Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nerd Food: Kindle my Fire!

Being in Africa, one of the things we miss the most is access to books. Y'all know how book mad me and Shahin are - all those full shelves we always had. Suddenly we had to downsize significantly, and books were at the bottom of our priority list. I frantically searched for ebook replacements for all my programming books - and largelly succeeded, it must be said. But novels and so on were nowhere to be found (other than project Gutenberg, that is). I ignored the whole Kindle revolution because I'm not a big fan of ebook readers. For one I find them far too expensive. Also, when space is at a premium, you really don't want to have to carry yet another device on you. However, my ignorance played very much against me this time, as I missed the Kindle for PC. Luckily we have slashdot.

Amazon, being the great Linux company they are, they released a Linux version of their product. Not. (Just kidding! The amazon MP3 downloader is absolutely fantastic!).

Early reports of wine support were quite promising so I gave that a go, only to find out that the latest release does not work! Luckily our faithful ubunteros discovered the old version, which works just like lifehacker had reported.

All of this to say, I got Kindle for PC working on wine, and it works well. I must say, the experience was not perfect:
  • The whole .com vs amazon websites is rather confusing: for dead-tree items (and for MP3's too) one is supposed to go via the website, which has prices in GBP. However, for kindle I could only find a .com website with prices in USD. On the plus side, my English amazon account works perfectly, and I was able to use the 1-click (TM) order to buy my first Kindle ebook.
  • The Kindle interface is a bit too spartan; after buying an item, its difficult to tell how long the item will take to download, how fast the download is going, etc. Its obviously not designed for dialup style internet connections like the ones we got here, that bounce more than a basketball.
  • Shantaram is not yet available, and that was one of the main things I wanted to (re) buy.
But even taking those problems into account (and the lack of a Linux version, of course), its still a great product. I mean, its nothing more that a pdf reader, really, but the availability of a lot of books at a decent price makes it really compelling. And for someone like us who cannot access dead-tree books at all, man, its like having all your birthdays in one go.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Kizua Mwangola: Part 6: Benguela

We've finally arrived at the destination: BENGUELA!!! We still need to sort out Shahin's documents, but since she still has two Ordinary Visa renewals, which take us to the end of the African Cup we're not too worried right now.

Benguela has improved a lot since we were here last. The roads are now paved, and there is a revolution with regards to side-walks. Its beginning to shape up like the Benguela of old.

We've also managed to sort our accommodation for the next 2 months, a key worry of ours. The price is steep, but its much lower than anything on the market; it's also the place in which we stayed three years ago. Now, all we need to do is find jobs!

Shahin has progressed more than me on this department as she has made friends with the American expat that runs an English school. Unfortunately, as the semester is winding down here, the work is also slowing down. Things look good for the next academic year though.

I've also managed to open up a bank account and get myself a bank (ATM) card.

No beach as of yet though.

Kizua Mwangola: Part 5: Diaspora HOWTO

Right, y'all know I'm a nerd, and part of the nerd lifestyle is writing HOWTOs. For all the non-nerds out there, the reason why we tend to do this is because we love efficiency: there is nothing worse than having more than one person wasting time figuring something out. So, in this spirit, for all the Angolan diasporans out there that are planning to come back home, here are some tips on how to get your documents back.

NOTE: The below assumes only the legally available means (e.g. it's gasosa-free).
NOTE: The standard disclaimer applies: this HOWTO is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE.

Without further ado, here's the returning to Angola HOWTO for diasporians.

1. _BEFORE_ you travel to Angola, make sure to:
  • Speak to all elements of your family that know anything at all about your past in Angola. You want to make sure you know exactly WHERE you were baptised and registered (exact addresses of church and conservatoria) and WHEN (year and month ideally). Old addresses are useful (even with the old street and town names, don't worry about that). Also, you need to find out where you live in the register of the conservatoria (e.g. Registo, Folhas, Livro).
  • Collect every single old _Angolan_ document you can lay your hands on (e.g. documents issued by the Portuguese-Angolan government before the independence or the Angolan government after independence; documents issued by the Portuguese government after independence are of no use, even if they state Angolan details).
  • If married a non-Angolan outside of Angola and you wish to issue your Angolan documents as married, ensure you bring a translated copy of: a) the foreigner's birth certificate and the foreigners criminal record; b) the marriage certificate. These copies MUST be stamped by the Angolan consulate at the country in which the foreigner was born and the wedding took place (if you're talking about Portugal or Brazil, the translation is not required of course). DO NOT leave the country(ies) until you have these documents, or nothing will be done.
NOTE: if you do NOT know your conservatoria, you will not be able to obtain an Angolan citizenship, I don't think.

2. When you get to Angola:

If you need to update your marriage status, you must do it before anything else. You will need to go to the registros centrais in Luanda next to Hotel Mundial, not far from Mutamba (I don't think this can be done in the provinces, but I'm probably wrong). The process of bringing your document into existence in Angolan law is called a "transcricao". You will need a lot of stuff for this:
  • The translated and stamped versions of the birth certificate, marriage certificate and criminal record, as explained above.
  • Doctor's certificate (Atestado medico), indicating everyone is alive and healthy.
  • Residence certificate (Atestado de residencia, this is normally proving the address of the Angolan member of the couple and issued by the Bairro's Comissao de Moradores).
  • Basic Curriculum Vitae
One very useful thing about going through this process is your wife will then have a much easier time getting a residence card. I'll cover that on a later update to this HOWTO. After you have transcribed your marriage properly (if required), you can start the climb of the documentation ladder proper.

NOTE: the below assumes you know the conservatoria, registo, folhas and livro.

  • Go to the church you were baptised and request a Certidao Narrativa. You may not need this, but I would get it if I were you (see my previous episode). Churches have a "notario" on the back. I don't think opening times are standard, but it may be between 10:00 AM and 12:00 PM. Queueing is normally not too bad (e.g. one or two people in the queue). You can collect the certidao narrativa while sorting out the certidao de nascimento (but do it BEFORE going for the ID card).
  • Next, go to THE conservatoria where you were originally registered at any time during its working hours, and look for a paper with an account number and prices (ideally you want to do this on a Friday or Thursday). DO NOT rely on information from other conservatorias. The paper should contain a standard price and an express price for the certidao (2700'ish and 4900'ish kwanzas respectively; get the EXACT values). It should also contain a cost for the cedula (210'ish kwanzas). IN THEORY you don't need to pay for both the certidao and the cedula as the cedula is included; in practice I'd pay for both since the cedula is so cheap. Ensure you find out WHICH BANK the account belongs to. It should be BPC, but just in case check. I strongly suggest you go for the EXPRESS option (5 working days).
  • Go very early to the bank and make the payments (I suggest 05:00 AM start but you may be lucky). Ensure you make SEPARATE payments for each document, with the EXACT amounts as displayed in the price sheet. Of course, ENSURE the account number is correct.
  • Ensure you receive a receipt from the bank for each transaction, STAMPED as deposited.
NOTE: There is no point in going to the conservatoria without the receipts.

Once you got the receipts, take them to THE conservatoria where you were originally registered to obtain a cedula and a birth certificate:
  • The birth certificate (certidao de nascimento) is also known as Assento de Nascimento (abbreviated to assento).
  • Conservatorias only deal with requests on MONDAYS and TUESDAYS, from 08:00 to 13:00. In practice you need to get there no later than 05:00 AM. I suggest going there on a Monday, in case anything goes wrong (god forbid) or else you'll have to wait for next week.
  • When you get there early in the morning, keep your eyes and ears open. Ask around. Some places have "lists" (a lista). These are informal documents created by customers that list the names of other customers in order of arrival. Make sure you keep your eyes on the list and do not leave the queue/place at any time. There are sometimes competing lists done by different people, so keep a keen eye open. There should, however, be multiple lists kept by _one_ person, one list per _department_; worry if there is only a single list for everything, as there will be trouble later on. You want to be in the Certidao list (NOT on the cedula list as the child registration is sometimes called). If you are on the wrong list and discover this later on YOU WILL have to queue again next time, so make sure you're on the correct list.
  • If your position in the list is greater than 50 don't bother waiting for too long; most conservatorias only accept 50 requests a day, so only the first 50 people get a go. At 51 to 55 you may get lucky, any higher than that and its neigh impossible you will be seen to on the day. At any rate, ask as your conservatoria may be different.
  • At around 08:00 AM the public servants will drop by and collect the lists. They will then read out the list and for every citizen present, give our a "ficha" with a number. This will be the order of processing for the day.
  • When your turn comes, make sure you ask for a Cedula as well as a Certidao/Assento de nascimento. Ensure the receipt states its a request for both documents. Ask for the collection date (the exact day of the week).
  • Guard the receipt they give you with your life. Make at least one photocopy of it. The copy is accepted in place of the original.
  • If you payed for express service, return at any day during the week to collect it. It can be at any of the valid working hours. If you paid for regular service, you can ONLY collect on Thursdays, between 08:00 and 13:00. Do not bother coming on any other day of the week as they will NOT see you.
  • When you receive your documents, its likely the cedula will be produced on the spot. Regardless, SPEND AS LONG AS NECESSARY CHECKING EVERY FIELD OF YOUR CEDULA. DO NOT LEAVE until you're satisfied. Misspellings, even minor ones will lead to trouble later on. Try to get them to fix your cedula there and then.
If at this point you still don't know your registo, folhas and livro you need to do a search on the conservatoria's books. This is EXTREMELY painful. You NEED to at least know the year. You will have to go to the conservatoria and do a "search". This can two or more weeks and the result can be negative (e.g. "you're not registered in 1966", try again).

When you get your certidao narrativa, certidao de nascimento (assento de nascimento) and cedula, find ANY centro de identificacao (I think, will fix it later if this is not the correct name):
  • Ideally go to a province as they are normally not as busy as Luanda. If you must do it in Luanda, I suggest Chicala (Ilha), next to the Portvgalia brewery. This is not quite as mad-busy as other places.
  • They normally are open Monday to Friday at 07:00 and accept requests until 13:30. In practice, its best to arrive very early (05:00 AM).
  • There is only one queue for everything, although some people make different queues for men and women. This is rather pointless as they end-up merging the two queues, using an entirely arbitrary merge algorithm that is likely to piss you off (mine was 3 men, 3 women and it worked very much against me). The queue will result in a "ficha", with your number. Guard the ficha with your life.
  • When they call you, the first counter will be a validation counter. They spot fakes and so on. They should be happy with your supporting documents (e.g. certidao narrativa and cedula).
  • The second counter takes your details and enters them into the computer (dados biograficos).
  • The third counter takes your biometric details (e.g. picture and finger prints).
  • The fourth counter will hand your ID card.
  • If you're at the beginning of the queue, you may get an ID card printed on the day. This could be as late as 13:30 to 15:30. If its not done by then, you need to come back next working day at any time after 07:00.
With the ID card you are now ready to go and get:
  • Numero de contribuinte (tax number): you can't really work without this.
  • Numero de seguranca social (social security number): you can't really work without this.
  • Criminal Record: most employers will ask you for it. Look for a Registo Criminal. The document should cost less than 2000 kwanzas (express) and should be ready within a couple of days.
  • Passport: you won't be able to travel as Angolan without this. Its very useful within SADC as there are lots of special agreements with member countries. Any DEFA would do, the provinces preferably as they are quieter (but slower). Should take around 30 days to issue. To be on the safe side, its best to renew your ordinary visa in the mean time (although this shouldn't really be required after getting an ID card).
Although the process is long, cumbersome and complex, I must say all the people I dealt with were surprisingly professional and managed to get things done in the time slots promised (I'm trying to say this whithout sounding too amazed, but yeh, I was really amazed).

I'll update the HOWTO with more details as I get the remaining documents.


Kizua Mwangola: Part 4: Angolan Again

On our return to Luanda, we found the city to be busier than ever. Perhaps it was the long, empty roads of Huambo that made us adapt to the slow pace of country life. Luanda hits you in the face, overflowing with people, cars, rubble. We were not expecting much of the conservatoria, not quite believing that the express service was actually going to deliver results. To my amazement it did: a brand-spanking cedula and birth-certificate were at the ready, waiting for me.

The next mission was to sort out the ID card. We did the scouting as usual, dropping by during the day and figured out another early start was required. I went solo. I got there for around 05:10 AM, managed to be number 38 after some complications (don't ask), waited for ages and got seen around 09:30. The going was good until around 5 people ahead of me. At this point, a middle-aged white Angolan goes up to the desk - a desk sitting more or less in the centre of the room, in full view of everyone. The chap was talking too softly for me to hear, but our Angolan public servant was not; his loudness was calculated to ensure everyone could participate in the exchange. Proceedings went more or less like this:

- So you're 40-odd years of age, haven't you ever had an ID card before?
- (inaudible mumble by citizen)
- So now you come back with this measly piece of paper (pointing to the birth certificate) and want me to believe this person is in fact you? How do I know?
- (more inaudible mumble by citizen)
- No, no, if it comes from the province you need to go back to the province! You all go when things got though and now want to come back when its sweet, and expect us to just believe your word!! If you want me to accept your documents you need some supporting evidence!!
- (even more inaudible mumble by citizen)
- Back to the province I say!! I'm here to do my job!!

The citizen left the building, but the public servant wasn't quite finished. He kept talking about it while processing the subsequent four cases, getting angrier and angrier as time went by - a full fledged monologue by now, punctuated only by the yesses and hm hms uttered by the customer and a few in the crowd. This went on until it was my turn, at which point he finally stopped talking, but for all the wrong reasons. He could hardly believe his eyes when he looked at my birth certificate, alternating between the paper and me several times with gaping mouth:

- I can't believe this!! Another one!?! What's going on here today?? Where is your old ID card?
- I never had one Sir - I say, starting to despair, but with still one card up my sleeve. Using my politest, nicest, humblest Portuguese I mumble:
- I also have the church's birth certificate, if that helps at all.

Incredibly, the guy changed his tone immediately after seeing the church's document, and suddenly starts displaying me as a model citizen to the crowd, explaining how this is the sort of behaviour he expects, with the neat confirming documents and so on. We all had a chuckle at the expense of these citizens that come round with only one document - me noisily joining the crowd slagging those fools. In the same breath I was thanking God I had remembered the old Portuguese bureaucratic trick of bringing every single legal document you own every time you go to a government agency - this makes it harder for them to send you home for lack of documentation.

The adventure wasn't quite finished after that - there were some other minor problems, but nothing major and the end result was that I _almost_ managed to finish the day with a valid Angolan ID card. Yep, this is the same day in which I initiated my request, and I did not do anything different from a regular, average Angolan citizen. The _almost_ bit was due to some mishaps with my file that I don't fully understand - something to do with stamps; my lovely number 38 ended up being processed at number 72 or so, meaning I was at the very back of the queue by the end of the working day (around 14:30). And this is excluding the other minor incident in which the chap calling out people got the files in the wrong order and jumped from 29 to 60 odd, skipping everyone inbetween; it took the queue something like ten names to notice the problem, at which point we were all shouting in unison: TA ERRADO CHEFE!!! TROCOU A ORDEM!!! (its all wrong boss, you flipped the order!!).

Anyway. Next day I returned at the late hour of 08:00 AM and it took me the whole of 20 mins to obtain my brand-spanking new Angolan ID card.

Kizua Mwangola: Part 3: Huambo

Things ended up going quite well with the conservatoria in the end. It sure didn't look like it in the beginning though. We got there around 07:00 AM on the dot, thinking this was early enough - I should have known better. The fall of Saigon had less people roaming around. Nevertheless, it was an instructive day as we figured out all the requirements to get things done. Next day I turned up at 05:10 AM, and was still number 12 in the queue (!!) but managed to put my request in. On the plus side, I was out by 09:30 AM.

Since it would take 5 working days to pick up the finished articles (e.g. the cedula and birth certificate), we decided to trek to Huambo to visit Cousin R. This is Angola's equivalent of Namibia's Windhoek, as it sits more or less on the centre of the country. Many years ago, the Portuguese had ambitions of making Huambo the capital of the empire; they called it Nova Lisboa. Due to its strategic importance and proximity to the rebels home ground, Huambo and the surrounding areas got shelled intensively during the war, particularly during the late nineties.

These days, the city is a recovering place. It still displays many scars of the recent past, but it also sports a great deal of rebuilt infrastructure. The government sees Huambo and the surrounding areas (such as Cela in Wako Kungo) as key for the agricultural revival the nation requires. Angola imports around 80% of what it consumes, a lot of which are cereals and other agricultural products. This is all the more amazing when one travels through the fertile lands of the plateau, kilometres and kilometres of greenery and very little of it affected by human hand. Imagine something like Hertfordshire but with unspoilt nature instead of farms and then scale that to a Britain-like size and you get close. Excluding the landmines, of course.

After a difficult bus trip, we spent 5 days in great luxury at cousin R's pad, with all the mod-coms. During the day we treked the city, visiting places like the granja, and meeting nice people such as Hugo. Time went far too quickly, and we had to go back to the madness of Luanda.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kizua Mwangola: Part 2: The Lion's Den

Alvalade is the home of Sporting Lisbon, the mighty lion of Portuguese football. And now, its also the key to my future...

* * *

As promised, the day started early, with a trip to Alvalade's Conservatoria. However, it was just my luck that it had burnt down in a fire recently. Oscillating between hope and despair - have they lost my entry? can we create a new one? - we wondered down to the abandoned shop window to read a notice: the conservatoria had migrated, lock stock and smoking barrels (literally) to a different place. Luckily, it was only up the road, next to the Sonangol pumps by the national radio station.

To our great displeasure, the new place was nothing like the ordered chaos of Kinaxixe. Here we had sheer, unabated, uncontained disorganised chaos. After watching some great examples of Angolan queueing (surely an oxymoron if I ever seen one), I managed to sneakily speak to a worker. She dutifully told me that archive searches were not one of their set tasks; I should know to which conservatoria I belong, and that's that. If I truly wanted to conduct a search, I could wait two weeks for the new IT system that was being installed.

Well, we couldn't wait two weeks - half of our visas!! - nor did I have any belief in time scales for software development - Angolan's or otherwise, worked on far too many of these critters to have any faith left - so we gave up and decided to go for breakfast. I badly needed my morning coffee to regain my strength. God had, of course, very different ideas. An hour walk revealed nothing that could vaguely resemble a cafe and Shahin boycotted all street vendors so, in addition to all our troubles, starvation now beckoned.

We considered our options in a quiet shade under my baptism church. As if sensing our despair, just there and then our friend L decided to ring us. A lawyer! Surely a sign. She didn't know off the top of her head whether there were any other conservatorias in Alvalade, but she would check; in the mean time, we were to ring Portugal and try to rinse out more details. Shahin also thought we should consult the padre and see if we can get any additional info from him.

As we queued up to see the padre, we met another couple that were in almost exactly the same situation as us: a Scottish girl was trying to marry an Angolan chap, R, but they were struggling in both Britain and Angola. The coincidence was so amazing it felt uncanny. We chatted for a bit and traded war stories, commiserating each other. R told us he had had a lot of problems getting his birth certificate, and one of the most important things is knowing the location of one's entry in the registry. This was to be a vital detail.

In the end, all our sources came together:
  • The church archives did not know where I was registered, but they knew the exact location (book, page, etc.) of my entry in it; thanks to R, we appreciated the importance of this vital information.
  • My uncle knew where we were registered, and L confirmed that there was only one conservatoria in Alvalade. We also found my cousin's B entry in the church archive, and it mentioned the conservatoria (but regrettably, not the location of his book in the archives!).

Great dectective work. Now all we need is to request the documents on Monday.

Kizua Mwangola: Part 1: Dead on Arrival

Not so long ago I started a email newsletter with very restricted circulation: a palavra do dia (word of the day). Its purpose was to teach myself and a few friends and family some meagre words of kimbundu, one of the major Angolan languages. I regret to say it was a rather short lived and somewhat unsuccessful project, but I did pickup one or two words. One of them was Kizua, or "word". My really limited kimbundu has not progressed much further since then, as the title of these series of blog posts attests. What I'm trying to say in terrible pidgin kimbundu is "words from Angola". Perhaps one day a real kimbundu speaker will help me fix the title.

Another pet project of mine was A Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, chronicling my return to Angola. This one was slightly more successful, and a complete book was actually "published" in the end - if with a somewhat restricted circulation of one copy. At the time, many people protested about the long length of posts (all the ten of you), so this time I'll try to keep them short and (hopefully) frequent.

* * *

After a rather long trip, we arrived in the motherland safe and sound. As usual, Cousin R had made a sterling job of organising it all, a feat even more amazing considering she now dwells far away in the provinces and did everything by phone. Cousin Z picked us up and gave us a mini-tour of town.

Its strange but if anything Luanda hasn't changed that much: there are lots of new buildings - all of them sky-high - but the key things are as we remembered, if not worse. Terrible traffic, bad side-walks and expensive things. Luanda is incredibly even busier than any city in Vietnam, with the added messiness that only big African cities seem to have.

* * *

Our first mission after a good night rest was to obtain my cedula. We hoped the job was going to be easy as I already possess a shiny"certidao narrativa" (not quite a birth certificate, but almost. Don't ask.). No such luck, said the man at the Conservatoria (Registry Office). We need to figure out where my parents did the original registration and Lord knows where that was.

Mum gave us some tips. We're going to queue up from 07:00 onwards tomorrow morning in the vain hope that one of the places she suggested is the right one (Alvalade). Of course, cedulas are only requested on Mondays or Tuesdays and collected on Wednesdays and at best take eight days to be processed but hey, we'll try it on anyway. Our spirits are high. And we're that desperate to get out of Luanda and hit the real beaches down south.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Gnarls Barkley: who's going to save my soul now?

I got some bad news this morning
Which in turn made my day
When this someone spoke I listened
All of a sudden, has less and less to say
Ohhhhhh how could this be?
All this time, I've lived vicariously
Who's gonna save my soul now?
Who's gonna save my soul now?
How will my story ever be tollllld now?
How will my story be tollllld now?

Made me feel like somebody
Hmmm, like somebody else
Although he was imitated often
It felt like I was bein myself
Is it a shame that someone else's song
Was totally and completely dependant on
Who's gonna save my soul now?
Who's gonna save my soul now?
I wonder if I'll live to grow old now
Gettin high cause I feel so lowwwww down

And maybe it's a little selfish
All I have is the memory
Yet I never stopped to wonder-ahhhhh
Was it possible you were hurtin worse than me
Still my hunger turns to greeeeed
Cause what about what I neeeeeed?!
And OHHHH~! Who's gonna save my soul now?
Who's gonna save my soul now?
Ohhhh I know I'm out of control now
Oooh-oooh, tired enough to lay my own soul down

Monday, September 14, 2009

holiday pics

Being slightly more clued up on these newfangled technologies, Shahin already has a facebook account and has discovered the joys of microblogging (twitting, for the youngsters amongst us). Me, I'm stuck in time, still editing text files with emacs. Here are some of the pictures she has published:
Hope these links work for y'all.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Afrobasket: Good start!

Well it seems we cleared everyone out of our path, including our main rivals Nigeria. However, the game was very tight, and if we do meet them again in the finals, the result may be very different...

Angola x Nigeria. (C)

One negative note for the afrobasket though. As it was with Angola, its extremely difficult to know what is going on. There are no TV stations in the UK showing any games at all (or even the highlights!), the website provides scarce information (would it be so hard to have web-highlights - if webcasting whole games is too hard?) and to top it all, when you type "Afrobasket 2009", Google Ajax's cleverness converts it to "Eurobasket 2009". You gotta be a real fan, basically. I know Fiba in general is not that great, but when I look at NBA's website I cannot help but wonder how hard it would be to provide all that content with Open Source and Free Software (drupal comes to mind).

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Manu Chao: Helno est mort

NP: Helno est mort

Au clair de la lune mon ami Helno
prete moi ta plume
pour t'ecrire un mot
ta chandelle est morte je n'ai plus de feu
ouvre moi ta porte pour l'amour de dieu.

Au clair de la lune mon ami Helno
prete moi ta plume
pour t'ecrire un mot.

Helno est mort une fois encore il est sorti après minuit
helno est mort helno est mort 100.000 remords

helno est mort une fois de trop il est partie au paradis
helno est mort helno est mort 100.000 remords

Au clair de la lune mon ami Helno
prete moi ta plume
pour t'ecrire un mot
ta chandelle est morte je n'ai plus de feu
ouvre moi ta porte pour l'amour de dieu.

helno est mort une fois de trop dans les journaux
ya sa photo
helno est mort helno est mort 100.000 remords

helno est mort une fois de trop dans les bistros il a pécho
helno est mort helno est mort 100.000 remords

Au clair de la lune mon ami Helno
prete moi ta plume
pour t'ecrire un mot
ta chandelle est morte je n'ai plus de feu
ouvre moi ta porte pour l'amour de dieu.

helno est mort une fois de trop dans les journaux
ya sa photo
helno est mort helno est mort 100.000 remords

helno est mort une fois de trop dans les bistros il a pécho
helno est mort helno est mort 100.000 remords

helno est mort une fois encore il est sortie après minuit
helno est mort helno est mort 100.000 remords

helno est mort une fois de trop il est partie au paradis
helno est mort helno est mort 100.000 remords

Don't wanna lose nobody don't wanna lose nobody
don't wanna lose nobody...

Monday, June 22, 2009

Using boost svn with cmake

This post was created in the interest of saving someone else's sanity. If for some absolutely insane reason you decide to use boost's trunk from your shinny new cmakefile - and thus have a need to negotiate your way through FindBoost - all you need to do is:

  • Make sure you created a symlink for the include directory. By default boost puts its includes under boost-X.YY (e.g. boost-1.39). Just ln -s boost-1_39/boost boost and away you go. Not sure how things work on Win32, but if you need to symlink remember: junction.exe is your friend.
  • Set BOOST_ROOT and only BOOST_ROOT. When things fail to work you may be lured into thinking that artifacts such as Boost_LIBRARY_DIRS or Boost_INCLUDE_DIRS or others of such ilk (BOOST_LIBRARY_DIRS, BOST_LIBRARYDIRS, etc.) may actually help you. How wrong you are. All you need is to get BOOST_ROOT right. To do so, simply point it to the top level directory where you installed boost. For instance, I've placed boost under ~/local. Your BOOST_ROOT is set correctly when ${BOOST_ROOT}/include/boost and ${BOOST_ROOT}/lib exist.
So the final work of art looks like so (pray notice the capitalization!!):

set(BOOST_ROOT /home/marco/local)
find_package(Boost 1.36 REQUIRED COMPONENTS system thread serialization filesystem)
include_directories(${INCLUDE_DIR} ${Boost_INCLUDE_DIRS})
target_link_libraries(${YOUR_BINARY} ${Boost_LIBRARIES})

That simple. Of course, one must not forget to change this before giving this to anyone else - you should be checking the regular directories where boost gets installed.

Saturday, June 06, 2009


Central square in Bratislava, Slovakia. A rather quiet city.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Santos FC beats Al-Ahly!

A most unexpected result, particuarly after the trashing Santos had on the first leg (3-0). Somehow, the Santos FC boys managed to pick themselves up and show their skills to Angola's new national coach. Hopefully Manuel Jose was suitably impressed with the talents from Girabola, considering the blunders he's already made in the few days ahead of the team...

Santos FC - Al-Ahly. Source: CAF.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Recent Books

Some of the books I went through (or will go through), in no particular order:
  • Flashman and the Mountain of Light: Like every other book of the Flashman series - of which I have now read four - it's unbelievably un-PC, and incredibly funny. The cover says it best, really: "farcically outrageous and disgracefully entertaining". Flashman is probably one of my best finds, and this particular book is the best yet. I'm beginning to think that it narrates British colonization a lot more accurately than any real history book. Amongst all the fun and madness, it has some gems of prose. It also seems the author spent a lot of time doing historical analysis, since the detail is amazing. If, like me, you are from a minority group, you will undoubtedly find the book rather offensive; ignore it and keep going, if you can.
  • Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina: I had this on my list for a bit but forgot all about it. My interest was rekindled by Chavez, who decided to offer a copy of it to Obama. Cannot recommend this book enough, really. If you want to understand Latin America, and particularly the latest shifts to the left, this is a good starting point. Towering work. Read it in the original Spanish, but there is, of course, an English translation.
  • High Stakes, No Prisoners: A Winner's Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars: Mandatory read. This book was not at all what I expected - I was looking for a geeky read to lift my spirits. Instead its a gruesome account of the difficulties of startups in the silicon valley. Its really, really good. The language is not as polished as say Galleano's (how can you beat gems such as "People were in prison so that prices could be free"?); in fact, some parts are rather dry, such as the final chapters on market analysis. But this is still incredible stuff. Compelling reading. Should be mandatory for all computer science students (high-school and university).
  • Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus: Via Galleano, bumped into this. Ordered the English version (which is quite ironic, since the original is in Portuguese; totally forgot that Miguel had offered to buy me books in Portuguese, if required). Seems very promising.
  • Empires of Oil: Corporate Oil in Barbarian Worlds: Couldn't quite finish this one. Although it had rave reviews, and started interestingly enough, it proved to be too dry a reading. It seems to waffle a lot without providing any real insight. I may attempt it again - got half-way through it this time - but not for a good while. Seems a bit pro-oil, but there's nothing wrong with that if the argument is well constructed.
  • This is Not a Drill: Just Another Glorious Day in the Oilfield: Quite unlike the previous one, this is a compelling read. Always wanted to know what exactly oil workers get up to in the middle of nowhere, and this book explained it in great detail. Basically, the boys have a great laugh, while trying not to get killed and working their socks off. Fantastic humour - if somewhat dark.
  • Traders, Guns and Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives: Absolute classic. Must read if you really want to understand the finantial markets.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Nerd Food: The Jaunty Jackalope

Winning isn't always finishing first. Sometimes winning is just finishing.
-- Manuel Diotte

That Time of the Year

So here we are again. Another six months have gone by, and we're all ready and eager to see what those Debian and Ubuntu boys and girls were up to. Like everybody else, I dutifully upgraded my Interpid boxes, very much as I have done for every release since Warty. This time though I decided to expand a bit more on my experiences - the main reason being that, for better or for worse, Linux on the desktop is now big business. You may not think so, considering we appear to still be at around 1% market share, and considering most people using computers are still ignorant of Linux and Free Software in general; but, in my personal opinion, we are now on the threshold, on the verge, of starting to build a commercial position.

Thus, we can no longer afford to look at Ubuntu - or at any other Linuces who wish to break through into the desktop mainstream market - as we have until now. This review is not just a typical Linux review. I do not wish in anyway to upset all those people who work so hard to make GNU, Linux, Debian and Ubuntu what they are now - people for which I have the utmost respect. However, I shall endeavour to make a frank accessment of the strong points and weak points of Ubuntu as it stands at 9.04.

If your main concerns are with software freedom, the remainder of this article will not be useful to you at all. I have taken a stance of the "ignorant consumer", the sort of chap who would buy a product based on price and quality; a person who does not really care how product came to be, but focuses only on features and usability. I think its really important to look at the world from this perspective, because to some extent, we have taken all the easy pickings. A lot of people who care deeply about their freedoms and buy products thoughtfully are probably either using GNU/Linux (or some other free operative system) or have made a conscious decision not to use it. It is the nature of this audience to investigate their choices. It is not the nature of the majority of the market though, and to capture them we must play the game on their terms - not on ours.

In addition, one must bear in mind that GNU/Linux is challenging a strong incumbent, and a very strong second place; being as good as Windows or MacOS won't win any prizes, because they both possess huge advantges: large installed base, marketing, familiarity, large amounts of money. From whatever angle you look, these are formidable oponents. To beat them at their own game, one must be pretty special indeed.

Without further ado, my views on Jaunty.

Booting the Live CD

One of the many advantages Apple and Microsoft have over Ubuntu is installation. Its not that their installation is better - its just that the vast majority of their users have never installed an operative system in their lives. Consumers buy boxes with the operative system pre-installed, giving them the false impression that installation is trivial. A lot of people see a new operative system only when buying a new machine, and, given the choice, would probably revert back to the previous version.

This is in stark contrast with Ubuntu. SWAGging, I'd say the vast majority of Ubuntu installations are/were done by either the end user or its local computer nerd. Dell notwithstanding, until a large number of manufacturers offer Ubuntu pre-installed, installation will always be a key battlefield, and a really though battle to fight. After all, its very difficult to compete against an idealized installation process which is just assumed to be easy.

Overall, I think Ubuntu does a good job with installation - although there are a few niggles. For instance, first impressions are extremely important, and unfortunately, the language menu does not quite give the best first impression. It takes a lot of screen real estate and uses an approach that is just not scalable (what will we do when we have more languages than fit the screen?):

Language Menu. Source: Softpedia.

Its understandable that such an internationalised product as Ubuntu wouldn't want to force non-English speakers to understand just what "F2 Language" means; but the approach taken just doesn't look professional. A lot of thought should have been given to the language list, making it scalable and easy to navigate.

The boot menu has good and bad points. On the plus side, "Try Ubuntu without any changes to your computer" is a good idea, as many a newbie wouldn't understand the concept of a live CD and will think that choosing "Install Ubuntu" will be a non-reversible operation, or one which won't take you to a regular desktop. However, all other options should really be under a sub-menu - or perhaps accessible via F6 Other Options or another such shortcut - because they may needlessly alarm users (why do I need to test memory? is this going to corrupt it? Is my disc defective? what does that mean?)

Language Menu. Source: Softpedia.

If one were to think in terms of flow, the vast majority of users will go through the following two use cases:
  1. Choose language, try Ubuntu
  2. Choose language, install Ubuntu.
Anyone trying anything else is an advanced user who knows what they're doing. As such, I'd say the boot process should start with a full screen combo-box which allows one to scroll up and down to choose a language; once the language is chosen, the second menu has two options: "Install Ubuntu" and "Try Ubuntu without any changes to your computer". At the bottom, the shortcuts should be:
  1. F1 Help
  2. F2 Language
  3. F3 Accessibility (with, if at all possible, a accessibility icon)
  4. F4 Advanced
All these options are perfectly meaningful to any basic user; anything which requires domain knowledge is hidden in "Advanced".

At anu rate, once Install Ubuntu is chosen, the boot process is elegant and blazing fast - a great improvement over Intrepid.


Overall, the installation process is very clean, with as few steps as possible. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that Ubuntu installation is probably second to none now. I wasn't very keen on live CDs when they first came out - couldn't quite see the point - but I now understand the error of my ways. Having the ability of starting your PC with a full blown version of the operative system you're about to install is fantastic. You can quickly assess which bits of hardware are going to be more problematic, as well as giving Ubuntu a good run. For the average consumer this is great, a sort of taste before you buy, if you like. The only change I'd perhaps make to the live disc - for systems with plenty of RAM (say 2 Gb or more) - is to create a RAM disc with all the apps, to avoid reading so much from the (slow) CD-Rom.

With regards to the actual installation steps, there are two points which may warrant a bit of attention.

Partitioning is clearly the scariest aspect of the installation process, so its important to be clear and reassuring to users. It would perhaps be a good idea to make the partitioning options slightly clearer, in particular with regards to resizing an existing Windows partition. It would also be a good idea to ensure the text below "Use the entire hard disc" is clearly disabled, as just the words "This will delete Windows XP..." are enough to dissuade many a newbie.

Partitioning. Source: Softpedia.

Users and passwords are also rather important. It is common for a single PC to be shared by two or more people, so multi-user support is very important. It is also very common for users not to want to type a password every time they log in. These use cases are not very well served by this dialog:

Users and passwords. Source: Softpedia.

Ideally all the user wants is one of two scenarios:
  1. Setup one or more users and, for each user, decide whether to use a password or not.
  2. For a single user box, probably allow automatically login.
Multi-user polish will be addressed further on in this article.

Loging in

The new login screen may be perhaps a bit too dark for users with accessibility needs, but overall its a triumph of parsimony. Its literally impossible to get confused using it. The only slight snag is the missing user list. Most people will probably prefer not to type a password, so it makes sense not to type a username either. The security conscious will no doubt complain, scream and shout - but from the perspective of the regular user, it makes complete sense (it's my house, not a public computer!).

Login Screen. Source: Softpedia.

The Proprietary Question

One of the greatest problems with Ubuntu (and most linuces) is the hidden steps of "additional setup". These can be extremely costly. Whilst there are enumerable articles, detailing exhaustively what needs to be done, and whilst most guides can be followed blindly by even the newbiest of all newbies, the very existence of the "additional setup" is a huge barrier of entry to many users. The additional setup is exclusively related to installing and configuring proprietary applications and drivers. For me these are:
  • NVidia/ATI drivers
  • MP3 support
  • Getting (encrypted) DVDs to play
  • Wireless drivers
  • Flash
  • Adobe acrobat
  • Skype
For a very large number of users out there, a PC is not usable unless all these have been successfully installed and configured. The additional setup process has been trimmed to its absolute minimum, methinks, particularly if one compares it to how things used to be 5 or 10 years ago. It is, in fact, trivial in most cases. But this is the problem: when we look at where we are, we inevitably see things in terms of a natural evolution. A Windows or MacOS user will not see things that way; it will become instantly apparent to him or her that a lot of things are not setup on Ubuntu out of the box, and setting them up is non-trivial (even if all we're talking about is following a very simple and detailed procedure) because this is just not the way they are used to work.

In my mind, just like we have gNewSense for the purists, we also need a "compromised" Ubuntu, _even_ if it requires users to pay for it to ensure all licences are in working order. After all, time is money, and I'd much rather pay Canonical 10-30 EUR twice a year for a "compromised" version with all the proprietary stuff installed, rather than having to waste time doing it. The "compromised" version should also be used in any pre-installed PCs.

Alas, this is not how things are at the moment. To make matters worse, my "additional setup" has been very far from trouble-free. These are the issues I've faced:
  • Wireless (WPA) is utterly broken for my laptop. Try as I might, I just can't get my laptop to connect, even though it used to work well with Intrepid. Some people reported this issue in Kubuntu, but I'm seeing it with regular Ubuntu. A few of the proposed workarounds don't seem to work for me either, such as typing the password in hex. Its a rather annoying regression, and until it gets fixed, I've got a big fat Ethernet wire in my living room.
  • Recommended NVidia drivers (v180) are broken for my card. This is #366222. For me there was a very simple workaround, which was to downgrade the drivers back to v173. No problems since then. Its an annoying bug though.
  • Epiphany still crashes frequently after closing tabs when I'm using flash heavily. This is not a regression; I've had this problem for a long time. Its similar to #196588.
  • Sound in Skype is not working. This is a regression prior to Intrepid - in fact, since PulseAudio. Its getting really close to working though; now the problem seems to be that Skype somehow lowers the volume of the microphone on startup (I can see this from the PulseAudio volume control). I followed many a tutorial (including this one, with amazing screenshots of volume control configuration), to no avail.
  • Sound in RealAudio is not working. Same as for Skype really.
Lets make a few things clear. Setting things up and chasing bug tickets is not something that would put me off Ubuntu and GNU/Linux the least - after all, I've been using GNU/Linux for over 10 years, and I value FOSS highly. Also, it is important to understand that none of these problems have anything at all to do with FOSS - these are exactly the issues people have been warning us about with regards to binary drivers and closed software. After all, PulseAudio works incredibly well for all my other applications - its the closed source ones that are and have always been the problem (in fact, the only real FOSS problem I have with Jaunty is #366083).

However, this is not an excuse for a commercial company looking to increase their market share at the expense of two ferociously competitive companies such as Apple and Microsoft. If I was Ubuntu, Novell or RedHat, I would have had personal meetings with all key companies providing commercial software (Flash and Skype are certainly key applications in the desktop space, even if RealAudio is not) and would have made available engineers to work with them to sort out the PulseAudio mess once and for all. Pulse is the future and its an increadible piece of software; Its just that the commercial companies seem unable to keep up. The same applies to NVidia/ATI.

Wireless is slightly more complicated, and its a symptom of a more difficult problem. The truth is GNU/Linux and Windows work in extremely complex ecosystems, with mind-bogglingly complex hardware combinations. Many things just cannot be known until releases hit the wild and people complain. Microsoft attenuates this problem by massively regression testing the most common hardware combinations; as far as I am aware, no Linux vendor does something similar. In a way, it shouldn't be necessary; after all, the software is provided to all at all points of development, so in theory regressions should be picked up quickly. Release soon, release often right? In practice, it doesn't quite work this way.

The potential number of testers is huge - just have a look at the number of people that downloaded Jaunty on the last betas and since it has gone gold - but a very large percentage of users will not download until close to the release date. This means that the bugs reported during the development process are not representative of those that will be found post going gold; and people reporting bugs after the official release will be rather more upset with problems than those doing the alpha/beta testing. If there was some traceability, one could "register" all the different hardware combinations out there (say those using Jaunty over the next 6 months), and then check to see how many of those were tried during the development phase. But there is no such data, so one is driving blind. Metrics here are fundamental, and knowing what was tested and when is vital. I'm sure many people would contribute (after all, a lot of the testing can be done by booting a live CD) if only they understood where they fit in the big scheme of things.

All these problems are clearly distribution issues, and can only be fixed if distributors make an incredible effort. In order to have any semblance of a chance at attacking the desktop mass market, they must be addressed thoroughly and convincingly, or else we risk the ire of many a user.

Multi-User Deficiencies

UNIX is the multi-user operative system par-excellence, and GNU/Linux carries on that tradition. However, there is a need to update the multi-user view of the world to today's reality. The challenge these days is not so much isolating users so that they cannot damage eachother or the system, but to create ways in which a machine can be shared sensibly. The issues I constantly keep on bumping into are:

  • Music. I spend a lot of time creating groups, shares, permissioning, etc. just to ensure all users of the main PC have got access to a central music collection in RhythmBox. The setup is now more or less stable, but its not conceivable that a newbie would stumble on it after half-hour of googling (I'll write it up one day). This is an incredibly common use case: to have a shared music collection as well as a private music collection. The second problem is to access your music collection from another device, such as a laptop. I've had no luck in setting up DAAP from RhythmBox.
  • Photos. I love F-Spot, its great. But I just cannot set it up in a multi-user environment - again with a set of private photos, as well as a set of shared photos that all users in the PC have got access to. As with DAAP, it would be nice to be able to browse the photo collection from a different device too.
  • Printers. Setting up a local printer in Ubuntu is amazingly trivial. However, sharing that printer over the network is not trivial at all. It should really be a matter of right-clicking on a printer and choosing "Share". and, funnily enough, there is just such an option in "Printer Configuration". Problem is, my printer remained invisible to my laptop even after sharing. Making it visible required a large amount of faffing with CUPS config files and the CUPS web-based config.
  • Shutdown with multiple users logged in requires entering a password. This won't go down well with the average user; a big notice would have sufficed.
All these complaints are sympthoms of a larger problem, which is a lack of use case based usability analysis. This should probably be done at the Gnome level, as it is not a distribution issue as such. There is a lot of focus on Gnome 3.0 these days, but it seems to me that the job of Gnome 2.0 is not yet done; the architectural work is excellent, but the polish wasn't quite finished.

The final thing with regards to multi-users, is user switching. It seems this will be comprehensively sorted out with KMS, at least technology-wise, but it will be interesting to see if the user switching process is made much smoother (no flickering; allowing switching with no password; allowing switching with music still playing from previous user; etc.).

Grumpy Old Man?

By now you probably have made up your mind and judged me as a typical grumpy old man, lost to FOSS and soon to migrate to Windows 7 or MacOS. In fact, its quite the contrary: I'm a very satisfied Ubuntu user, and I think the future will belong, undoubtedly, to Free Software.

There are many, many good things to say about Jaunty, and in a way, the criticisms laid out above demonstrate just how far we have come. After all, Jaunty did do a sterling job of detecting all my hardware, other than the wireless / NVidia issues, and NVidia is working just fine with v173.

The best thing about Jaunty for me is performance. Its nothing short of amazing. I'm using EXT4 for all partitions other than home, but I'm not sure if the filesystem is enough to explain the snapiness of this baby. For instance, with two users logged in, quite a lot of applications open, playing music, 3D effects, etc and my CPU usage rarely goes above 10% and my memory usage has oscillated between 400 Mb and 1 Gb! Its amazing. All apps have slimmed down so much as to be unrecognisable. A two day old loaded Epiphany is still below 100 Mb, a sight I don't recall ever seeing. Booting and shutting down are now lightening fast. And there are so many unsung heroes: Evolution, Evince, Liferea, Nautilus - so many applications that just work, and do what they're told. I most certaintly recommend upgrading to all Interpid users, and I'll certainly will be waiting unpatiently for karmic and all the KMS goodness (NVidia/ATI permitting).

This is to say that Ubuntu is certainly working very hard, and releasing a product with a lot of quality. But as I said on my opening words, good is not good enough; one has to be much better than Apple and Microsoft if one is to challenge them.

For me, the big question is: can we put the fantastic engine of FOSS to good use in the hard problems of testing and usability? This is the key to unlock the mass market consumer desktop market.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Before and After

One month ago, in Bilene (Mocambique):

Now, in England: