local flights, its still true for most Pakistanis. We still hardly ever use seatbelts in cars, even after the traffic police's campaigns to politely instruct people to do so. I've used them more frequently off late, mainly because the cars I often travel in, as well as their drivers, are fast enough to require something to keep you in place.
Back to the flying article, the part about having observation decks at airports seems quite paranoid (as also pointed out by others). "With little concern about security, some airports allowed you to stroll outside, take a seat, and watch the airplanes come and go." What is the security concern here? How is being able to watch airplanes taking off and landing a security risk? I live close to an airport and sitings of planes are pretty common. How is this different from watching planes from an observation deck?.
Thursday 10th August 2006
McDonalds arrives in Rawalpindi
I've been hearing rumors of a McDonalds opening here in Islamabad/Rawalpindi for more than 3 years now. Every once in a while, people would get really excited about it and were very sure that this time it was real and everytime, it ended with a no show. It was so weird that when they went to visit Lahore, my friends often brought back a couple of Big Macs or McArabias as a gift. Seems the long wait is finally over for Isb/Rwp dwellers.
Passing by Chaklala this morning, I saw the M sign and Ronald ready to go up next to a building in Jinnah Park (just off the main road that the airport sits on). The opening was confirmed by an ad in the newspaper which stated tomorrow (11th August) as the launch date.
Why such a fuss over a fast food restaurant? Maybe because we in Islamabad (and even Pindi) have little choice when it comes to good food, both fast and slow. Even the big named chains such as KFC suck so much in quality that they're on my "highly avoidable" list. Lunch is usually worth skipping but it could change with more such speedy foods arriving.
McDonalds was something I despised while in Singapore. The only thing good about it were the fries and the drinks (for some strange reason). Japan was worse since the meat wasn't Halal, though I often relied on a few large fries with a couple of milkshakes for lunch until it was found out that the fries included beef extract and that they weren't actually vegeratian.
The big M is one last hope for some decent fries in this area. Hope it meets expectations (and also that it makes its move into Islamabad soon).
Tuesday 8th August 2006
German street sign
Found this photo on koOlstuffs.net:
I thought Nazi symbols were banned in Germany. Maybe the photo is from some other neighbouring country.
Sunday 6th August 2006
A different Karachi
I'm back in Islamabad. Got here yesterday morning and thankfully the PIA flight was on time despite the unrelenting rain. Though I've been to Karachi a number of times in my life, this time was very different. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.
The main difference was probably that this was the first time I have come to Karachi for a matter other than a family one. It was purely a professional visit and allowed me to see an entirely new side of the city. I didn't get to do any shopping (so still no digital camera) but managed to see a lot of new places and meet a lot of new people.
I can't remember ever seeing rain in Karachi before. Other than flooding the roads and reducing the traffic, it seems to have washed away some of the gray, drab look that's usually present even in the best parts of this city.
One thing that I always experience is a serious loss of appetite soon after arriving in Khi, yet this time it seemed to improve and thanks to my colleagues from Islamabad and Lahore, there was no shortage of support in this area. We managed to find some good places to eat, including "The Village" which has no Islamabad equivalent.
Karachi is a very important city for Pakistan. It is the country's major trade gateway, has the biggest population and is slowly becoming a cultural hub for the region. All technical and trade events are held here with only a fraction of them reaching Lahore or Islamabad. It is sad that such a metropolis can grind to a halt due to something as simple as rain. This was the major reason some of the people with me swore never to come to Karachi again. If the infrastructure, security and general standard of living can be improved, maybe then we'll be able to visit more often.
Saturday 5th August 2006
Recursive DNS attacks
Zaeem Arshad gave an insightful presentation on the hazards of running open DNS servers. He talked extensively about how these can easily be used to launch recursive DNS DoS (Denial of Service) attacks against any network in the world. The presentation can be found along with the rest of the SANOG 8 slides on the SANOG website.
One of the biggest causes of roughly 80% of all DNS servers being open is that they are open by default and even experienced admins neglect to fix the configuration. It reminds me of the time when open SMTP relays were very common and it took a while for most MTAs to be configured otherwise by default. A big difference is that open mail relays were simply used to send spam and at most, will choke or blacklist that one connection. On the other hand, a distributed recursive DNS attack can bring down a whole website or ISP.
Another issue which I haven't yet figured out is that a number of domains fail to resolve through BIND running on Solaris, once their record expires. This issue hasn't surfaced yet with BIND (same version) running on Linux. And the thing common among all of these domains is that the servers these are hosted on are reported as open DNS servers by www.DNSReport.com. Maybe I should stop flushing the cache for such domains to put pressure on the admins to fix their servers.
Good job with the talk Zaeem and do continue to produce more stuff like this.
Flight cancelled due to weather
All Air Blue flights to and from Islamabad were cancelled due to the weather and those to Lahore were delayed by many many hours. Since Karachi's weather was sunny for once, I assume they meant the weather in Islamabad/Rawalpindi (I heard it really did rain pretty hard there). Funny that PIA and other airlines were still functional.
Our flight was scheduled for yesterday (Friday) evening, but since they cancelled it instead of delaying it, we managed to get a full refund and book a PIA flight for tomorrow. Say what you want about the national carrier, but at least they fly and usually on time. In addition, it hardly costs anything more than Air Blue.
Friday 4th August 2006
Spam prevention and education
One of the interesting topics under discussion here at SANOG was how to stop spam and spammers. Champika Wijayatunga from APNIC did an excellent presentation on this and afterwards we had a fruitful discussion on spam.
According to statistics that Champika presented, 75% of all email traffic is spam and it is growing by a disturbing 400% every year. I doubt legitimate email is also growing at the same rate so the first figure will likely keep on increasing.
For Pakistan, and South Asia as well, the issue is 2-pronged. Due to lack of policies and spam-related laws, spammers find it a haven to launch their wretched campaigns. Compare this to places such as Australia who have made spam illegal. Since a large majority of Internet users are unaware of good practices, on top of becoming victim to incoming spam, they act as proxies for outgoing spam without even knowing it. I regularly have to listen to infuriated customers who simply can't understand why their email is blocked or why they should change the way they use the Internet.
Solution to the former lies with Internet service providers and policy makers. Unfortunately, there is a serious lack of collaboration among these which makes it impossible to get meaningful laws through. It will take a very strong push to get everyone together and agree on effective policies.
Though at Dancom, we take a number of steps to block spammers and customers with servers being used for spamming, the situation becomes hopeless when the customer threatens to switch to a different service provider. Since the others allow these types of activities, spammers (or ignorant customers) have no problem switching and carrying on as they were.
An effective solution is one used in Japan and what Maemura san from France Telecom talked about. All service providers block outgoing mail for home users and force it to go through their own servers which implement strict spam-combating rules. When I was there, this wasn't very apparent or much of a problem since most of my bandwidth usage was through corporate connections, but it is a good idea.
As for filtering, grey-listing is (at least currently) the most effective way of dealing with spam. Tariq Mustafa from Supernet talked about this in today's general meeting. Both Supernet and APNIC have implemented grey-listing with very hopeful results.
I'm starting work on this and should have a distributed email system in place soon that uses grey-listing, some white-listing, SPF checking as well as Bayesian filtering to wipe out spam. The last two are already working very effectively for me.
Next comes education of end-users which is probably in the worst state and the toughest task. Though everyone complains about spam, hardly anyone is willing or interested in doing something about it themselves. Simply switching from Outlook/Outlook Express to Thunderbird will greatly cut down on spam you have to go through, yet it is taboo to even consider it. Same goes for ditching Internet Explorer, though the situation is slightly better when it comes to browsers.
People still keep forwarding hoaxes and jokes etc. Though the extra bandwidth usage for these is negligible these days when compared to spam, these expose the email addresses of everyone the message has been sent to and can be easily harvested by spammers. Then there are a number of users who actually like spam without realizing how big a menace it is.
I'll try to get in touch with any other ISPs I can around the country and maybe we can come up with some solid policies, maybe even get a law passed. Until then, the battle continues and the good guys seem to be losing.
Thursday 3rd August 2006
The phone that was broken
In a recent fit of rage (don't ask why), I bombed both of my phones onto the hard cemented floor of my room. Here are the results of this "experiment":
- The Sony Ericsson survived with just a chipped casing and is still fully functional (apart from the stick which already needed cleaning after over a year's use)
- The much costlier Nokia's replaced casing survived with barely a scratch. However, the screen broke and the only thing faintly visible is the time. All other functions are working, though I wish I could read my messages and see who is calling
- I feel better despite the above results and the original issue remaining unresolved
- The hard cemented floor remains indifferent
Wednesday 2nd August 2006
I'm at SANOG 8's second day. Listening to Zaeem's talk about recursive DNS attacks. Am learning some very interesting and good stuff. Good thing is that they have wireless Internet connectivity. The event is organized pretty well, though some of yesterday's topics were a bit too advanced for my understanding. Today's material is much closer to my domain and much more useful for me. Details later.
I am Wolverine
Another quiz. I'm posting the results since it involves some of my favorite characters and due to certain recent events which led me to find the results quite accurate.
Most Comprehensive X-Men Personality Quiz 2.0
created with QuizFarm.com
Tuesday 1st August 2006
The Venice of Pakistan
Mansoor, my immediate reporting head, and I were supposed to leave for Karachi by yesterday's 6:30pm flight from Islamabad. We were a little late, but that didn't matter since the flight was supposedly delayed by two hours due to excessive rains in Karachi. We had already checked in so there wasn't any option but to wait.
The delay was extended till 10pm, but at least we were finally on our way. The good part was that we were bumped up to Business Class and the flight was quite comfortable though the sounds coming from the engines were new to me and could have been cause for alarm. The landing also felt like we had landed on the moon and all this reminded me of a number of funny movie scenes.
After landing in Karachi, the first hurdle was finding a cab. There weren't enough available and people were already waiting in long queues for them. It must have taken us an hour to get one and we soon found out the reason for this. The whole of Karachi is submerged due to heavy rains and the water shows no signs of receding. Even the main roads were more than a foot under in most places and I heard it is much worse elsewhere. At one place, a whole truck had to be abandoned because it was half submerged.
I guess we'll find out exactly how bad it is tomorrow, but my shopping plans (including a camera to take photos of these scenes) seem to be dashed. Updates later.
In Karachi for SANOG 8
I just landed in Karachi a couple hours back to attend SANOG 8. SANOG, or "South Asian Network Operators Group", "provides a regional forum to discuss operational issues and technologies of interest to data operators in the South Asian Region".
Zaeem, my Linux guy in Lahore, will also be presenting and the event should be quite educational and productive. I'm most interested in the latest anti-spam techniques and wireless connectivity. Maybe I can get some data to put on wimax.pk.