The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

A new server at Hetzner.DE

2010-08-25

For the last five years, toroid.org has lived on a server hosted at Hetzner.DE. It has served me very well during that time (with a disk failure the only major problem), but I have finally outgrown its modest hardware configuration (Athlon XP 2000+, 512MB of RAM). The need for a more capable machine was recently made very clear to me when the Yahoo crawler decided to index archives.aox.org, and my machine spent several days swapping things in and out (it worked fine, it was just very slow and the other services suffered).

Two weeks ago, Hetzner's RP39 dedicated server plan (Athlon 64 X2 5600+, 2GB RAM, 2*400GB disk, for €39/month) caught my eye, and I wrote to them to ask about upgrading to it. I had two important questions: could I keep all my existing IP addresses? And could I order an RP39 server with 4GB of RAM installed? Surprisingly, I received no response for a week, despite sending two reminders. When I finally heard from them, I was rather disappointed with the response.

No, I couldn't keep my primary IP address or my IPv6 /64 subnet. I could move the IPv4 /29 subnet for €99 plus €15/month, which was as good as not being able to keep it. No, I couldn't order an RP39 server with 4GB of RAM because… it was no longer available! Sure enough, they had removed RP39 from their order page before responding to my message. The only sensible course of action available was to order an EQ4 server (Intel i7-920, 8GB RAM, 2*750GB disk) for €149 plus €49/month, accept that I would have different (and fewer) IP addresses, and migrate data and services the hard way.

I spent a couple of days being disappointed about the disappearance of RP39, but knew that Hetzner was within their rights to discontinue what was always described as a limited "special offer". The EQ4 cost a little more than I liked, and the migration would be painful, but I ordered one on the 20th of August. Hetzner said they expected it to be online within 24 hours, which I took with a pinch of salt (it took three days for them to bring up my old server). To my surprise, my shiny new EQ4 machine was up and running within two and a half hours from the time of my order!

Now to complete the migration quickly…

Rohan Chakravarty is an excellent cartoonist

2010-08-21

When I wrote a page about myself as a birding guide, I asked a number of people for feedback. More than one person suggested that the page would benefit from a photograph (or three) of myself, perhaps with clients. Although I agreed in principle, I couldn't bring myself to do anything about it—adding a mugshot sounded so boring.

I liked Hassath's idea of using a cartoon much better, but even though I could imagine a few suitable cartoons, I had—as usual—no idea how to put them down on paper. So I did nothing, and the weeks passed by.

The other day, I happened to see Rohan Chakravarty's bird cartoons on the KolkataBirds web site. The style wasn't exactly what I had in mind for my own web page, but I liked the illustration, especially the birds' expressions. I knew Rohan in passing from the delhibird mailing list, and I decided to ask him if he would be interested. He was.

I explained the style I wanted: black-and-white to fit the fairly sober mood of the page, more lines than solid areas; something very much like the New Yorker cartoons. Rohan and I discussed a few ideas, and quickly settled on a concept for one wide panel and one square panel, and an approximate price. I told him I was in no particular hurry, and swapped the subject out of my mind.

To my surprise, however, Rohan completed the assignment in no time at all, and the cartoons he sent me the next day were brilliant. I had not expected the first draft to match what was in my head, let alone improve on it, but it did; and I was able to use his illustrations without any changes on my web page, where they look great even a week later.

Rohan's blog is at greenhumour.blogspot.com. Should anyone I know need the services of a freelance illustrator and cartoonist, I know whom to recommend now.

Prejudice lurks in dark corners

2010-07-16

In "Women in computing: first, get the problem right", ESR explains that everyone else just misunderstood the problems that keep women away from computing and other technical fields; and that although achieving equality is precluded by the difference in dispersion of the IQ curves, his insights can help to establish the large, happy female minority that is the best we can hope for in its stead.

Talking about prejudice in this context is lazy, stupid, [and] wrong, and the real reason women bail out of computing is that they have short fertile periods, and their biological instincts tell them not to waste time on the warrior-ethic ways of programming.

By these and other bold observations, ESR demonstrates the honesty and willingness to speak uncomfortable truths that are prerequisite to addressing the problem. For example:

I don't mean to deny that there is still prejudice against women lurking in dark corners of the field.

Prejudice. Lurking in dark corners. Who would have thought it?

I'll file this article away right next to his equally-insightful "Sex tips for geeks".

A new symbol for the Indian Rupee

2010-07-15

The Union Cabinet selected a new symbol for the Indian Rupee, designed by a Mr. D. Udaya Kumar of IIT Bombay. It won't actually be printed on currency notes, and of course nobody will bother to use it until it is added to Unicode, but here it is:

Rupee symbol

The Information & Broadcasting minister Ambika Soni told reporters that It is just a symbol, but it apparently allows us to join the exclusive club of countries whose currencies have a distinct identity, and somehow represents the robustness of the Indian economy (R for Robustness?) while being a blend of modernity and Indian culture.

How dreadfully silly.

I practised drawing the symbol on my whiteboard a few times, and came to the happy realisation that—if you squint at it just right—it looks like a (strangely long-necked) raptor in soaring flight, as seen from below. But maybe that's just me.

Life with cpanminus is different

2010-06-30

I recently learned about Tatsuhiko Miyagawa's cpanminus, a zero-configuration CPAN module installation program that itself needs nothing more than "wget -O bin/cpanminus http://cpanmin.us" to install.

Once I started using it ("cpanm Module::Name"), I realised that I had underestimated the extent to which CPAN.pm and friends had encouraged my reluctance to install CPAN modules (and deal with dependency hell). I haven't changed my mind, but using cpanminus is pleasant enough that I can afford to change some of my habits.

I also look forward to having a clean(er) conscience when recommending the installation of modules I want to use in my programs that are meant for other people to use (recent examples: AnyEvent and AnyEvent::XMPP).

Art, taxes, and fashion

2010-06-20

Seen a few days ago in the Hindu:

Mumbai: The Bombay High Court on Monday upheld fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani's case that he is an artist for the purpose of claiming exemption under the Income Tax Act.

How very well put. He's an artist for the purpose of claiming tax exemptions.

Goriganga: safe, but for how long?

2010-06-18

Yesterday brought the heartening news that the Ministry of Environment and Forests has rejected NTPC's proposal to build the 261MW Rupsiyabagar-Khasiyabara power plant on the Gori river near Munsiari in Uttarakhand, because of the profound damage it would cause to the fragile and ecologically important area (which is to say nothing about how it would affect the people in the fifty-odd villages along the river that would dry up due to the diversion of water).

I've been following this project for a while, because I have a special interest in the area. I have visited a number of times for bird surveys (and I plan to do more work there in future), and my friends there have been tirelessly involved in local conservation efforts for many years; so I can claim to know a little about its ecology. It seems obvious to me that constructing a large dam there would be a disaster—no doubt it is obvious to NTPC as well, because they have been spreading misinformation about it from the very start.

To begin with, the environmental impact assessment prepared for them by WAPCOS (Water and Power Consultancy Services) is nonsense. To pick on just one section where I am qualified to comment, the biodiversity estimates are wildly inaccurate. Where they list fewer than a hundred species of plants and trees, a few thousand are documented from the area, many of which occur nowhere else. They mention only ten species of mammals and eight species of birds from an area whose checklist runs to about 300, and where I saw more than a hundred species in three days (and even an eight-year-old Ammu must have seen a few dozen on her first morning walk). Then they blithely conclude that the impact on wildlife would be minimal:

Disturbance to wildlife

During construction phase, large number of machinery and construction labour will have to be mobilized. The operation of various construction equipment, and blasting is likely to generate noise. These activities can lead to some disturbance to wildlife population. Likewise, siting of construction equipment, godowns, stores, labour camps, etc. can lead to adverse impacts on fauna, in the area. From the available data, the area does not have significant wildlife population. Likewise, area does not appear to be on the migratory routes of animals and therefore the construction of the project will not affect the animals.

Anyone who has visited the area and knows anything about wildlife would be able to see how ridiculous these claims are. The rest of the report follows in the same vein (for example, it talks about the advantages of importing migrant labour amounting to some 77% of the local population in terms of the "exchange of ideas and cultures between various groups of people which would not have been possible otherwise").

NTPC has also been hard at work in the area to make sure opposition to the project is ignored, downplayed, or eliminated. They have used force to intimidate people who questioned the project, bribed public officials (and admitted to doing so), and colluded with them to interfere in local Van Panchayat elections to disallow candidates who opposed the project. They have held "public hearings" when people from affected villages were not able to attend (because they were on an annual excursion to collect medicinal plants at higher altitudes), and refused to acknowledge and record critical questions at such hearings.

There are many people in the area who support the project because NTPC is bringing money and promises of development to a poor and remote area; and because they have no access to information about the environmental and social record of big dams in India to evaluate the promises, and no way to estimate the long-term costs to the area and their livelihoods to compare against the paltry compensation being offered for their lands today.

Now they might give me compensation…
That's not what I'm chasing. I was a rich man before yesterday.
Now all I have got is a cheque and a pickup truck, and
I left my farm under the freeway.
— Jethro Tull, “Farm on the Freeway

It remains to be seen if the MoEF's rejection is binding, or if the NTPC (which has already invested heavily in land acquisition and construction in the area), and the other people who stand to gain from the project at the expense of local inhabitants, will find some way to work around it.

How long can the Gori valley survive such determined opposition?

CSS3 font selection

2010-05-28

I've been using Verdana as the preferred text font on this web site for a long time. I don't particularly like it, but it works well enough and is widely available.

I didn't pay attention when I learned about CSS3 @font-face definitions, because I thought that—like so many good things in CSS—it would be usable only in the distant future. Then I stumbled across FontSquirrel and the Google Font Directory, so I spent a while looking for a clear sans-serif font for text and a monospaced font (for code listings) that went well with it.

Read more…

A fond farewell to “narco analysis”

2010-05-06

The Supreme Court of India has ruled that the forcible administration of truth drugs ("narco analysis") and "lie detector" tests to suspects by investigative agencies is unconstitutional and that the results themselves may not be used as evidence in court. In its very clear 251-page ruling, the three-judge bench (K.G. Balakrishnan, R.V. Raveendran, and J.M. Panchal) observed that, apart from infringing upon personal liberty and the constitutional right against self-incrimination, the scientific validity of of the impugned techniques has been questioned.

In other words, if you want to use Veritaserum, you know where to find Azkaban.

Of course, this is seen as a “major blow” to law enforcement agencies, who are understandably upset about the prospect of having to do some actual investigating for a change.

Pre-marital sex is fine, though

In another recent ruling, the court (K.G. Balakrishnan, Deepak Verma, B.S. Chauhan) dismissed the 23 ridiculous defamation complaints filed against Tamil actress Khushboo (for allegedly “endorsing pre-marital sex”), which the Madras High Court had inexpicably allowed to proceed to that point. Earlier, the judges caused widespread consternation with their entirely unsurprising observation that consenting adults may choose to “live together” (and, presumably, have sex) without causing any offence under the law.

How does it concern you? We are not bothered. At the most it is a personal view. How is it an offence? Under which provision of the law? the bench asked the counsel. […]

How many homes have been affected can you tell us, the Bench asked while enquiring whether the complainants had daughters. When the response was in the negative, they shot back, Then, how are you adversely affected?

I wish I'd been there to see the look on the plaintiffs' faces!

libjpeg-turbo

2010-04-17

A few days ago, I discovered libjpeg-turbo, a drop-in replacement for the venerable libjpeg.so.62 that uses SIMD instructions to achieve 2–4x the performance of the older library.

I downloaded, built, and installed it (putting it first in LD_LIBRARY_PATH), and was pleasantly surprised to find it working exactly as advertised. I have conducted only a few informal tests on large images, but it's clearly a great deal faster.