Pakistan, Japan and other stuff
Tuesday 30th May 2006
Final cut of Blade Runner in the works
CNN is reporting on how a 25th-anniversary edition DVD of Blade Runner will be re-issued this September. Considering that I don't have a copy of the original (or the Director's cut) here is my chance to get all. I wonder what they will have changed in this.
Russian driver takes policeman for a ride
Something that you would think only happened in cool British gangster movies with scary characters:
"Threatened with a ticket, a Russian motorist trapped a traffic policeman's hand in his car window then drove off with the officer attached"Link
Saturday 27th May 2006
Picassa for Linux and Wine
Google Labs has released a Linux version of Picasa, Google's photo organizer software. The interesting part is that it is actually the Windows version of the software, running under Wine. It took a lot of patches to Wine to get Picasa to work under it, but Google has done it.
Picasa seems to work fine on my Ubuntu laptop though the menus and dialog boxes seem a little ugly. Haven't tried it with any cameras yet.
I think that Wine is already a pretty mature project. I managed to run a number of Windows software through it and if it continues to receive support from the likes of Google, I'm sure soon there won't be much we can't run on Linux.
Wednesday 24th May 2006
Pakistan's blogging portal and aggregator
I registered with Bloggers.Pakistan recently (as some of you may have noticed). Didn't get a chance to blog about it earlier so here it goes.
"Bloggers.Pakistan is a concept developed by Dr. Awab Alvi and Omer Alvie to address the need for a consolidated website where all Pakistani blogs can be featured."
An excellent effort and one that shows blogging still has a chance in this country. As of now, there are 591 "Resident Pakistani" blogs registered with the site and 284 "Non-Resident Pakistani" ones. This is quite impressive considering that it only went live quite recently. I already read some of the registered blogs and have found some great new ones.
One recommendation I have is to have an RPC ping system to notify the site of any new posts (similar to those of other blog aggregators). Just something that popped into my mind. Will suggest more when I think up of something.
Keep it up Omer and Dr. Alvi, and good luck.
SPF to fight spam and viruses
Though my domains have been publishing SPF records for a while now, I hadn't implemented it yet on my mail server. Just upgraded my MTA (based on Exim) and added quite a few new things, including SPF, or Sender Policy Framework support.
In case you don't know about SPF, it is a very simple method to prevent abuse of email through faked "From:" addresses. You simply add an extra record in your domain's DNS that specifies which IPs or networks email from your domain may originate from.
Implementing SPF was much simpler than I thought. Exim has built-in SPF support and only requires the libspf2 library to make use of it. Right now, I'm not blocking any email based on SPF alone, though I've heard Hotmail has started marking emails as "Junk" if the SPF doesn't match. What I do instead is add a header to the email indicating the SPF result. I'll let Bogofilter decide whether it should be classified as "Ham" or "Spam".
This is however only until I know how widespread SPF is and looking at the emails I have received today, it seems to be quite widely used. I will start blocking non-matching emails soon so be prepared.
I also added ClamAV support to scan all emails for viruses. Though I don't receive many these days, it's good to be free of the few that I do. Again, I'm impressed by how simple it is to do these things using Exim.
Saturday 20th May 2006
VoIP with Asterisk on Slackware
At the time I started iinix about 3 years ago, some of my friends recommended I get into VoIP (voice over IP) (thanks for trying Ken), the next big thing after Linux. Partly due to my stubbornness and mostly because I already had too much invested in core Linux services and Linux on the desktop, I didn't pay much attention to learning more about this relatively new technology.
With so many call centers cropping up around Pakistan and VoIP now becoming a household thing, I decided to dive in. It was now or never and it was getting frustrating to refuse so many requests. Since late last year I've been working a lot with Asterisk, related VoIP software and voice protocols and codecs.
It's worth noting that voip is illegal in Pakistan, with the exception of call centers who require a license to operate, and voice protocols, such as SIP, are blocked by the main Internet gateways. The "Big TelCo" has too much clout and is very protective of its main revenue-generating services. Nevermind where the rest of the world is going. We just have to live in the dark ages because the Big Guys refuse to change.
The authorities are also surprisingly efficient at enforcing this particular ban and the penalties are very severe. Yet just the limited customer-base is generating a lot of demand and the local solution providers are hardly upto the task. Maybe if the rules are adjusted to the 21st Century, more quality people would get into this.
Anyway, to the technical stuff. CentOS is a very popular choice for all servers these days and that, and sometimes Fedora, was what I used to run Asterisk and supporting software. Asterisk@Home, the no-hassle auto-installing CD for Asterisk, is based on CentOS. Though CentOS is so popular and easty to setup, I was not impressed. There is no comparison to Slackware Linux in terms of security, stability and even performance.
I'm now running Asterisk on Slackware (10.2), with the default 2.4 kernel, and things are going very smoothly. It should run even better with an optimized 2.6 kernel. Pleasant surprise after all the weird issues I've had with CentOS and Fedora.
Friday 19th May 2006
I resubscribed to the Tokyo PC Users Group newsgroups after an absense of maybe a couple of years. Here is something I found on tpc.chit-chat. Real-time world statistics:http://www.worldometers.info/
Thank you Tony for posting the link.
Tuesday 16th May 2006
Though it doesn't feel any hotter than previous summers (at least not Islamabad and not for me), it seems this summer will be very tough for most. Already, at least 84 people have died in the Punjab province alone. Water is a pretty serious issue, even in the relatively cooler and better equipped capital, where Rawal Lake had already dried up before the start of summer (I and Ad even drove into the dried up lake basin a few times) and where temperatures have reached as high as 42 degrees celsius.
Though clouds arrive every other day, the rains aren't coming and instead, we get dust storms. Just yesterday, I was at my uncle's house with my cousins, looking out of the gate, when we saw a huge one heading our way. A lot like the stuff you see in movies. We quickly closed all doors, but the fine dust managed to get everywhere once the storm arrived.
The Prime Minister has warned of a drought and since the winter was pretty dry, things could get very ugly if the rains don't come soon. At home, we use ground water, pumped up through a pretty deep bore, yet this has become a trickle and it takes a whole day of running the pump just to get enough water for one day's needs. It normally took about half an hour.
It seems to me that the country's increasing population and industry is putting too much load on the water system. Trees are being cut down at an extraordinary pace, dams cause a lot of the stored water to evaporate instead of reaching the upstream places that really need it and to top it off, there is no water conservation campaign. Surprising how the prime minister has asked us to pray, but has said hardly a word about conservation. Something to be taken seriously.
Monday 15th May 2006
What is your blogging type?
Another quiz. This one about what type of blogger you are, via Light Within. Here is mine:
|Your Blogging Type Is Thoughtful and Considerate|
You have a heart of gold, and are likely to blog for a cause.
You're a peaceful blogger - no drama for you!
A good listener and friend, you tend to leave thoughtful comments for others.
I think the results have some level of randomness and aren't entirely based on the few questions that you answer.
Friday 12th May 2006
Was reading Karachi Metblogs and discovered this wonderful Google feature. Google Trends allows you to see which search term was used how often and by what group of people. Not surprising to read that Pakistanis were the biggest searchers for "sex" and "cricket".
It was surprising to see India as the biggest searcher for "linux", the only non-European country in the top 10, as well as top for "technology". Somewhat expected and very disappointing that there was no sign of Pakistan in either.
Sunday 7th May 2006
Blogs blocked again
My blog is hosted on my own domain and server. I'm not using an online blogging service, therefore am not directly affected if something happens to blogspot.com, or any other blogging service for that matter. That and my recent vacation from blogging (and the Internet) were the cause for nothing being written about it earlier.
Now that I'm back and unable to read a lot of my friend's blogs, I thought I should write about it. This is what Help-Pakistan.com had to say about the government ban placed a couple of months ago:
"Since 28th February (2006), Pakistani Bloggers’ Freedom of Speech has been under attack by some, if not all, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who has chosen to block all blogs hosted on the blogspot.com domain. Political pressure groups have protested to the government to block those web sites displaying the controversial cartoon images of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) that were hosted on the net. But instead of blocking specific sites, ISPs have simply blacklisted the entire domain, causing thousands of blogs to be inaccessible for viewing in Pakistan."
The ban was temporarily lifted a few days ago, but now it seems to be back in place. Firstly, I just want to point out that ISPs themselves have little power over what they do and don't allow. It is a few geniuses in the government who dictate the policy and expect everyone else to comply. Quite often, as is true in this case, the ISPs aren't even consulted or involved. Quite often, an innocent site will fail to open and after lots of troubleshooting, it will be found to be blocked by the PTCL or the PTA and not the ISP.
I'm completely against this type of censorship itself, but right now I don't want to get into the debate of moral implications of controlling the flow of information. Instead, I'd just like to say that it is amazing how these geniuses fail to grasp simple technical concepts. If a site really has to be blocked, why block the entire domain, network or IP address? This just causes legitimate information that may be hosted together with the controversial one, from being accessable while those determined enough will find a way to get to the blocked site.
On one hand, the government is aiming to project Pakistan as a moderate and open society while on the other, their minions are hard at work making such blunderous mistakes. When will this change?
Thursday 4th May 2006
I recently installed Ubuntu Linux on the laptop I'm currently using and will probably stick to it as my main workstation (though admittedly, the reasons are more political than technical). As most people who know me already know, I'm a Slackware fan and to me hardly anything matches up to the reliability and performance that it provides. But here I am, coordinating a switch from Windows to Linux for people who are technically sound, but are quite unfamiliar with Linux.
Why Ubuntu? Because it is designed specifically for the desktop. You pop in the CD, go through the simple installation procedure and have a functional desktop ready without having to struggle with your video card settings or Wi-fi drivers. I could get all this working (and in a much better way) under a distribution such as Slackware, but try doing such configuration for more than a couple of users, spread out in different areas, and it becomes a real PITA.
As for Ubuntu itself, it installed pretty easily (even though I chose to do an advanced install). It managed to detect all the hardware, set the correct resolution and configure everything correctly. The update system worked very well and I managed to apply all patches as well as add more packages, all through the graphical utilities. For the more advanced users, "apt" can be used to do this since Ubuntu is based on Debian Linux.
One issue I did face was with authentication for running graphical admin tools. At first, I kept entering the root password which wasn't accepted. Once I found out that I need to enter my user's password to allow "sudo" to run the tools, the password was accepted, but the tools simply failed to run after that, without giving any reason. Will look at this issue later, since it hasn't exactly hindered my work.
Printing is something that I have seldom managed (or bothered) to setup on Linux. My last printer was an HP LaserJet 1300 that I setup using the web interface CUPS provides. It worked very well, but this is hardly something a non-technical person can manage. With Ubuntu, all I had to do was select "Printing" from the "Administration" menu under "System" and select "New Printer". It found all shared (through Windows) printers on the network and installed them without a problem.
Some of the most commonly used software that comes with the current Ubuntu (Breezy) is a bit old, maybe something it inherited from Debian. It ships with version 1.0.7 of Firefox and Thunderbird (currently at version 1.5), two things that I use the most.
Though in future, I may keep a "production" laptop running Slackware and use a secondary lappy/desktop with Ubuntu, until the new converts are self-reliant, Ubuntu is what I'll be using so that I can easily support them and from what I've seen, it isn't that bad.
Tuesday 2nd May 2006
Pakistan ninth most failed state?
Quite shocking to read this BBC article on the Failed States Index for this year. If anything, I was expecting Pakistan's position to be much better than in the past, but it has slipped from 34th last year to 9th this year. That's a very sharp decline. Seeing it ranked above (more failed than) the likes of Afghanistan, Rwanda or North Korea is cause for alarm as well as being quite unbelieveable.
"The contributing factors were Pakistan's inability to police the tribal areas near the Afghan border, the devastating earthquake last October in Kashmir and rising ethnic tensions, report said."
I have trouble believing that these would cause such a sharp decline. The earthquake was quite devastating and one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the country, but it's effects were mostly limited to the (relatively) sparsely populated and poorer areas of the north. To the average Pakistani, it was more of a human tragedy and loss rather than an economic one. And if devastation from natural disasters can make a state "more failed", what about the US after Katrina or victims of the 2004 Tsunami?
As for the autonomous tribal areas near the Afghan border, as well as the Baloch tribes up in arms, they have historically been a source of volatility and it isn't anything new. Again, it hasn't had a significant impact on the average Pakistani (other than higher gas prices maybe).
I won't say that the country is suddenly free from all its woes. It still has a very long way to go, but in my view deterioration has stopped or slowed down overall and many parts of the society have seen dramatic improvement off late. It is a few highly prominent events that may make it look like a failed state, but there's still a lot of hope left for Pakistan.