April 2003 Archives

Windows Suicide

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My Windows box, the dual PIII 1Ghz machine with the ECS DV6AA motherboard blew up last Friday. It popped some capacitors. Don't know if it was due to heat, age or anything, but it wouldn't function. I stripped it down to bare metal today and found that there was no current getting to CPU1, although CPU2 was ok. Now, I clearly have two options here: 1. get a new socket 370 motherboard (at a cost of two to five hundred dollars) to use my existing RAM and processors, 2. get a P4 mobo plus new RAM (at a cost of a few thousand dollars).

Duh! I'll pick up a new S370 mobo at some point soon. There's actually no rush. I installed RedHat 9 on gizmo, my Linux box. I spent some time on Saturday getting full graphics acceleration to work. I can do almost everything on gizmo that I needed a windows box for before. The only thing I can't do is run Excel VBA macros. Otherwise, gizmo with RH9 is a superb desktop machine.

I am very impressed with RH9 - it's the best Linux for a desktop machine I've ever seen. It does require a little bit of work setting up, but then, I'm a professional Linux admin, so it's pretty damn easy for me. The fonts and the XFree86 4.3.0 work really well, although getting them to work with a Matrox G400 takes some time. (check out the forums at http://www.matrox.com/mga to find out some useful information.)

I absolutely need to be able to work from home at the moment. To do somethings, like log into my linux boxes from outside, I need Terminal Services. Happily, RH9 has rdesktop, and I can do everything from home that I can from work. Plus, the coffee's better! (And I have some of my own homemade bread too!)

RedHat 9


OK, bear with me a mo' - I'm just rebuilding gizmo to be a RedHat 9 Linux box, and the upgrade is *way* less smooth than a clean install. I would thoroughly recommend against doing an upgrade from the CD with RedHat I usually get better results by copying everything to a second disk on the same PC, then installing from scratch but leaving the backup alone. Then you can copy everything across (like /etc/X11, etc) as and when you need it.

Basically, if you have a system which has elements which aren't in the RPM db, you'll need to take a lot of control over the process.

I just downloaded RedHat 9 over the long Easter Weekend just passed and I've spent the week trying it out on my work workstation. I haven't used Windows very much in the last few days, and didn't use it at all today, except to copy some config files around. I use Evolution linking to our Exchange server and that's amazing. I remember seeing early versions of that which were scary, but right now it's what Outlook should be. It has all the basic functionality of Outlook (connection to and Exchange server and LDAP directory stuff) and the adds a ton of features (turning off image loading, threading of messages.) I really have trouble believing that the most common email client can't thread a message. Sure, you can group by conversation, but that's a useless feature in practice. Threading is what you need for mailing lists, any involved email exchange, or just keeping track of who said what to whom and in response to what.

There were three critical apps keeping me using windows at work. Outlook (replaced by Evolution as above), Agent (replaced by Pan, although I downloaded a more up to date rpm from the pan site), and Excel.

The most recent versions of Pan have most of the usability of Agent and they have score files. They still don't have the 'next message on middle mouse button' features, but, score files more than make up for that. I've been using Agent since 1996 or so, but the development of it is too slow, and the developers are catering for a binary-downloading user (i.e. porn hound) rather than someone who wants to participate in one of the few communities left on Usenet.

Excel. Nope, open office still doesn't touch it. Nothing touches it. Excel is Microsoft's killer app, and they probably don't even know it. It hasn't changed very much for about five years, 'cause there's not much to change. I've sent at least two large firms down the Microsoft Office route since I started using it in 1993 or so. Just today, being determined to have a Microsoft free day, I wanted to chuck some numbers I grabbed from the screen into a spreadsheet, parse them into individual entries and see how they related to each other. Now in Excel, alt-d, e brings up the 'parse selected cells' dialog. Open Office calc didn't seem to have that. I couldn't find anyway to split a cell by spaces (or whatever) without resorting to writing a BASIC program. And that's an enormous shot in the foot right there. Sure, you're copying Excel by having BASIC as the macro language, but, often, that's the only programming language available on a Windows box. And VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) in Excel is a great tool for reading in data, processing data, writing out results files - it's the reason why Lotus 1-2-3 no longer exists and why Quattro never took off - don't get me wrong. But this is a Linux box. It has Perl, Python, C, C++, Fortran, Bash, etc all available as scripting/programming languages. Let me use Perl on a spreadsheet and Microsoft will wobble. Let me use a combination of C, Fortran and Perl on a spreadsheet and I can eliminate proprietary transport planning software almost straight away. All it would need would be for the spreadsheet to recognise the #! declaration and insert a library of it's own to link in. e.g.

 #!/usr/bin/perl use OpenOffice;  ... my $row=10; my $col=100; foreach my $parameter (sort keys %value) {  print SHEET("1999 Results",$row,$col) "$parameter";  print SHEET("1999 Results",$row,$col+1) "$value{$parameter}";  $row++; }  

If you know perl and associative arrays, you know just how powerful that would be. If you don't know perl, it's hard to describe, but there just isn't a better programming language for analysing things where the data structures have to be built on the fly.

Dragon Boat Season


Well, it's dragon boat season again - training starts tomorrow down in Stanley. Once again I'm paddling with Scott Wilson (Hong Kong) Limited.

Making Bread


OK, I've just made the nicest bread I've ever made, and I've no real idea why it's so nice. However, here's the recipe, so you can try it for yourself, while I refine it some more.

  • Take some warm water (about 40 degrees C) in a small bowl. About a cup full of water is right.
  • Add about one or two teaspoons of dried yeast and three teaspoons of white sugar. Put them in the water and stir it. The yeast is Ideal brand dried yeast.
  • Go to Sham Shui Po Computer Centre and look for Bluetooth network components. Fail to find anything.
  • Go to Tsim Sha Tsui and look for ludicrously cheap lenses for a Pentax K-Mount. Completely fail to find any, but nearly get involved in a TV drama which was being filmed. Leave when you realise that they're not interested in having a token Gwailo hanging around.
  • Get home approximately three hours after starting the mix and look at it and sneer. Have a shower. Add some warm water to the mix and put it in a bigger bowl.
  • Add a cup or so of flour and mix well. Put about one teaspoon of salt in and mix well. Put a little peanut oil in there as well. (I normally use olive oil, but the peanut oil, which my wife uses for frying was closer. By about two inches. And I was curious about what effect it would have.)
  • Add in enough flour until you have a doughy mixture which comes away from the sides.
  • Start kneading the mixture. I knead it in the bowl by knuckling it down until it's flat, turning it over and folding the floured sides together. Repeat, adding more flour if it feels sticky. Stop when it doesn't want to stick together anymore.
  • Make a lump of the dough in the bowl and leave to rise. Put the bowl on top of a stereo system which is playing VCDs in Cantonese and English at the same time at ear-shattering volume for the half dozen kids who have appeared in the flat.
  • Drink some beer.
  • Remember the bread about an hour later. Notice that it hasn't risen very much. Beat it up. Repeat the kneading process for a bit until the prisoner confesses or the bread looks sorry for not rising.
  • Drink more beer.
  • Attempt to get a Toshiba laptop to recognise the Bluetooth Dongle which is plugged into the 32bit Cardbus Card which it also isn't recognising. Consider taking a baseball bat to makers of laptops who use the weirdest hardware they can find and then vary it from model to model.
  • Have dinner.
  • Remember the bread again about an hour after dinner. It's now risen a bit more respectably, so knock it down and fold it over and leave it to rise for what should be the second proper rising.
  • Open some wine and drink that, as all the Chinese people (my wife and her MahJong buddies) are quaffing the beer while playing MahJong. My fault for buying gallons of TsingTao.
  • Return to work on the laptop. Download the toshutils package from http://www.buzzard.org.uk when you realise that the fan isn't working and the thing is about to set your table on fire.
  • About 10:30pm, remember the bread again with a guilty start and, noting that it's now risen like a champion, knock it down. Ask yourself why you did that, as it'll probably take hours to rise up again anyway. Form it into a rough cylinder approximately the width of your oven and put it on a a greased over tray. Use tinfoil to make a nice hat to keep the government spyrays out of your head. Leave to rise for about 30 minutes and heat the oven to as hot as it'll go. Occasionally spray some water in there from a plant mister. (Bread needs steam to get a nice crust.)
  • About 11:00pm, put the dough in the oven for thirty minutes, adding some water to the tray to get a hot steam going. Set the temperature to 180 deg. C so the oven cools down to that while the initial cooking is taking place. This is, in my experience, absolutely critical to getting a thin, crispy crust while not overcooking the centre. For the first few minutes, spray some water from the plant mister into the over. Aim for the walls of the oven: the goal is to have a hot mist in the over, not make the bread soggy. Once the bread is past the 'spring up' stage, no more water. (The dough will sag a little at first,then spring up with heat until it's at maximum spring. After that it browns and crisps on the outside.)
  • Ignore complaints about the funny smell coming from the kitchen. Pretend you don't understand comments from MahJong buddies' kids about why a man is cooking. Mentally applaud number one daughter who defends Daddy's bread making powers. "Roxanne eat daddy-bread later. Daddy have to cook first."
  • Hear oven go ding after about 30 minutes, check that bread sounds hollow when tapped on top. Note that bread has risen up surprisingly well and has browned all over. Remove from oven and put on plate to cool. Completely fail to resist cutting the end off while still hot, slathering with butter and consuming in about two milliseconds. Have primitive part of brain rejoice that: "Ug make bread, feed family. Ug good."

Check out my How To Make Bread Page for more in my continuing quest to make the perfect bread. I'm getting strangely tempted by having a sourdough starter...

More bandwidth theft


Once again I find people stealing my bandwidth by linking to my images. If this is done with my permission, I'll be ok with it, but it's almost always done without asking. I'm not going to put up with it anymore. All external links to images are blocked.



Woah!. Okay, I've added the time of day to the sorting algorithm, so all the news entries should appear in reverse order of when I put them in, which is The Right Thing. Before, it was reverse chron at a daily level, but each day was put in it's own file. Now, I have to post two entries in the same second to be in the same file. And it's all done with flat text files. No databases to get slashdotted here!

Site Changes


Clearly, it needs some work...



A quick test of the revised makefile system which makes sure that every entry should be in Chronological order.

More War ranting


So, if Bush decides that war on Syria is justified because he says they might have chemical weapons, where does it all end? I hear that Hong Kong has this really smelly Tofu, which is certainly a weapon of mass nausea...

I can just imagine the last speeches, just in time for the elections of 2016, for Bush's 5th straight term: "And so, my fellow Americans, those evil Canadians to the north speak Fren-, sorry, Freedom, that language of people who disagree with us. And they may have nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and biological weapons. They certainly have one biological weapon, one vicious, inhumane and thoroughly unamerican weapon. Roll it there, Colin, show these fine folks the pictures of innocent Americans laid low with that evil Canadian Poutine..."

Things you say when you have kids


"No Roxanne, you can't have a shower with your Teddy Bear"

Election Hypocrisy


Apparently the United States is expressing concern over the lack of direct elections here in Hong Kong. Pretty rich for a nation who's current president was decided, not by a vote, but by a court. And what about all those closed-source proprietary voting machines being brought in? I'm guessing it'll be a Bush win in 2004, by a bigger margin than ever seen before in a US Presidential election.

I was in Dymocks, the bookstore, just now and I noticed a biography of Laura Bush. The back cover described her as the 'perfect first wife and first mother', and lauded her stunning advice: "hug your children". Revolutionary stuff. I was glad I was wearing a mask.

Syria Next?


On the local news tonight, there was a report that George W. Bush has started claiming that Syria may have chemical weapons? What?!? Does he think he just has to say it, and then he can do whatever he wants? He also implied that some senior Iraqui's have taken refuge there. Is this lunatic planning on attacking every nation in the Middle East except Israel?

Baghdad Museum Ransacked


Yahoo! News - Looters Ransack Baghdad's Antiquities Museum. I'm sure Rumsfeld will come out with more of his smug comments about this being just another consequence of the Iraqi's being liberated.

"Freedom's just another little word for nothing left to loot"?

Sometimes I despair


It seems that my alma mater seems to be unable to code up a webpage and instead wants to have an 'under construction' on their site. 'Under Construction' labels used to be popular back in the mid 1990's, when the web was an unfamiliar thing. Now, they make you look like a bunch of Luddites. I mean, for God's sake, the Amish have a web site, why can't a university department?

More bull from China


The official statistics from China still say that almost no one there shows any sypmptoms of Atypical Pneumonia. Journalists from Hong Kong who escorted a Shenzen Victim to a local hospital report that shenzen hospitals are packed full of sick people, all wearing masks and that anti-contagion measures are being taken to keep reporters away from the hospitals. i.e. The problem is China is far, far worse than they're willing to admit. Don't forget: in Hong Kong, the 1000 people infected to date all were infected from one man. In the Mainland, they've had hundreds of people, each as virulent as the one who landed here. They're talking about super-infectors: single cases responsible for infecting up to one hundred others. Should we believe that the mainland has the contagion under control?

Of course not. The Chinese central government is once again lying to cover up hundreds or thousands of deaths. They would rather infect the world than admit that they did something wrong. Once again, the Chinese concept of 'Face' is shown to be moronic, stupid, and self defeating.

The end of an era


It appears that the Concorde Supersonic Airliner is being taken out of service after three decades of service and a glowing safety record. The Concorde was, is, dammit, the most graceful and elegant passenger aircraft out there. Was it years ahead of its time, or are we going backwards?

Imagine being at the end of 1969 again: Man has just walked on the moon, and there are two great new aircraft available: the 747 for lots of people going slowly, and Concorde, for not so many people going very fast.

The Wright Brother's first flight was 1903. Sixty-six years later, we'd walked on the moon, and invented the Jumbo Jet and Concorde. What have we done since then?



I've now got a hopefully auto-updating page of statistics on the SARS epidemic on the SARS Page.

I'm also working on a new look. I wan a nice clean geometric look without looking like yet another livejournal/movable-type page.



Someone from the IP address has downloaded the entire contents of this site almost every day for the last week. That's an Iranian ISP, in Kermoon. Strange behaviour. I wonder if I can get apache to rate-limit connections?

The Specials


This town, oo-ooh, is coming like a ghost town, oo-ooh. Bands won't play no more... That line is from the Specials "Ghost Town", but it describes Hong Kong very well at the moment. A broad spectrum of musicians have cancelled gigs here. Spectrums don't get much broader than one which has to encompass The Rolling Stones, Moby, Andy Williams and Santana.

I'm in the midst of building a page which shows the current SARS outbreak using RRDTOOL. I just need to develop some ninja Perl to deal with the WHO hand coding every page on their site, so that all the line-breaks and table formatting is different. My preliminary graphs of the infection rates are scary: it looks like a vertical wall!



The building where I work has people lurking in the lift lobbies to clean the lift buttons after you press them. In fact, if you apply a little charm, i.e. say 'Jou San! (Good Morning!)', they'll push the button for you. All part of the new, hygienically aware Hong Kong.

Of course, I've never seen them clean the buttons *inside* the lift, so it's probably a good idea to wash your hands after you get to work anyway.

Personally, I wear a mask in the MTR because its crowded, and if some twit with SARS were to start coughing on one train, he could infect 84,000 people, which is the capacity of one MTR train when fully packed. And, believe me, it's fully packed in the mornings when I'm going to work. So I wear a mask. And I keep it on when going through the station because, again, it's a pretty crowded situation. I keep it on while getting my coffee from the local Starbucks and going into work, because, having been in a situation with dense crowds, my mask would be contaminated, if there were any contaminants around. When I get into work, I chuck the mask, and wash my face and hands (my face feels icky after having re-breathed air on it for the 20 minutes into work.)

Then, at work, the first thing I have to do of a morning is to muck out the spam traps. (Anything tagged by the SpamAssassin system is passed on to me, to check that it's not tagging legitimate mail as spam.) This is probably more damaging to my health that any virulent disease. I can usually count on many offers of penis or breast enlargement, free mortgages, and tons of spam in Chinese send to non-Chinese users. Not to mention clueless local businesses who try to drum up work and suddenly find themselves without internet connections. (Most HK ISPs will respond to a LART: it's just the really bad few, like hutchcity.com, who either don't understand or don't care that they're blocklisted worldwide. Note to self: make a page of decent Hong Kong ISPs. Start with netfront.net, who are clueful, intolerant of spam, and reliable. Their servers run FreeBSD. After using Netvigator for a while, dealing with guys with Clue was great. Their broadband service is good: I think I've had only a few outages in the eighteen months or so I've had their broadband service.)

More SARS news


Well, another 26 people sick, one more death, and no more recoveries today from SARS. I've actually got a relatively complete list of the daily totals, so I may make an RRDTOOL database and graphs of this thing.

Meanwhile, it's disgustingly hot and muggy here in Hong Kong: We've had the air-con on in the bedroom for the last two nights, but personally, I find that having a large fan blowing cold air on me cools me down enough to lie around like a beached whale. If I have to get up and do stuff, I'll overheat very quickly. This is mainly due to the humidity, which is always very high in Hong Kong. We usually only complain about it when it's over 90%.

Conor is home now. He went back into hospital today for observation and then the hospital appeared to be getting rid of all non-essential cases. They also announced that they were restricting visitors to one at a time, no more than one hour each. Now, I find that sort of thing suspicious as hell. I'm very seriously thinking about working from home for a few weeks... Just need to sort out the VPN connection. Our current setup uses a Win2k client, which isn't a lot of use to someone who spends the entire day ssh'd to 20+ linux boxes.

And we also probably need an Inflatable Gwailo so people are reassured that the Network Guys are all in the office.

Conor Well


Conor is out of hospital for the night, although we have to bring him back tomorrow to make sure that his fever is gone. He's been pretty well today, playing mostly, with bursts of sleeping. He's been in good humour too, which is more his his usual self, as he's very rarely grumpy.



Right at the moment, Hong Kong is in a state of panic over this SARS bug. Everyone is wearing breathing masks, some people are starting to wear surgical gloves, and no one wants to open a door with their hands. I wear a mask when conditions mean that infections are possible, i.e. in crowded areas or enclosed spaces. Some people get paranoid about it: I was on the Star Ferry last Sunday, as it was the safest way to cross the harbour: plenty of fresh air around, and not too many people. I took off my mask around the middle to get some fresh air, but most people kept theirs on.

In a way it's good, though - It's making Hong Kongers realise just how filthy the city is. For example, it was on the local news today that this Amoy Mansion, where 231 people are now ill from SARS had major hygiene problems from people throwing their garbage out the windows. From 20+ stories up! and not just paper: Sanitary Napkins, used Nappies (Diapers), kitchen waste, etc. They're lucky they haven't had Cholera outbreaks or worse there. Animals.

That sort of behaviour is common in Hong Kong - there's a culture of having servants to pick things up and rubbish being someone else's problem.

So against this backdrop, you can imagine what it would be like if someone suddenly got very ill...

Tonight, after having a mild fever all day, Conor started having convulsions and difficulty breathing. He was drenched in sweat and burning up. We took an ambulance to Ruttonjee hospital, where they checked him out, and sent us on to the Paedriatric ward in Pamela Youde Nethersole in Chai Wan, where he's sleeping now. By the time the ambulance got us to Ruttonjee, he'd started breathing normally again and cooled down. My guess is that his fever was breaking, which explains the rush of sweat and convulsions. The short duration of the illness means it was more likely food poisoning of some sort - probably from something he put in his mouth - than any virus. He has gastroenteritis (i.e. leaky bum) as well, which is normally your body's reaction to eating something off. He'll stay overnight in hospital - Sanley's staying with him - and he'll be back home tomorrow.

Meanwhile the award for "either most exhausted or least qualified doctor" goes to the idiot who saw Conor in the ward. He asked if Conor had a fever at least three times, if he'd been sick at least twice and once asked if I was a close blood relative of my wife, even though she's Chinese and I'm Irish. Then, he spent about ten minutes trying to take a blood sample from Conor by stabbing him at random looking for a vein. We've never heard Conor cry so loud. He was screaming for me: "DA! DA!", and very clearly angry at the doctor. There's a very distinctive noise an angry baby makes: you can practically hear them trying to swear.

Meanwhile, all the medical staff in the Accident and Emergency wards looked like they were expecting an attack with chemical weapons. If they'd been carrying oxygen tanks, I wouldn't have been surprised. I think this SARS thing is worse then the public is being led to believe. As of today, we're up to 685 sick, 16 dead, with 84 recovered. In under a month.

UPDATE: It looks like Conor's ok now - he's sitting up and being his usual happy self. http://www.chw.edu.au/parents/factsheets/febrilej.htm describes his symptoms perfectly.

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