Pakistan, Japan, Linux and lots more
Wednesday 29th November 2006
Cowboy food at Gun Smoke
I had the most amazing burger ever today. It was at least double the size of the average Islamabad burger and many times as good. Despite gobbling up this large meal, I was left feeling hungry and craving for more. The culprit was a Peppercorn Beef Burger from the newly opened Gun Smoke "cafe" in F-7.
Though my review of it can't be truly reliable (never having been to Texas, or even the States), everything about Gun Smoke has an authentic Texan feel to it. The wooden chairs, flooring and panels, rifles and cattle skulls decorating the walls and most importantly, the huge portions of food all give you a feel of the Wild West.
That look and feel may still be achievable by others here, but where Gun Smoke truly excels is in bringing the real flavor of Western food to us. I have yet to experience the same kind of taste or smell anywhere in Pakistan. In fact, it was so good that a couple of Americans passing by were drawn to it because "it smelled like home" and dug in to the tasty food. Too bad that a lot of Pakistanis can't fully appreciate it. One of the clients in front of us got quite angry at the manager, complaining about raw (read unburnt) meat. Well that's how meat is cooked outside Pakistan silly.
With hardly any seating area, this eatery has achieved what the likes of "Arizona Grill" and "Texas Steakhouse" failed to achieve with their large floorspaces and vinyl cowboy uniforms. It's a bit pricy for a cafe or take-away restaurant, but the quality of food, as well as the deco make it well worth it.
Coming back to health, the situation looks somewhat grim for me. On the one hand, I'm stuck with hot, spicy and oily local food that I don't like much, while on the other, there's mighty tasty steaks and good ol' Western food to help clog the arteries. Bring on the steak next.
Tuesday 28th November 2006
Blocking image spam
The new Exim mail server I recently had setup is holding up quite well and the amount of spam we were getting has been cut down by at least fifty percent. Though a number of techniques were used to achieve this, the most effective seem to be "sender verify" and checking for valid "HELO" headers. Greylisting wasn't included since we still aren't very familiar with it and it could potentially deluge us with support calls and complaints. I'm still testing it out and will include it in the near future. I'll also try to post a more detailed article on this setup some other time, but for now, let's talk about spam.
Despite rejecting close to 10,000 spams a day, lots of it is still getting through, most of it being image spam. Now there isn't an easy way to deal with this. The image size and content isn't constant so you can't setup filters to check for those. Valid emails containing images are commonly sent by a large majority of users so you can't block every message containing an image.
Stuart sent me a link to this article that suggests a way to deal with image spam, albeit not as simple to implement as some of the other popular methods. It suggests having a whitelist-like system for GIFs, though I'm a bit sceptical as to the accuracy and benefits of this method versus the effort required to implement it.
I think the biggest hurdle that we admins currently face while fighting spam is the inability of most users to accept change. They would rather continue to receive some spam than face a delayed delivery (if you use Greylisting) and would rather use a server that allows simple relaying than one that requires authentication. Such small things may irritate users, but they cause serious headaches for us admins and open up the services to ever-increasing amounts of spam in the future.
I seriously doubt that at the current rate, email will continue to be a feasible means of communication for very long. What we need is a more modern system of communication with the benefits of email, but without the drawbacks.
Monday 27th November 2006
Respect for Islam
In most cultures, other people's beliefs are respected, at least on an official level. In this country, not even the official religion is safe so you can forget about the freedoms others have. According to the below article (in Urdu), the iconic Faisal Mosque in Islamabad was closed by the authorities and the public, including the Imam, were disallowed from entering. All prayers were stopped and the use of loudspeakers for the Azan, or call to prayer, was also denied.
Why was such a step taken? What was so utterly important that it was worth risking God's wrath? Ok, maybe you don't believe in God or have different views about this, but does it make sense to offend the very people that form the huge majority of your country? (not that this hasn't already been done). The reason was simple: A tour of the mosque by the visiting British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
(Click to see full image)
I'm not going to translate the whole thing, but to summarize, it talks about the consequences of stopping prayers in such a way, as stated in the Quran. It also contains an account of a British journalist who noted the whole thing and compared it to the religious freedoms that everyone, including Muslims, have in the West. In most other countries, there is full freedom to perform prayers and the Azan, whether it is a normal day or if there is a VIP visit. That even after 9-11. I think simply allowing a non-Muslim into a mosque was enough to warrant condemnation from the public. One can only imagine the response for denying the right to pray.
It has become the norm for the government to have pro-Western policies for everything from punishments for petty crimes to support for foreign regimes, regardless of the effect it will have within the country itself. But taking such steps to appease your Western allies, steps that are considered unacceptable by the allies themselves, is ridiculous.
Some of us realize that extremism should be eradicated and we should have a more moderate view of things, but how does this sort of desecration fit into progress? It is just extra fuel for the extremists to use for their call to arms and propaganda.
Friday 24th November 2006
First the blogspot ban now wordpress
The whole domain blogspot.com was banned by the Pakistani authorities earlier this year. That hurt, but we lived on through pkblogs.com and similar proxying services. This time its Wordpress. So much for free speech and freedom of the press. Mr. President, where are you now?
A couple of days ago, I was told to restrict access to a certain Wordpress blog for the ISP's users after being deemed offensive by the authorities, but it seems that now all blogs on the wordpress.com domain are inaccessible. The main Wordpress site opens fine, but the blogs I checked don't. They probably blocked everything going to all wordpress.com addresses.
I'm against censorship in general, but this is just going too far. It's like stopping all traffic because someone was seen speeding on the highway. Or burning a library because some of the books it stores contain offensive material. Besides, the Internet is such that you simply can't block something completely without cutting yourself off from everyone else. You'll just irritate the hell out of everyone and force them to use other means to get to that content.
The worst part is that a number of sites being blocked share their IP or subnet with other sites. This causes many other useful sites to be lost just because of that particular one.
It looks like eventually, people will start banning us. I remember Slashdot doing it once due to unauthorized activity from our proxy's IP and it wasn't pretty. What if it was Google or Yahoo that blocked us? That should be pretty effective at killing off a lot of our business and all the progress we've recently made.
Unhealthy diet and lifestyle
When I returned to Pakistan almost four years ago, I was used to a healthy lifestyle of working out regularly, eating healthy food and avoiding most unhealthy stuff. Sushi and salad were my favorites and anything spicy, salty or oily was out. Though I used to love colas, chocolates and all other types of junk at one point, I lost interest once getting into the groove.
Now that my sister's on a healthy diet, I've realized how my habits and preferences have changed. You can judge how very healthy I am by the fact that I can hardly find time to go to the gym, rest very little and end up eating a lot of junk food. That includes lots of spices (as compared to before) and unhealthy snacks with sugars, salt and preservatives. There's also much more meat in the diet than before.
I think it has a lot to do with how fast things are changing in Pakistan. Our lives are getting more and more hectic and we have more money to indulge the taste buds, yet few people know much (or care) about nutrition and would rather enjoy their meal and live with the few extra inches around their waist than go for something beneficial. Often, I'm so caught up in work that I don't even leave the office and either skip meals or order in. Funnily, I'm still roughly 8kgs lighter than when I got here with hardly any difference in shape, a fact that really irks my rounder friends.
Since there's little demand for healthy food, there's next to no supply. Take salad for example. My favorite used to be Caprice, made from sliced tomatoes and cheese. Good cheese is still very hard to find here and tomatoes are preferred half-burnt in curry with all the goodness lost to spices. When it comes to salads, the best you'll get is something like Rahat's, full of all kinds of meat and fatty dressing. Subway formed a major part of my diet in Japan, yet the outlet here is truly pathetic and to be avoided whenever possible.
I think the healthiest thing I have had in the last couple of months is "Fire Pot" at a Chinese restaurant in F-7. I guess it's not much different from the Japanese Shabu Shabu, something I never got to try in Japan because of the non-halal meat. Interesting fact (via Wikipedia): the Hot Pot originated at the time the Mongols dominated most of Asia as an efficient way to feed the troops. Anyway, the Fire Pot was good and quite healthy, but something only a select few friends are willing to brave with even fewer liking it. Today's lunch wasn't bad either. Pasta with lots of olives and tomatoes.
So, the solution, at least for me, lies in finding new friends who can appreciate a healthy lifestyle. Kidding. I think I need to move to another city (or country) with less stress and better options for food. Or, hope that more people around me start worrying about their health.
Monday 20th November 2006
Zaeem introduced me to DNS views recently and I'm suddenly in love with the concept and have loads of ideas for making use of it. The basic idea is that you return different DNS results depending on certain criteria, such as the source network or IP address. As an example, this allows you to direct people to different websites or servers, depending on where they are coming from.
The way I plan to use it is to have my US server, which has better bandwidth and is closer to the rest of the world, be the main server for everyone, while my server here in Pakistan will serve requests for those visiting from within Pakistan. That should make things faster for everybody, in addition to providing a backup in case one site is down.
It should also help in the unfortunate (and unlikely, for now) event that the authorities decide to block my websites. Thank you Zaeem.
Friday 17th November 2006
Its a Dilbert world
It's amazing how often real life is more entertaining that fiction. This is an actual (official) email that I just wrote and sent:
It seems that the rat from the bathroom reached XXX last night and caused quite a stir among the female and not so female staff this morning. It has now taken refuge in the store room and may end up consuming most of our bandwidth, literally.
Kindly have it eradicated at the earliest to avoid any damage to the equipment or the staff's strong and courageous image.
Wednesday 15th November 2006
Cause for concern
My sister suffered a bout of illness a couple of days ago that has really shaken everyone. It turned out to be nothing very serious (yet), but I will do whatever it takes to make sure it stays that way. This also means less time for everything else, at least for the next few days. Please pray for her.
Monday 13th November 2006
Not just a personal blog
When I started blogging roughly four years ago, it was just an extension of my personal website, like most other blogs, and something only my personal friends regularly visited. I would just post about the everyday things I experienced and technical stuff that I wouldn't have to search for everytime I needed it.
Recent comments and replies to my posts (not to mention the increased traffic) have made me realize how it has matured into a more serious site with regular readers. I have realized that my opinions and comments now matter and I have to make an extra effort to remain impartial. This and keeping track of things happenings around me and the rest of the world is added responsibility on my part, but I'm glad this is so.
I would just like to thank all of my readers and will request that you keep the comments coming in. Thank you very much.
Saturday 11th November 2006
New Linux server
I had been planning to get a US-hosted server for quite a while, but was hesitant because of the initial and monthly investment required and the level of support I would get. The budget hosting services I've tried before had quite a pathetic level of service and the servers were often offline for hours or even days. I had evaluated a number of hosting companies, but couldn't decide on one. Yesterday, I finally went ahead with Jim's recommendation and signed up with Cari.net. My concern about support soon vanished when I got a verification call from one of their reps who was very helpful and got the server running within a few hours.
I now have a much faster and newer server at my disposal. The default OS is Fedora Linux (almost impossible to find affordable hosting with Slackware support) and I was planning to attempt a remote Slackware install (by copying the filesystem to a new partition and overwriting Fedora), but in the end, decided that it was too risky. It is a 64-bit server and in case I lose access to it during the shift, I would have to shell out more money to get Fedora back. Might as well get Fedora to play nice.
I'm still in the process of configuring it and will start shifting to it sometime next week. There will be as many updates and tweaks as I can manage and my sites, including this one, will be less susceptible to downtimes. They should also open faster for readers and users outside Pakistan.
Thursday 9th November 2006
Today was Iqbal Day, the birthday of Allama Muhammad Iqbal, the philosopher, poet and politician who originally put forward the idea of an independent Muslim state that would become Pakistan. I also just realized that he was knighted by the British government (then the British Empire) for some of his works.
This day is a national holiday in Pakistan to commemorate Sir Iqbal, though myself and a number of other people I know are working away. You may say that it has something to do with being a workaholic or that we've lost any regard for such occasions, but I see it as a good sign. It wasn't long ago that a large majority of Pakistanis took every opportunity to avoid work and a single national or religious holiday was accompanied by a number of additional (sick or personal) leaves. Looks like this attitude is changing and at least some are putting in the effort to make this country a better place. The Allama would be proud.
Out with the old
I've had it with Maggie. Though my Suzuki Margalla has been with me for more than 2 years now, through thick and thin, events that I can't forget, it has also caused a lot of pain and misery. The accident two years back burned quite a hole in my pocket and the car has been a money drain ever since. It has also become very unreliable and gets annoyed pretty easily, that too at the worst possible times.
Though I haven't found a replacement yet, I'm looking around and am hoping to find something trustworthy with a bit more style. I can easily have a brand new car financed through a bank (they are more than eager to sell this service to me), but am fighting hard to stay away from that trap. It'll have to be a used one for me. Something I can easily afford and something that I can customize and tweak to perfection (the geek in me lives).
However, I'm quite fed up with the level of service and expertise you find here in Islamabad when it comes to getting your car repaired, serviced or customized. Whether it is a "freelance" mechanic or a full-fledged service center, the chances are, they'll offer a quick fix solution that doesn't last long and creates a new issue instead. I've tried those that my friends recommended as well as those I had good terms with directly. They all end up to be below par. A good mechanic is just a myth to me.
I have a proposed solution. In many countries, the law guarantees that there aren't any old or unfit cars on the road. This makes very old and damaged cars practically worthless and more recent, but used ones affordable for the average person. It also forces those responsible for repairs to well, be more responsible and offer better quality services. I'm not sure if there is such a law in Pakistan, but even if there is, its implementation is non-existent.
Granted that a sudden implementation of this type of law here could create havoc, but only for a little while. Those who are currently forced to drive extinct wrecks (due to their affordability), will have to upgrade while having to ditch their current vehicles. Incompetent mechanics may go out of business since the new cars require better competence.
Eventually though, all of the used, but recent vehicles will be more affordable, easier to maintain and create less trouble for everyone else on the road. Those with the money for luxury cars or the latest and greatest can continue to pay full price.
Now, you might say that enforcing a better level of service overall, in all walks of life and holding those responsible for less than perfect output should be the primary concern, but that is something too far-fetched in a society like the one we have here. A surgical change, such as the one above should be easier to implement. Just my two cents.
I should be able to find something within the next month and will post about my experience with it. I'm hoping it will be something special, but let's see what I get. Wish me luck.
Wednesday 8th November 2006
Musharraf reply in English
A followup to my previous translation of Adnan's speech, below is the second part, a translation into English of President Pervez Musharraf's reply. It was longer than I had imagined, but the President's words were quite straightforward and I didn't have to think much on it.
And watching it again, I realized that it was a very good speech, considering that it wasn't scripted. That also made its interpretation a bit difficult in the sense that many sentences broke off and wouldn't have made sense with direct translation. I've added some comments to facilitate this which I hope are accurate enough. The last part of the video I have is also a bit corrupted so the last couple of paragraphs may not be very accurate. Let me know if there are any errors in them.
Ok. Thank you. Thank you very much. This guest's... The speech of our guest from Binori Town definitely prove one thing, that here, independence of views, transparency (exist)... None of the selection is such that they can't speak (that there is no censorship). This man in uniform (pointing to his khaki) has allowed this, whereas before now, it wasn't. You should know what would have been the future of someone who spoke in such a manner in the past. So, only this man in khakis has allowed you to speak freely and share your thoughts, but you must also have the ability to listen to others' opinions. The problem starts when you people do not have the ability to understand other people's views and refrain from doing what you... it was from your (madrassa) that... burned the office of "Business Recorder"... Those were graduates from the very same madrassa you came from that did that. Don't do this.
Friday 3rd November 2006
UTube sues YouTube
Though it is someone else's misery, I couldn't help smiling when I read about how Utube's site (Universal Tube & Rollform Equipment Corporation) kept crashing from all the extra hits they got when users mistyped youtube.com. Apparently, the former tube is suing the latter tube for causing havoc at its business.
The amusing thing wasn't just that the site kept crashing. It was that they moved the site four times, yet never bothered to fix it. The main page is full of tables, at least a hundred images and is hosted on IIS. Poor sods. Off course it'll burn their bandwidth and keep crashing. What they need is a better website.
If I was in their place, I would have looked at the bright side and been happy to receive this much traffic (after fixing the site off course).
Thursday 2nd November 2006
Need to receive spam
I've setup a honeypot address to receive all sorts of spam so that I
can work on stopping it for everyone else. Please feel free to spam me
on the following email address or subscribe it to shady websites (not
that it won't be harvested from this page by spammers anyway):
Dengue fever information
Posted by Neoka on Metroblogging Karachi:
(click to enlarge)