Monthly Archives: May 2008

Wind Hazard!

The last couple of days have been rather windy. Today it got stronger, and was accompanied by intermittent rain. That’s more like October/November than May, though of course it’s warmer and lighter than in the traditional wet&windy autumn season.

Heading out, I found today’s wind has done some minor damage. In Paddons Row, one shop sign was down, and another was hanging loose, with a single hook intact. The latter looked like a potential hazard, being big&heavy enough to do serious damage if it falls on someone.

Being a bank holiday, the shop was closed. Neither the sign nor the shop window had a ‘phone number, so I couldn’t try reporting it to the proprietress. The police station was also closed, so I couldn’t report it there. As for doing anything about it myself, I’d likely be arrested if I tried to climb up there. And besides, doing anything with that sign in the wind, without a stepladder and someone to hold it steady on the wet, sloping ground, would be verging on suicidal.

Arriving back home, I found a phone number for the shop, but got no answer. I also tried the police, but hung up after too long on hold. For the time being, it’s not a problem: the wind has subsided and it’s stopped raining. But if it gets up again later, who knows what might happen?

What bugs me about this is the contrast between this situation, and the kind of grief the powers-that-be inflict on us in the name of mostly-bogus Health and Safety concerns in everyday life.

Stand up for fatties!

Was it not Martin Luther King who said we should judge a man “not by the colour of his skin, but by the content of his character“? When faced with a report saying “Obese blamed for the world’s ills“, I say it’s time we invoked the great man’s rhetoric. Judge me not by the amplitude of my girth, but by the content of my character!

When I heard of the report, my first reaction was to try and seek out the original. Failing that, I thought I’d leave it: the news reports probably misrepresent it anyway. But then today out cycling up Dartmoor, I met a chap even more rotund than myself on a bike, and looking plenty fit enough for Dartmoor’s hills, and thought maybe this is at least blogworthy. This kind of report – judging people for what they are – is perilously close to the kind of prejudice Dr King’s people suffered.

I’m a fatty, so I eat 18% more calories than average?

Probably guilty as charged, though I eat a small fraction of what I did in my youth, before the middle-age spread set in. But against that, the fact I don’t eat meat must surely in itself put my dietary carbon footprint well below the developed-world average.

But more than that: I’m sure my good layer of natural organic insulation is one reason I don’t need to heat my environment in the English winter. Not the only reason: the fact that I’m fit and healthy helps, as does the legacy of my youth when the cost of heating was out of the question, meaning I got used to nature’s temperatures. But anyway, I have no doubt that my layer of fat more than pays for itself in carbon emissions saved.

And I drive an excessive amount?

Definitely not guilty: the last time I drove was a little over three years ago, when I hired a van for a day to move house. I use a combination of bicycle and public transport for all my travel. More importantly, I make efforts to avoid unnecessary travel, particularly that western-country ritual of commuting, which I have eliminated altogether from my life. To cap it all, my life’s work is dedicated to developing the infrastructure for many more people – in principle everyone in the knowledge economy – to be able to avoid much of their travel.

So I guess I’m guilty of being portly, just as Dr King was guilty of being black. I don’t see that either of us has anything to be ashamed of!

Lack of Entropy

Much has been said about the Debian/OpenSSL bug by people closer to it than I am. An expert view comes from Ben Laurie, who lays in to the Debian packagers for fixing an apparent bug locally, and not sharing it with upstream. In a second post, Ben clarifies some confusing issues, like whether OpenSSL is relying on uninitialised memory for entropy (not quite, but what it’s doing is not good either).

Ben’s wrath is well-deserved, but it seems to me there’s a fundamental reason why the OpenSSL folks must bear a share of the blame. Given the use of uninitialised memory, why wasn’t there a great big comment right there in the code, explaining it? Anything like that is sure to raise alarm bells in anyone reviewing the code, and send a programmer straight into fix-the-bug mode. And that’s an apparent-bug with a fix so simple that a compiler or runtime library could do it automatically. Don’t blame the Debian maintainer for fixing a blunder so trivial it must be a typo!

Why the “fix” went beyond just initialising that memory and broke it is beyond the scope of my (non-) research on the subject, and therefore this post.

UPDATE: Kudos to Michal Čihař for pointing out the upside to this sorry tale.


So that’s how MSIE is an essential core component of Windows, and can’t possibly be removed!

As with any other geek, people expect me to know all about computers, and help them out when something doesn’t work. Never mind that I know nothing about windows, and proceed by trial and error. So, I’ve just been to help a friend get her newly-installed broadband working.

It turned out she was already connected to the ‘net just fine. I popped up a command window, typed in “ping”, and it worked without hesitation. OK, so where’s the problem? She showed me: she brings up MSIE, and it insists that she’s offline and invites her to connect! Evidently it’s too … ummm … smart to notice that the rest of the operating system all around it is connected. She’d already done the “obvious” thing, and tried setting up a new “broadband” connection in MSIE’s menu.

OK, the menu doesn’t have an option for a regular network connection. So I tried just removing the old dialup connections, whereupon it all worked. Evidently they were standing in the way of MSIE using the network!

Well, I take my hat off to the engineers who designed that. It must take a lot of ingenuity to make things quite so gratuitously difficult. Heath Robinson would be proud of you! And that’s the kind of feature that’ll keep you firmly ahead of Linux, Solaris, MacOS, etc, which “just work” when you attach them to a network, and deprive the user of all that mystery and entertainment.

Lydford white water

Lydford Gorge is small, but it’s about as close as you get in England (south of the Lake District) to real scenery. That is to say, the word “gorge” really means it.

Looking down from the road bridge (don’t try that if you get vertigo!), the river in the bottom looks exciting. But I can’t tell from that distance whether it should be navigable by a white-water enthusiast – possibly excluding the famous 30-metre waterfall. Upstream from the bridge the view is very much obscured by trees; downstream there’s some clear view (that’s the really vertiginous one), and it’s very clearly not a wimp’s river. But in a country where anything above about grade 2 (OK maybe 3) would be impossible to insure, the absence of commercial adventure on it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s impossible.

Hmmm. Anyone tried it?

p.s. yes, I must be mad. All the best people are mad 🙂

Two computers, one desk

Since the Sun box arrived, I’ve been struggling with the logistics of my workspace.

Clearing the desk for the shiny new 24″ monitor was straightforward enough. But how to deal with two computers: both the new Solaris box and the existing Linux one? A remote desktop isn’t an option, because I want to be able to work at either computer while the other is powered down. For a day I perched the old box’s monitor on the corner of the desk, but the stiffness of my neck after an hour working at it told me clearly that’s not sustainable.

Well, that 24″ monitor has two inputs (digital and analogue). The Sun came with a digital lead, and I was using analogue on the Linux box. Plugging both in works, and under normal operations the monitor can be switched between them. A solution therefore appears to be to plug both computers in to the one monitor. But can the Linux box be configured to recognise the Sun hardware and use the full 1920×1200 display, as opposed to a a distressingly small subsection? The Sun hardware is too new for the system to auto-recognise and configure. And the Solaris box doesn’t even have an xorg.conf from which I could copy relevant parts.

Well, yesterday I fixed it, with a bit of help from the good folks on IRC (thanks arreyder, yango et al). Two computers, one monitor, and both computers giving a great display! Now I can retire the old monitor.

Still a few downsides. I can’t share a keyboard&mouse the same way, so I have to swap them around and regularly find myself typing at the wrong one. And I miss the sound on the old monitor – the new one has none. But nothing that’s a showstopper. And, not least, whereas the old monitor was selected for (among other things) its low energy consumption at about 40W, the new one is rated 90W.

I’ve also just come to appreciate the value of USB. With the Sun box to the left of the desk and the mouse at my right hand, that’s an awkward connection. But the Sun keyboard rides to the rescue, with two USB ports in the back, so I only have to plug the mouse in to the keyboard.

Sun is hiring!

Sun’s webstack team is hiring!

The web stack is strongly focussed on open source solutions, centred on the LAMP[1] stack and variants on those technologies. We’re now looking for recent grads eager to work on open source technologies and help build next generation OpenSolaris web platform.

If interested, see

and please mention niq’s soapbox in your application!

As regular readers are no doubt aware, I joined Sun Microsystems back in February as Apache guru. The MySQL acquisition bought in key developers from a broader range of opensource web-technology projects. I’m happy to say that on current experience, they’re the best company I’ve worked for by a clear margin. This is a company that doesn’t just treat its engineering staff as junior bods on the way to ‘real’ jobs in management or marketing, and expect you to be ‘above’ engineering (or on the scrapheap) by age 30. I’m happy to recommend them as an employer.

[1] Yeah, right, maybe I should say S(olaris)AMP, but both platforms are important to us, as indeed are alternatives to the A, M and P!

Hyperactive akismet

quasi (mads) just pinged me on IRC. He’d made a comment on my latest blog entry, but it hadn’t appeared. And another on May 1st, which had also gone nowhere. Today’s ping was because his comment was in fact a suggestion, in response to my question.

Turns out akismet seems to have a grudge against him, and thought both his comments were spam. Since they’re both less than a week old (or whatever it is), I was able to recover them through the admin panel.

Akismet is a bit of a lifesaver, in that it eats up the vast majority of spam attacking the blog. But this is not the first time it’s given false positives. So, anyone whose comment doesn’t show up, that’s probably what happened to it. Ping me, and I’ll look for it. If you don’t ping me, I’ll never know you tried to comment.

Mailer for solaris

The new solaris box came with Thunderbird installed as a default mailer.  It works for mail once I’ve disabled crap like pseudo-HTML composition.  At least, while online and its IMAP servers are responding.  And so long as you post everything through one SMTP host.

OK, yes, that’s pretty limiting.  But the real killer is how it falls about in a ghastly heap when trying to access an IMAP server that’s offline or responding slowly.

I’m used to Apple’s mailer – on the mac laptop – which makes a decent job of it.  Once it’s synced with the IMAP server on the (linux) desktop, I can access its local cached copies of my mail, no fuss.  And it’s pretty good at syncing up whenever a connection is available.

Thunderbird, by contrast, hangs and refuses to open the offline account when the IMAP server is unavailable.  Worse, it pops up error messages about it, to interrupt whatever I’m doing.  And worst of all, this morning when I first tried to sync it, the IMAPD was responding slowly because the linux box was running updatedb, and has the slowest of cheapo discs.  Instead of syncing in background, thunderbird started grabbing all my desktop’s resources, and made X11 more sluggish than ever the linux box’s own desktop gets when running updatedb.  It felt like a forkbomb!

So, I want a better mailer.  And here’s the rub: I’ve never run a *X box in the same circumstances, with intermittent availability of an IMAP server.  I do most of my mail on the Linux box, but obviously its own dovecot instance is always up when i use that.  Going back before the days of the mac laptop, I wasn’t running an imapd, so I didn’t have the issue.  Back in the days of dialup, I used fetchmail+local folders, as opposed to fetchmail feeding dovecot, and Pine worked just fine.

So, dear lazyweb, what’s a good mailer for *X with intermittent connectivity?

A coronation and a kingmaker

Have Londoners elected a joke? Or can the exuberant upper-class twit mature, like Prince Hal[1], into a great leader?

My guess is that he can and will, FSVO great leader. But that may not really matter very much: all he really has to do is make the right noises. Beyond that, he’ll get a “media honeymoon” from those whose agenda for the past eight years has been anti-Ken. I think he’s smart enough not to reverse the core good things Ken has done to make London a more pleasant place than in my youth, and Boris’s own agenda is going to make fewer enemies. And he’s got off to a good start, with a generous tribute to his predecessor!

His office is one where character and personality matter, and appear less damaging than in a national leader, not least because he (unlike The Liar et al) is elected to his office by the people he represents. Boris, like Ken, is not lacking in individuality. Even if he goes off and plays fantasy games with his office as The Liar did (and there’s no suggestion that he will), he won’t drag an entire government with him, so potential damage is limited.

Perhaps the biggest winner from this is David Cameron. If one exuberant fortysomething toff can prove himself in office, that’ll (rightly or wrongly) help dispel doubts about the other. The timing is brilliant for him: Boris has his honeymoon just coming, and won’t have much time to tarnish before the next general election.

[1] As in Shakespeare’s portrayal – which is where my knowledge of the relevant history comes from[2].

[2] See the section “Lettice and Lovage” in this page.