The Advisory Boar
“Make eBird your New Year's Resolution for 2016!”,
they said, with a picture of a Steller's Sea Eagle that looked like it
meant business. So I did.
A month and a half into the year, it's become a habit to record and
submit lists during the day. It's given me a reason to get out of the
house for a while in the morning and evening, and to take occasional
breaks from work during the day, all of which has made me
fitter, happier, and more productive.
I have many complaints about the eBird interface. The "Submit
observations" page needs to be a couple of orders of magnitude faster.
The Android app shouldn't be so dependent on network connectivity. Both
need to be much smarter about interpreting abbreviations. I can think of
various features that would make reviewers' lives easier. But those are
just details (I hear the eBird team is receptive to suggestions), and
none of it takes away from the fact that eBird has helped me to start
birding regularly and seriously again.
As new year's resolutions go, I can't think of one that's worked out
I got my dad a
Lenovo Yoga 300
a few days ago, and installed Debian 8 on his old Ideapad S206 before
giving it to Ammu, who has been using my old (and increasingly broken)
for months now.
The Linux Laptop Wiki has a page about the
the quick summary is that everything works with only a little tweaking.
Wifi worked out of the box with brcmsmac. Bluetooth worked fine after
installing the firmware-atheros package. Sound input and output worked
fine out of the box. The hotkeys to change the volume (and brightness,
etc.) also worked. I didn't try the card reader or the webcam.
I didn't bother with the fglrx video drivers, but I had to install
firmware-linux-nonfree to enable KMS (kernel mode setting) to get
suspend/resume to work properly. (Hibernation worked fine anyway.)
This is a sleek and light machine, quite a step up from the earlier
Ideapad models I've used. The screen is a bit shiny, but stops short of
being annoying. The keypad is unfortunately very jittery—unless you are
very deliberate about tapping-to-click, you'll most likely just move the
pointer a bit rather than clicking. This was my father's biggest problem
with the machine (and it wasn't just a matter of acceleration settings).
But it's working nicely otherwise, and I hope Ammu gets some good use
out of it.
A friend sent me a pair of
“bench stones”. These are steel plates surfaced with diamond
particles—an alternative to old-fashioned oilstones for sharpening steel
cutting edges. I have been using them for several months now, and they
have lived up to their reputation as being fast, durable, and
convenient. I am very happy with them.
I have the D6CX and D6EF, each of which has two continuous sharpening
surfaces measuring 150mm*50mm (6"*2"). The D6CX has extra-coarse (220
grit) and coarse (325 grit) sides, while the D6EF has fine (600) and
extra-fine (1200) sides.
I have used them to sharpen kitchen knives, sharpen and flatten the back
of a very hard plane iron, restore the badly-damaged cutting edges of
some old chisels that belonged to my grandfather, and hone some new
Narex chisels and other assorted tools. I follow more or less the same
process shown in this video by
The DMT plates are fast and a pleasure to work with. Flattening large
steel surfaces does take a half-hour or so of extra-coarse rubbing (mind
your knuckles don't scrape the plate! I learned this the hard way), but
that isn't a task I would even attempt on my old Norton oilstone. Tuning
up a blunted (not damaged) edge takes a couple of minutes at most, while
restoring a nicked edge might take ten.
I use the plates with a bit of water sprayed from an old bottle of glass
cleaner, and wipe them down afterwards with an old shirt. They are easy
to maintain (but the coarse grits must be cleaned gently, because they
will happily shred cloth), and do not need to be flattened periodically
the way an oilstone might. The fine surface developed a few tiny black
spots on the very first use, but extensive use thereafter has not made
them any larger or more numerous. (DMT is reputed to have good customer
support, but they didn't respond to my question about the black spots.)
(I also have the
stand. The rubber feet do keep it from moving, and the clearance makes
it easy to flip the plates over. It works fine, but I could easily do
I like sharpening things, but I am not obsessive about it. I have not
tried to measure how flat the surface actually is, nor have I looked at
the sharpened edges under a microscope. The plates are flat enough, and
the edges sharp enough for me; and it doesn't take too long to get them
DMT manufactures a great variety of these plates: larger and smaller
sizes, coarser and finer grits, single- and double-sided, or with
“interrupted” surfaces that reduce the buildup of swarf (abraded steel
particles that must be cleaned away). I might try a single-sided 8"*3"
continuous surface plate someday—it should make it a little easier to
sharpen my larger knives.
An article about
reminded me of a problem I investigated last year when Hassath couldn't
send mail when connected through her phone's mobile hotspot.
My first response to any network problems is to run tcpdump, and I saw
the following EHLO response from my own SMTP server.
250-AUTH PLAIN CRAM-MD5
Vodafone is transparently proxying outgoing SMTP traffic and replacing
STARTTLS in the EHLO response with XXXXXXXA, so that the client doesn't
try to negotiate TLS. If you issue STARTTLS anyway—which no normal SMTP
client would, but openssl's s_client can do—the TLS negotiation fails.
So it's not just a downgrade attack, it's actively sabotaging TLS
This was the case in mid-2014, and it's still the case at the time of
writing. I wonder how many terabytes of email logs they have collected
in the meantime, how they are stored, and who is reading them.
While I was tethered to my phone, I did a bit more testing. Vodafone
India doesn't seem to mess with HTTPS connections, and IMAP connections
are not downgraded either (i.e., the server's STARTTLS advertisement is
not modified, and the TLS negotiation succeeds). Nor did it inject any
I have now lost count of the number of forwarded copies of the
“A scientist found a bird that hadn’t been seen in half a century, then killed it”
mail that people have sent me. The collection of a Bougainville
Moustached Kingfisher specimen by an AMNH team in Guadalcanal has
drawn intense criticism and reignited the debate about whether
scientific collection is justified or even necessary.
[Illustration: J G Keulemans (1842–1912),
I don't have anything new or insightful to add to this debate.
I've written about the various
in Ansible 2, including a rewrite of the connection plugin.
Unfortunately, the problem that originally motivated the rewrite
currently remains unsolved.
If you ssh to a host for which your known_hosts file has no entry, you
are shown the host's key fingerprint and are prompted with
sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?. If you run ansible
against multiple unknown hosts, however, the host key prompts will just
The authenticity of host 'magpie (a.b.c.d)' can't be established.
ECDSA key fingerprint is 2a:5a:4c:4b:e0:40:de:8b:9b:e6:0f:90:45:68:89:fc.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)? The authenticity of host 'hobby (e.f.g.h)' can't be established.
RSA key fingerprint is 61:84:90:47:f7:0f:7b:a2:d5:09:98:6f:bb:3c:50:d9.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)? The authenticity of host 'raven (i.j.k.l)' can't be established.
RSA key fingerprint is ab:97:c2:7d:b6:8e:c3:ab:78:a2:20:04:af:9c:6f:2b.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?
The processes compete for input, so typing “yes” may or may not work:
Please type 'yes' or 'no': yes
Please type 'yes' or 'no': yes
Please type 'yes' or 'no':
Worse still, if some of the targeted hosts are known, output from their
tasks may cause the prompts to scroll off the screen, and ansible will
appear to hang.
The solution is to acquire a lock before executing ssh and releasing it
once the host key prompt (if any) is negotiated. Ansible 2 had some code
copied from 1.9 to implement this, but it was agonisingly broken. It
wouldn't have always acquired the lock or released it correctly, but the
actual locking was commented out anyway because of lower-level changes,
so it just scanned known_hosts twice for every connection. Even if the
locking had worked, the lock would have been held until ssh exited.
I submitted patches
to add a connection locking infrastructure and use it to hold a lock
only until ssh had verified the host key (not until it finished).
Although most of the changes were merged, the actual ssh locking was
rejected because it would (unavoidably)
wait for ssh to timeout
while trying to connect to unreachable hosts.
One of the maintainers recently
said they may reconsider
this (because it's painful to deal with any number of newly provisioned
hosts otherwise), so I have
opened a new PR,
but it has not yet been merged.
Update: The maintainers went with
a different approach
to solve the problem. Instead of using locking inside the connection
plugin, this checks the host key as a separate step at the strategy
level, at the expense of having to parse the known_hosts file to check
if a host's key is already known. I think that's a fragile solution, but
it does eliminate the locking concerns and improve upon the status quo.
Another update: The commit referenced above was reverted later
the same day, for some reason the maintainers did not see fit to record
in the commit message. So we're right back to the broken starting point.
Lars Svensson's classic “Identification Guide to European Passerines”
was first published a few decades ago. It is no longer available from
Amazon, but I have been keeping an eye on copies from other sellers on
the Amazon marketplace, and I am increasingly puzzled by their proposed
The absurdly high price isn't because the book is new, because there's a
used copy for sale at $1847.20. Even the cheapest used copy right now is
priced at $458.60, and that's still far more than I can imagine anyone
wanting to pay.
The sellers don't look shady at first glance, and many are highly rated
over a significant period. Maybe they didn't notice that the book is
available elsewhere for twenty-odd euro? But no, it's probably an
“algorithm” (note: those are scare quotes) at work.
I was at the
UP Bird Festival in Chambal,
tempted mostly by the
memory of seeing many crocodiles.
There were very few crocodiles this time, but we found a medium-sized
Mugger Crocodylus porosus sunning itself on the bank towards the
end of our trip.
I had promised Hassath that I would take a crocodile selfie but alas,
I managed to omit the actual crocodile. The crocodile-shaped object up
on the bank is (what else?) a log.
The crocodile was there, though, just beyond the edge of the
Every morning, children stream past our house in both directions on
their way to school. There are the nearly grown-up, very self-conscious
young ladies on the way to the inter-college, dressed in blue and white
with neatly plaited and be-ribboned hair. There are groups of
brown-and-white children, always squabbling over some snack. There
are tiny red-and-blue primary school kids who drift past like
tumbleweed—so easily distracted that it's a marvel that they ever make
it to school.
And then there are the troublemakers, the wretched blue-and-brown boys
who derive entertainment from pinching the valve-caps off our car tyres,
or snapping off the occasional windshield wiper. We stuck a webcam in
the window overlooking the car to keep an eye on these miscreants. It
worked pretty well. A few of the smaller children still write their
names on the windows when the car is dusty, but we haven't lost any more
But now the webcam has become a local attraction, and we hear children
of every colour walking past talking about the “CCTV”, bringing their
friends around to point it out, and waving or posing (or dancing!) for
the camera. A blue-and-white pair—not yet as serious as their elder
sisters–recently made faces at it and ran away horrified but giggling
when I replied with a cheerful “Hi”.
Ubiquitous surveillance? What fun!
Two years ago, I bought a pair of
Alpen Wings 8x42 ED
binoculars. These are one of the least expensive mid-range birding
binoculars, but a big step up from my earlier
Nikon Trailblazer 8x42 at
three times the price.
Even so, I didn't expect them to be so much better than
anything I had used before. The view is addictively bright and clear,
and I use the 2.5m close-focus capabilities much more than I thought I
would. The build quality is excellent, the adjustments are smooth and
precise, and these binoculars feel reassuringly solid in the hand. The
hard carrying case is also welcome.
On paper, the specifications are very similar to the Trailblazer: same
magnification, similar field of view, waterproof and fogproof, slightly
less eye relief, a bit smaller but a few grams heavier. I expected only
a modest improvement in optics and better build quality, but they're in
an altogether different league. Two years later, I'm still as happy and
impressed with them as I was in the first five minutes.
(I also use an Alpen spotting scope, which I will review someday;
suffice it to say that Alpen optics deserve their excellent reputation.)