Craig Box's journeys, stories and notes...

Archive for September, 2007

Waikato Linux Users Group nominated for New Zealand Open Source Ambassador of the Year

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

The shortlist of nominees for the New Zealand Open Source Awards has been released, and I'm glad to announce that the Waikato Linux Users Group (WLUG) is a finalist.

WLUG was nominated for the "Open Source Ambassador" award, and is sandwiched between Lynne Pope, who was involved with a Mambo portal for Hurricane Katrina victims, and Peter Harrison, past president of the New Zealand Open Source Society.

The idea of a user group is a strange thing. We must assume that user groups are strictly in the computing field, because as we know, the only two fields that refer to their participants as 'users' are computers and drugs. (Side note: there's a movement for everything, even if only a Facebook group: a call not to use the word 'user', and some discussion on alternatives.)

A definition of user group I found online is "a voluntary group of users of a specific computer or software package, who meet to share tips and listen to industry experts". Sounds innocuous enough. It's somewhat similar to what would be named a 'professional society' in other fields, where you get together monthly and listen to a speaker.

WLUG started out as a mailing list for people with a common interest in the Linux operating system. For readers like MY MUM, Linux is a free operating system (an alternative to Microsoft Windows), which can be freely downloaded, installed, changed and redistributed by everyone. It runs everything from Google to cellphones. It's always been popular with universities and computer geek people, and it's got a reputation for being difficult for the regular person. A users group lets people who know, help out those who don't.

From the list, WLUG grew into a group that had regular monthly meetings, and then, thanks largely to the effort of first President, Daniel Lawson, to an incorporated society.

WLUG wiki thumbnailIn my opinion, the single biggest success of WLUG was the wiki. Started by Perry Lorier in 2002 (Wikipedia, which was founded in 2001, looked like this around the time, and was really still just a twinkle in the eye of people wanting to chronicle every TV episode ever), the WLUG wiki quickly grew. Over time, it became a huge knowledge base of arcane problems and solutions, as well as FAQ-esque documents, full guides to how to do things, local knowledge, and opinion-laced commentaries and debates (no neutral-point-of-view policy here!).

Perry credits me with a lot of the initial growth of the wiki, because I had just started my first job out of Uni at the time, and was asking a lot of questions. Whenever someone pointed me at the means to find out an answer, they also suffixed "please wiki it" - thus, a knowledge base was born. I'd like to turn around and mention Matt Brown and John McPherson, two very smart guys who did most of the maintenance of the software: Matt ended up as the Debian phpwiki maintainer after fixing bugs in our installation, spearheaded the license change to Creative Commons, and along with his wife Kat, gave us the design we have today: and John not only brought Waikato University's Greenstone search to our wiki (again, before Google made it easy to provide website search), but wrote the WLUG library software also. I went to both Matt and John's weddings; a friendship fostered in part by our shared involvement in the group.

Also deserving of mention here is Aristotle Pagaltzis: a Greek/German gent, who, in his words, "came here for a Google hit on SSHNotes [and] decided to stay for the rest of the content". He's spent countless hundreds of hours adding, editing and tidying up our content, making pages read less like a conversation and more like an article. We've never really "met" him, but he's one of the family.

As the wiki concept caught on with others, WLUG's niche has been less well-defined. Our topics were loosely "things related to the group" and "things related to Linux": at one point, our ClamAV page was the official ClamAV wiki, and we're the somewhat official chronicler of New Zealand's internet history. In fact, I started this blog mostly because I had lots of little pieces of Windows sysadmin information I wanted to put on the web somewhere, but it didn't really fit on a Linux site. But now every open source project has its own wiki, and if you find an answer to a question, there's normally a "more correct" place to put it. We're not just a footnote though: as members, old and new, keep doing cool things, they keep putting them in the wiki. For more information, there's a wiki history page.

Alan and Perry help someone install Linux on their laptop at the 2005 WLUG installfest.The group has done lots of other things: we run servers, arrange installfests, promoted Linux and Open Source through events like Software Freedom Day, and have continued to have a monthly speaker on an interesting topic. Greig McGill, Linsday Druett and Ian McDonald all served a year as President. Jamie Curtis also deserves mention here for keeping us with a room to meet in, and always pitching in to help with events.

Most of the people I've mentioned have, at one time, been students of Waikato University. A lot of people with a background that suits Linux come to Waikato for the strong Computer Science program. Some stay longer, some move on. I say "we" in this article, even though I don't live in NZ at the moment - many of the people who have moved on still keep in touch, and feel a pride and ownership in the continued success of the LUG.

User groups are whittled away at by increasing usability (you don't have to be a genius to install Linux any more) and the instantaneous availability of information on the Internet. Specifically for Linux, more people are using it for their work, but at the same time, those people don't have the time or inclination to meet up once a month. It also just happened to be a moment in time thing: a good group of committed people were around. As people grow older and do things like move overseas or get married (or just that old men like Kyle don't like to go out to meetings on a cold night), numbers will decrease. Others will step up to take their place, and the old hands are always happy to help, if only for the knowledge that what they contributed to is bigger than any one of them, and worth keeping alive.

New president (and long time committee member) Bruce Kingsbury will be representing the group at the awards dinner, but should we win, it will be due to the success of everyone who's ever been involved with the LUG.

Things to know about Toronto

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

So, I'm in Canada now. Truth be told, I've been here for three weeks, but have been a little behind on the blogging! Here's what you will need to know when you come and visit me.

Toronto Pearson International Airport

Terminal 1 is great, very new, but miles away from anything. It's 60 mins to downtown by the public transport system.

The public transport system

The more things change, the more they stay the sameThe public transport system is good, but confusing. To generalise, the fare between any two points around central Toronto (the TTC system) is $2.75 - but you can start out on a bus, switch to a train at a subway station, get out at another and then get onto a streetcar (also known as "tram"). You do this by way of 'transfers', paper tickets you pick up either when you pay on the streetcar/bus or at a machine when you've entered the turnstile at a train station.

You can't use a transfer at the station you picked it up at - i.e. to go from Station A to Station B and change to a bus, pick up your transfer at Station A.

After a 2 and a half hour wait...GO commuter trains take you from Toronto to the surrounding cities. Avoid them. They're double-decker, air-conditioned and have their own TV station, but I'm pretty sure I can cycle, and possibly walk, faster, than the Lakeshore East service. That, and a fire last week left our train waiting a kilometre outside Danforth Station for two and a half hours, before being told we'd be turned around. We weren't - they eventually moved forward to the station (why didn't they take us there to start with?) and kicked everyone out, with little fanfare or explanation of what to do next. Thankfully a lady sitting near me had her husband come pick her up, and she offered me and another guy on the train a ride home.


Ontario has an 8% sales tax, which is not included in prices. (There's also a federal 6% GST here, but whether or not that is included varies). So, your $4 Baskin-Robbins milkshake, as well as bringing all the boys to the yard, will cost you $4.24. Please have exact change ready.


Money wise, everything costs about the same as it does in NZ dollars, so if you were to start earning locally as soon as you arrived, you'd feel like nothing changed. Much better than the USA, the money is multi-coloured, and $1 and $2 are coins - but the 5c coin is still larger than the 10c.

Fern arrived later on the same day that I did and we stayed at a hotel by the airport for a couple of days before her friend Kim picked us up and took us out to Pickering, the next town east on the lakeshore.

Boston - A day downtown

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Old State HouseSara had left for a wedding, so I was on my own in Boston for the weekend. Boston was at the heart of the American Revolution: the massacre, the Tea Party (not the Canadian band), the Port Act and the Siege Of are all Wikipedia articles that have the word "Boston" in the title, and thus are probably somewhat related. As a citizen of the Rest Of The World, we only received moderate instruction in American history between school and Sesame Street, so I had to figure it out on the tour.

Unfortunately I had the tour guided by the little old lady who didn't remember much, rather than the tour by the guy in the period costume.

My Freedom Trail tour took me from Faneuil Hall, past the Old State House: from the balcony of which the Declaration of Independence was read, and the first seat of government in the New World. We went to the birthplace of Ben Franklin (inventor of the kite, or the $100 note, or something), the location of the first school in Boston, King's Church, a beautiful Old City Hall, and a butt-ugly New City Hall.

Afterwards, a British street theatre duo twisted themselves into shapes for my amusement, but couldn't really outdo the Edinburgh folk. Plus, his assistant was his 'sister', which seemed just a little too incestuous given some of his banter. They did, however, balance on top of one another on a big rubber ball, so mad props to them. Some other street theatre I caught the end of later seemed to involve 20 mins of set-up for a guy to jump over another guy. He wasn't worth a dead president.

Lunch was very Bostonian: Clam Chowder served in a hollowed-out bun, accompanied by Incan song.

Inner harbourFor the afternoon, I'd downloaded a podcast with a guided walk around the Boston Harbour. This is the inner harbour, and they have lots of water taxis out to the Harbour Islands National Park, and other interesting places such as the airport, which is right on the waterfront. There are a lot of seafood stores and restaurants waterfront, as well as some interesting sculpture.

I love this building. It's the Moakley Federal Courthouse. My brother wanted me to go see where Boston Legal was filmed: unfortunately, the answer is 'California'.

Craig on the RosewayI wanted to take some sort of boat excursion to end the day, and walking back from the end of the trip I passed an old schooner that I'd walked past earlier (where I took a photo of some passers-by for them, and they asked me when I was going back to England.) It sounded like fun, so I spent two hours out on the Roseway, a vessel owned by the World Ocean School, which does things like provide team-building exercises to underprivileged kids.

We passed right under the path to the runway of Logan International Airport, saw Fort Warren, the US Naval ship Sisler, and avoided being run into by oncoming bigger boats.

Overall, a fun day out, and my last day in Boston.

Boston - Pictures of fish

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

I work with Linux a lot, and the mascot is a penguin. So, here's a picture of a penguin taking a dump.

A penguin taking a crap.

This, and other assorted pictures of fish, was taken at the New England Aquarium, on the Boston harbour. It's a great building, built around a 750,000-litre tank, simulating a Caribbean ocean reef.

They have:

Out the back were three fur seals, which are always fun to see being trained and fed. Here's some feel-good video:

No window decorators in Compiz in Ubuntu Gutsy

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

I just upgraded an Ubuntu machine from Ubuntu Dapper to Gutsy. For starters, don't do this. The supported path is D -> E -> F -> G, but I'm hax0r, so I wanted to do it in one step. It's possible, but took a lot more effort than it was worth.

Gutsy has Compiz as default, but the upgrade left me with no window decoration (borders, title bar, etc). I did what I thought was deleting my entire GNOME prefs/gconf tree, but still didn't get a fix. I did find the answer eventually: re-enable the decorator plugin.

You can do this, and enable a good bunch more also, like so:

gconftool --set /apps/compiz/general/allscreens/options/active_plugins \
--type list --list-type string \

This hard to find answer was bought to you by Brice Goglin's blog.

Boston and MIT

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

Two stops down from Harvard Square on the Red Line is Kendall Square, around which can be found MIT. MIT wasn't born here - it was originally founded in Boston in 1865, across the river from Cambridge (if you remember my little geography lesson) and originally known as Boston Tech. It moved to its current location in 1916, and as far as I know, has settled down and is planning to retire in its current location.

MIT is famous for:

Stata Center - stolen from Wikipedia. DidnThis little baby is the Stata Center. It was designed by Frank Gehry, famous for the Guggenheim in Bilbao, who appears to be afraid of 90 degree angles. It's named for some rich dude who went to MIT and donated the money for its construction.

No, Furby! Bad Furby!Down the road a little is the MIT Museum. They're renovating this at the moment, which is good, because it's pretty well hidden where it is. It's also a little out of date - for an institute who is leading the world with research, they look like they don't really want to give the museum their hand-me-downs for 10 years. This is Kismet. I think he mates with gerbil to produce Furbies.

They have some really cool holograms (although Jem was nowhere to be seen).

One of the coolest things at the museum is the artwork by one-time Artist in Residence, Arthur Ganson. He builds Rube Goldberg-esque kinetic sculptures that exist to do not very much at all. I like this one in particular.

Check out my other videos for a few more.

Boston and Harvard University

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

Oh no, Sara's not going to.. with the.. POLE, is she?I went on a Contiki trip around Europe a couple of years ago, and met some cool people. I put a call out to some who were close to Toronto and ended up with an offer to stay in Boston with a friend named Sara. Here's an out-of-context picture of her on the Metro in Munich.

Sara lives in Somerville, which is actually two cities over from Boston, but part of the "greater" metropolitan area. She works at MIT, which is in Cambridge (named for the city where this travel started a month prior), and goes to university in Boston.

Confused yet? Here's a picture. Pictures relieve boredom.


The MBTA, locally known as the T, is much older and less tended to than the Underground I rode on to the airport I departed from earlier in that day. It doesn't go all the way to the airport, the cars are wide and creaky, and it looks like they stopped upgrading anything in 1984. But, it gets you where you need to go - I was staying a few blocks from Davis station. Buses ran semi-regularly but the walk was pleasant enough.

(I think I'm danger of becoming a metrophile.)

I had the usual "look the wrong way crossing the road" problem, and couldn't figure out this crazy 'fahrenheit' system. I'd adjusted to miles per hour though, having driven around England for a month; can't estimate distance in them though. (I grew up taught only metric, yet describe myself as 6 foot tall. Go figure...)

Tourists should do the "Unofficial" Hahvahd University tour, more popular than the official one by several orders of magnitude, and now, strangely, enough, official. Go figure again. It's a great insight into the oldest university in the US, and, erm, "most well endowed" in the world. In case you're wondering about the spelling, it's how they pronounce their Rs in Boston.

They're proud of how old their institute is - founded in 1636, it's older than the Declaration of Independence (1776), for example - but they don't really have a global perspective, being that their city is named after the home of the second oldest university in the English-speaking world, founded in 1209.

Boston is also very famous for its role in the foundation of America, of course, which we'll get to in a later post.

They play up the rivalry between the City of Cambridge and the University: the gatehouse building on the right, due to taxes, was the most expensive building, per square foot, on campus.

Cambridge wanted to build a fire station near the campus, but the university only agreed to give them the land on the condition their firehouse was built in the style of a Harvard building. This almost doubled the cost, and came back to bite them when Memorial Hall caught fire in 1956. Cambridge FD claimed they couldn't respond in less than 30 mins - to a building 100m away - because they hadn't been able to afford a tall enough ladder, due to the inflated cost of the building, and thus had to wait till the building burned short enough.

Unfortunately style changes over time, and in the 1970's they built this eyesore.

The tour guides are paid only in tips, but I thought the $20 suggestion was a bit steep, compared to other walking tours I'd been on.

If I was a recruiter

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

Almost every single job I've seen has had the following text at the bottom of the ad: "We thank all applicants for their interest, however, only those selected for an interview will be contacted."

I am not getting any kind of notification that my resume and application has been received; on top of that, I don't get any kind of notification if I don't get considered. How much effort is it to automatically send a 'thank you, but no thank you' to people who aren't in consideration for a job? You don't have to tell them why. Isn't it more likely to make them want to apply for a job with you in future?

I can't say I really like getting "Your e-mail has been received and will be assigned to the next available operator" notifications (I think they're called bacn now) when I e-mail a support address, but I'd really appreciate some feedback along the lines of "yes, we did get your resume".  Else I might go mad.

Oh well - I'm getting better results from the Toronto BarCamp mailing list than the big job sites anyway.

Things I did yesterday that I haven't done in a long time:

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

(skipping forward a few days again)

Recorded a television program on a video cassette recorder.  I can't remember the last time I did this.  Either I had an aborted attempt at a MythTV setup, or I watched the Torrent Channel when I 'missed' something.

But seeing as Canada can receive US TV signals, they rebroadcast all the good shows here, and S3E1 of Prison Break was on while I was out last night...

Meh, Jesus has probably seen it already.


Monday, September 17th, 2007

Why do people all have identical black fabric suitcases?  It's an invitation to have everyone else who has one to pull it up, check it, and then dump it violently back on the carousel.

Suitcases in the bootI went to some effort to get my new suitcase.  Two weeks before I left, I found a really nice polycarbonate Delsey suitcase at Dressmart in Te Rapa, but they only had them in pink.  They said they were getting more in.  They didn't.  They said they had other branches in Auckland and Christchurch - both places I was going to be within the week - but they didn't know where they were.  They called them to ask but never got an answer.

Tried lots of other leads, to no avail. It looked like pink or nothing, until I found exactly what I wanted - in a little non-franchised suitcase store I found while walking down George Street in Dunedin with MY MUM.  Turns out I had to go about as far south as I could before I could get my travelling companion for the north.