Monday, 31 January 2005

Moving Firefox Around

I've just done a small change to this weblog template by moving the Firefox logo higher up, with the title. The reason for this is I suddenly realised that the logo prevented the page from displaying properly with a screen resolution smaller than 1024x768. This is now solved so you can now read this blog in a small window. The nice thing about using HTML and CSS properly is that I only had to move 3 lines of HTML and slightly alter one CSS style for the change to take effect. It was all done in less time than it took me to write this paragraph.

Iraq, Saddam and the Rest of Us

I've had the book from John Simpson, The Wars Against Saddam: Taking the Hard Road to Baghdad, on my shelves for some time now and hadn't read it mainly because I have the hardback edition and hate taking a hardback on the London tube. I finally opened it at the week-end and realised how much I had been missing. Once I had started, I could not close this book. John Simpson, the BBC's World Affairs Editor, is one of the most respected journalists on the planet and one of the most knowledgeable persons on international politics in general and Iraq in particular. He takes you through 40 years of history, from the rise of a young Saddam Hussein to power in the 70s to his downfall at the hands of the USA in 2003, via the Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent war, the 12 years of international sanctions and the last war.

Simpson relates his tale in the first person, describing and explaining why and how things happened from his point of view. However, he tries to stay completely objective by only giving the facts without judging or excusing anybody for their actions. As a result, there is very little speculation, everything is hard facts that he has lived or verified himself as part of his job and the reader is left to draw whatever conclusions he wants. This is what good journalism is all about and it is what makes this book a compelling read.

This is a tale that has no godlike hero nor evil villain. It is a tale of ordinary and extraordinary people, miscalculations, misunderstanding, lost opportunities, political games, greed, murders and lies but with a sense of hope for the future. The overall feeling after closing this book is that there is not one single person to blame for the wars and suffering; all in all, Iraq will be better without Saddam Hussein; but the elections of Sunday could and should have happened in 1991, saving the Iraqi population 12 years of sanctions and privations.

Apple, Google and Al-Jazeera

Newrating has a short article that explains that Apple Computers was voted the most influential brand of 2004, on the strength of its iPod product, pushing Google into second place. Good news for Apple, and well deserved, considering how innovative they have been over the past few years with products like OS-X, Power Mac or Mac Mini, as well as the iPod of course.

But the most interesting part of the article is not about the first or second place, it's about the fifth entry in the global brands, Al-Jazeera, the Arabic news channel based in Doha, Qatar (not to be confused with Al-Jazeera Publishing, based in Dubai, UAE). Since its launch in 1996, Al-Jazeera has become the most important and most impartial news agency in the Middle East, giving a voice to the Arab world. The Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts have made the agency reknown worldwide, albeit mainly because it is the one channel through which Osama bin-Laden and Iraqi terrorists would talk, by sending Al-Jazeera video footage that they would show on their web site. On the other hand, the fact that Al-Jazeera would show this footage is proof that it is reasonably free from censorship and has the potential to grow into a major news channel. Some will say it is biased towards Arab interests in its reporting, although not more than CNN or FOX News are biased towards American interests I think. Anyway, it gives the rest of the world a local view of Middle Eastern affairs, which had been blatantly missing up to now. It can only be good to have access to another point of view on that particular part of the world. So, well done Al-Jazeera.


I found the original BrandChannel article via Slashdot.

Sunday, 30 January 2005

Spyware and Viruses

After having had requests from a number of friends, I ended up putting together a CD that contains most of what you would need to clean up a PC of spyware and viruses. I had an opportunity to try it out on Friday night, on the machine of a friend that was running Window ME and had become so slow it was unusable.

Arriving at my friend's place, I start up the laptop. Considering how the hard disk LED was constantly on, it was obvious that a lot more was running on that machine than what should have been expected. Opening Internet Explorer to access the index page of the CD I had with me also showed a number of non-standard toolbars, obviously installed without my friend's agreement.

Seeing the unwanted toolbars in IE, I decided to install and run Spybot Search & Destroy first. It took its time to run but found a total of 206 entries, more than I had ever seen. Spybot could not remove everything immediately and had to be run at system startup, in order to run first and remove the malware that would run at startup.

Just after running Spybot, the system started to be a little more perky already so I decided to install and run Grisoft AVG Free Edition, the edition of their flagship product that the provide for free to home users. I have to commend Grisoft in this respect for making this move. Home users can have a free version of a very good anti-virus, including updates and on the other hand it advertises Grisoft. So, I installed it and ran it. It took 1 hour and 20 minutes to scan the drive. At the end of the scan, out of 35000 files on the machine, it had identified nearly 12000 of them that had been infected by a virus. That is every third file on the machine was infected! The list of viruses found was a Who's Who of all the viruses that made the news over the last year or so. AVG then tried to clean up the mess. But after letting it run all night and all of the following day, to see it barely reach 50% of its task, it was obvious it would be easier to just re-install the system from scratch. This will be an exercise for another day. That day, I will also make sure I install ZoneAlarm and Firefox.

One point of note is that my friend only has a modem Internet connection and is not online all the time. She is a typical user, who has little knowledge of IT and how to sort things out on her machine when it goes wrong. Like most other people, she just bought her machine from a vendor with Window pre-installed. She was never told she should install anti-spyware, anti-virus or personal firewall software. Nor would she know where to find it. I can provide her with the relevant software and show her how to use it but this is because I work in IT. What would a person who doesn't have computer savvy friends do? Decide to buy another computer to replace the old one that has become too slow when in fact it just needs cleaning up? This is exactly what my parents nearly did. But then it wouldn't solve the problem and would cost them a lot.

The problem is PC vendors are only interested in selling hardware to unsuspecting people. I don't know of any of them that would take the time to install Windows XP Service Pack 2, an anti-virus or an anti-spyware program on the machine they sell, thus selling completely unprotected systems, while not warning the buyers this is the case. Some of them might sell a Norton or Symantec solution with the PC but it is not free and the virus database updates are usually only valid a year so most people don't renew it and lose the protection. And because there is no revenue in it, no PC vendor will consider offering a service whereby they install free software like Grisoft AVG or Spybot on the machines they sell to customers. In my mind, this is just irresponsible and unfair towards customers. Or maybe they do it on purpose, knowing that customers will come back to them when the machine has become too slow and they will charge them for cleaning it up or for buying a new one? This doesn't sound too ethical to me.

In the meantime, I will keep cleaning up friends' computers in exchange for free meals: I had a very nice dinner on Friday night.

Friday, 28 January 2005

On the Dangers of Being a Geek

The BBC has a short article about a police investigation in the alledged hacking of the DEC web site, that was set up after the Asian tsunami. This hacking apparently happened on New Year's eve.

Another article on Boing Boing quotes an article on a mailing list written by a user who alledgedly accessed the DEC site on New Year's eve to donate money to the appeal. He accessed the site using the Lynx browser running on Solaris. Apparently, such an unusual setup was misread by BT, who run the donation management system, as a hack attack. Said staff alledgedly then called the police and got him jailed.

Slashdot also has the same story with links to the other two sites.

Now the question is: was he really trying to hack the site or did he actually want to make a donation using a little know browser? In the former case, it would mean BT staff did exactly what they should have done and got a hacker jailed. In the latter, they misread the unusual browser agent information in the logs and seriously overreacted. Let's assume the latter: BT staff were inexperienced enough to understand their server's logs and this guy got in jail just for using this web site with an unusual browser and operating system combination. Surely this is not possible? BT staff should be trained professionals who can extract all the necessary information out of a web server log and understand this information? Well, experience tells that large organisations like BT have such a large number of IT staff that the skill levels in the IT department varies widely. Also, as it was New Year's eve, the staff contingent at BT was surely reduced and it is likely that the people on duty were more junior than would normally have been the case. Add to this the fact that reading and understanding web server log files is a skill that is better acquired through experience than courses and sometimes require significant general knowledge about IT and the systems that can potentially have access to the web server. It is sometimes surprising how many alledgedly professional IT staff only have vague general knowledge on anything other than Microsoft Windows, so Sun Solaris and Lynx could very well have been unknown from the staff on duty at BT. Finally, they might have wanted to err on the side of caution when faced with a log they didn't understand and assume it was a hack that needed to be dealt with immediately, rather than lose time in trying to understand the file completely. So the overreaction scenario that put an innocent geek in jail is not that far fetched after all.

But, even if BT really cocked up, why do we care? We care because it could mean that BT staff might not have the experience and knowledge that an ISP should have. As a consequence, they can act based on information they don't understand, with potentially dramatic consequences. Having someone jailed is extremely heavy handed, especially before that person has been proven guilty of any crime. Does it mean that to be safe we should all use a browser and operating system combination that is well known by the staff at all the major ISP? I am not going to go into the freedom infringement implications of this question, let's just say that if I want to use Lynx on Solaris, I should be able to do so without fearing reprisals of any sort. But at least, I have the choice to use what I want. Other people don't. Lynx, and other text browsers are typically used by people with disabilities or people with limited bandwidth. Let's just hope it was all a stupid mistake and BT staff have learnt something in the process.

Tuesday, 18 January 2005

A Comparison Between BSD and Linux

I found today this very good article, that tries to explain the differences of development and design between BSD and Linux, via Slashdot. It is very well written, by someone who has a lot of experience with FreeBSD and some experience with other BSD variants as well as Linux. This article has taught me a lot about both systems, and possibly why I repeatedly found it difficult to install and maintain Linux in the past. I reckon my philosophy of software development is closer to the BSD one than the Linux one.

Having said that, I certainly will have another look at BSD and the machine on which I tried to install Gentoo Linux a few months ago looks like the ideal test bench for this purpose. Even better, I've already found out that others have done it before me so I'll have no excuse to fail. Of course I will make sure that I take notes and post them to this site.

Monday, 17 January 2005

Extra-Terrestrial Landscapes

The Cassini-Huygens mission has sent back the first photographs of Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons, as well as tons of data on Saturn itself. This joint project between NASA, ESA and ASI is a fantastic achievement and the media can't get enough of it. Fair enough, they had a software glitch that meant one of the radio antennae didn't work and therefore a significant amount of data was lost but what has come back it still tremendous. I personally find it absolutely amazing that we can send a probe to Titan and the images that are coming back are just fantastic. Apparently, some music was sent with the spacecraft just in case some aliens were to find it. I reckon I'm going to download the music and maybe the ESA screen saver. You can find more information with lots of pictures, sounds, animations at ESA, NASA and ASI.

Sunday, 16 January 2005

AfterShock Black

I tried this special edition AfterShock Black last night in a pub in Soho. It is weird and evil but I like it. Imagine something that tastes of sweet cranberry, nearly black currant first. Then your palate freezes over with a cool effect like in the blue peppermint one. Lastly your throat starts burning with spices, in particular cinnamon like in the red one. And then the alcohol hits you. The people who mixed this would qualify as evil geniuses I reckon.

Friday, 14 January 2005

Hairdresser and Pub Talk

when at the haidresser last Saturday, I heard one of the customers explain his theory that the Asia quake disaster was triggered by someone who planted a big bomb underwater. I heard the same theory explained in the pub a few days later. How do people come up with that sort of things? I suspect because they cannot comprehend how it can happen naturally nor the magnitude of it. Good job, the BBC has a simple and good explanation on how it happened.

Thursday, 13 January 2005

WMD? what WMD?

After 2 years search and not finding, The US have decided to end the search for WMD in Iraq. Apparently, they've been much more difficult to find than anybody expected. Funny that because, when Saddam Hussein was in power and the West had little access to Iraq, it was all very easy to verify that the Iraqi had WMD and were ready to use them. Now that the US are supposedly in control of the country, they can't find them anywhere, even though they've looked very hard. Now, if you were cynical, you might ask why we went to war in the first place then? Is it that the US and British intelligence agencies are really bad and were made to believe there were WMD in Iraq? If yes, who made them believe this? Or is it that the real reason had to do with oil? We will probably never know but one thing is sure, during the next few months we will subjected to another type of WMD, favourite weapon of governments, the Waffle of Mass Distraction.

Wednesday, 12 January 2005

When is a Sandwich not a Sandwich?

I just went to Pret A Manger near the office and bought one of their Amazing No Bread Sandwich. Basically, you get the sandwich filling in a box without the bread, in this case a mix of crayfish, avocado, cucumber, spinach and lettuce leaves. Other people would call this a salad. I suppose that's what marketing is all about.

Tuesday, 11 January 2005

Font Change

I just did a subtle change to this blog, namely changed the font for texts. I decided to use a serif font for the main text rather than a sans-serif one because I prefer serif for text and sans-serif for titles. It usually works better because a serif font is smaller on screen than a sans-serif one, for the same specified size, i.e., a size 12 serif font is smaller than a size 12 sans-serif. Also, as the Wikipedia article puts it: Typically serif fonts are used for body text because the serifs tend to guide the eye along the line, while sans serif fonts are used for headings and for small sections of text, because they typically look 'cleaner' to the eye. And finally, italic letters look better in a serif font.

I experimented with Garamond first because I like the font but it is quite difficult to read at small size so I reverted to good old Times New Roman.

Old Currency from the Euro Zone

If you went to any country of the Euro zone, before it changed currency, you probably have coins in the old national currency lying around. As those coins are not legal tender anymore, they are gathering dust and you don't have much use for them. Unless you are a collector of course or are in need of worthless round pieces of metal for whatever reason. If you don't have a use for them, I suggest you give them to Oxfam. They will take them and change them or sell them as collectible items, generating revenue to support their charity work. The simplest way to do it is to go to your local Oxfam shop. If you don't have one, you can send them to their Stamps & Coins Unit. Here is the address for the UK:

Stamps & Coins Unit
26, Murdock Road
Bicester OX26 4RF

I dropped mines at my local shop at the week-end and that's one less bag of useless stuff gathering dust on my shelves.

Thursday, 6 January 2005

What Happened to Netiquette?

Following the release of Firefox, one user based in London called Jesse had the great idea to start a Firefox London User Group, or FLUG, to organise get-togethers and help spread our favourite browser quicker and further. Having proposed the idea, he then set up a mailing list, to which I subscribe. To cut a long story short, the beginnings were a bit difficult. Jesse tried to set up a meeting in a London pub several times. Finally it seems the first meeting will be next week. However, yesterday, a few email that were well intentioned but not very positively worded were posted on the list and started a flame war between two of the subscribers.

Going through the emails and reviewing how it all started, I am absolutely appalled at how quickly it degenerated and how insulting the arguments became. It showed that the two people involved had no notion of netiquette whatsoever. This is a problem that is more and more apparent on forums, mailing lists and Usenet and is probably related to what geek jargon calls the September that never ended, that is, the fact that the Internet is now accessible to virtually everybody, most people having never been told what netiquette was all about.

It's a shame that this sort of things could happen but, if the Internet is democratising itself, how can you teach people netiquette and how can you prevent people from behaving as they've always done? When I first started at ESIAL, the college where I studied software and IT, we were told about netiquette before being allowed anywhere near the computers. What made it work is that, first, it was at a time when Internet was available only in universities so none of us had ever heard of it, let alone connected to it; and, second, the university had warned us that if they got complaints due to us not following the rules of netiquette, they would suspend our account.

I suppose flame wars are the price to pay for generalising the Internet and there's no question the net needs to be accessible by everybody. It doesn't prevent any of us from promoting netiquette though.

Stuck at 79

When you connect to your Blogger account, it gives you a list of your blogs that includes the total of posts made to that blog. For some reason, the counter for Geek Thoughts is locked at 79 and won't go further even though I keep adding posts. Weird.

Tuesday, 4 January 2005

Airline Charity

A number of airlines like British Airways or Emirates run a program in partnership with a charity. The principle is simple: you have spare change in the country you're coming from that you haven't or couldn't change back into your home currency when at the airport. Rather than bring it back home and use it as paperweight, you just drop it into an enveloppe and the airline does what's necessary to get the money to their chosen charity.

British Airways normally runs a program called Change for Good, in partnership with UNICEF. But, for the month of January 2005, all funds will be given to the relief effort in aid of the victims of the Asia quake disaster. So if you're flying BA this month, drop your change in the enveloppe, they accept any currency and every little helps.

This idea of asking international travellers to donate their spare change is in my opinion a great idea. At the end of the day, when you are coming back from a country you are not likely to return to anytime soon, all spare cash is just dead weight anyway, especially coins because you won't be able to change them back. So giving them to charity is the obvious solution and being able to do it on your flight home just makes it very easy. In my experience, only a small number of major airlines do it. I reckon they should all do it. It's easy, they've got the captive audience on the plane, it wouldn't take much.

Ode to Spanish Hot Chocolate

I have been to Spain quite a few times but it's only in Barcelona last week that I discovered Spanish hot chocolate. Forget Cadbury's chocolate powder to which you add water, this is the real thing. A real Spanish hot chocolate is made from real milk and real dark chocolate that has been melted in said milk, the way our grand-mothers used to do before the Nestles and Cadburys of this world invented the sachet of chocolate powder. The resulting drink is just heaven in a cup, sometimes so thick you have to eat it with a spoon. It is ideal for an afternoon break or, with churros, as a pick-me-up in the morning after a night of debauchery.

My favourite place to have hot chocolate in Barcelona is a small coffee shop aptly called Bliss, on Plaça Sant Just. Sit down in one of the sofas, order a chocolate caliente and relax, watch the world go by. You have just found Nirvana.

Monday, 3 January 2005

The perfect New Year holiday

I had a great New Year holiday. With a group of friends, we went to Barcelona, home of Antoni Gaudí. We all arrived on different days, at different times but most of us had time to enjoy Barcelona before the big party, especially considering the weather was very warm for the season, 15 Celsius with a bright blue sky. We also enjoyed some of the most amazing food: tapas, seafood, etc.

On the 31st, we all headed to Rita Blue for a nice meal, lots of champagne and lots of partying. At 4am, we decided to move somewhere else and ended in El Cangrejo until 7am, at which point we went to bed.

Photo of Barceloneta Beach, taken on 1 Jan 2005, blue sky and sunny
Barceloneta Beach, 1 Jan 2005 Posted by Hello
The 1st of January was a beautiful day and we ended up on the beach in Barceloneta. We ended up having the most amazing tapas on the terrace of the Baja Beach Club. I then had to rush to the airport to catch my flight back but made it in time, with even 5 minutes to spare to go wine shopping before boarding. Then for some reason, British Airways decided to upgrade me to business class. I didn't argue of course and enjoyed the wide seat and better leg room. When we landed at Gatwick Airport early, I thought we had flown into another dimension. This feeling was compounded by the fact that the trains were running smoothly and on time and I actually managed to make it from the door of the plane to Kew Bridge in 1½ hour. This is theoretically impossible.

It can't get better than this. I love Barcelona.