Thursday, 23 December 2004

Unexpected "feature" in Windows XP home Edition

I stumbled upon an unexpected "feature" in Windows XP Home Edition on Tuesday. Someone had found a photograph I had taken on DHD Multimedia Gallery but wanted a high resolution scan suitable for printing. So, back home, I found the negative of the picture and connected my Minolta Dimage Scan Elite 5400 to the only working computer I currently have in the house, an IBM ThinkPad T20, the same machine I tried to install Gentoo Linux on a few months back and on which I reinstalled Windows XP Home Edition.

It all started well. I put the negative in, did a first scan with no particular option, at 5400dpi, the highest resolution for the scanner. It gave me a whooping 16Mb JPEG image file that was equivalent to a 113Mb uncompressed image. But then because the negative is 8 years old and has gone through a few house moves, it has suffered a bit and had specks of dust I could not remove. So I decided to try the Minolta Digital ICE grain dissolver built in the scanner that is supposed to remove such specks of dust on the scanned image. It took a good 5 minutes to scan the image but it did a good job. So far, so good. Now, this scanner comes with another option to improve the quality of the scanned image so I decided to try that. The scanner started scanning. Then the machine started using its hard disk like mad, probably swapping because it only has 256Mb RAM. After a good 10 minutes of this, I decided I'd give up and tried to bring up the task manager to close the application. No chance there, the application just wouldn't close. By that time, it was using so much resources I was unable to do anything, even CTRL-ALT-DEL would not respond. The only solution ended up being disconnect the laptop from the mains and remove the battery. That stopped it alright.

After this, I restarted and was quite surprised when it didn't do a scan disk, considering how heavily it had been using it and how brutally I had stopped it. It still seemed to work though so I logged on to my account again to try something different. I started up Paint Shop Pro to do some manual tweaking of the image. The first task was to crop it to remove the edges, which in PSP involves doing a copy and then pasting the copy as a new image. So I selected the piece I wanted to keep, went to the Edit menu and selected Copy. The machine started to use its hard disk like mad once again. This time I decided to investigate and opened the task manager to look at performance and see what it was doing. This is when I realised that not only was the physical memory completely full but the paging file as well, which was an enormous 900Mb, which meant that the simple copy I was doing in Paint Shop Pro required more than 1Gb of RAM! That was bad enough. But what was worse is that Windows then warned me that I was getting low on memory so it would increase the size of the paging file, thus requiring even more resources, rather than stop the offending application. So it appeared that my machine was completely unresponsive and unable to let me stop the application because what was using the resources was not the application itself but the operating system's memory management that was trying to meet the demands of the application, even though it obviously couldn't. This time I was able to shut down the system properly.

Now this is bad because, by trying to be user friendly so as not to kill a user application that requires more memory than the system can offer, said operating system offers no protection against a misbehaving application that demands more memory than it should require or that the system can reasonably offer. It means that a memory leak in a badly written application can potentially bring the whole system to its knees in such a way that is impossible to recover nicely. It also means that, because it is impossible to subsequently reduce the size of the paging file, if the file keeps growing due to application memory demands, it could potentially end up taking an inordinate amount of disk space.

Fair enough, if I want to do image manipulation with images that take more than 100Mb in memory, I should really have a good desktop machine with lots of RAM. However, this discovery means that I'd rather not buy another Windows machine. Linux is not an option unfortunately because my scanner is explicitly not supported by SANE and I don't have the time nor the skills to develop a SANE backend for it, nor do I expect Minolta to develop one anytime soon. So I suppose the answer to my problem is to buy an Apple Mac with lots of memory and a good processor. I suppose I could think of a worse Christmas present for myself. And I don't even have the excuse that I can't find a good store, because Apple have just opened a brand new store in Regent Street.

Thursday, 2 December 2004

Cool Technology

The Register has this article on liquid lenses for camera phones. Those lenses are designed and built by a French company, Varioptic and are really cool. Because they use a combination of water and oil, they can change shape, which means that the focal length of the lens can change without any moving part, a bit like the human eye does. As a result, you can have auto focusing lenses that fit into something a few millimeters thick and use much less power than a traditional lens. The ideal solution for a camera phone. And they reckon we might get the first models in the shops by 2006. I want one of these!

Tuesday, 30 November 2004

Round Italy on a Vespa

I've had Vroom with a View on my pile of books to read for some time now and I started reading it yesterday. By the end of the first chapter, I was already laughing out loud in the tube, to the dismay of my fellow passengers. The book is about the author, Peter Moore, driving around Italy on a 1961 Vespa motorscooter, trying to live la dolce vita. I just love the way Moore has to describe his travels, with his ability to highlight the good, funny and ridiculous of any weird situation in a way only an Aussie can do. Vroom With A View is one of the best examples of this and is just a joy to read. This book will make you want to travel, will give you the urge to buy a plane ticket to Italy, buy a Vespa and whiz around in the sun. This is what travel books should be about, not a boring story about a scary place far away but an exhilarating tale that makes you want to pack up your bags and go. In this sense, Moore is a master story teller. And when you're done with Vroom, go and read his other books, they are equally entertaining.

Monday, 22 November 2004

Google Desktop Search

I am impressed. I installed Google Desktop Search on my work laptop this afternoon, just to try it out. The installation took about 2 minutes. Then it took a few hours to index the whole hard disk but it was doing that in the background without any noticeable effect on the system, apart from the disk activity LED blinking. And then, even with a partial index, it was already returning amazing results and making my job easier. But rather than expect you to believe me at face value, here is what I tested it with:

Code search

While writing code, I needed to use a class that is part of our standard library so I entered the name in the search box. In a fraction of a second (not enough time to blink), I had the list of all Java source files that contained a reference to that class, giving me the original code as well as usage examples; the related Javadoc pages, giving me the documentation for it; all without having to trawl through dozens of directories. Clicking on a Java source file opened it in my preferred editor and clicking on a Javadoc page opened it in the browser. 5 seconds to find more than what I would have found in 5 minutes before: fantastic.

Random search

Just for the sake of it, I entered the name of one of our customers in the search box next. Still less time than you need to blink later, I had my results, about 400 files and 300 emails. Google Desktop Search not only indexes text files and their content but also emails if you use Microsoft Outlook, as well as Microsoft Office files, web pages cached by Internet Explorer and AOL instant messages. The sweet thing with email is that they've obviously re-used some of the code they developed for Gmail because the search engine is able to recognise message threads and will group them as such, providing you with links to navigate from one message to another within the same thread. You can then open each individual message in your browser or in Microsoft Outlook: very, very nice.

That's it, I'm sold. No salesman, no marketing, just a very good piece of code that has been painless to install and has proved useful in less time than a Starbucks barista would need to serve a cappuccino.

Sunday, 21 November 2004


Just found the pictures of a very unfortunate accident via #!/usr/bin/girl. Note that the registration plate of the bigger truck shows that it was registered in Dublin, Ireland, in 2004. Now, go and explain this to the insurance company! Good thing they have the pictures to prove what really happened.

Accessible Blogger Navbar

As mentioned earlier, I sent a feature idea message to the Blogger team to suggest they consider making their navbar accessible. So far, I got the automatic answer saying they received my suggestion and they were going to have a look at it. Let's wait and see. I'll mention the Blogrolling thing later if the answer is positive.

Second Step, Patch 1

Here we go, just after doing my second template change, I patched it again within minutes to change the style of <code> and <pre> tags. I shamelessly stole the idea from the XStandard web site. So, my thanks to their web designer, I now like the way the content of my <code> and <pre> tags looks like.

Site Re-design, Second Step

The second round of re-design was a short one. This is because I went out last night and didn't see much of the morning today. Nevertheless, I did a couple of changes.

Cosmetic changes

I didn't like my new h4 tags so I removed the italics and modified the other headers so that h3 would stand out from h4 better.

Link and access key to front page

I realised that the fact that the link back to the front page only existed on the archive pages meant that this same link was not available from the permanent pages, where the comments are. It also meant that the presence of this link was dependant on Javascript, which can pose problems, as highlighted in the next section. Therefore, I changed the template to have this link, and its associated access key on all pages. So you can now click the link or press ALT-1 to go back to the front pages, from any page on the site. I'll grant you that this feature is of dubious benefit on the front page itself except that it refreshes it and brings you back to the top.

HTML validation

I ran the W3C validator and the Bobby accesibility validator against the home page. This made me realise that my DOCTYPE was incorrect so I changed it. I then tried to correct all the errors highlighted by both services and am now left with errors in the Blogger toolbar on top and in the fact that I use Javascript to build the Blogrolling link lists, both of which I have no control over. The use of Javascript poses another problem in the sense that, in a browser that has Javascript disabled or doesn't support it, the lists of links will not appear.

In order for this page to be Bobby approved, valid XHTML 1.0, I would first need to convince the Blogger team to make their top toolbar accessible. I would then need to convince the Blogger and Blogrolling teams to make both systems interact better, in a way that doesn't require Javascript. One solution would be to have the ability in the Blogger template to use server side includes so that you could include fragments of code from another source, directly at the server, rather than rely on client side Javascript to do it; then Blogrolling would need to be able to deliver HTML without it being enclosed in a document.write Javascript call. I'll see what I can do. At the end of the day, it doesn't harm to ask.

Saturday, 20 November 2004

Site Re-design, First Step

I did the first step of this site re-design last night. In practice, it doesn't look that much different but as usual the devil is in the details.

General layout

I didn't change the general layout much except that I made the main column wider because the column on the right wasn't using all the horizontal space it had.


I reorganised the headers. The original Blogger template used h3 headers for the date and h2 headers for the entry titles because the date was in a smaller font than the entry titles. However, entries are grouped by date, which meant that the page's HTML had header in an unexpected order, namely h1, h3, h2. So I swapped h2 and h3 to have sensible header levels. Headers on the right hand side column were all h6 headers. I changed them to h2, which is semantically what they are, but styled them differently from the main column h2 headers. I also added an h4 header for my own use in blog entries.

Colour scheme

The most obvious change is the colour scheme, although I did not do anything drastic. I started with the main column that I wanted in shades of blue. To help in this, I used my trusted Color Cube that I bought from ThinkGeek a few months ago. Then for the right hand column, I wanted shades of green, to complement the blue of the main column. That was easy, I just took the colours I had for the main column and swapped the blue and green values in each code. However, the result looked very cold. The answer came from the Firefox logo I had in that column: I needed shades of Firefox brown. Now, brown is a kind of dark orange, that is a colour between dark red and dark yellow. In RGB trichromy, which is how colour codes are specified in a web page, red is very easy: just have a value for red and nothing for green and blue; yellow is easy as well: have equal parts of red and green, no blue; but orange is more subtle because you need to have a non-zero green value but still less than the red value. Once again, the Color Cube came to the rescue. In fact, if you view the source of this page, you will notice that the colours are slightly more subtle than this because none of them is fully saturated, which makes them a bit softer. Then I re-used the same basic colours for the links.


The links in the right hand side column are managed by Blogrolling so that I can edit them easily. The default HTML produced by Blogrolling is just a series of links separated by line breaks. This did not suit me as it is a very bad way to emulate a list. So I wanted Blogrolling to give me li tags without the br one and without a div or table tag to enclose it. Unfortunately, this is impossible to do with the free version so I ended up subscribing and changing my roll to what I really wanted. Considering subscribing also gives me the ability to have up to 10 rolls rather than just one, I created one for books I've read or am reading. Subscribing also allows you to disable the link back to Blogrolling, which I did, not because I don't want to link back to them but because they don't give you any way to properly style it. So I will probably add it again later, in a different way.

Archive pages

I added an access key on the archive pages so that on any of those pages, you can press ALT-1 to come back to the home page. I'd have liked to add access keys for the previous and next archive pages but the Blogger templates are not flexible enough to allow me to do this.

Miscellaneous bits and pieces

At the code level, all pages now come with a DOCTYPE declaration and the main html tag has a lang attribute to help screen readers and other software that rely on knowing the language of the page.

There are a few more things I'd like to do. In particular, I have to go back through all the entries to make sure that whatever HTML code I use follows the standards I want to comply with. But for the time being, this will do.

Friday, 19 November 2004

Standards Compliance and Accessibility

After visiting Dan Cederholm's SimpleBits web site, I bought his book, Web Standards Solutions. I've been reading it over the past two days and have been nicely surprised by its quality. I didn't think you could explain how to build a standards compliant web site in such a concise and clear manner. It is by far the best book on the subject I have seen. It also prompted me to have a look at Dive Into Accessibility, an online book by Mark Pilgrim that explains how and why make your web site accessible to disabled users.

In practice, I will have to use this newly acquired knowledge at work to clean up the HTML produced by our software, as well as make it compliant with accessibility guidelines. But before I do that, I thought I needed a bit of practice so I will use this weblog as a test bench. As a result, this site may sometimes look a bit weird over the next few days but hopefully it should look good and be accessible once I'm done with it. So, watch this space!

Friday, 12 November 2004

Search wars - which is the best?

Microsoft just released the beta version of their new MSN Search engine, in an attempt to compete with the likes of Google, Yahoo or Ask Jeeves. As a result, the BBC decided to do a comparative test. The Register did a test run as well. What comes out of both is no big surprise: Microsoft has innovative features in terms of user interface to set advanced search parameters but falls short on actual execution of the query by returning results that are less relevant than its competitors. The interesting aspect of this is that the funky UI provided by MSN is just that: a fancy UI that makes it easy to add special keywords to the search box to create complex searches easily. In practice, it should be quite easy for Google to learn from this and improve their advanced search feature to make it more user friendly. But the best piece of advice is given by Tom Geoghegan in his BBC's article: "All three [search engines] could take a leaf out of the butler's book. Ask Jeeves gave a great classification of raleigh into its different definitions." At the end of the day, people now expect a search engine to return lots of hits on fairly generic subject and what most people want is to be able to refine this original search easily.

Another interesting point, made by The Register, is that most search engines, when given a search string like "John Leyden"+"blaster worm", will return a lot of information about John Leyden but very few articles written by him, which is probably what the user is interested in. This is probably due to the fact that web pages are written using HTML, which is a pure page layout language. An HTML page does not give any information as to what the content means. It represents a lot of characters and presentation elements that when read by a human being mean something (or not as the case may be) but it holds no information as to whether this collection of characters and presentation elements resolves into an article about John Leyden or an article written by John Leyden. In practice, the article about probably contains the name John Leyden several times whereas the article written by contains his name at most once or twice. As a result, the article about will be considered more relevant by a search engine but less so by a human being who understands the content of the pages he/she reads. The only way this could ever change would be if web sites start separating content from presentation explicitly, through the use of technologies like XML and XSLT, and search engine take advantage of it. If we were able to reliably perform XSLT rendering in the browser, you could build web sites that, for a given page, provide you with meaningful XML content and a link to a rendering stylesheet. A browser would apply the stylesheet to render the page on screen, while a search engine would discard the stylesheet and only take into account the XML content, thus being able to (at least partially) understand the content and present more relevant results to the user. Maybe in the future, we'll actually be able to find what we're looking for on the Internet?

Thursday, 11 November 2004

How to lose a customer

I have been in Glasgow since Tuesday, to help a customer solve a problem. Originally, I was supposed to stay until Friday but it looks like we found what was wrong and there is nothing more I can do to help so I will be going back to London tonight. I flew up to Glasgow with British Airways so my first reaction was to change my return flight. Because I am a BA frequent flyer, I can access my bookings online so I did just that and discovered that the ability to change flights online was planned but not implemented yet. My only option was to phone the helpdesk. So, I dialed the number, listened to the recorded message, pressed 1 on my phone to get to the bookings and... waited... while being told about how easy it was to do things from the BA website; that they valued my custom and would answer my call shortly; that they really had cheap prices; that Club World (aka Business class) is cheaper than you think and has real beds; and kept waiting... In the meantime, as I suspected my ticket was not flexible and couldn't be changed and as I had my web browser open, I connected to bmi and checked availability and prices for one-way flights back home. When I eventually got through to a British Airways agent, I was told that, as expected, my ticket was non changeable, non refundable and that I had to book a new one-way flight. I thanked him, checked prices on BA, just to make sure they were not cheaper than bmi, and finished my bmi booking. Lesson learnt: make it difficult or too expensive for your customers to change their minds and they might decide to take their business elsewhere.

Wednesday, 10 November 2004


I was randomly looking on the net for toys to attach to my Palm Tungsten T3. In particular, I was looking for a camera. Why a camera? True, I already have a 35mm SLR camera and a compact digital one. But the SLR is bulky, the digital one is not the best designed I've ever seen and it sounded cool to be able to take pictures with my palm and take advantage of the large LCD screen. In the process, I found out there was a new Palm Tungsten T5, I also found a very good blog with interesting articles on Palm and iPod toys but only came accross two cameras that could work with my T3, one from Spectec and one from Pretec. Veo looked promising for a minute and then appeared to be only for Pocket PC. All in all, the choice is quite limited. You would have thought that, considering the number of camera phones on the market nowadays, more than one or two manufacturers would have thought of integrating a camera with a PDA. Obviously not.

Friday, 5 November 2004

American Election

I have no idea whether those numbers are real or just complete fantasy but this table might explain the result of the latest American Presidential Election.

Tuesday, 2 November 2004

Why Don't They Like America?

I just found this excellent article, thanks to Coofer Cat about resentment against America. Written by an American for Americans, it clearly explains the source of anti-American feelings that can be witnessed frequently around the globe. Read it and think about what it says. Then I have two anecdotes to add to it.

Last year, I went to Guatemala and Mexico. On the way out, I had to transit via Houston and on the way back via Newark. None of those two airports have a transit facility which meant that, even though I was only spending a few hours in American territory each time (2 hours one way, 4 the other way), I had to go through the whole immigration procedure, as if I was stopping in the US, which meant filling the green visa waiver card and going through passport control. As it happens, I have travelled to the Middle East for work quite often and my passport has a few visas and stamps from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. As a result, custom officers on both occasions did ask why I had "so many stamps from the Middle East." In my case, it just meant that I spent 5 minutes more going through passport control but I suspect having a passport issued by a European country and just being in transit did help.

Last week, I was in Argentina and was having a mate and a chat about everything and nothing with a few Argentines. The subject of the discussion eventually got to the current Argentinean economic crisis, as it does quite often when you chat to people over there. Argentines see the IMF as the source of their problems for being so intransigent about their external debt, while they are very lenient when it comes to the USA's debt which is even larger. Their conclusion is that the IMF is an instrument of the USA and the step from blaming the IMF to blaming America for their problems is a small one to take. Of course, the whole problem is more complicated than this but the resentment is very real, to the point where it surpasses the resentment against the UK over the Falkland War. To explain what it means, I'll just point out that the first man made object I saw in Argentina, when crossing the overland border from Brazil, was a big board saying "Las Malvinas son Argentinas", "The Falklands are Argentinean".

Whatdya mean, free software?

The Register has a short and objective article on the cost of open source and other free software. Their message is that the main cost at the end of the day is support.

Advocates of open source emphasise that, because the source code is freely available, everyone can extend or debug open source software to meet their needs. The reality of things is that few potential users of any type of software have the knowledge, the time or the desire to delve into the code of the software they are using to debug or extend it. Most people want their software to work out of the box and have someone to turn to when it doesn't. A traditional software company that sells a license will sell a support contract with it so you know what to do when things go wrong. The support provided might not always be as good as you'd expect but at least the mechanism exists. With open source software, you don't have this possibility. When things go wrong, you have to turn to newsgroups, FAQs and other sources that are usually written by developers for other techies. If you are not a techie or lack knowledge in the particular field of the software you are using, it can be very difficult and frustrating.

Another aspect where proprietary software can be more cost effective than open source software is training. Companies that produce and sell complex software will also sell training courses to enable their customers to make the most out of it. When I was working for Reuters, ages ago, I went on courses at Sun and Sybase. Those courses probably saved us a lot of money in the long run because they enabled us to understand the products of those companies better and to make better use of them. Also, through the interaction with the trainer and the other students, we were often able to relate the courses to real life scenarios that we had faced. With open source, you are usually limited to online resources or books such as the excellent O'Reilly offering. The problem with this approach is that such didactic material usually answers only part of your problem. You can't just ask a real person "how would I solve this particular real-life situation?"

The solution to both problems with open source software is to have a support contract with a company like Red Hat and this is what makes the cost of open source.

Election Day

American election Day is upon us and it looks like the race is a close one. Now, considering the impact the US have on the rest of the planet, especially through their foreign policy, the result will be very important for the rest of us. Maybe the whole world should be allowed to vote in the American presidential elections? Then again, I'm not sure it would make the whole thing more sensible. Let's wait and see. Maybe it will be as fun as last time and we'll have another recount.

Back Home

The sabbatical is finished, I'm back home and back to work. It's nice to be home but I could have stayed in Argentina longer. The fact that the weather is getting colder and wetter in London might be a factor. Ah well, I just have to have faith in our sales force at work to find potential customers in warm sunny countries so that I can escape the winter blues.

Friday, 29 October 2004

The Irish Principle

As I was in search of a place to have a few drinks last night, I applied the Irish Principle, that I had found very useful in places as diverse as Dubai or Riga: "If in doubt, head for the Irish pub." So I went to a place called Killkenny. It did serve the beer of the same name, as well as a few others, it was packed and it had live music. Good choice. Trust the Irish. Everywhere you can have pubs, there will be at least one Irish pub.

Lunar Eclipse

Buenos Aires had a fantastic view of the lunar eclipse that was visible all over the American continent last night. With a sky completely free of clouds, it was an amazing spectacle. At the strongest of the eclipse, around 23:30 here, the moon was a very dark brown, nearly chocolate brown. It's a shame I didn't have the proper kit to take pictures.

Thursday, 28 October 2004

Argentina & Oz

After eating yet another great piece of grilled meat last night, I have been comparing the Argentines to another people known for their skills in cooking meat over an open fire, the Australians. To fully understand the similarities and differences, you have to go back to the colonisation of the two countries by the Spanish and the English respectively.

When the Spanish first settled Argentina and the English Australia, they were under similar circumstances. Both had this big empty territory, very sparsely populated, with wonderful natural resources. The indigenous tribes were significantly less technologically advanced, could be abused and their needs ignored. Now, the colonisation method of both countries was slightly different.

The Spanish way. The Spanish basically told their people that there was this huge territory that belonged to the crown, where they could claim whatever land they were able to cultivate. This was a godsend for the second sons of rich Spanish families, who would not have inherited much but now had this opportunity to go to this strange and faraway place and make a name for themselves out there. So they did.

The English way. The English had a prison problem when they discovered Australia and thought that this big empty territory full of strange creature and people would be the ideal prison. The offenders would have no way to escape and would no longer be part of the British society, being half a world away. So they sent all their convicts to a huge, empty, sunny island, with guards, while the "decent" people stayed on the rainy overcrowded British Isles.

Interestingly enough, in terms of food and drink, cultures in both countries evolved to become quite similar and both countries now produce very nice wine and beer and the best gilled meat on the planet, in the form of parrilla and asado in Argentina and barbecue in Australia. However, the way they go about it differs slightly.

The Argentinean way. The parrilla or asado has to be done the right way so that the meat is cooked just right. In the case of the asado, it can involve a whole cow on a spit over an open fire. Ideally, you would drink a fine Mendoza wine with your meal. Argentines are quite fashion aware so they will be dressed accordingly. After the meal, you go out for a few drinks before going dancing. Some tango will usually be involved at some point.

The Australian way. You bring the barbecue to the beach, with adequate supply of beer. Of course you're in your shorts and flip flops because you're on the beach. You slap some pieces of meat on the barbecue, eat lots and drink lots of beer. Afterwards, you drink more beer.

Having gone this far, I tried to find names of famous people from both countries. So, here are the first 3 off the top of my head. Famous Argentines: Diego Maradona, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Famous Australians: Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Lleyton Hewitt.

I think we can conclude that Argentines are like Australians, except that they've got class.

Tuesday, 26 October 2004


I chickened out last night. I went to a parrilla restaurant where the normal size of steak was 300 grams and the big one 500, as opposed to 500 and 800. So I only had a small piece of meat. Still enough to keep me fed until lunchtime today though.

Monday, 25 October 2004

Capital Federal

The flight to Buenos Aires was a breeze although I had the feeling the pilot wanted to see how high his Boeing 737 could go as I had never been that high up for a 1:30 hour domestic flight. One thing that was also striking is the perfect organisation of Aerolineas Argentinas: all passengers were on board 10 minutes before scheduled time and the plane actually pulled out 5 minutes early. On arrival at Aeroparque, the domestic airport in Buenos Aires, we got our luggage virtually as soon as we got off the plane. Then the minibus to the centre was spot on time. I had been told the Argentineans were the Swiss of South America and I started to believe it. I had to reconsider when I went out of the hotel for a walk: Buenos Aires is way too friendly and attractive to be Swiss. The cafes, bars, restaurants, shops of all descriptions that make the centre feel more like a mix of France and Italy. I was told it was the most European of South American cities and I am convinced it is now. I think I am going to enjoy my stay here. This is good because the hotel I found via is not very good and the description on the web site is a bit misleading.

Since I arrived earlier today, I discovered some of the wonders of this city, starting with the gelaterias, ice-cream shops. You choose the size of cone you want and the flavours you want on top (that's the difficult part, there are lots); then watch the guy pile up an amount of ice-cream on your small cone you never thought could fit; and finally enjoy it thoroughly because this is the type of ice-cream that would make the Italians jealous. If this applies to you, make sure your Weight Watchers point calculation table is nowhere to be found. Then I tried another of Buenos Aires delights, the media luna, a small croissant eaten at tea time or breakfast or whenever you feel like it. This is real full fat butter croissant that would make a Frenchman proud. All this should keep me going until dinner time, i.e. 10pm or so, at which time I might have an Argentinean steak, the size of which is at least 500 grams. Smaller sizes are on the child menu. Then around midnight, it should be time to have a few beers and go out. There might be some Argentinean wine involved as well. Ok, I haven't done all of this yet, some of it is speculation, speaking from my 2 day experience in Puerto Iguazú.

I think I really like this place already. Why was it I had to go back to London on Saturday again?


This is typical. I arrived at Foz do Iguaçu Friday afternoon. The weather was great. Saturday and Sunday while I was at the falls, it was raining or it was overcast. Now, we are on Monday, I am leaving Puerto Iguazú for Buenos Aires in a couple of hours and the weather is great again. Maybe I have really brought the British weather with me or it is a ploy to re-aclimate me to said weather before I go back at the end of the week.

The Big Water


Wow! Wow! Wow!

I can´t find any other word to describe the last two days. Part of the border between Brazil and Argentina is the river Iguassu (Iguaçu in Portuguese, Iguazú in Spanish). The word means Big Water in the indigenous Guarani language. Not because the river itself is wide but because, just before flowing into the river Paraná, it drops 82 metres to produce one of the biggest waterfalls in the world. Or rather waterfalls because the drop is in a loop of the river which means that the water falls over a very wide area thus creating no less than 275 individual falls, the biggest one of them being called Gargata del Diablo, Throat of the Devil.

Yesterday, I was on the Brazillian side of the falls. Because the Brazillian side is the inside of the loop formed by the river, it is smaller and takes only an hour or so to visit. It is still very, very impressive, especially when you get to the last part in the middle of the Florianopolis fall, next to the Garganta do Diabo. So I had the time to do a boat trip and get close to the action. On top of all this, it was raining so it ended up being very wet. It didn't prevent me from taking pictures and my camera did very considering how wet it got. I had to dry it out a few times. The icing on the cake was a helicopter tour to see the falls from above. In fact, it is the only way to really get an overall idea of the whole fall system because it is so huge. Incidentally, with the window open, it is also a very good way to dry up.

Today, I did the Argentinian side. It took the whole experience to yet another level. First, the Argentinian side being the outside of the loop, there is much more to see. You can also get much closer to the falls without having to resort to a boat. So I took my camera and did every single walking trail, getting wet yet again in the process. It was overcast but dry today though so it was easier to dry up. The whole tour took me about 5 hours. The best part was overlooking the Garganta del Diablo from a few metres away. Looking down, you understand why the native tribes would have thought this was the entrance to the devil's lair. The mist generated by the fall makes it look like a gigantic boiling cauldron. After that, I did the ecological thing: a boat tour on the upper part of the river, before the fall, where we managed to spot lots of birds and a couple of yacaré (a sort of small caiman). I didn't see any jaguar or snake but there are some in the park. I saw lots of butterflies though. I never thought butterflies could be a nuisance until I had several hundred of them flying around.

As a last impression of Brazil and a first impression of Argentina, I couldn't have chosen a better place to cross the border. I'll say it one more time: wow!

Thursday, 21 October 2004

Up & Down

My legs hurt. I spent the day yesterday walking around Belo Horizonte to do different things. As I'm sure I mentionned before, Belo Horizonte is not flat, and it was hot: more than 30 Celsius. I needed a bus ticket to Ouro Prêto, so I went to the bus station. Twice, because the first time I apparently failed to mention I needed the ticket for today. I went to the Mineralogy Museum and saw lots of pretty stones. I bought my first souvenir, a culinary one: a bottle of cachaça, 6 years old. I'll need a 3 year old one to do caipirinha as well but I can find that in any airport, no need to walk all around town to find a specialist shop. I then failed to buy any other souvenir. I wanted something to put on the shelves at home but all I found was either too large, too heavy or really ugly. I'm trying to learn from my previous mistakes and buy stuff I can actually carry around the rest of my journey. Now, that means I'm doing forward planning! Surely not!?

After all this, I compounded the problem today by going to Ouro Prêto. Ouro Prêto, which means Black Gold in Portuguese, is in the mountains of Minas Gerais and used to be the state capital before it was moved to Belo Horizonte. Being in the mountains, there is not a single flat bit to the town. Some of the streets are virtually vertical, or they feel like it when you walk up them, especially considering it's all cobbles. It must be murder when it rains. Why would you ever build a town there? For gold: it has a huge amount of it. In fact, I think it has (or had) the largest deposits of gold in all of South America. It also has an inordinate amount of churches, in which a lot of the gold ended up and is still visible today. In practice, I've had to work very hard to take pictures without a church in them. Not that there are no other things to photograph, Ouro Prêto is also very famous for its colonial architecture and is a UNESCO World Heritage site so you won't see a single modern building there. Old buildings have to be restored in the colonial style and new ones have to be built in the same style. It is all very picturesque but very hard work. Once again, I failed to buy a souvenir there because most of the local handicraft is carved stone: beautiful but heavy and fragile.

Tuesday, 19 October 2004

The Price of Meat

I was reminded last night that Brazillians are not rich in quite an unexpected way. It can be very easy to forget you are in a country with a huge number of poor people here. Everything is clean and works well. For instance, all the places I have been to have streets cleaner than London and generally in as good a state of repair; cars are relatively new; etc. Even the favelas, the shanty towns, are not significantly worse than some parts of London or Manchester and definitely luxurious compared to South African or Indian shanty towns. All in all, you'd be forgiven to sometimes forget you are in a country that doesn't have the same standard of living as Europe. So, last night, I was having a nice meal at the terrace of a small restaurant that involved some very nice pieces of beef at the usual cheap price by European standards. That restaurant was also doing take away and three girls walked in to order some food. They got their food and left but on the way out they walked past my table and made a comment that I did not understand. Seeing my blank look, one of them insisted and I eventually understood that she had said something about how nice the meat I had looked and how she'd like to be able to afford meat. She then asked if she could have a piece because I had a lot of it. Indeed, it was one of those meals that I ended up being unable to finish so I gave her some. The look on her face when she ran away with it was quite telling!

After a few beers to wash the meal down, I went for a walk and ended up finding a night club, one that I remembered was mentionned in the Belo Horizonte guide in the hotel. I went in; and realised it was one of those places where the customers are all male and you can buy your date for the night. This wasn't what I was looking for so I made a quick exit after a couple of (expensive) beers. However, it was quite interesting to see the other side of the wealth coin: well off local lads and foreigners in the process of spending a few hundred pounds on drinks and girls. Back at the hotel, I did check that the place I had just been to was indeed mentionned in the "night club" list. And then, I read the small print that said that "night clubs" as described in the guide were places where the girls were professionals but you had other alternative, see "live music" and "places to dance" sections. That will teach me: when in a foreign country, never assume a word you use at home will have the same meaning, especially when used in translated text.

My Local

I went local last night for food and drink. I found this small restaurant at the top of a flight of stairs where I got a very nice meal that I could not finish for less than 9 reais, that is about GBP 1.80, drinks included. After that I went to a local bar, but not for very long. To put it mildly, it was not the best frequented place I've ever been to. It appears my hotel is in a slightly sleazy neighbourhood.

Now, I can hear people ask: "but why don't you look in your travel guide to find nice places to go to?" Well, I'd like to ask the same from Lonely Planet. Their section on Belo Horizonte in their Brazil guide is abysmal. Granted, it is not a typical tourist destination, compared to other cities in Brazil but it is still the 3rd or 4th largest city in the country. More than 3 or 4 pages would be nice and a map where streets are missing is definitely out of order. Fair enough, they're not big streets but they have some nice restaurants and bars that, as a result, are also missing. They also managed to miss some of the most amazing neo-gothic churches and colonial buildings I've ever seen. I am atheist but some of the churches here are amongst the best examples of places of worship that are so atmospheric they would inspire awe and respect in anybody, whatever their faith. Missing them in a travel guide is gross negligence. Ok, I'll stop ranting now and do what I've been doing for 3 days: build my own guide to Belo Horizonte using local resources and experimenting. If I'm in a good mood when I come back, I might send it to Lonely Planet.

Monday, 18 October 2004

Food & Drink

Last night wasn't as good as expected because I made a stupid mistake. I decided to have a quick drink in the hotel's bar before going out to the Lourdes neighbourhood for a meal and more drinks and possibly some disco. Now, some people will immediately understand the trap in the words "a quick drink". I got to the hotel's bar, on the 25th floor, with fantastic views on the nightly lit town and I was the only customer there for a good 10 minutes. So I got the full attention of the waiters and got a caipirinha. Then I started chatting with said waiters and the one caipirinha ended up being 3. Now, it was the real stuff with really good cachaça so it was strong. I still managed to leave the bar and find my way to Lourdes. I had a great meal, as usual here, but after that the caipirinhas caught up with me and I went back without even checking out the local bars. I know, terrible. But the worst in all this is that, today, while looking for something completely unrelated, I ventured in a street I hadn't been to before, 2 blocks away from my hotel to discover there was a big shopping centre, a few restaurants and bars just there! Typical, you try all the stuff that is supposed to be good the other side of town and only then do you realise there are some places just a minute away. So I'll check those out tonight.

Sunday, 17 October 2004

Art and Craft Fair

I knew my Portuguese was not up to scratch. This fair I was mentioning yesterday is an art and craft fair that is held every Sunday. They actually close the whole of Avenida Alfonso Pena for 4 blocks and put lots of tents in the middle. They reckon they now have about 3000 stalls split into 17 types of products sold. In practice, it all started as a small fair on Praça da Liberdade and eventually overflowed the square so they had to find something bigger. It is absolutely huge now! Something like this held in London would require something like closing Piccadilly all the way between Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park Corner. So I spent some time there this morning. I went to Praça da Liberdade afterwards where they had a brass band competition. Now that it's not used for the fair anymore, they've got to do something I suppose. However, finding yourself halfway between two brass bands playing music at full volume can be a distressing experience, even when they're good.

Saturday, 16 October 2004

Strange Fauna

As I was saying yesterday, I went out last night. I had my first local food from Minas Gerais. As usual in Brazil, it was completely unfit for a vegetarian. Good thing it's not my case so I enjoyed it thoroughly. After that, I went in search of a place to have a few drinks. It wasn't too difficult considering I was in the Savassi neighbourhood of Belo Horizonte and I ended up in the 3 Coraçãons cafeteria, that had a nice terrace outside. The beer was the standard chopp and went down quite well. However, the local fauna was interesting and totally unexpected. The square was full of goth, rasta, hippie, punk, you name it. I thought I was back in Camden Town for a second. Then I realised it was way too warm for it to be London and most of the crowd were way too young and probably guilty of underage drinking. I had discovered what rebellious Belo Horizonte teenagers get up to on a Friday night! Surprisingly, they were very well behaved even if some of them did try to put on a show. I found it very amusing and so did the other customers of the cafeteria. Apparently, this is what happens on Praça Savassi on a Friday night. I then went in search of somewhere more like a night club or a live music bar... and failed. I blame the way Belo Horizonte is designed with large straight avenues built for cars. As a result, there is no area of the town which favour pedestrians and would be a natural point of focus for outdoor night life, the way the Pelourinho is in Salvador. Tonight, I will try another area of town called Lourdes and see if I fare better. An interesting thing I noticed last night though is that quite a few bars officially advertise their closing time as "when the last customer leaves". I wish they'd do that in London!

Today I met with a friend and she took me to a few places out of town, including a lake, a zoo and a natural reserve. We started at the lake of Pampulha. It is quite nice and boasts a quadruple water spray feature at one end, better than the one in Geneva. It also has the Igreja de São Francisco de Assis on its bank, a church with the most unusual architecture. Unfortunately, it was undergoing repairs so we could only see the back of it, by the road, which shows an amazing azulejo (the Portuguese white and blue tiles, see an example taken in Lisbon). The zoo is like most other zoos except that I was able to see more of the local fauna there. They do have some weird animals in Brazil. Then we went to the Mangabeiras park just outside of town, in the Serra do Curral. Very nice but very tiring (Serra is a mountain range in Portuguese, same as Sierra in Spanish). We got a fantastic view of the town though!

Apparently, tomorrow, there is a fair just outside where my hotel is. If I understood well (my Portuguese is getting better but I still struggle a lot), they basically close the two internal lanes on each side of the central reservation in Avenida Alfonso Pena and put up lots of tents in the middle were they sell lots of things. That still leaves the Avenida 3 lanes each way so the interaction between drivers and fair should be interesting.

Great! I just found a map of Belo Horizonte so you can admire the beautiful grid design. My hotel is between dots 8 and 16.

Friday, 15 October 2004

Beaches and Mines

While in Macaé, I went to Búzios, which is the "Brighton" of Brazil. Luckily, because it's still spring here, rather than summer, it wasn't too busy. The other good thing is that, due to the geography of the peninsula, you have lots of beaches while the amount of hotels you can build is limited so you would never have the stupid amount of people you would have in places like Brighton or St Tropez. However, you might meet Brigitte Bardot there, on the grounds that she is the celebrity who put Búzios on the map in the first place, by staying there a few years ago. To the point that you have streets and restaurants named after variations on Brigitte and Bardot.

I'm now in Belo Horizonte, the capital city of the state of Minas Gerais, so called because this state has a soil that is very rich in all sorts of minerals, including gold, and counts something like 2000 mines that originally made it the economic centre of Brazil. Belo Horizonte itself is a large modern city with wide avenues designed in a grid pattern. In fact, 2 grids on top of one another at 45 degrees. It looks fantastic on a map but is a nightmare on the ground because you end up with lots of intersecting streets and quite a few junctions with 6 or 8 streets. The result is not pedestrian friendly at all. To make the life of pedestrians even worse, the place is not flat, far from it. On the other hand, in a 30 Celsius heat, walking around town is good exercise. And there's quite a big park if you want to get away from the traffic. Also, Belo Horizonte is supposed to have the best night life in Brazil so I will check this out over the week-end. Then next week, the plan is to go for day trips to the different small towns around here that are supposed to be quite scenic.

Today, I also bought the remaining plane tickets for the last two legs of my journey. So it's now all set: after Belo Horizonte, I go to Foz do Iguaçu then cross into Argentina and fly from Puerto Iguazu to Buenos Aires. It was quite fun to explain all this in Portuguese to the travel agent. The difficult part was to convince her that I would manage on my own between Foz do Iguaçu, which is the town on the Brazilian side of the Iguaçu falls, and Puerto Iguazu, which is the town on the Argentinean side of the falls. There is about the same distance between the two than there is between Luxembourg and Trier or Mulhouse and Basel but they both have their own airport and it is much more simple to cross the border by bus than by plane: the plane journey would be Foz do Iguaçu - São Paulo - Buenos Aires - Puerto Iguazu and cost a fortune whereas the bus should take no more than 1 hour and cost a few reais. The travel agent was also quite amused to discover that Iguaçu is spelt Iguazu in Spanish. Ah well, it was an experience and it certainly made me practice my Portuguese.

Tuesday, 12 October 2004

Black gold

After Rio, I am in Macaé, staying with a friend. Macaé used to be a small provincial town. Now that it is the base for 80% of the Brazillian oil production, its has grown 10 times and has lots of foreign companies willing to provide Brazil with the best drilling technology. It seems to work because, according to predictions, Brazil should be able to produce enough oil for its internal consumption by 2005 and should become a net exporter by 2006. The good thing is that because all the drilling is quite a long way offshore, still within Brazillian waters but only just, the sea front has a nice, clean beach and the presence of the oil industry is only visible through the names of the companies that have an address here.

Monday, 11 October 2004

Fake postcard

This morning I had a good look at some of the postcards of Rio I bought yesterday, you know the sort of things you send via snail-mail. Why would I send postcards would you ask? Well, my grand-mother doesn't use email. So coming back to the postcard, it had the Christ Redeemer and the Sugar Loaf on it, the obvious stuff you have on a postcard of Rio and a view you can only snap from a helicopter. I realised it was a shameless montage! The Christ statue is looking the wrong way! I'll have to scan it when I am back and upload it. One more reason to take your own pictures, you can't even trust the postcards nowadays.

Rio de Janeiro

After Salvador, I am now in Rio, "a cidade meravilhosa" or something like this. The hotel I am staying in is in the Copacabana district. So I've done all the standard touristy things: walk on what is arguably the most famous beach in the world, go up the Corcavado to see the Christ Redemptor and go up the Sugar Loaf just in time for sunset. I even managed to get to the coach station to buy tickets for my next two stops, Macae and Belo Horizonte. All in one day! And all on public transport. It was quite fun experimenting with Rio's buses. The only problem is you've got to now where things are in Rio to use the buses. Good thing my Lonely Planet has good maps. It didn't prevent me from taking the wrong bus at one point though. Luckily it was when going to Corcovado so it became very obvious very quickly that we were not going in the direction I wanted: if the big hill (700 odd metre high) with a big statue on top that you want to go to doesn't get closer, get off the bus.

Apart from that, Rio is supposed to have fantastic night life but the Copacabana sea front is a tourist drag with large expensive restaurants and mega-clubs where everything is on sale: at 10pm on via Atlantica, you can buy a painting by a local artist or a date for the night as easily as you can buy a beer. I miss Salvador and its simple nightlife where you just sit at the terrace of a cafe for a drink, chat to the people around you and end up a few hours later in a place with live music being cheered by the locals who are trying to teach you how to dance samba.

Nervermind, Rio is definitely worth seeing but for a good party, Salvador wins.

Friday, 8 October 2004

Bahia x Avai, Samba, Steak and Caipirinha

I tried to report on the Bahia x Avai football (or rather futebol) match I went to on Tuesday but crashed on me when I did that on Wednesday. So I'll summarise the summary: it was a huge party!! Bahia won 1-0 with an unconventional goal 10 minutes before the end. The technique used consists in having a scramble near the opposite goal and have one of the players trip on the ball and fall into the goal taking the ball with him. Not in any football manuals but it worked. And the stadium went wild, Brazillian style: drums, fireworks, flares, etc.

Since then, I've been visiting the historic centre of Salvador, including the Pelourinho which is the area where all the action is in the centre. It involved a lot of caipirinha, some of the best beef steaks I've ever had and some samba practice. Brazil is definitely not a vegetarian friendly country but as a carnivore, I'm having some of the best food ever! And when it comes to partying, nobody can beat the Brazillians! I'm still recovering from last night and I have another party planned in 2 hours time. But then it's my birthday and my last night in Salvador before flying to Rio tomorrow. Time to get a guarana drink I reckon.

Tuesday, 5 October 2004


London, Paris, São Paulo, Salvador da Bahia: 3, planes, 2 airlines, 18 hours. It was painful but it was worth it! I've been in Salvador since Sunday morning and I'm having a fantastic time! The beaches are great, the water is warm, the people are just fantastic. The only downside is being a bit temperamental from here. Nevermind, I finally managed to get into my account to post.

I thought Brazil would be great but I didn't realise how great. It's really nice to be away from the rain of London and be able to drink a beer on the beach for the extortionate sum of 50 pence. I'll be in Salvador until the week-end. I still need to go and see Pelourinho, the historic centre so I'll make sure I do before I go. Then, off to Rio de Janeiro followed by Belo Horizonte (and Ouro Preto), Sao Paulo, Foz do Iguaçu; then cross into Argentina and down to Buenos Aires.

In the meantime, I'm spending my mornings in a local language school learning Portuguese which, if I were to unfairly summarise it in one sentence is Spanish grammar with French pronounciation. Luckily, the Brazilian version is much simpler than the original from Portugal. At least they don't swallow half the words all the time here. On the other hand, they're laid back enough to take their time when speaking. This is good for a beginner.

Speaking of culture, I'm going to a football match tonight between Bahia, the local team, and another team I can't remember the name of. When it comes to football here (soccer for the Americains), culture is not a strong enough word. Religion is more like it. It should be fun.

Time for a caipirinha, I'll be back soon.

Saturday, 25 September 2004

Hopeless train station

Ok, railways in the UK are not the best in the world but sometimes you really have the impression they're taking the piss. I need to go to Gravesend this afternoon. Trains leave from Charring Cross station. I need to be there at 7pm (before is no use, after is too late). I thought the best way was to go to the station, check the timetables and get a return ticket from the vending machine. Sounds too simple and indeed it is. Charring Cross doesn't have any timetables displayed. The only way to know about time is to ask at the information counter, which happens not to be staffed today, or to ask at the ticket office. Good I think, I'll go to the ticket office and buy the ticket at the same time. Sounds too simple again. There are only 2 windows open at the ticket office and the queues are huge, mainly because half the automated ticket machines are out of change and the ones that do have change don't accept bank notes. So mostly everybody has to go to the ticket counter. Fantastic! It only took me half an hour to check the times and get my ticket, when I should have been able to do this in 5 minutes. How useless is that? Then, next to the window, you have a board that says "If you have complaints about this station and its services, contact:" Contact who? The rest of it is so faded that it has become impossible to read.

This is 21st Century train services in the largest city in Europe.

Friday, 24 September 2004

How the music biz can live forever, get even richer, and be loved

The Register have a very interesting article on the future of the music industry and its relationship with technology, in particular P2P and file sharing. The main message is don't try to stop P2P and file sharing because will not succeed so the only way is to embrace it and find a way to make revenue out of it. All very sensible although I'm not too sure I like the taxes idea developed in the article.

Take the OS quiz

I found the OS quiz through Slashdot the other day. Quite interesting. Apparently, I am like HP-UX:

You are HP-UX. You're still strong despite the passage of time.  Though few understand you, those who do love you deeply and appreciate you.

Interestingly, HP-UX is the operating system we had at university and hence is the OS on which I learnt about UNIX and programming. So does it mean that the first real OS I played with influenced me that much? Or is it that it was a natural match? Or is this quiz just random?

Thursday, 23 September 2004

Spread Firefox

I've been using the Firefox browser for some time now and I recently upgraded to the 1.0 preview release. This browser is just what a good browser should be: easy to use, very fast, lightweight and has features that make browsing easy and painless again, such as a popup blocker, an integrated Google search box, tabbed browsing, etc. Also, because Firefox is open source, it is free, cross platform and you have complete visibility on what's under the hood. So, if you're fed up with Internet Explorer security patches or you just want the fastest browser on Earth, just go through 3 simple steps:
  1. Get Firefox Get Firefox!
  2. Register on Spread Firefox
  3. Spread the word!
In fact, I've not been the only one to get on the Firefox bandwagon, they've had a million downloads in just a few days. In my mind, the best thing about seeing Firefox succeed like this is that it gives an alternative to Internet Explorer. Fair enough, you already have alternatives out there, such as Netscape, Opera, Konqueror, etc. but I think Firefox is the only one that can really target the Windows and personal user market: Opera is not free unless you're happy with the ads; Konqueror only runs on Linux (as far as I know); Netscape is too bloated and too resource intensive. And having a real alternative to Internet Explorer can only be good as it will make web site designers think again when they want to use IE specific features. This is the best incentive for developers to follow standards and give back the choice to their users. So long live Firefox!

2 months without a post!

Yes, that's a long time! It's all been a bit hectic, at work and out of work. I went back home to France in July then to Azerbaijan in August and I'm about to go off to Brazil and Argentina. I've got to catch up now.

Monday, 26 July 2004

Friday, 23 July 2004

Gentoo Linux on IBM ThinkPad T20

Last night, I installed Gentoo Linux 2004.1 on an IBM ThinkPad T20 laptop. Here is a quick summary of the experience.


In terms of general technical knowledge, I am a professional software architect. In a previous job, I used to install and maintain Sun servers and Sun or Windows workstations for bank trading rooms so I have installed and maintained every version of Sun's operating system, from SunOS 4.1.3 to Solaris 9, as well as every version of Microsoft Windows from 3.11 to XP. The last time I played with Linux was a few years ago with RedHat 6.2. I had a couple of problems that I did not have time to investigate so I stopped using it. Now, full of motivation and having heard only good things about Gentoo, I decided to try again.

In order to do this, I decided to install Gentoo on an IBM ThinkPad. This machine used to be used for development in my company and I was able to buy it for a small fee when it was decided to upgrade. The machine has a 700 MHz Penthium III with 256Mb RAM, on board ethernet card and modem, 2 PCMCIA slots, a DVD drive, a nice LCD screen that can support resolutions up to 1024x768 in 32M colours, 1 USB port, a PS/2 mouse/keyboard port and the ubiquitous IBM Trackpoint. No floppy drive is present. Ok so it's a laptop and hence has specialised hardware but IBM having said they supported Linux, my expectation was that all recent distros of Linux would have all the relevant drivers.

The Gentoo CDs I had where the generic x86 CDs bought from the Gentoo store a couple of weeks ago.

Booting the Live CD

Booting the Live CD for the first time went well. I had a look at the potential options for booting and decided to boot kernel gentoo with option dopcmcia. It all started fine except that it didn't manage to find the ethernet adapter. One very nice thing is that once it has booted, the first thing it tells you is where to find the documentation on the net. So, using the work machine sitting next, I browsed to it and my first impression is that the Gentoo doc is very well written and very clear. Definitely one of the best I've seen.

However, the first thing I learn when reading chapter 2 was that I should have booted with option dokeymap in addition to dopcmcia on the grounds that my machine has a UK keyboard, not a US one. So I decide to reboot and, as expected, the machine asks me for a keymap before giving me a prompt. It still doesn't see my network adapter though. I try a number of things suggested by the documentation, such as modprobe on some drivers but to no avail. After some investigation on the IRC channel and in the Gentoo forums, it appears this is a known bug with 2004.1 and, has been sorted and the fix will be in 2004.2. Nevermind, I'll do without the network for this first install, I can always add it later. This means I'll have to do a stage 3 install, which suits me fine. As a first time Gentoo user, this was my intention anyway.

Partitions and file systems

Before I can install anything, the first task is to partition the disk. Following the manual, this is very easy. However, if I were configuring a more complex system than an experimental laptop, I'd like to have more hints as to how large I should make the different partitions. In particular, how much do I need in swap? To solve the problem, I use the rule of thumb I've always used with Solaris: twice as much swap as physical memory so the documentation's example of 512Mb is just what I need. I'll just have to assume this rule of thumb also applies to Gentoo. For the rest, I also follow the example and, in the process get rid of the Windows 2000 install that resides on the machine (oops :-))

Creating the file systems and mounting them is also very easy. However, I am impressed by the number of different file systems that can are supported.

Installing a stage 3 and Portage from CD

I have no problem installing the stage 3 and Portage from CD, the documentaiton explains how to do this very well.

However, configuring /etc/make.conf could be improved. The CFLAGS and CXXFLAGS variables don't seem to need much change from what is in the default make.conf. The documentation does say though that one of the -O options, such as -O2 is a popular flag so why not add it to the default? As for the MAKEOPTS variable, on the grounds that its optimal value depends on the number of processors (namely n + 1, where n is the number of processors on the machine), it would be nice to have a configuration script that sets this and a few other popular options for you.

The USE variable

The USE flags is one of Gentoo's most powerful features and what makes it really configurable. However, this is Gentoo specific and, even though there is extensive documentation on the subject, a Gentoo beginner like me can find it difficult come up with a USE variable that actually makes sense for his system. It would be nice if the default /etc/make.conf contained commented out examples for a number of standard use cases, such as simple end user laptop and desktop, developer laptop and desktop or games desktop.

Configuring the kernel

There I decided to go with the default suggestion and configured the kernel manualy because the documentation said that the alternative of using genkernel would take more compilation time, which can be significant on a not very performant laptop. Altough Gentoo makes it easy to do and the documentation takes you through the steps, the sheer number of options, some of them quite obscure, make it difficult. In particular, I would have expected the configuration menu to take into account the specifics of my system and the installation so far. For instance, it didn't pick up the fact that I had an ext3 partition and that I needed Ext3 journalling file system support. So I ended up having a look at everything, not being very sure of what I was doing, in particular when it came to the power management options, which are essential when installing a laptop. A lot of guesswork. Maybe I should have used genkernel after all.

Compiling the kernel was very easy though.

Configuring the system

Configuring the disk by updating /etc/fstab was very straightforward and having done it countless times on Solaris, it was easy. However, it is very easy to do a spelling mistake that could be fatal in a file like this (as I was to discover later) and an inexperimented user could end up having serious issues with it.

No need to configure the network as I still don't have a network. Reading through it though, it looks well explained and once again standard UNIX so there should be no problem should I want to do it later.

Adding PCMCIA was also easy and well explained. Not having any PCMCIA card with me, I was unable to test it though.

Updating /etc/rc.conf was also straightforward so I changed the keymap setting to uk.

Configuring the boot loader

I decide to use GRUB, it all goes smoothly, nothing to comment on here, except that once again, this is an essential file that could easily get corrupted by a simple misspelling, especially considering the fact that GRUB refers to partitions in a different way than the operating system does. Mentally transforming hda1 into (hd0,0) is not difficult but prone to errors. This could easily be corrected by providing a simple script that reads you partition and file system configuration and produces a GRUB file.

Installing GRUB in the MBR was easy though.

Installing system tools

I had no problem in installing a system logger or a cron deamon. Once again the documentation is excellent.


Or rather, before rebooting, I take the time to install a standard user. Then this is the moment of truth.

Having removed the CD from the drive, I get the boot loader as expected. I select the only option I have and... it fails... and I get the maintenance login prompt. A quick investigation shows that I misspelt my root partition /dev/hga1 instead of /dev/hda1. However, my partition is currently mounted read only so I can't update /etc/fstab. The solution is to reboot using the CD, update the file and reboot again. This time it works and I get a login prompt. I have a very basic display though, probably because I forgot to enable the frame buffer in the kernel configuration but I don't really want to check: it's time to go home, this has taken me 4 hours.

Having decided to go home, I shut down the machine. It all seems to work at first. Then, after it displays the [ok] on the "Saving the random seed" task, it starts accessing the disk heavily with no message until it stops and stay there. I don't know if the machine has properly shut down, I suspect not so I just switch it off. I'll solve this another day.


Even though the documentation, the forums and the help I got from the IRC channel were excellent, I spent 4 hours installing a system that doesn't quite work properly. I will definitely try Gentoo again but it is a tough cookie and demonstrate how Linux can be difficult for newcomers, even experienced ones.

The main thing that could be done to improve this situation would be to provide an installation tool, similar to the one provided by Solaris, that would take the user through the different steps of the configuration. Of course, experienced people who don't want to use the tools wouldn't have to. Such a tool should follow the following guidelines:

  • Remember what the user did and don't ask the same question twice, e.g., once you've set up the partitions and file systems, this information should be used to select the relevant kernel options and set up the GRUB or LILO configuration.
  • Use sensible default vlaues, if possible derived from the hardware configuration. The Live CD can pick up most of it so the installer should as well.
  • When possible, guide the user through standard use cases, such as install a laptop profile or a games machine profile, or do everything custom.
  • Like the Solaris installer, ask all the questions before doing anything and then do all the installation in one go. Thus you can spend 15 minutes working on the setup and then let the tool spend the next 4 hours on its own installing your system.
All in all, it was a very interesting and valuable experience and once again I cannot praise too much the quality of the documentation. I am in two minds though as to whether I want to debug this installation or try something else, like installing Fedora Core 1 and comparing notes afterwards.

Monday, 19 July 2004

Back from holidays

I just came back from holidays. I went back home to see lots of tall ships. I also took lots of photographs but haven't had them developed yet.

As usual, I came back to the office to find a mountain of email. I also realised that the power pack (transformer and cord) of my laptop had gone missing. Interestingly enough, sending an email to everybody in the company had an immediate effect: I had my power pack back in less than 5 minutes.

Wednesday, 7 July 2004

GNER rolls out Wi-Fi on trains

GNER is to offer Wi-Fi on trains. Sounds great but the FAQ doesn't answer this:
  • do they also provide the power sockets?
  • is the access unprotected or do they run a firewall as well?
  • will the trains arrive on time?
We can guess the answer to the last question though: it depends whether there are leaves on the Wi-Fi antennae, especially the wrong type of leaves.

Wednesday, 23 June 2004

Don't panic

The press in general like environmental and health scares because it makes for great alarmist articles. Spiked dissects a few of those and tell us "Don't panic!" Certainly the best advice since The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy.

Tuesday, 22 June 2004

Shopping in your birthday suit

The Plaza Shopping Centre on Oxford Street in London organised the UK's first ever naked shopping event on Monday night. They blame the Euro 2004 for the low turnout: they had only 15 nude shoppers. Indeed, how can you expect attendance at an event that takes place the same night as England beating Croatia 4-2 in one of the best matches of the championship yet? Nude or not, most English shoppers were in the pub last night.

Merrill Lynch computer systems can't cope with Google

Merrill Lynch has dropped out of the Google IPO. Apparently their computer systems are not up to date, would be unable to cope with the particular requirements of the unusual IPO structure and they are not willing to upgrade it. Knowing how most banks manage their IT infrastructure, I am not particularly surprised.

The best homage to Douglas Adams

The BBC is planning to do a new adaptation of Douglas Adam's Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy that would cover the last 3 books of the "trilogy in five parts", taking the cult series back to its roots, as it started as a BBC radio series in the 70's before spawning a book, a TV sitcom and countless other things, except a movie so far (but this is also in the making). The best part about this new radio show though is that they will use recordings that Douglas Adams made before he died to give his voice to Agrajag. I can't wait to hear it! In the meantime, you can go to the BBC shop to find the original radio series recordings.

Monday, 21 June 2004

PADI Open Water Diver

I finished my PADI Open Water Diver course over thw week-end by doing the open water dives at Wraysbury Dive Center. The weather was great and the dives fun. This small reservoir has been set up especially for dive training. It is 14 meter deep at its deepest and has a few wrecks, such as a bus, a London black cab, a camper van, etc. Now I just can't wait to go on holidays and make good use of my newly acquired diving skills.

Solution in a box

If you need a specialist appliance, such as an intranet search engine, you probably find that it's impossible to get it for a reasonnable price. You can choose a professional product with extensive support but it will cost you a fortune. You can put together open source solutions on a dedicated box but you might not have the skills to do so and maintenance will end up costing you a lot. Pre-Emptive are here to solve this problem. They can provide you with a "solution in a box", i.e. they will provide you with a computer that has all the right bits configured and running to solve your problem and that you can just drop into your network. The acquisition cost is low because the solution is based on open source technology; maintenance is minimal because Pre-Emptive does it for you. Hence a low TCO and a happy CFO.

Ultimate fan accessory

Winbledon 2004 has just started and, as usual, the rain is part of the festivities. If you want to support you favourite star, the BBC sport academy gives you the ultimate fan accessory in the form of a face mask of your favourite player. Well, ok, right now they only have Federer, Henman and Myskina so you'll have to support one of them three.

Friday, 18 June 2004

Why DRM is bad

On a similar subject from the previous post, here is a great article on DRM and why it is A Bad Thing (tm). It is very clear, well explained, definitely very worth reading even though it is quite long.

Copy-blocked vs making the most out of technology

Some music companies have been introducing copy blocking mechanisms on music CDs that mean they are impossible to read in a PC CD drive. Alledgedly, it is meant to reduce illegal copies. The first artist to use this mechanism was Céline Dion who released a European edition of her A New Day album that could potentially crash your computer. Other artists who used this technology include Eminem and Velvet Revolver whose copy-protected CD shot to number 1 in the US. Now, does it mean that people have been buying it because they can't rip it or just because they like it?

Whatever the reason is, I think this is a very stupid way to improve CD sales. I personaly refuse to buy a CD that is copy protected for the simple reason that I want to be able to enjoy the songs on my Palm while going to work on the tube or on my computer at home when my stereo decides to pack up, which has happened twice in 3 years. And I'm not going into the potential damage to my computer or the data it contains if the CD actually makes it crash. This is just plain stupid.

Contrast this with the attitude of artists like Garbage and Dido whose respective CDs Beautifulgarbage and No Angel include extra goodies, a song reconstruction game for the former, a couple of video clips for the latter, that are available when you put the CD in a PC drive. So rather than protecting their CDs against technology, they actually use the same technology to provide their fans with material that makes the CD more valuable and therefore more attractive to buy for people who might otherwise have downloaded it from the net.

Maybe the music industry will one day learn to listen to their customers and embrace technology rather than fight it? We can dream but at least some artists understand it and they are definitely the ones who will see the colour of my money.

Being too cautious can be dangerous

spiked has an interesting article on why being too cautious can put us at risk when we follow advice that has been given without full understanding or that is not adapted to our local situation. The author argues that in cases where the information is not sufficient or adapted, we are better of taking a risk than following cautionary advice. In practice, it is consistent with what Bruce Schneier says in his book Beyond Fear where he explains how to evaluate risk in day to day situation so that we can do what we want to do while taking risks that we deem acceptable and that we understand.

A simple example of this principle is crossing a busy road. The only completely safe option is not to cross the road at all, which defeats the purpose. The most dangerous way to cross the road would be jaywalking with your eyes closed. Between the two, you have lots of options that will get you on the other side of the road with a probability of being hit by a car low enough that you are willing to take the risk.

Beer Blunder

One of my colleagues made a terrible beer mistake last night while we were in the pub watching England win 3-0 against Switzerland in their Euro 2004 game. He offered to buy a round and brought me back a Budweiser, while I had been drinking Budvar. Now this is terrible! He claimed he didn't know the difference. This is even more terrible! I can understand that American people might not know Budvar because they've only ever heard of Budweiser. But for a European, Englishman, working in London, where Budvar is easily found, it is inexcusable. I wouldn't mind if the American beer was a reasonable copy of the orginal Czech beer but I find the American one tasteless, whereas the Czech one is one of my favourites. Incidentally, the two companies are aware of the confusion brought by having the same name and have been battling in court in various countries, such as the UK or Latvia, while in Germany, they just wouldn't buy the American brand. Having said that, beer is something the Czech have been doing for ages so they are rather good at it.

Wednesday, 16 June 2004

PADI Go Dive Log

I just found that PADI provides a Palm application called Go Dive Log to plan and log dives following the rules of the PADI dive planner. I've just installed it on my Tungsten T3 and will try it over the week-end when doing my completion dives for the Open Water Diver certification.

Tuesday, 15 June 2004

Elton gets special treatment

Special treatment for visiting stars is not new and can sometimes take interesting forms. In the case of Elton John, it means being allowed by Aberdeen airport to fly out later than normal.

Virgin Atlantic to launch amphibious limo service with Gibbs Aquada

Obviously, Richard Branson enjoyed his cross-Channel trip in the Gibbs Aquada because he is now talking of using it as a limo service for Virgin Atlantic customers.

The French, the English and the Channel

The English currently find it quite hard to swallow their amazing defeat in their Euro 2004 opening match against France. Consequently, a few papers try to find every possible excuse to print the words French defeated and Richard Branson just gave them a good excuse by crossing the Channel in an amphibious vehicle and breaking the previous record for doing so, which was held by two Frenchmen. Having said that, the Gibbs Aquada looks like a fantastic vehicle and I could certainly do with one of them to go back home when I feel like it.

Friday, 11 June 2004

PDF, XML and Java

Adobe are about to unveil a new document services platform based on Java. At last a professional document company going the Java way! This should give us the opportunity to do some funky things in J2EE applications beyond just producing PDF documents. Hopefully, this will be able to interact with tools like Jakarta FOP. See also TheServerSide.COM.

Gummi bears defeat fingerprint sensors

This article on The Register shows that defeating fingerprint sensors doesn't require high-tech or expensive equipment. Of course, fingerprint sensors assume you are going to apply your finger to the sensor, not something that looks and feel like a finger and has a fake fingerprint on it.

Seattle ferries to offer Wi-Fi

Seattle ferries to offer Wi-Fi. No way this would ever happen on the London tube, they'd have to get mobiles to work there first.

Thursday, 10 June 2004

Photo in the PMJ

Nameplate of barquentine Shabab Oman Posted by Hello

I took this photograph of the nameplate of barquentine Shabab Oman while in Bergen during the Cutty Sark Tall Ship Races in 2001. This photo was used in the April 2004 issue of the Postgraduate Medical Journal. You can find the original version of this picture at DHD Multimedia Gallery.

As mentionned in the gallery, Shabab Oman means Youth of Oman. She is a superb barquentine that is used by the Sultanate of Oman as an ambassador to other sailing nations. Under sail, she is definitely one of the most beautiful ships I have ever seen and regularly takes part in international sailing events.

Wednesday, 9 June 2004

Monday, 7 June 2004

Open Water Diver

I spent a good part of my week-end in the swimming pool at London School of Diving, doing the theory and confined water part of the PADI Open Water Diver certification, which teaches you the basics about diving. I now have to do the open water dives to complete the certification. Hopefully, this will happen in two weeks time. And then the world's my oyster... literally!


vox.machina has got a new skin and it looks great!