Blog about the Net, Pakistan and more

Friday 25th September 2009

Belated Eid Mubarak

General

Now that the slow, but blessed month of Ramadan and the Eid season are over, I am starting to be a little more productive. As usual, there was a lot to write about and ample time to utilize my literary skills, but this year's fasting month was especially hard and as you may have seen from my tweets, I was either too drowsy, too empty or overly full to get much done. The lingering heat wave hasn't helped either.

So, to kick things off, Eid Mubarak to everyone. Hope the month of fasting left you in a good shape, both physically and spiritually, and that you had an enjoyable Eid.

 

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Sunday 30th August 2009

Discussion on Pakistani Superheroes

Humor

This was a serious status update that I recently made on Facebook about what the Pakistani lawyer movement had turned into. Hilarity soon ensued and it became a discussion of what a Pakistani Superhero should be like. You can read it here:

  • Me:
    Lawyers fighting each other like kids and turning into a rowdy mob. These are the people who'll give us justice?
  • Arsalan:
    Dude let's make a comic character. Pakistan's first super hero(one that's not related to an antibacterial soap)
    You know like captain america! I smell money X D
  • Arsalan:
    No wait that was just a fly caught in my nose
  • Me:
    Hmm, that's a great idea, one you'll now regret. ;)
    I'm going to base Pakwoman on you. A female superhero disguised as a bearded engineer.
    Weakness: flies and pants
  • Arsalan:
    turn ons... women and food : P~
  • Me:
    So a geeky, overweight lesbian, allergic to flies? On second thought, maybe a Pakistani superhero isn't such a bright idea.
  • Arsalan:
    we could give her a cape?
  • Me:
    She'll just make a burqa out of it so what's the use?

So, any sketch artists want to help us out here? We just may be able to find a person matching this profile. Just imagine where we'd be if Pakwoman was real.

 

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Wednesday 26th August 2009

Linux turns 18

Linux

It's finally here. Tux's 18th birthday. It was 18 years ago today, 26th August, that Linux Torvalds unleashed Linux upon the world via this message:

Hello to all those using Minix.

I am creating an operating system (free) (for pure hobby, will not be as
big or professional like gnu) for AT clones 386 (486). I’ve been working
on it since April and is already beginning to be ready. I’d like to get
feedback on what people like / dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it
somewhat (same physical layout of the file system (for practical reasons)
among other things).

So far I’ve ported bash (1.08) and gcc (1.40), and two utilities seem to
work. This means I’ll have something functional in a few months and want
to know what features would be most people. Any suggestion is welcome,
but I can not promise to put them all in practice :-)

Linus Benedict Torvalds

PD. Yes – it’s free minix code, and has a file system thread-safe. It is
NOT portable (uses 386 task switching etc.), And probably never work on
something else other than AT hard disks, because it’s all I have :-(

How it has grown from its humble beginnings. I haven't checked the latest statistics, but when someone says server, in most cases you can assume it would be running Linux.

Tux turns 18

Despite its wild success on servers, I'd say Linux has failed on the desktop. If a die-hard fan like myself is considering ditching it in favor of Mac OS or God-forbid, Microsoft Windows, there's definitely something seriously wrong.

Maybe I've just been unlucky, but the recent switch by distributions to the totally useless Pulse Audio system has broken my sound (and that's on different systems, running different distros). Reliable sound was the reason I initially switched to Linux. Too bad the lack of it is forcing me away. Then application support is still a problem. A number of popular apps still don't have a native Linux version, iTunes and Google Chrome being prime examples.

In my older days, I probably would have lived without an unstable Skype or found a way to fix and tweak Pulse Audio (or pry it out and revert to good ol' ALSA). However, the former isn't possible and I just don't have the time for the latter.

Maybe these issues can be sorted out by its 21st birthday, so I won't lose all hope. Happy Birthday and best of luck Linux.

Thanks to AllforLinux.com for the birthday reminder.

 

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Monday 24th August 2009

Renewed hope for Pakistan

Pakistan

For the past couple of years, there hasn't been a lot of positive news coming out of Pakistan and although it has remained quite insulated from the effects of the global recession, things haven't been too rosy.

I was recently reading a nice article on Dawn titled Silly Season in Pakistan that explored the possibility of ridding the country of the current president (don't get your hopes up) and the following part caught by attention:

The macroeconomic indicators have stabilised; inflation is down; the power crisis will ease now that summer is over; suicide bombings are down; a degree of normality is returning to Swat; Baitullah Mehsud is dead and his headquarters in South Waziristan is under siege; the judicial crisis is over; a truce, albeit an uneasy one, is holding in Punjab; the American demands to ‘do more’ against the Taliban are muted; drone strikes are less of a political hot potato; relations with India are edging towards a post-Mumbai phase; parliament is upping its legislative activity — it’s not quite singing-in-the-rain happy, but neither is it the nightmare that was Pakistan in 2007 and 2008.

We have gotten so used to bad news, that we haven't realized that things actually aren't as bad as one might imagine. The wildly unpopular government may be lame sitting ducks, but they must be doing something right.

When I arrived here in 2003, I didn't have much hope for this country. As in the years before that, there wasn't much to be hopeful about. However, the following few years brought about huge, mostly positive, social and economic changes that among other things, provided a lot of hope for the future.

That hope quickly started to fade in the turbulent year that was 2007 and has now pretty much disappeared. Thinking about what the above article said, I have to wonder. Is it time to hope again?

 

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Friday 14th August 2009

Happy 62nd Independence Day

Pakistan Islamabad

Just got home (at 2am) after being stuck on Islamabad's roads for a few hours. Cars, bikes, vans, you name it; they were all out on the Pakistani flag on a car roads, crawling at a snail's pace and blocking all intersections.

However, it was nothing to be mad about. Pakistan's 62nd independence day is here and the party has just started.

Seeing all these people, one forgets all the trouble this country's been facing. Terrorism, inflation, unemployment, instability; tonight, these appeared to be the last things on anyone's minds.

There were even people riding bicycles while waving the national flag and it's an even bigger celebration than the recent one for the Cricket world cup win.

A friend of mine once called the Americans the most flag-waving nation on earth. Guess he should visit Pakistan on one of these occasions.

This show of spirit, which was partly just letting off some of the pent up steam, is encouraging. I hope we can all continue with such energy and channel it into productive ways.

Congratulations to all Pakistanis for making it this far, despite the odds.

 

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Monday 10th August 2009

Telenor Persona Weblounge

Pakistan Mobile Web

For the last few years, the growth in Pakistan's telecom sector has been spectacular. Yes, we're still waiting for 3G and there's plenty of room for improvement, but we have one of the fastest growing number of users and among the lowest call rates in the world.

Persona Weblounge

Competition between the various operators has been fierce, but one that has continued to surprise us is Telenor.

It has gained a large chunk of the market in a short time and has usually been the first to introduce a new feature or service. Here is another first.

Along with some prominent bloggers, I was invited to a sneak preview of Telenor's new product that is to be launched in Pakistan today. In a country where it is still very hard to manage anything online (I still have to queue up at the bank or service center to pay most of my bills), the Persona Weblounge lets you do just that and a lot more, all from the comfort of your home.

Looking for a new connection with a golden number or a customized plan? Just select your desired number and complete the online application. Once everything is in order, you'll have your SIM activated and delivered to your doorstep within 48 hours. The same is true for moving your existing number to Telenor (via Mobile Number Portability) or managing the many value added services they have to offer.

The best thing I liked about Telenor was the team's spirit and vision. They seem to be genuinely keen on moving forward and exploring different avenues to expand their services, joining the blogosphere being one of them. Hope they'll continue this trend and also become major sponsors of future blogging events.

 

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Sunday 9th August 2009

The tech cycle of failure and rebirth

General

This year has been especially rough for gadgets and tech in general. Murphy's Law has struck not once, not twice, but a number of times and I put it all down to a cycle of life that everything follows.

I lost most of my equipment to power damage a couple of months ago. More recently, I let out my anger and frustrations on the laptop for the last time. Right after doing an SR (long story, but to cut it short, it means bringing one's fist down very hard) on the keyboard, the drive made a click and I witnessed my work grind to a complete halt.

I usually keep enough backups to minimize disruption or downtime, but I was already running in degraded mode with the PC knocked out of service. I had only a couple hours to be fully functional and get back online so I took the fast, but expensive route and got a new power supply, LCD and video card for the PC. Was back to work in a couple of hours, but it cost me and also taught me some cruel lessons.

There is certain data that you usually just don't consider backing up. Drafts for example. I had a number of finished and half-finished blog posts that I was going to eventually post, but are now lost, possibly forever. Photos and videos are another thing that you usually don't bother backing up. Lost a lot of those too.

Anyway, I'm back to redundant mode after getting a new hard disk for the laptop. Both the laptop and the desktop are fully functional and configured to act as the other's backup.

It was around that time when my friend's hosting service wiped lost all of his data, including sites he had been hosting for a lot of other people. Quite an ordeal, especially when you aren't familiar and skilled with the concept of regular, automated backups. The poor guy had to retrieve data from Google cache, but eventually got pretty much everything back. Should have listened when I offered him my mirrored hosting service.

iPhone 3G

Now onto phones. I finally lost my terminally ill and terribly bulky Sony Ericsson P990i. It was already on its last breaths after a fall down the stairs and had had a pretty rough run of over two years. Despite it's numerous flaws and injuries, it had survived until now as my primary camera and as a secondary phone. That's quite impressive, given that I have a history of throwing phones at hard surfaces to relieve stress (I now hit laptops for that).

Anyway, the phone sneaked off somehow while I was at the pool and it gave me an excuse to splurge on an iPhone 3G. And since it hasn't been officially launched in Pakistan, that usually means paying at least twice as much as elsewhere with no warranty. A costly investment, but I'm happy to finally catch up with the rest of the world. It's really great as a phone, though besides that, it's a little more than an expensive toy. I have to wonder if I should have spent that money on an extra laptop.

I still have the Blackberry Curve, which after about a year's use, is also screaming to be replaced. Its keys, one of my favorite reasons to stick with the Curve, have started to fail and I no longer write perfectly spelled, unabbreviated SMSs. The trackball, or pearl, has already been cleaned once, but I've now lost the click in it and have to use the Return key most of the time. Guess will need to do another surgery on it. Was planning on jumping to the Javelin 8900, but after the iPhone, my money can be better spent elsewhere.

Moral of the story: Always be prepared to lose your cool gadgets. They're less faithful than money and thanks to Murphy, they WILL fail. It's just a matter of time.

 

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Friday 26th June 2009

Michael Jackson dies at 50

General
Michael Jackson

Heard about the shocking news about an hour back and it's official. Michael Jackson has passed away at the age of 50.

Although I was never a real fan, I remember being asked to write a letter in school to my favorite musician. Only one name came to mind: Michael Jackson. I also remember John, Manish and Anil, some of my friends at the time, doing the same.

Then I remember the King of Pop coming to Singapore on his Dangerous tour and taking the whole island by storm. For months later, we were drinking from cups bearing the Dangerous insignia and being awed by his Black or White video.

Though he gained notoriety for some of his more recent antics, such as dangling his baby son off a balcony, he has definitely left his mark on more than one generation and was one of the world's most recognizable names. Sad to see him go like this. R.I.P.

 

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Monday 22nd June 2009

Pakistan wins the 2009 Cricket World Cup

Pakistan

Firstly, let me just say that despite my great love for participating in most kinds of sports and physical activities, the thought of watching a match from the couch doesn't quite appeal to me (well, maybe with the exception of the FIFA World Cup). And when it comes to Cricket, I have neither the patience, nor the will to sit through a whole match.

But this post is about the only spot of good news that this nation has seen in a while. It comes after a long and bitter spell of the last few years, filled with the news of war, suicide bombings and all kinds of catastrophes.

As usual, I found other stuff to do during tonight's Cricket World Cup Final. I didn't even know who we were playing against until after it had started, but the final victory was instantly apparent as screams of joy and a roar of fireworks went up all around my area.

Twitter screenshot for #PakCricket

Pakistan had won the final match against Sri Lanka and were this year's world champions. Even after midnight, the streets of Islamabad were littered with convoys of cars, music blaring and people waving flags. I couldn't even get near Jinnah Super because of the traffic jams and ended up going to F-6 to enjoy a few drinks and catch up with friends. In most of the country, the party may still be on at these wee hours of the morning.

It was amazing to see Pakistanis finally united on something. We were so focused actually that we made it to the top five trends on Twitter for a while. Didn't imagine Twitter being actively used by any but the most web-savvy Pakistanis.

Congratulations to all and here's hoping we can show the same kind of unity and enthusiasm in dealing with the barrage of problems plaguing us.

 

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Saturday 20th June 2009

Using multiple broadband links from one system

Linux Internet

This is a piece I wrote a while back and lost when my hard drive died. Just found it again in one of the backups

These days, it's not uncommon to have multiple ways to access the Internet. It is quite likely that you have a home DSL connection and another wireless connection via your mobile device, albeit a lot slower than the DSL. But if you're anything like me, you had better keep a backup connection or two.

Until the recent disaster that wiped out most of my devices, I had DSL (from PTCL), a fiber-to-the-home connection (Nayatel) and a trial WiMax one (from Wi-Tribe that I'll soon have to start paying for), all without any limits on how much I could download (at least after 8pm). (I wrote the above part right after the burnout, but things have fully recovered since then)

The simple way to deal with that is to maybe use your laptop with one link and your PC with the other (assuming you have more than one system). However, there's another, geekier way which I discovered after going through a number of howtos and lots of experimentation.

I've configured my systems to route the traffic, first according to the destination, and secondly the system user. This means that I can fire up two separate browsers on the same system (more on that some other time), each using a different connection for the non-essential bandwidth usage.

Now for the nitty gritty (tested with Ubuntu 8.xx, but should work with any recent Linux distro):

  1. Firstly, make sure that the iproute package is installed
    apt-get install iproute
    (
    yum install iproute
    for RedHat based systems)
  2. Next, add your own definitions for your connections in /etc/iproute2/rt_tables (just a unique number and a descriptive string should do):
    101 nayatel
    102 ptcl
    103 witribe
  3. Then associate each table with a number so that packets marked by iptables can find their way:
    ip rule add fwmark 1 table nayatel
    ip rule add fwmark 2 table ptcl
    ip rule add fwmark 3 table witribe
  4. Delete any existing default route and add the relevant routes for each connection. I chose to have the PTCL connection as the new default route:
    ip route del default
    ip route add default via 192.168.0.200 table ptcl
    ip route add default via 192.168.0.100 table nayatel
    ip route add default via 192.168.0.300 table witribe
    ip route add default via 192.168.0.200
  5. Now simply use the mangle table and add iptable rules to segregate the traffic. In the example, I route all my important traffic through the Nayatel FTTH connection (mark 1) and the rest depending on the userid, but you can be as creative as you like:
    iptables -t mangle -A OUTPUT -d 66.240.221.0/255.255.255.0 -j MARK --set-mark 1
    iptables -t mangle -A OUTPUT -m owner --uid-owner 1020 -j MARK --set-mark 1
    iptables -t mangle -A OUTPUT -m owner --uid-owner 1034 -j MARK --set-mark 2
    iptables -t mangle -A OUTPUT -m owner --uid-owner 1043 -j MARK --set-mark 3

That's it. Sit back and let loose the fury.

The above steps are only valid for TCP or UDP traffic. ICMP (pings) will still use the default route so don't be surprised to have excellent ping times when you think the traffic should be going over wireless.

You can also go for a more sophisticated approach. Set a cronjob or your rc.local script to set the routes according to the time of day.

current_hour=`date +%H`
if [ $current_hour -gt 8 ] && [ $current_hour -lt 20 ]; then
	ip route add default via 192.168.0.200 table nayatel
	ip route add default via 192.168.0.200
else
	ip route add default via 192.168.0.100 table nayatel
	ip route add default via 192.168.0.100
fi

I'll leave the other possibilities up to your imagination, but it took a lot of digging just to get enough information to do the above. Hope it comes in handy to someone.

 

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Saturday 6th June 2009

Suicide bombing at Rescue 15 compound

Pakistan Islamabad

There has just been a suicide attack on a police emergency station, right in the heart of Islamabad. The terrorist climbed over the fence of the Rescue 15 compound near Zero Point and opened fire on the security personnel inside. Upon retaliatory fire, he blew himself up, killing two policemen in the process and injuring several others.

I've always wondered What could drive someone to harm another human being, especially someone you don't even know and who is only doing their job. Forget about humans, what gives you the right to hurt any living thing?

It's an unforgivable crime when you kill others. Even worse when you take your own life in the process. But to do it in the name of religion? Especially a religion that preaches peace and tolerance? And to people who follow the same one as you claim to follow? I don't know what to say.

So what next? Do we just keep putting up with this? Isn't there anything that can be done about it? How about accepting some serious security measures? And I don't mean randomly placed road blocks.

Scan everything that gets in and out. Start treating the capital like an airport or a foreign country and gradually expand the security circle to include other areas. It might sound extreme and inconvenience us a little, but isn't it worth saving a lot of lives and achieving lasting peace?

 

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Thursday 4th June 2009

Dedicated to the brave soldiers

Pakistan

Today, I attended a prayer session at the parade ground in front of the president's house and the national assembly. It was to honor the brave soldiers that have fallen while defending the country against the Taliban insurgency in the North.

Candles were lit and slogans were chanted. Parents and children of some of those great men came forward to add their voices and were honored for their sacrifices.

Veteran Pakistani soldier

The most disturbing event was listening to a young veteran who was wounded at the front lines. He described learning of the deaths of people he knew. Of watching his friends and those under his command succumb to their deaths, right in front of his eyes. Besides those that have sacrificed their lives, there are countless others who have been permanently maimed or scarred.

The saddest part was that despite all this suffering, all the acts of valor and the successes that have been made against the extremists, some people have the audacity to call the whole operation (codenamed Rah-e-Rast or "righteous path") a sham and just an excuse to receive funds from Western powers.

Others have gone so far as to question the use of force against those that claim to be the soldiers of Islam, yet kill and know only the use of force, both clearly forbidden in the religion of peace.

This is a time for all of us to come together and play our part in supporting the troops and the almost 2 million people displaced by the conflict. The Pakistani army has always borne the brunt of criticism yet its the civilian government that needs to play a better role in dealing with the crisis.

May we achieve a swift victory against the insurgents and may peace and calm return to the once serene valley of Swat and the rest of Pakistan.

 

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Thursday 7th May 2009

Pakistani shops in protest against Microsoft

Software Pakistan
Protest against Microsoft

I had gone to Islamabad's Blue Area today to buy a new power supply for my PC and was surprised to find a number of shops displaying signs such as this one. This sign says:

we strongly protest against Microsoft's abuses

Though I can't find much info on what this could be in response to, it is likely that Microsoft, through the Business Software Alliance (BSA), has been aggressive in going after businesses and individuals that use its software without purchasing a license.

Given that most Pakistanis are used to buying all the software they require for almost the price of a blank CD, this must be hitting the PC market pretty hard. Maybe that's why I couldn't find a decent PSU and there wasn't much of other gadgets and accessories either.

If software licensing really is being strictly enforced now, it may look like the end to cheap computers technology in Pakistan, but I see it as a positive sign. Only today, a chartered accountant friend of mine was curious about installing Ubuntu just to try it out and have a second operating system around.

Though a growing number of students these days have some level of passion and respect for Linux and open source, now is probably the time for average Pakistanis to realize the true value of these as alternatives to more traditional software.

 

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Sunday 3rd May 2009

Searching with images

Internet
Herb with pink flower

I've come across a unique and interesting problem. I have this image of a plant (found on the hiking trail) that I think is a useful herb, yet I am unable to search and identify what it is.

Have tried Google's image search with numerous search terms such as "herb with pink flower" and "herb with pink flower and thin petals", but haven't gotten anywhere so far.

It would be so very useful to be able to upload an image and search for anything similar to it. Identify the species of snake that just bit you. Search for that cute girl on the opposite table. Find out if the mushroom is an edible one.

I'm sure Yahoo, the big G and Microsoft each have technology that can do some level of image matching, although at a high processing cost. Maybe they should offer such a service on an experimental basis.

 

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Wednesday 29th April 2009

Direct comments disabled

Blogging

I've been getting a huge amount of comment spam lately and until I get a chance to work on something to stop it, comments will be approved by hand.

 

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Sunday 19th April 2009

Zorlu wind farm in Thatta

Pakistan Technology

Was quite surprised to see an inauguration ceremony of a new wind farm project in Thatta, Sindh, by a Turkish company (apparently with the help of the Chinese).

The farm will initially produce 50 megawatts of electricity and can be scaled up to 250 megawatts at a later stage. That alone won't be enough to meet the country's needs, but at least it's something.

Such a move was predicted by people when the power rates skyrocketed last year. It was said that the rates had been increased by the government to enable third-parties to come in and provide kickbacks through the fat, juicy contracts.

This may just be a conspiracy theory, but even if the corruption angle is true, at least we're getting a cool wind farm and another step forward in moving towards alternative energy technology.

 

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Monday 13th April 2009

Update for 2009 DST

Pakistan

As usual, the government has been late in announcing this year's daylight savings time schedule. So late in fact that the change didn't make it into the latest timezone file at elsie.nci.nih.gov which was last updated on the 6th of April.

Again, here are instructions for updating your Linux systems:

  1. Get the latest timezone data:
    wget ftp://elsie.nci.nih.gov/pub/tzdata2009e.tar.gz
  2. Extract the file for Asia:
    tar xzf tzdata2009e.tar.gz asia
  3. Edit the asia file and add these 2 lines below line 1596:
    Rule Pakistan   2009    only    -   Apr 15  0:00    1:00    S
    Rule Pakistan   2009    only    -   Nov 1   0:00    0   -
  4. Update the system timezone data for Asia:
    zic asia
  5. Copy the latest timezone file for Karachi (only required for Ubuntu and maybe other Debian derivatives):
    cp /usr/share/zoneinfo/Asia/Karachi /etc/localtime

That'll automatically set your time an hour ahead at midnight on the 15th of April (this Wednesday). There has been no announcement on the end date as yet so we'll assume it'll be the same as last year. November 1st.

Enjoy the extra daylight.

 

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Tuesday 7th April 2009

Daylight Savings Time again

Pakistan

I've been searching in vain to find out if and when daylight savings time will come into effect this year. Instead, the answer found me when I went to bigtugboat this morning.

Though I'm unable to confirm from "official" sources at this moment, it will start from May 1st this year. Ubuntu's recent update of the tzdata package didn't contain this update either so there is still some doubt left, but I really hope it becomes a permanent thing.

Power savings may be negligible, but it definitely brings more light in our lives.

 

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