June 2005 Archives

Night Shots


There's some wonderful photography on notraces night shots. In the one I've linked to, the photographer explains how they're done.

via the sideshow.

Summer Rain

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It's summertime here in Hong Kong, and that only means one thing! Yes, torrential downpours, all day, everyday.

Yellow Fish


The big yellow fish worries about the slight scaling to his jaw while some of the tiger barbs mill around behind him.

I don't actually know what this fish is — if anyone knows, feel free to inform us in the comments.

Photographing fish like this is surprisingly tricky. For starters, there's almost always a large reflective glass wall between you and the fish, so your flash will do serious damage to the picture. What I've done here is to turn the on-camera flash down as low as it'll go (1/3 power) and use that to trigger a larger flash (Pentax FTZ-500, set to slave mode and 1/4 power) which is working through a diffuser at the top of the fish-tank. You also have to tilt the camera to avoid reflections.

It's tricky, and requires either very careful metering (hah!) or lots of experimentation. I went for experimentation. Set the camera in manual mode, with the shutter speed equal to your flash sync (usually 1/60sec) and adjust the f-stop until the resulting picture is ok. (or adjust the power of the flash, if you don't want to compromise your depth-of-field

One thing I found was that the light falls off very quickly from the top of the fish tank to the bottom. So, the big flash will need to be set at 1/16 or 1/32 power for a top swimming fish, 1/4 or 1/8 for a mid-level fish (like this one) or 1/2 or even full power for a bottom dweller.

The Miracle of Colour


Is it just me, or does this ad seem a little ironic, given how faded it is and how vibrant the other colours around it are?

USB keyboards


Now that I have the trifecta of popular Operating Systems here at home, I've noticed some surprising differences and failings among them. The most notable of these failings is quite unusual and very unexpected.

as I now have a Mac Mini, I got a USB keyboard. It's a very nice Apple Keyboard and it works flawlessly with both Linux and Windows under most circumstances. I thought, when I got it, that I might have had some problems with Linux. I thought that I might have some problems with my (older) motherboard (ECS D6VAA) on the Linux box and this new-fangled USB stuff; but it works just fine. I can change things in the BIOS on those rare occasions when I reboot the machine, and it's not even a slight issue that there isn't a keyboard plugged into the PS/2 port.

The problem is with the Dell Precision 220, the Windows box. Lord knows, it hasn't seen much use since I had both the Linux box and the Mac working. There's almost nothing I need a Windows box for now, apart from those very few websites which refuse to work on anything else, and the odd game. So far, this has only been Standard Chartered's online banking (which should actually work on the Mac as it has IE) and jobsdb.com, which is very obnoxious about only working on IE for Windows.

(It always amazes me that web-designers would go out of their way to make something which only works on a very specific platform. It's not difficult to make things work for almost every combination of OS and browser, as long as you adhere to the standards. I think that there's a bunch of 'web-designers' out there who've only learned a very limited set of skills on a very limited platform and insist on forcing that everywhere.)

Anyway, back to Windows: This Dell box refuses to acknowledge a USB keyboard until Windows is running. (And even then, it takes a good six seconds, as opposed to the Mac's two seconds, and the Linux box's three seconds.) This means that accessing the BIOS or 'Safe Mode' is impossible on the Windows box. (And it means that the Windows box feels like the least responsive machine when you're switching between the three.)

(And when you are switching between the three, the Windows box really starts to look like crap. The Mac has a great UI which lacks some ultimate configurability, which the Linux box has the configurability and the great response from the command line but the UI is a bit mediocre. The Windows box firmly falls between two stools by having a mediocre UI and a poor level of configurability or command line.)

Now, this may be the BIOS. After all, the Linux box is also an x86 box and I can use a USB keyboard to access the BIOS on that. The Windows box has a custom Dell BIOS with almost no options available for changing. Maybe it's just Dell that sucks beyond belief. My Asus P2-B motherboard I bought in 1998 can use a USB keyboard to access the BIOS. Is it too much to ask for a professional Dell workstation to not do the same thing?

UPDATE: - Having got a PS/2 Keyboard and booting up the machine again, It maintains that a USB Keyboard can be used to boot. This is just not true.

Back to the Future


I've just realised: in the second movie, in the part set in the 1950's there's two Doctor Emmett Browns. That's right: a pair o'Docs!

Updated to Fedora Core 4


I've just updated my primary workstation/server from Fedora Core 3 to Fedora Core 4 (FC4). It wasn't very painful as these things go, but there were a few points which I want to make about it.

Before that, however, FC4 was released on June 13, 2005. As of just now, four days later, there were 50+ updates for it. That seems like an awful lot for such a short period of time.The main part of the upgrade is easy enough: insert your DVD (or CD) when rebooting and select upgrade. Answer some easy questions, and wait. It took about an hour for my install from the hard drive. (I'll show how to upgrade from the hard drive in a later post.)

Problems with the upgrade:

  • POSTGRESQL - you have to export the database from the previous version, upgrade, nuke the database directories, initialize the database, restore all the users and then (finally) and restore the database from your exported backups. This is quite a large pain in the arse, really. I don't see why PostGreSQL can't include a simple upgrade agent in the package. It's not like they're trying to squeeze it into a tiny space.
  • XORG - Once again my dual screen config is nerfed and I have to go and download the xorg source (53 MB!) and recompile in the driver library from Matrox. In fairness to RedHat, this is a problem caused by old hardware and a manufacturer who won't release the G400 driver. It may even be worth upgrading my hardware over - an Nvidia 5200 or 6200 would easily provide enough dual-screen oomph for anything I'm likely to do with Linux.

Other things:

  • Open Office 1.9.104 is nice looking, but very slow. It still has that irritating habit of stopping for a minute when you start typing in numbers (In Calc, anyway). At least they haven't changed the default paste behaviour like they used to every release.
  • The new style: PLASTIK is awful. Even Bluecurve was better than this. Don't follow Redmond for aesthetics, guys. As for the rest of the built-in styles, Holy 1999 Batman! I've got a choice of Windows NT 4.0, Sun CDE v1.purple and six styles (out of twelve) for those with severe visual difficulties. Like blindness.
  • The sound Just Works out of the box. I don't know what JWZ was whinging about.

Most Infected Zombie Nation per capita


Hong Kong is the country with the most PC zombies per capita in the world. This means that Hong Kong has the highest incidence of unpatched Windows PCs plugged directly into the internet with no firewall or other software. The owners of these PCs are unaware that their computer is being used to send spam and generate DDOS attacks.

I have to say that I'm not at all surprised by this. In general, awareness of PC Security and general IT good practise is appallingly low in Hong Kong. There's a tendency, especially in the Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to go for the cheapest possible PC support for corporate networks and end up with one MCSE school-leaver trying to manage a network of workstations and Servers. This guy will have no experience of serious Enterprise level security and will often unwittingly place workstations out on the public internet where they can be compromised almost instantly. (A windows XP box can be compromised in a few minutes just by being directly connected to the internet.)

At least one company that I'm aware of has an IT administrator who is so ignorant of the very basics of his profession, that he thinks 192.x.x.x is a private Class A netspace! Mind you, the MD of that company wanted me to sort out their network systems for free, while doing a full days work of other consulting, so I guess that explains a lot.

I've been asked to look at computers which their owners think are being a bit too slow. "Normally", the lady explained to me, "I trade in my laptop for a new one every year, because there's a new model out, and my old computer is very slow after a year. This one is very slow after only a few months." So I look at it. It's rotten with spyware, viruses, bots, whatever. Directly after rebooting, there were about 150 processes running, each one trying to take 100% of the CPU and 100% of the RAM. The network connections (wired and wireless) are maxed out with attempts to send out crap. After booting in Safe Mode and running Adaware and an anti-virus program, things were much improved. And don't think that this PC was this bad because a woman was using it - her husband's laptop was just as bad, and he works in IT!

The simplest solution for this sort of thing is to put a hardware firewall between your PC and the internet. These boxes generally ship with external access switched off. i.e., no one from outside can make a connection to your machine. Unless you're running a mail or webserver, etc, this is fine for you.

If you have a modern laptop with Wireless networking, then a simple Linksys wireless box will allow you to connect to the internet from anywhere in your flat and also protect you from most attacks. If you have a wired PC, the wired equivalent will do the same job. There are other brands, of course, but they all do more or less the same things.

Site Redesign

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As you can no doubt see, I've redesigned the site. This is more or less the same style which was visible on the non-blog elements of the site, but I've made quite a few changes and simplifications to the underlying XHTML and CSS. It even validates!

So far, I've tested it on:

  • linux:
    • Firefox - Looks OK
    • Konqueror - Looks OK
  • Mac OS X
    • Firefox - looks OK
    • Safari - looks OK
    • IE for Mac 5.2 - Looks OK
  • Windows XP
    • Firefox - looks OK
    • IE 6.0 - looks OK

It doesn't look exactly the same across all the platforms I tested, but it looks basically the same. Firefox users get nice rounded corners, while Safari users get text-shadowing effects. IE users get whatever benefits you get from using IE.

Let me know if it works for you. If there are any rendering quirks, or oddness on a platform I haven't tested, or especially if one I've already tested goes nuts on a slightly different platform.

I've also fixed the comment previewing mess and some of the lesser used templates. Please leave a comment (or send an email) if something looks broken.

Garage Band Tutorials


There's a good, if somewhat basic GarageBand tutorial which was mentioned in the Mac Facts by Dave Horrigan (down near the bottom) Column in the SCMP this morning. (Sorry, the column is paid subscription only.)

It covers the basics on how to get started, and is probably enough to get anyone up and running with GarageBand. My preliminary noodling around with it reminds me of my days of multi-track recording with a Fostex X15, except that this one can record more tracks and has tons of instruments and drum loops built in. A lot of the presets sound quite good too - I can just listen to a few and ideas start flowing straight away. Must spend more time with this.

Screen Resolution Poll

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I'm pondering a redesign of the site, and I'm curious as to how people have their displays set up. Do you normally run at a high resolution (1280x1024+) or do you have old/crap/cheap monitors which can only manage 800x600? Do you prefer lower resolutions because they're easier to read and Windows makes it hard to have big fonts at a higher resolution? Leave a comment, please, if you have a resolution different from 1024x768 which you think I should support.

Note: I typically run at 2560x1024 on twin LCD monitors, but I don't span applications across monitors unless I really have to, so 1280x1024 could be considered my standard resolution. That's the resolution I generally use to test things, although I do resize the browser window and the text size to see how things change.

Michael Palin's Himalaya


One of the side-effects of reading a lot of political blogs and websites is thatyou tend to look for The Agenda whenever you come across some information or a presentation. For instance, the American Heritage Foundation regularly declares Hong Kong to be the "World's most Free Economy" when what they really mean is that it matches some aspects of their ideology and they disregard the rest.

Michael Palin has a new series: Himalaya, wherein he travels around the mountain range which borders on Pakistan, India, Tibet, China, etc.

Last week, the first in the series, he was in the small border town in India where the Dalai Lama lives, and he was granted a personal interview with the man himself.

Now, the Dalai Lama is a pretty important global figure. He represents the historical rulers of the nation of Tibet, which no longer exists., having been annexed by China in the 1950's. The Dalai Lama spends a lot of his time travelling the world, meeting heads of state and generally keeping the flame of an independent, free Tibet alive. He is the kind of figure who would have been lionized by the 'right on' guardian reading crowd in London in the '80s and '90s. Sort of like a non-imprisoned Nelson Mandela.

The interview — which may or may not have been heavily edited — portrayed the Dalai Lama as an inane simpleton, laughing wildly at his own silly remarks and talking about his bowels.

It made me wonder if Palin is trying to portray the Lama as an out of touch leader, the last real link Tibetans will have with their home country? Maybe he was of the school of thought which maintains that the Tibetans were under the yoke of a theocratic state and that maybe they need to lose the religious trimmings of their ancestral yearnings?

One of the points implicitly made in the show was that there is a great deal of money to be made selling Tibetan religious art and souvenirs to Tibetan expats and westerners and maybe, just maybe, the whole thing is some sort of scam. Michael made the point that most of the people calling themselves Tibetans were born outside the country, but was swiftly rebuffed by his guide.

Possibly Michael was just preparing for going into Tibet, China in future episodes, where he could honestly claim to have doubted the claims of the exiled Tibetans to their old country.

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This page is an archive of entries from June 2005 listed from newest to oldest.

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