The Advisory Boar

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

Virtual servers at E2E Networks

2011-04-28

For a recent project, I needed to find reliable server hosting with good connectivity inside India. After doing some research, I decided to use E2E Networks, which offers reasonably-configured virtual servers at good prices, and has well-connected hosting facilities in Delhi and Mumbai.

The server was commissioned within a few hours of paying for it, and E2E support has been consistently responsive and helpful. I had no trouble setting up the server the way I wanted (despite being their first 64-bit Debian squeeze VM), and it's been working nicely ever since (three weeks now), with no network or service outages that I've noticed.

Upon request, E2E hooked me into their Zabbix monitoring setup, so I get SMS alerts if anything breaks, and my client's IT people are entertained by nice graphs of CPU and RAM usage (which are mostly flatlined near the X-axis, so the sudden spikes when I compile something or a cron job kicks in are causes for much excitement).

One minor oddity is that their accounting process depends on ssh-ing to your server as root every five minutes. That, plus the five-minute connections from zabbix_agent to Postfix and nginx, make for quite a bit of noise in the logs.

E2E's carefully-chosen peering arrangements deliver on their promise of low latency in India. I'm used to 300–500ms latency while accessing servers in Europe and the US, and was pleasantly surprised at how much nicer it is to ssh to a server that's only 50–70ms away.

It's too early to say anything about long-term reliability, but all the signs so far have been promising. E2E is worth a good long look if you need hosting in India.

(Aside: Net4India were another option that my clients considered, but they did themselves no favours by quoting twice the price for much less hardware and a ridiculously inadequate 10GB monthly bandwidth usage allowance. But I will treasure the memory of their area manager's smug answer to my question about actual bandwidth: Infinite!)

Exide warranty nightmare

2010-07-26

Our UPS is hooked up to three Exide Powersafe EP65-12 SLA (Sealed Lead Acid) batteries. Normally, that gives us about six hours of backup time for my desktop, monitor, and a few assorted peripherals. It's not often that the mains power is off for so long (less than half a dozen times a year, I'd guess), but that capacity has proven invaluable in the past. For the last few months, however, the UPS has lasted for half an hour at most, even when the batteries were fully charged. Using a multimeter, I found that the voltage across one of the batteries fell rapidly to 10.5V just before the UPS died, while the other two remained above 12V. Since the batteries were still under warranty, I contacted the vendor to ask about having them replaced (which I have had to do in the past)

Unlike last time, the vendor told me to register a complaint with Exide, which I did after some delay due to external circumstances. An engineer was dispatched to visit me a couple of days later, and after testing the system, he agreed with my diagnosis: one battery was bad. He wrote up a report and went on his way after telling me that the replacement should arrive in a few days. Unfortunately, what did arrive the next day was email from his supervisor, saying they couldn't replace the battery because the charging current was "too low". (The mail also said that I didn't have the original invoice for the purchase of the batteries, but that was just the engineer trying to cover his ass after forgetting to ask me for it.)

Read more…

Carr Stephen: “The Archaeology and Monumental Remains of Delhi”

2010-06-08

The Archaeology and Monumental Remains of Delhi
Carr Stephen

Aryan Books International
ISBN 81-7305-222-0

I bought this book many years ago, when I first started photographing the monuments of mediaeval Delhi. I was familiar with the history of the period, but knew very little about its buildings, or about the way they were built, fell into ruins, and were later excavated. Much of what I know now, I learned from this book.

Read more…

Heat and the LG intelloair air conditioner

2010-06-02

We have a 1.5 ton LG "intelloair" window air conditioner in the study. It's been so hot so early this summer that it can't cool effectively at midday, when I want it the most.

The AC displays a number that represents the current indoor temperature (I don't know how accurate it is) and the desired temperature. When the former is higher than the latter, the compressor comes on, and cold air is blown into the room. When one temperature is sufficiently close to the other, the compressor is switched off to maintain equilibrium.

When the estimated indoor temperature is above 30, however, I've noticed that the compressor is switched off long before the desired temperature is reached, and comes on only much later. The result is that the indoor temperature stays consistently high (aside: if it's higher than 39, the display just shows "Hi").

The LG technicians said there was no cure. When it's so hot outside, the compressor overheats and shuts down very quickly if it has to work hard (i.e., when the difference between the current and desired temperatures is high), and is switched on again only after it has cooled down enough, by which time the temperature difference is so high that it has to work very hard, and…

It makes a strange sort of sense, but that is cold comfort when the computers and AC all blow hot air at me. Blocking the drainage outlet and pouring cold water into the chassis (which the technicians did to help the compressor cool down more quickly) is only a partial solution. Setting the desired temperature higher only postpones the inevitable on a hot day: it overheats on the second cycle instead of the first.

Since none of the other ACs I've used in similar temperatures (Carrier, Electrolux, unbranded) has had problems to this extent, I am forced to conclude that the LG intelloair is a lousy air conditioner.

Now I understand why there is a huge hoarding near Pragati Maidan advertising an AC that cools even at 54°C.

Timberland “Chochorua Trail Hiker” Boots

2010-03-12

I've always gone hiking in sneakers before, but my mother was kind enough to bring a pair of Timberland Chochorua Trail Hiker Boots (ordered from Amazon for US$90) home with her from New York, just in time for my solo trek to Dayara Bugyal last December.

A quick summary: full-grain leather uppers with sealed, waterproof seams and a Gore-Tex membrane. Rubber outsole with "strategically placed" lugs and heel protection. High ankle with padded collar and tongue. Removable EVA insole. The pair weighs 1kg. (I picked this model after doing a lot of reading; it offered the best balance between my budget what I needed, and it was significantly less horrendous-looking than many other boots.)

In the last three months, I have worn my boots on one non-trivial trek in the Himalayas, on day-hikes, while driving, on a long-distance bus ride (or three), in swamps, on sand, on scree, and once or twice, even as formal wear. They have kept my feet comfortable and dry throughout. I have escaped the twisted ankles and knees that used to accompany me everywhere on hikes, and while that is mostly because I've been more careful, the boots also deserve some credit.

I've never worn hiking boots before, so I have nothing to compare this pair to. They do fit better than I had any right to expect for having ordered them without trying them on first. With socks on, I can tell that regular size 14 would have been too narrow for me. They're light enough that I don't notice the weight, but sturdy enough to provide a stable footing even when I'm carrying a load. Remarkably, despite my wearing them for several hours at a time in hot weather, they kept my feet from sweating and smelling bad, for which I was truly grateful at the end of a long day.

My toes felt a little crushed while carrying a 20kg rucksack down a steep trail, but then the boots are rated for day-hikes, and I had no problem walking downhill without a load. (Even with a load, I didn't develop any blisters or hot spots, which is just sheer luck in terms of fitting.) I do wish the laces were more durable, though. I have to adjust them for tightness every now and then, and although I use a suitable lacing method, the laces are fraying near the top-most lugs.

I'm a little puzzled by the name. Timberland calls it Chochorua, Amazon calls it the Chocurua, and as far as I can tell, it's named after Mount Chocorua in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

I like my new boots, never mind what they're named.

At last, a nicer keyboard

2010-03-01

Ever since the up-arrow key on my beloved Cherry G80-5000 keyboard (no longer manufactured, alas) died a few years ago, I have suffered through a series of lousy, lightweight membrane keyboards. My hands got used to Samsung keyboards after a while, but I was never very happy with them, and they needed to be replaced every year or so.

I did try out some "better" keyboards, but their higher price owed more to bells and whistles ("multimedia keys!") than to better keys; and so I always ended up buying the cheapest keyboard I could find. Last year, I couldn't find a Samsung keyboard to replace my dying one, and I had to buy a slightly more expensive entry-level Logitech model instead. It looked nice enough, but it was too flimsy to use. Two or three days of typing broke off both its legs and cracked the casing.

A little over six months ago, after much searching, I found a black TVS Gold keyboard in Nehru Place. At INR1200, it was six times the price of the Logitech, but it had mechanical keys and was sturdy enough to not flex or slide around when I used it in the shop. I bought one, and I'm much happier now than I've been for a long time.

Typing on this keyboard is such a pleasure that I'm willing to overlook its all-plastic construction; but it is nevertheless very disappointing that, at this price, it isn't nearly as rugged as my first TVS keyboard, fifteen years ago (that one had a heavy metal backing plate and no flex whatsoever). The keys deserve a better chassis. Still, it's stood up to a few months of use with no ill effects. And typing on this keyboard is such a pleasure that I'm willing to… type some sentences twice.

The TVS Gold is not a great keyboard, but it's good enough to make me swear off sticky membrane keyboards.

Update (2012-11-24): Three years later, this keyboard is showing signs of reaching the end of its road. The first symptom was some keys becoming unresponsive or "stuck" (not physically) until I mashed them around a little. Later, I noticed that the machine wouldn't boot until I pressed a few keys. Now I have to contend with the occasional random escape sequences being generated (and the lettering has faded too).

Nokia 7210 as a GPRS modem under Linux

2010-02-21

I needed a GPRS-capable phone to use as a modem with our Lenovo S10 on a trip out of town, and after some research, Hassath and I bought the Nokia 7210 Supernova, which does GPRS and Bluetooth well enough (and has a host of features that we didn't care about). Here's a very brief report.

Our S10 runs Ubuntu 9.10, which detected a new "mobile broadband" connection when I plugged in the phone using the (absurdly short) included USB cable. To my surprise, it let me select my country and provider (Vodafone), and I was online in a few seconds with no fuss. Disappointed at the lack of an opportunity for heroic action, I tried Bluetooth next. Following some advice on the Ubuntu forum, I installed blueman, and… that just worked, too. I could detect the phone, pair with it, browse its filesystem; and if I activated dialup access, I could use the same mobile broadband connection as above. All of this took barely more than a minute.

While travelling, I noticed that the connection via Bluetooth sometimes had trouble with flaky GSM connectivity. If the phone lost coverage, the connection would die, and both devices would need to be rebooted to make them talk to each other again. But that happened only when we were on a train, hopping between towers. Other than that, things worked very well (at least, if I tried not to think about the INR5/MB usage charges).

One little quirk: when I activate dialup access in blueman, it pops up a window that says "The device Nokia 7210 Supernova does not appear to support GSM/CDMA. This connection will not work". But it does.

Nikon Trailblazer Binoculars

2009-11-30

I'm often asked about my binoculars, a pair of Nikon Trailblazer ATB 8x42s. (They are most often mistaken for the Monarch 8x42, but are a lower-end model.) Here's what I usually tell people about them.

A quick summary of the specifications: the Trailblazer ATB 8x42 is a waterproof, fogproof roof-prism model that measures 154x131mm, weighs 670g, and offers a generous 19.7mm of eye relief. The minimum focusing distance is 5m, and the field of view at a distance of 1km is 122m. It has dark green rubber "armour", twist-up plastic eyecups, a focusing wheel in the centre, and dioptre correction for the right eye.

I bought a pair in April 2008 after my earlier binoculars suffered irreparable damage in a fall. I chose them because they were (much!) smaller and lighter than my old pair, had better optics (BaK4 prisms instead of BK7) and better eye-relief; and they seemed the best value all round within my budget (<US$150).

After a year and a half of use, I am very happy with them. I adore the long eye relief (I wear spectacles) and large exit pupil. The focusing wheel is accurate and responsive. The build quality is excellent. The fog-proofing actually works as advertised. I didn't mind the extra size and weight of my old binoculars while I was using them, but I would find it hard to give up on this pair now (especially when I am hiking in the mountains). I do sometimes wish, however, that they could be mounted on a tripod, but the construction offers no convenient place for a threaded socket.

I can't comment on the Trailblazer's optical quality as compared to higher-end models, such as Nikon's Monarch series. I have only stolen glances through other people's Leica, Swarovski, and Monarch binoculars, not used any of them long enough to appreciate a difference. The optics are, however, noticeably better than any of the other binoculars I have used extensively (notably a Konica-Minolta 8–20x50 and Bushnell 8x40).

I have not noticed any obtrusive distortion or chromatic aberration. The 5m minimum focus distance occasionally annoys me, but I wouldn't want to trade the much longer eye relief for the close-focus capabilities of the Monarch 8x42 (despite its lighter weight… but much heavier price).

In summary: I would recommend the Nikon Trailblazer ATB 8x42 without hesitation.

Availability

I think the Trailblazer ATB series is a USA-specific one. The official Nikon dealer in India denied that such a model existed when I asked in mid-2008, and I can find it described only on the Nikon USA web site. Online stores based in the USA, such as Eagle Optics, Optics4Birding, and OpticsPlanet offer the Trailblazer ATB 8x42 for ~US$130–150. The recently-introduced Sporter EX 8x42 model looks identical and has the same specifications, and it seems to be available at least in Europe (albeit at a much higher price).

Ubuntu 9.10 on the Lenovo Ideapad S10

2009-11-05

I installed Ubuntu 9.10 from scratch on our Lenovo Ideapad S10 (which was running 8.10 earlier) some days ago, and I also had the opportunity to install it on a friend's new S10-2. There's very little to report in either case. The installation itself was perfectly ordinary.

When I booted up the first time, the Broadcom BCM4312 wireless interface didn't work. I knew it used wl.o under 8.10, but that file was nowhere to be found. A bit of research (which I really should have done before I reinstalled) showed that I needed to install the dkms and bcmwl-kernel-source packages, and the wireless interface worked fine thereafter. I was lucky to have no other hardware problems.

That apart, my first impressions are all positive. 9.10 really does boot up faster (35s vs. 55s for 8.10). The interface is also noticeably more responsive, but too many things have changed for me to try to isolate a cause. Everything seems to work nicely, without any need for tweaking. Suspend and resume continue to work correctly.

Upgrading also fixed the few niggling hardware-related problems we had. Tapping and scrolling with the touchpad works much better, and the audio problems are gone, including the excessive feedback (which I thought was due to a faulty microphone). Recording through the internal microphone works fine, and the built-in speakers are no longer inaudible. I don't know yet what effect (if any) the upgrade has had on battery life.

I'm very happy so far.

Nokia 1202

2009-10-13

Rounded shape brings the friendly and human feel for comfort and fits to the hand

Thus spake Nokia India's specifications for the Nokia 1202, a model I found by going to a shop and saying Don't you have anything cheaper? a few times. Listed at €25, it turns out to be the cheapest Nokia handset ever manufactured (and I got it for €19).

The phone is thin, light, and not ugly. It has a small (but very clear) monochrome screen and a large "dust-proof" keypad (a grooved rubber mat covering the keys) with a four-way arrow key and four control keys besides. Its minimal feature set is exactly what I was looking for. It does phone calls and SMS messages and has an alarm clock, but precious little else. No camera, no radio, no Java.

Nokia claims that the battery provides 9 hours talk time and lasts 636 hours (26 days!) on standby. I am deeply suspicious of such claims, but the phone has used only a quarter of its first full charge under slightly heavier than normal use over the past couple of days. That's already enough to make me happy, even if the published figures are an exaggeration.

The audio quality is adequate, but there's a strange "concert hall" (think cavernous space) effect at my end. It's distracting, but I can live with it, especially since it isn't audible to whoever I'm speaking to. The text messaging is done just right, including delivery reports that—for the first time ever—don't annoy me (no beep and no additions to the inbox, but the delivery is recorded under "Sent items"). I do wish T9 recognised names in the contact list, but I don't know of any phone that does that.

I've always been perplexed by the minor inconsistencies in the features of different Nokia handsets. My old 6610i couldn't "Insert smiley" (unlike many of its contemporaries). The 1202 can do that, but it can't be made to display both date and time on the main screen (which the 6610i could do). Some models allow you to select menu items by number, but not the 1202. Some models have a plain old "ring ring" tone, but not the 1202. Fortunately, this phone does have sensible shortcuts: left goes to the SMS composer, down to the contact list, right to the calendar; and the top-right key leads to a programmable "Go to" menu.

Tapping the "up" key twice reveals one special feature: it turns on the tiny LED flashlight. I couldn't have cared less about that when I bought the phone, but it's a surprisingly usable little light, and I caught myself using it already to hunt for my car keys. Another surprise: built-in Sudoku.

The calendar is the one place where the smaller screen is a noticeable disadvantage—there's space only for two weeks of dates, and not being able to see the full month at a glance makes it much less useful. I wish they'd packed in a smaller font instead of the bizarre "Panchangam" feature (a Hindu astrological calendar).

I like my new phone very much—but how could I not, given the Subtle texture on back, which brings a fresh feeling to end user?