Tuesday, February 28, 2006


If there's one word you had to associate with Apple, you'd probably make it design; but one word you gotta give to Apple fans is creativity.

Engadget recently held a competition to ask its readers what Steve Jobs will announce tomorrow at an Apple Special event. Well, the results have been posted, the first 2 entries are good but you really have to see the list of entries. Most of them are mind-boggling!

Couple of my favourites...

Jason's iGame

CK's iCube shuffle

Monday, February 27, 2006

Flickr is ticking...

Another day, another awesome app for Mac OS X.

This is tickr, and what it does can only be described as "simple, but profound". Give it a tag, and it will fetch interesting photos from Flickr tagged with the tag. And scroll them at a hypnotizingly slow rate on the right side of your desktop.

I like to look at photos. I've tried a number of ways of doing it - subscribing to photo RSS feeds of Flickr pools, browsing through Flickr or Google Images, and there is always that slight sense of dissatisfaction. There is either too much information, or too little. Too many clicks to get to where you need.

Tickr is just awesome - of course part of its appeal is the Flickr "interestingness" algorithm, because of which it manages to show the best images given a tag. The best part is you need not "do" anything at all - images will just keep coming, you can see them or not, and if you particularly like an image all you do is hover your mouse over it, the scrolling stops, right-click and open the Flickr page in your browser.

And if you're like me and always work with the Powerbook attached to an external monitor (or if you have one of those 1440x900 screens!) real estate isn't a problem. I can forsee my favourites list in Flickr growing and growing.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Fedora Core 5 Test 3

I've been testing out FC5-test3 for a few days now. Seems to be nice and stable as FC4 was, though with a few annoyances that will hopefully be worked out when FC5 is finally released in mid-March. Here are a few things that caught my attention.

The good
  • Hardware support has improved. I tried to install FC4 and Suse 10.0 on a Dell machine with an ATI X600 video card, and both of them would hang while starting X. FC5-test3 installer has no problems with that.
  • Automounting GUI is much better. In KDE, a desktop icon is created whenever an external drive is attached to the computer (haven't tried it with my PTP camera yet). There is a little green triangle at the bottom right of each icon, which indicates that the device is mounted. You can choose to "Safely Remove" from the right-click menu (wonder where they picked that from), which unmounts the device and makes the green icon disappear.
  • One of the real big pluses for me - Firefox now has full kerning support for Hindi fonts. Actually, this is a bit of a surprise. I have two OS paritions, one with FC4 updated to KDE 3.5.1 and one with FC5-test3 (which has KDE 3.5.1 by default). I have a single home partition, off which I run a downloaded copy of Firefox in both OSes. In FC4, Firefox has problems displaying Hindi fonts correctly, while in FC5, Firefox displays them just fine. I guess they managed to find a way to enable pango in KDE, and make FF use it by default. I tried to do that in FC4 using some environment variable but it didn't help. In any case, this is a big plus and it means I no longer have to load up Konqueror to display Hindi pages.
  • Although the GCC version with this release is 4.1, I think they've installed the 3.3 compatibility libraries by default, so Firefox, for one, just runs right after downloading (in FC4, yum install compat-libstdc++ was necessary).
The bad
  • The KDE screensaver doesn't work. I don't care much for screensavers, but it does matter to me that consequently, "Lock Screen" doesn't work. I'm not sure if this is a problem with my particular install, since its tough to believe that such a basic thing wouldn't be working. I do remember that Red Hat 8 final actually shipped with this issue unresolved. [Bug report]
  • nVidia drivers don't install. nVidia cards and drivers usually work very well for Linux, and installation of binary drivers downloaded from nVidia's site has always been painless. In FC5t3 however, the installation fails at the kernel module build phase. [Bug report]
  • gmailnotify doesn't work under FC5t3 and crashes with an XML parsing error. The only thing I can think of is that an upgrade of Python (2.4.1 to 2.4.2?) causes the problem.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Don't mess with my net connection!

Alert: Technical rant coming up.

They say Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but I don't think they compared it with a CS postgrad who had his internet connection summarily disabled by the network administrator. That too, for no good reason.

Fedora Core 5 Test release 3 has just been released, and I was looking around the Fedora mirrors to download it. The problem with FC is that not all mirrors keep test releases, and even when they do, they keep CD images. While installing every new test release of Fedora is my idea of fun, the idea of burning 5 CDs every time is not. So I was browsing through a number of ftp site directories to see if any had the DVD image and suddenly, without any warning, out of the blue, I get the SMOD - the security mail of death from the network people. In short, it says, "Your computer has been administratively disabled due to excessive TCP port scanning". I couldn't believe it. I'm running FC4 and running absolutely nothing beyond the usual programs. I've received idiotic security warnings before, and it'll take me more than the sysadmins to make me believe I've got a worm on my machine.

So I go down to the helpdesk. There I am made to wait while the network guy pulls up my records and shows me Exhibit A - my computer, apparently had been trying to establish connections on multiple ports on some servers within a short span of time (for each server, I could see around 5-6 TCP ports on which connections were established rather quickly), registering it as a TCP portscan offense. I asked the admin guy to lookup the IP addresses - they turned out to be all Fedora mirrors. I assured him I had been doing nothing other than looking around for the DVD image. He was still suspicious but enabled my computer again. Phew.

Now I don't know the first thing about networking, so I found some descriptions of the FTP protocol (courtesy AC's, network security expertise) and found out that port 21 is only the command port of FTP, and a data port is assigned randomly for a transaction. And since it is assigned randomly, its seemed quite possible that browsing directories would result in sending packets to different ports.

So I decided to test the theory and ran tcpdump while browsing an FTP server directory. The result? Exhibit B - the partial output of tcpdump:
14:56:46.362982 IP localhost.51939 > linux.nssl.noaa.gov.ftp:
14:56:57.985858 IP localhost.51940 > linux.nssl.noaa.gov.50081:
14:56:58.796223 IP localhost.51941 > linux.nssl.noaa.gov.60070:
14:57:03.518263 IP localhost.51943 > linux.nssl.noaa.gov.56276:
14:57:04.569114 IP localhost.51944 > linux.nssl.noaa.gov.54505:
14:57:11.413372 IP localhost.51945 > linux.nssl.noaa.gov.50827:
14:57:12.437386 IP localhost.51946 > linux.nssl.noaa.gov.50061:
14:57:15.358883 IP localhost.51947 > linux.nssl.noaa.gov.51742:
14:57:16.373010 IP localhost.51948 > linux.nssl.noaa.gov.57000:

9 different TCP ports connected to in 30 seconds, only one of them (the first one) being port 21. I tried this on a different machine than the one which was disabled, and so I can be quite sure that both the systems are not infected by something. So it seems one can't browse FTP directories without the risk of being labeled a hacker. God help us all. The sysadmins are going to hear from me.

Monday, February 20, 2006


Someone runs a webserver with an online forum on a Dell C400 laptop. It has a P3 1.1 GHz CPU, 256 MB of RAM, and a 40 GB hard drive. Fedora Core 4 powers the server, which currently has an uptime of 139 days. Confirm it here.

Away for fun

Its strange - most people I know take a break for blogging when they're too busy I'm diametrically opposite - I tend to stop blogging when I've been having a lot of fun. Maybe a bit too much fun for my own good.

I went to L Subramanian's concert yesterday. It was a breathtaking experience. Violin with percussion. Simply beautiful. Words aren't enough to express. The NUS has an arts festival going on with a lot of concerts - I plan to attend more in the next few days.

Watched the entire Indian innings on TV today - absolutely delightful - especially, the latter half. Yuvraj and Dhoni were just too good - and in the last four overs they were toying with the Pak bowling. Following the match online and reading reports just isn't good enough - the Cricinfo bulletin today refers to Dravid's innings (50 off 82 balls) as "totally assured", and I can totally assure you it was anything but. He seemed to find fielders too often, struggled with his timing and looked decidedly frustrated with the latter half of the innings - he just could not score at a good enough rate.

I'd forgotten what a comedy commentary can be too. Sometimes its so painfully clear that the commentary team is totally lost for words and are just making up stuff out of thin air. Rao Iftikar is referred to as a "very experienced bowler" - immediately after which statistics flash on the screen to show he has played all of 13 matches. Right after Gautam Gambhir's ODI scores (of 9 and 21, I think) in the previous matches have been shown, someone in the commentary box says, he's having a great series. Right after a wicket, Hawkeye compares the wicket-taking ball and the one before it, and the dreaded voice says, "Its clear that the ball that took the wicket was slower than the ball that took the wicket". Every time the match summary is flashed on the screen, a certain commentator (experienced watchers will guess who) starts off like an airport announcement. "This is the match summary. You can see from here what has happened so far." Really? Thanks, we couldn't have figured that one out without the piercing revelations. God save us from cricket commentary.

Some commentators, though, can be truly fun. Sachin came down to the field one time (he wasn't playing) with drinks for the batsmen, and (I think it was L Sivaramakrishnan) called him "the most experienced 12th man in the world".

Monday, February 13, 2006

Is this what I've signed up for?

Hong Kong

  1. Landing involves narrowly missing diving into the sea.
  2. Nobody stands still on airport walkalators. Nobody.
  3. Taxi (and bus) drivers seem to sincerely believe they're training for the Formula 1.
  4. The place is a sensory invasion. Signs, signs, and more signs. Nearly every tall commericial building has blinking lights surrounding it. If you're on the road, a passing UFO with blinking circumference lights will simply blend into the background.
  5. Throngs of people all move at top walking speed without bumping into anything.
  6. There's a zip in the air, and a sense of purpose to nearly everything and everyone.
  7. Despite the fast pace, people can be remarkably courteous.
  8. There is no shortage of food joints.
  9. There are very accessible places where you can completely forget you're in one of the world's largest cities.
  10. The city never seems to sleep.
In short, an awesome place :)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Three cheers for GMail web chat

It seems to be working just fine! And the day it was added to my account - today - I was able to find a use for it too... chatted with a friend right from the airpot. The interface is simple and great - as usual for Google!

Now, if only they could beef up Google Reader...

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Linux rants

Linux is fun. Lots of fun. Except when you install it on bleeding edge hardware. Then, its a solid pain in the neck. Not often you hear me complain about Linux, but this has been a real tough nut to crack.

So I got hyper excited when I was given charge of a brand-new dual-core Dell machine. What I didn't forsee was sitting in front of it with me head in my hands for hours.

First major problem - video card. The box as an ATI X600 PCI express card. And the moment the Linux installer tries to load X, it hangs. Doesn't crash and give me an error and ask me to continue without X. Nope, simply brings up a white screen and a mouse pointer and hangs. Tried Fedora, tried SUSE. Doesn't work. While both correctly probe the card and recognize it as an ATI X600, neither can successfully start X. Have to stick with text mode installs, and in the case of Live DVDs, runlevel 3.

Second major problem - the SATA RAID array. Apparently there are no drivers for that particular RAID chipset on any Linux so far. And since I'm required to keep the RAID array, it appears the only choice I have (which still hasn't worked for anyone indexed by Google) is to try and insert a temporary third hard drive, install linux, patch and compile a new kernel with experimental RAID support. Even I don't have enough time to do that. Before that, I'll try and set up a software RAID through Fedora instead of the hardware RAID. I'm desperately hoping though that FC5, due in March, will solve the RAID support issue... FC5-test2 is being downloaded for testing.

And this is the story of how the fastest computer I've ever installed an OS on is currently of little more use than a brick. Makes me real happy I bought myself a previous generation AMD Sempron with a nVidia FX5600 at home which runs Fedora like a dream.

I wish hardware manufacturers would provide more drivers for Linux. Novell recently ran a survey on what software people wanted to see ported to Linux, with the idea of lobbying those companies to port their software - but seriously, whats the point of porting Photoshop on Linux if you can't run it on the latest hardware? How about lobbying Intel, ATI and nVidia for producing better drivers for Linux? And while they're at it, how about being a little less snotty about driver code being open source? Although ATI and nVidia drivers exist, they're binaries only and therefore cannot be included with the Linux distro. An attitude like this is exactly what'll make it far more difficult for Linux to become accepted as a desktop OS. Yes, there are people like me, who are happy to install linux in text mode, know how to boot into runlevel 3, run lynx and wget to install the latest binary drivers and then load X, but they are few and far between.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

GMail offers web chat

The service isn't working yet... but its being rolled out. Here's a screenshot of what I get so far.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Truth can be stranger than fiction

I ran across a headline on Ars Technica that said Microsoft's alternative to US$100 laptop: the cell phone. My initial response to the article was to laugh out loud and wonder whether it would come with a free magnifying glass to see what would probably be the 160x120 pixel screen, with a 6x4 icon that would represent the Start button. And maybe a toothpick to be used while typing on a cellphone's keyboard.

Microsoft, however, have it all worked out. They intend the device to be connected to a TV, no less, and have an external keyboard for input. Dumbstruck is me.

So, this brilliant mobile contraption that will bring the light of technology to the remotest regions of the developing world will weigh in at about 12.25 kilograms and come in a two feet cube box? I can sure see UPS profiting from this. Or will the said TV and keyboard be necessary, but not included, options? TVs and keyboards, of course, are the commonest things you can find in the remote places in this world.

Whatever it is, I sure hope the cellphone has a smart key for Ctrl+Alt+Del.