Thursday Dec 15, 2005

¡Hablo Español!

I finally passed my last Spanish exam!

This is such a relief. Now, after years of on-and-off studying, I have yet another degree: a Bachelor of Arts, also known as a BA, also known as "Bugger All", a snide comment we Engineering and Computer Science students had for Arts students who vacationed on campuses as if they were expensive dating agencies, implying that arts degrees are practically worth zilch when it comes to employment potential.

Having studied Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, I can fairly objectively say that engineering/science requires far more work than arts. However, I need to qualify that by adding that not all major subjects are equal, just as not all universities are equal. And a lot depends on aptitude. I don't think I have much of an aptitude for languages: English is my second language and I decided that I wanted to study a third language from scratch when I was 27 years old. It has been a difficult and frustrating undertaking, especially since I studied by correspondence from South Africa - where there are hardly any Spanish speakers. But not nearly as difficult as it would have been to study, say Russian or Mandarin - at least all the languages I know share a common (Latin) alphabet.

Also, I have always disliked pure theory and always wanted to practice what I learn, which is why I always scored above 80% for my programming assignments, while not doing as well as I should have in my theory exams. My entire Spanish education has been by correspondence with the aid of books and audio tapes. Now I really need to go and live in a Spanish-speaking country for a while to apply my knowledge. I've visited Spain twice so far, but I need to actually live and immerse myself in Spanish culture to really benefit.

Anyway, I'm glad and very relieved it's all over for now. I was going to read Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes this year to celebrate 400 years since the publication of, what some regard as, the world's first novel (La primera novela del mundo). I bought a copy of the original text a few years ago, glanced at it and gave up. Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare (they died on the same day), and the Spanish of the original text is just too archaic for my level of Spanish. So, I bought a few simplified texts when I visited Madrid in April. Now that I've passed my last exam, I am really motivated to read it, 'cos this time it will be for fun, not to study for a friggin' exam!

Also, now that I have all that behind me, I shall delight in gathering together all my Spanish notes, crumpling them up page-by-page, and throwing them (roughly) into a heartwarming Irish peat fire.

Tuesday Dec 13, 2005

Welcome to the United States

I just returned from a trip to the US, which required a nonimmigrant visa.
For those of you who have never needed to apply for a US visa, here are some of the questions they ask you on the DS-156 nonimmigrant visa application form:

  • Have you ever unlawfully distributed or sold a controlled substance (drug), or been a prostitute or procurer for prostitutes?
  • Do you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any other unlawful purpose?
  • Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization as currently designated by the U.S. Secretary of State?
  • Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government of Germany; or have you ever participated in genocide?
So, having convinced US Homeland Security that I am not a prostitute, terrorist or Nazi, they granted me a visa valid for 10 years.

Often the sanest refuge from bureaucratic idiocy is humour, and highly appropriate in this context is Welcome to the United States from Franks Zappa's Yellow Shark album.

The lyrics are based on the actual text of a US visa application form. Zappa was best known as a rock musician with fondness of satire and off-beat humor. But he was also a composer and the Yellow Shark album contains recordings of some of his more "serious" compositions performed by a German chamber orchestra with Zappa conducting. The album was released shortly after his death in 1993.

Anyway, back to the trip... I met up with Sun Ray engineers to discuss work we are doing on a new Sun Ray administration user interface. So, if you are a Sun customer and a Ray Server administrator, please let me know if there is anything you would like to see added to the admininstration UI, or any other comments on Sun Ray administration tools in general.

My visit coincided with the Desktop Performance Summit led by John Rice. I popped in on Wednesday when there was a talk on the performance analysis tools in Sun Studio. I also talked with Sean Meighan, who leads the development of Canary - a tool that gives an overall birds-eye view of the health of a group of machines on a network. I did some work on Canary a few months ago, and from what I have seen it is bound to be of great value to systems administrators in general, and Sun Ray server administrators in particular.

I felt a bit out of my depth with all the performance experts around, but it has motivated me to start playing around with DTrace and other tools available on Solaris. Up till now I have done most of my development on Linux, but with all these tools available on Solaris I'm going to make it my primary development platform from now on. My past experience in multiplatform development has proven that it is always beneficial to compile, test and run on as many OS's as possible, using as many different compilers as you can get your hands on. Subtle differences can expose bugs that may remain hidden if you stick to only one platform. So, with the Solaris tools now available, the desktop team should be able to identify and fix more performance bottlenecks in GNOME - work that will benefit both Sun and the GNOME community in the long run.

I would encourage free and open source software developers to consider using Solaris in addition to their favourite OS. With Open Solaris there are already a variety of different Solaris distributions available. One that I'm particularly interested in is Nexenta, which combines the Solaris kernel with Debian tools, which will result in an environment similar to my favourite Linux distro: Ubuntu.

A good working relationship between Open Solaris and Debian would be great. Some people have been keen on this for quite a while already, though there are some reservations about the CDDL. Hopefully these can be ironed out - my colleague Alo is certainly keen on getting a discussion going on this topic, and has proposed a talk at next year's Debian conference titled: OpenSolaris and Debian: Can we be friends?

Now, time to download the Nexenta LiveCD...

Monday Sep 26, 2005

Dublin Half Marathon

I ran the Dublin Half Marathon in Phoenix Park on Saturday. The conditions were ideal: cool, cloudy with a slight breeze, and there weren't too many hills on the route.

However, I made the mistake of running in brand new shoes, which started hurting me around 7 miles and left me with a huge blister at the end. Still, I managed to finish the run in 1:49:07 (according to my own watch), which I am very happy about. I managed to maintain roughly 8-minute miles for most of the run, reaching the 10 mile mark in 1:21:30 (compared to my 10 mile time of 1:29:22 a month ago).

Saturday was also our 5th wedding anniversary, which would have been a public holiday for us if we were still living in South Africa. According to "some", I should have given Elizabeth something made of wood... instead I bought her something else made from trees, with a bit of value-add: the Urtext edition sheet music for The Complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas, published by G. Henle Verlag.

During the afternoon we headed into the city center, but our bus was diverted due to a Rally for Irish Unity (a.k.a. Make Partition History) that was taking place along O'Connell street. With tired, blistered feet I wasn't going to stand around and watch, so we popped in to the restaurant at Eason's bookstore for lunch, when who would be sitting a few tables from us, but Gerry Adams himself.

As a "non-national" with relatively neutral/untainted political views on the North, but weary of living in regions of political conflict, I sincerely hope that today's announcement will contribute to long term peace in the North. Ireland is a beautiful country, and if South Africans with such diverse cultures and centuries of conflict could resolve their differences peacefully, then so can Ireland.

Thursday Sep 15, 2005

How to Blow Up a Whale

Last night I read that a beached Southern Right Whale had been euthanased near Cape Town. I seems like the event drew quite an interested crowd...

It's sad, but it seems like it was the only option. The sheer volume and weight of a whale makes it very difficult to deal with.

I used to live in a small village near Cape Town, called Scarborough, where the whale population has steadily increased over the years, and whale watching has now become a major tourist attraction.

Arriving home from work one day I spotted a whale in the little bay. I rushed down to the beach and found that there were two whales, and I could hear the sounds they were making - not the beautiful lyrical sounds they use to communicate, but perhaps the sound of breathing - like air and water down a hollow pipe into an empty container - hard to describe but very eerie and beautiful. I sat watching in awe as the sun went down - wishing I could just swim closer and touch them... That night I slept under the stars again as I often did then - and until late that night I could still hear the occasional sound of the whales.

That same year, a dead whale washed up on the rocks at Scarborough. No one seemed to know what to do with it, so my landlords, Terry and Janice Corr, asked me to search for some advice on the 'Net. I emailed the WhaleNet mailing list with the question: "What does one do with a dead whale?" Someone responded with the story of the Expolding Whale. Well, I guess some people like guns and some people like blowing things up and some people want to solve the world's problems with brute force and ignorance. Believe me, a decomposing whale is a smelly affair. So I can imagine that chunks of rotting blubber flying through the air ain't a pretty sight. Anyway, we decided that explosives would definitely not be the way to go, and this led to the story of Misty.

Terry and Janice organised a talk by Lyall Watson, author of Supernature, at the Scarborough Community Centre. Lyall described in a captivating manner how he dived down to a whale mother with her calf nearby, and how she embraced him in the same manner she would do to protect her calf. As I sit here in my cubicle, surrounded by technology in a European city, I am reminded of the natural beauty of Africa that I used to live so close to.

Tuesday Aug 09, 2005


We visited Edinburgh over the bank holiday weekend. What a beautiful city! We stayed in a lovely backpackers in the Victorian suburb of Marchmont, just south of the Meadows. With a population about one third of Dublins', a few Universtities, a varied and undulating topography plus a few lovely parks and surrounding green areas - I wonder if I should make a move some day...

I've always been attracted to Europe for it's historical and cultural richness, and I've always felt an affinity towards the Irish and Scottish - perhaps due to the legacy of English colonialism in my own country, South Africa. So I would love to remain in Europe indefinitely without ever having to swear loyalty to Queen Betty or King Charlie.

Unfortunately, Dublin has been experiencing a property bubble for a number of years, which makes it nearly impossible for us to get a foot on the property ladder here. So perhaps Edinburgh might be an option for the future... besides, I had some Haggis while we were there and I really quite like it! I'm just not so sure about those bagpipes - though I guess they are mostly heard around tourist traps in the Old Town.

Wednesday Jul 20, 2005

Good Omens

All work no play... leaves precious little time for leisure reading.

Now that I have a break from studying, it's time to catch up on some reading. I've just finished and thoroughly enjoyed Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

What I love about reading is the way everyone forms their own image of the scenery and characters - unlike a movie where you are asked to switch off your imagination and consume sensory stimulations offered through the imaginations of others. Movies often spoil my enjoyment of a good book - the plot is changed for no apparent reason, or I simply don't like the creative interpretation. I love movies, especially some of the off-the-beaten-track, indie/cult types. But I prefer watching movies of books I've never read, and not watching movies of books I've already read and enjoyed. Making a good movie of a book is a difficult and subjective endeavour, and few directors succeed.

I learnt that one of my favourite directors, ex Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam, was going to make a movie of the book. Movies are seldom as good as the books, but Mr. Gilliam is a genius and I would have loved to see the result. Unfortunately production was cancelled due to a lack of funds.

He also tried to make a movie based on Don Quijote, which would have been fabulous now that we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of that great novel. Production was started in all seriousness, and got quite far, but was constantly riddled with mishaps until it was eventually cancelled. However, the material was sewn together in a documentary about the (non) making of the film, called Lost in La Mancha

Anyway, we have a few bookshelves full of books I haven't read yet, so it's time for me to catch up!

Monday Jul 18, 2005

UNISA exam results

I got my UNISA examination results, and I failed my Spanish exam - again!

This is so frustrating!

I started studying Spanish years ago for various reasons, but mostly to help fulfill my dream of travelling around Latin America one day. I started taking private Spanish lessons, but soon became frustrated at the slow pace. So, I decided to look at the formal Spanish program at the University of South Africa. I believe UNISA is the world's largest correspondence university, with over 150 thousand students, exam centres around the world, and degrees recognized internationally. While browsing the list of available courses, I decided, heck, why not just enroll for a full degree? Then I changed jobs for a startup, which consumed so much of my energy and time that I just didn't have the time left for studying in the evenings and on weekends anymore. Besides, I had moved to the lovely village of Scarborough outside Cape Town, with a fantastic view over the Atlantic Ocean in front of me, and mountain walks behind me. So for a few years I didn't study at all as I learned to bodyboard and paddle-ski.

4 years ago we moved to Ireland. Elizabeth had started a BSc in Computer Science, and I reckoned it would be a good time to resurrect my unfinished degree. I needed to finish 3rd year Spanish, consisting of 5 papers:

  • SPS301H Spanish for translation
  • SPS302J Spanish for oral communication
  • SPS303K Spanish for professional purposes
  • SPS304L Encounters with Spanish American culture and literature
  • SPS305M Reading and analysing literary texts in Spanish

I also needed a second major plus a least 2 more courses. Having done Psychology and Philosophy, I could have just carried on with one of them to complete my degree. Instead, since I have been interested in environmental issues, and would like to become familiar with GIS, I chose to do Geography.

Now, to compare the levels of difficulty between Spanish and Geography: I have completed all my 1st, 2nd and 3rd year Geography papers in less time that it will have taken me to complete only 3rd year Spanish!

I have passed 4 out of the 5 Spanish papers. Ironically, the paper that interests me the most, Encounters with Spanish American culture and literature, is the only one I keep failing. I started this whole degree based on my desire to travel and learn about Latin America, yet I can't even pass that exam. Some of the other papers were far more difficult than this one, especially the translation and literary analysis ones.

It is a very interesting paper covering the history and culture of Latin America from the ancient Maya, Aztec and Inca civilizations through the Spanish conquest, slavery, wars of independence to modern politics. The prescribed literature consists of the books "El coronel no tiene quien le escribe" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and "La muerte y la Doncella" by Ariel Dorfman. All together a pretty substantial amount of work which can be examined thoroughly.

However, the final paper contains only 3 questions, typically like:

   "Violence and repression are central themes in Marquez's novel. Discuss."

Yet that short question counts 40% of the total mark!

Compared to any mathematics paper that is well designed to test the breadth of your knowledge and judge your reasoning capabilities in an objective manner, this is a complete joke.

Anyway, I have asked for the paper to be re-marked. Hopefully I get the few extra percent I need to pass this exam... otherwise I'll just have to persist until I eventually pass.

Monday Jul 11, 2005

Half Marathon Man

or... How Not To Run a Race

I ran the 5 mile race (8 kilometres for us non-imperialists) in Phoenix Park yesterday morning, completing it in about 45:30 - quite pathetic as I have passed the 10 kilometere mark during a half marathon in less time.

Though, considering my training for the year so far consisted of 2 lunchtime runs last week, I'm not too disappointed.

So, now that I've done that, maybe I should keep up the training and do the 10 mile and half marathon races as well. I trained for and finished the Dublin City Marathon last year, but even though I've run 4 marathons and the Two Oceans ultra marathon, I just don't see the benefit of a full marathon anymore. I enjoy doing half marathons - I feel like I've had a decent workout without doing any damage to myself. But I really just feel so drained and sore after a marathon, and the last hour is always painful and I simply cannot enjoy it.

I was crazy enough to run my first marathon in 1997, after only ever having run as far as 16 kilometers. A colleague, Dave, needed to qualify for the Two Oceans, and convinced me on a Friday afternoon to run the Oudtshoorn Marathon the next day. After a busy work week, I drove us more than 400km from Cape Town, stopped to carbo-load with some pasta in Swellendam on the way, and arrived in Oudtshoorn around 11pm. We slept in the back of my pick-up, and got up at around 4am to catch the 5am bus to the 6am start at the Kango Caves. I remember passing the 16km mark and thinking that this was the furthest I had ever run before - and I still had more than twice the distance to go to finish the race! My knees were killing me towards the end as Dave kept encouraging me to continue. I was running in brand new shoes (BIG mistake!) and ended up losing five toenails. In the end, we finished the marathon in 4:12:00, which I would never have been able to do without Dave's help.

Why did I do it? Madness, I guess - or maybe just a sense of accomplishment, of getting to know my capabilities and shortcomings. Anyway, I'm glad I did it then, but I reckon I'll limit myself to half marathons from now on. And having blogged about it kind of makes me feel obliged to keep up the training now.

Monday Jul 04, 2005

Plan 9

No, not the Operating System developed by Bell Laboratories...

I had a good laugh over the weekend as we watched one of the worst movies ever made: Plan 9 from Outer Space.

It's so bad, it's good!

The DVD release comes with an excellent documentary about Ed Wood and the making of the movie. Now I'm looking forward to seeing Tim Burton's movie about Ed Wood, played by Johnny Depp.

Plan 9 from Outer Space is apparently used in film schools to teach prospective directors how not to make a movie. I wonder if there is a similar "Hall of Shame" with examples on how not to develop software...

UPDATE: The Internet Archive has just made the movie available for download. The Internet Archive is an amazing project to archive digital content that is in the public domain. This is a valuable service for preserving culture and making it available to a wider audience. However, I still recommend you buy or rent the DVD version as it contains lots of extras.

Monday Jun 13, 2005

Sudoku and the Fearless Vampire Killers

$ man su su - become superuser or another user $ man sudo sudo - execute a command as another user $ man sudoku No manual entry for sudoku.

OK, so sudoku doesn't ship with any standard UNIX... yet... :)

Over the weekend I got hooked on Sudoku, a deterministic, NP-complete number puzzle that was first published in New York in the late 1970's, became popular in Japan in the 1980's and is now becoming increasingly popular worldwide.

What a pleasure it is to "play" a simple number puzzle that requires no CPU cycles and can easily be solved with pencil and paper.

I have never been into modern computer games with advanced graphics and sound. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but a game that engages the mind appeals far more to me than one that bombards my sensory neural pathways.

The same applies to my (some would say, warped) taste in movies. I couldn't care less for special affects, CGI and all that, though I am quite a fan of animation. But even then, I am far more fascinated by Aardman's plasticine characters than Pixar's smileyhappyfriendly computer-generated ones.

Speaking of movies, I love a good spoof movie, especially a good spoof spook movie. I watched Roman Polanski's 1967 comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me but Your Teeth Are in My Neck. What a laugh! I had no idea what it was going to be like, but I knew it would be interesting when the MGM lion turned into a vampire with fangs. And when Alfred, played by Roman Polanski himself, peeped "Wolf!" in a pathetic frightened voice, I knew I was in for a good laugh. Dublin-born Jack MacGowran is hilarious in his role as Professor Abronsius.

Wednesday Jun 08, 2005

GNOME versus CDE performance on SunRay

We received reports that GNOME was orders of magnitude slower than CDE on Sun Rays.

To verify and measure this, I designed and ran some performance tests in order to compare the time and bandwidth usage of GNOME (JDS) with that of CDE on Sun Rays. The tests measure the time it takes to display data using various desktop applications: Browser, StarOffice and Terminal.

I created a large (over 1MB) HTML file, containing a mix of headings, paragraphs, fixed text and images, and used it in 3 tests on a Sun Ray 100:

  1. Page through the file using the Browser
  2. Page through the file using Star Office
  3. Do a cat of the file in the Terminal
I ran the tests on 3 Sun Ray servers on our lab network:
  1. Linux
  2. Solaris Sparc
  3. Solaris x86
I monitored the network traffic from a Linux box on the same hub as the Sun Ray client, using the "tcpdump" utility. Instead of merely counting the number of packets in and out of the Sun Ray client, I counted the total number of bytes as well as the total length of time for each test. To achieve this, I wrote a small Python script to process the ASCII output of a tcpdump session and print a table displaying the time and total number of bytes transferred for each test.

To ensure repeatability and detect any variations I ran each test 3 times.

Before each test I logged in to a new session so that any memory leaks or other potential performance problems from an older login may be avoided.

I also ensured that the screen remains static before each test, eg: by having the GNOME clock applet not display seconds, and by having the terminal not use a flashing cursor. This way I could ensure that network traffic before and after each test consists of a constant (roughly every second) flow of small (40 byte) keep-alive packets.

To minimise variations in human interaction, I attempted to make the tests require as little human intervention as possible, and to make each test fairly long so as to make those variations negligible. Eg: The terminal test does a "cat" of a large file instead of requiring the user to perform a set of command-line operations. Some tests do require human intervention, Eg: the browser test requires the user to constantly press the PAGE-DOWN key to keep the page scrolling.

I ran the tests on CDE and JDS on the Solaris Sun Ray servers, and JDS on the Linux Sun Ray server (since Linux does not have CDE). Then I set the GNOME system fonts on JDS to Monochrome and repeated the tests. This speeded up the terminal and browser, however it doesn't speed up Star Office, which renders its own fonts. On Solaris, StarOffice is very fast so I didn't change fonts. However, on Linux I changed the Star Office fonts to use non-scalable fonts, ie. from "Thorndale" and "Albany" to "Fixed" under Tools->Options.

The following result table was generated by processing the dump files with a python script. To reduce the space of the table, I have only included results for Linux and Solaris x86 (Solaris sparc had similar results to Solaris x86). The green lines indicate the total time taken for each test, and the brown lines indicate the total number of bytes transferred between the Sun Ray client and server during that time.

The CDE results vary significantly from a very slow Browser to a very fast Terminal.

On JDS, both the Browser and Terminal are slow. But when set to use Monochrome fonts the performance of all three tests are pretty similar - on both Linux and Solaris.

So, the question for JDS is whether the monochrome results are acceptable in terms of performance, and then also whether they are acceptable in terms user experience: we can't have people using monochrome fonts that render faster but look bad. Our usability engineers should see if there are monochrome fonts that are of an acceptable quality to ensure that users are able to enjoy using JDS on a Sun Ray.




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