Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)

Posted on 30th January 2008

A few weeks ago, some colleagues of mine sat an LPI 101 course on Linux. A couple of years ago I took the 201 course and although the course itself was fine, the exam at the end provided me with no confidence in anyone, who would put that they had passed an LPI exam on their CV. I have heard of others being critical of the LPI exams, so I know I'm not alone. Many of those on the recent course had an understanding of a Linux based operating and had used it as basic user. However, the reports coming back were not good. One attendee had trouble trying to install a copy of Red Hat and ended up having to abandon 3 different machines, thus wasting a good portion of the first day. Considering this is a 101 level course, I really don't see any point in teaching someone to install a distro. In a few cases some had already done this on their home machines, but for the majority at work the boxes are already preconfigured and setup by a dedicated team who build our testing and production environments. Aside from that, every major distro installs differently, and has vastly different configuration tools, so why bother?

The recent course wasn't taught by the LPI, but it was meant to follow their course outlines. It was very obvious that in some areas the course notes were out of date. In this day and age four years is a long time. Four years ago who had heard of Ubuntu? While that might not be a problem when you're explaining things like top, grep, locate and many other tools that have been around for a long time, but it does get ridiculous when you have to memorise the command line options to lpr (which I haven't had any reason to use in over 15 years!). It also doesn't help when the course notes are written for SUSE and you're trying to install Fedora Core.

When I took the exam an actual question was "Who writes the official Linux documentation?", who cares? The answer was 'The Linux Documentation Project', which I'd never heard of and have never referenced since. Another was along the lines of "How do you find what command line tools are available for what you want to do?". The answer they wanted was 'apropos', and again I've never used it, and had never heard of it before the exam. The answer I provided in the comments was "I use Google". I took issue with the examiners about these sort of questions as they are pointless and have no bearing on whether I know my way around a Linux distro. I can well imagine some could memorise all the command line options to various tools and scrape a pass and still have no clue about how to configure a distribution.

Certification is a dodgy concept and only serves to line the pockets of the examining body. With badly presented courses and exams like those of the LPI, they serve only to fail the examinee by teaching very little that they can actually use in their workplace. In truth I don't believe I've used anything I learnt in the 201 course I did, apart from understanding better how to compile a kernel. I have heard that Red Hat certification is worthwhile, and seeing as we use RH8 or RHEL5 at work, then that would likely be a better course to apply for, but I suspect the cost may be an inhibiting factor. Having said that, you also get what you pay for.

I would be intrigued to meet someone who actually values the LPI exams and can prove that they are worth taking. Since a very highly skilled Linux system-admin and programmer (you rarely find someone proficient in both those skills) that I know, failed to get near 100% in the exam, I don't have any faith in any accreditation bestowed by LPI.

File Under: exams / linux / rant

Something That I Said

Posted on 29th January 2008

Last night Nicole and I went to see Henry Rollins play in Wolverhampton. He's a lesson for any performer in many ways. He's entertaining, funny, thought provoking, informative and a tour guide. He also performed for just over 3 hours, taking only one drink of water in the middle of the show and spoke non-stop about his life, his adventures and his observations on the world. I've been a fan of Henry Rollins' spoken word performances for many years and have been fortunate enough to see him on several occasions (I can even be seen in the audience of the 'Live In London' Video/DVD), as well as owning pretty much every spoken word album he's ever released. Last night Nicole thought he performed the best she's ever seen him. Admittedly she's only seen him once before, but I would also have to agree.

The show started tentatively, with Henry apologising for not having been to Wolverhampton since the late 90s, about 10 years ago. With Birmingham being only just down the road, that isn't too bad, as he's played Birmingham a few times since then. As long as he plays the midlands I'm happy, as it means I don't have to trek up and down the motorway to see him. Once he got into his stride, and got the feel of the audience, he settled down and got into the flow of his story telling. By the end of his set, he was wise-cracking those leaving to relieve themselves or a couple who had to leave slightly before the end. Not maliciously I might add, but making it obvious you were fair game if you disturbed his flow. Not that he missed a beat anyway. Off at tangents he would recall interesting asides, to return to the main thread of his story just when you thought he'd forgotten where he was going.

Prior to the gig, through the PA we got to listen to a compilation of songs by The Ruts. At first I thought it was The Crack album, but seeing as Staring at The Rude Boys also featured, it must have been some compilation CD or a self made compilation. Henry is a big Ruts fan, and although I wouldn't particularly classify myself as a big fan, I certainly liked them and would have loved to have seen them had I been allowed to go up to Manchester one night, like my friend Alan did. However, seeing as I was only 14 at the time, my parents were rather understandably not going to let me go on my own. Henry told of how the remaining members of the band asked him recently to front a reformed line-up, as it would be Paul's last gig, having just been diagnosed with lung cancer. As he told the story of practicing the songs in his apartment, meeting and rehearsal the band and finally playing the gig on July 16th at the Academy in Islington, London, I couldn't help but wished I'd been aware of the gig, as I would loved to have been there. With The Damned and UK Subs playing, it would have been great, but also getting to finally see The Ruts, would have been memorable. The Damned, UK Subs, The Buzzcocks and others are doing a tour together later in the year, I'm thinking it might be an idea to get tickets.

The major lesson to many performers is not only did he stand on stage for just over 3 hours, but it also only cost £16 for a ticket. That's roughly £5 per hour. It's not unusual these days to pay £30+ for 90 minutes of music (if you're lucky). I walked out of the Wulfrun Hall last night feeling like I went to a gig and got value for money. I'm not a fan of The Rollins Band, and I can't say I was a really a fan of Black Flag either, but as a spoken word performer, Henry proves he has a talent for story telling that few could revival. He's 4 years old than I am, and it's encouraging for me that he's still got the same ferocity and intensity for life as he did when he was first playing in bands. It crossed my mind that unless he comes a cropper on his adventures to Pakistan (he was on holiday in Islamabad at the time of Benazir Bhutto's death), Syria, Lebannon or another interesting place, I'm likely to enjoy hearing his stories and observations for many years to come, to the point I wouldn't be surprised to see him walking the stage in his 80s or 90s, entertaining and thought provoking as ever.

Thanks Hank, it was a great night, and I look forward to the next tour.

I'm currently listening to Get In The Van in the car at the moment, and have The Ruts lined up for later :)

File Under: gigs / henryrollins / spokenword / wolverhampton

Obscured By Clouds

Posted on 21st January 2008

The John Hancock Building from Sears Tower

The John Hancock Building from Sears Tower

The other day I was looking up something about tall buildings. I got sidetracked and started looking up some of the tall buildings and towers that I've been too. Then I discovered there are also several that are under construction or in the planning stage.

I've always loved climbing up really high and looking at the view. When I was a kid I climbed a sand derek at a disused sand quarry near Brereton in Cheshire, now known as Brereton Heath Local Nature Reserve. It was probably about 100ft high and swayed when you got to the top. We shouldn't have climbed up and the area should have been more protected from curious kids than it was, but as far as I know there were no incidents.

Since then I've been fortunate that two locations for YAPC::NAs I've been to, Toronto and Chicago hold the title of tallest tower and building (including antenna) respectively, The CN Tower and Sears Tower. The views are incredible. However, since the current tallest buildings (minus antenna) are in places where it's unlikely I'm going to get to any time soon, it was quite intriguing to discover that Chicago, hosts of the 2008 YAPC::NA, is in the construction of The Chicago Spire, expected to open in 2011. All being well I'll be in Chicago during this summer and I plan to visit the construction site. Not sure how much I'll get to see, but it'll be interesting to get photos now and return in a few years time to see the end result.

File Under: chicago / sightseeing

Maps And Legends

Posted on 18th January 2008

On the Birmingham LUG mailing list recently there was an announcement about the Birmingham Mapping Party, which is being organised by some of the guys at OpenStreetMap. Previously Alex has been over to to gives up a bit of background about GPS and mapping, and seeing as round where I live there is a distinct lack of mapping data, I thought it might be a good idea to find out how to get involved.

First off was to check whether I had the right requipment. I have a Nokia N95, and although it has GPS, I had no idea whether it could record data and allow me to upload to OpenStreetMap. Reading the notes, the N95 does indeed have the capability to record the mapping data, however it needs an additional (free) app to do it. I headed off to the Nokia Research Labs website and read up on Sportstracker, an app that allows joggers, etc to monitor their progress. As a by-product it also records the route you take in the GPX format, which can then be uploaded to OpenStreetMap. Using my local Wifi network, I logged onto the website and installed the software directly onto the phone. Having only had a quick look at the app, it does look quite cool.

So now I'm ready to record. However, I've previously mentioned to JJ about the GPS connection taking ages to triangulate my position when I switched on the GPS, and he mentioned A-GPS, which is also mentioned on the Nokia website, so I figured I ought to try and upgrade that too. Another download of the latest Software Updater, this time to the PC, and I'm ready to update. When I first tried a month ago, I had problems connecting to the Nokia website, this time around it connect without a problem. It also detected the phone and detected correctly that it has the 11.0.026 version of the firmware. The lastest version listed on the website is 20.0.015, and for A-GPS support version 12.0.013 or newer is required, so I was expecting a download and upgrade. Unfortunately, it would seem the Software Updater doesn't agree, as it is claiming that the firmware is up to date with the latest version 11.0.026. This is a bit annoying and have yet to find any way to update the phone to the latest firmware. I've now email Nokia customer support to see whether they can shed any light.

JJ did mention previously that I could go into any Vodafone shop and they would upgrade for me, but I doubt they would do anything that different from what I've tried, unless they complete wipe the OS and reinstall with the latest version. Just in case I do have to take this back to the shop, I've also downloaded the Nseries PC Suite to backup my data. I don't have too much on there, but the phonebook and messages I would rather keep, but then I should back them up every so often anyway.

Although I've had the phone for several months, this is the first time I've actually looked at it from a lower level. I'm starting to look at other possible applications, such as using as a laptop input controller, and really get the most out of the phone. Seeing as it has all these gadgets installed, it would be a shame not to use them ;)

Incidentally, I'm not planning to be at the Mapping Party, but I do hope to contribute to the mapping effort once I've figured out how to use SportsTracker. And maybe I'll be able to do a bit of Gloucestershire too seeing as I work there.

File Under: gps / maps / opensource / phones / technology

Games Without Frontiers

Posted on 17th January 2008

Last night was my first visit to the Halesowen Boardgame Club. A nice bunch of guys, and very enthusiastic gamers. In the end there were 8 of us, so we ended up splitting into two camps, one playing Power Grid and the other playing Brass. Seeing as Brass was a new game that Dave had brought along, and all of the group knew Power Grid, it was suggested I play Brass. I was quite happy to play either, as my intention for coming along was to get to play some new games, so I could see whether they were suitable for me to buy for DanDan and I.

Brass itself is a pretty decent game. The thing I like about it is that you can employ several different strategies throughout the game. All of us seemed to be trying very similar strategies to begin with, which is understandable, as we were all still learning how to to play the game. It meant there were a few points collecting strategies that weren't observed until much too late in the game. However, I think part of the problem with this was that we were playing with 4 people, and as such we got through the game cards fairly quickly on a per player basis, although the total gameplay took roughly 2 hours. I think if I ever play it again, which hopefully I will, I will be developing a lot sooner.

The game is in two parts, the canal phase and the railway phase. Observing the points scoring, at the end of the canal phase none of us really got any clear lead, and the final victory points at the end counted for a lot more. As such I think developing early would in turn set you up for later in the game. We also noted that the iron works and coal became much more important later in the game, and had we developed appropriately, it would have paid out much bigger dividends. Dave also built two shipyards in the last throes of the game and consequently bumped his score by 36 points. I had looked at building a shipyard, but not realising the large victory points it got you, ended up taking another track.

All in all, it was a great game and I would certainly like to get it, although it's probably a bit too advanced for DanDan at the moment. Dave noted that apparently the game has proved very popular and is in short supply at the moment. I'll have to keep my eye out for it, as it might be a good game to take to YAPC::Europe if I can generate enough interest for another Games BOF session :)

I'll certainly be visiting the club again, although seeing as they also meet on a Wednesday, I'll have to slot it between my Perl and Linux meetings. Hopefully I'll be able to make it once a month and catch up on even more new games.

File Under: games

Hello, Hello, Hello, Hello, Hello (Petrol)

Posted on 16th January 2008

Continuing the motoring theme, I recently discovered a newish site, It follows the comparison site idea, but for petrol (and other fuel types) at petrol stations and supermarkets, etc. across the UK. Although it hasn't been going for long, it does seem to have gained quite a bit of interest and is a worthy addition to your bookmarks.

The only annoying thing (for me persosnally) is that I had the idea to do this (as I'm sure several other did) several years ago when I first started developing websites :) However, I am surprised that no-one has developed this kind of site before, as it is a resource that has been wanted for a very long time. In my case I didn't develop my idea further, as I didn't know of a reliable way of getting at realtime data. Originally I was going to allow users to enter prices from their local filling station, but this is open to abuse, and considering that I wouldn't be able to verify the prices, would likely have been very unreliable. have overcome this hurdle, thanks to Catalist. Although they existed back in 1998, my research never revealed them and I'm sure others had the same problem. With data for over 10,000 stations up and down the country they certainly have that data market sewn up.

I shall be using from now on, but from initial searches it would seem that the price I'm paying currently is quite low. Although there are petrol stations that charge a lower price, the effort getting to/from them would probably negate a lot of the benefits of filling up at stations that are actually on my route to/from work. However, I see it being very useful when driving long distances, particularly when on holiday to find the cheapest and closest filling station.

File Under: cars / driving / website

Roadhouse Blues

Posted on 15th January 2008

Driving to work these days is becoming more and more treacherous. Today the rain was relentless, and as a consequence there was a lot of surface water. Driving over the Avon near Tewkesbury the river has flooded the fields, so that it appears both sides now have a massive lake. It also seems much more extensive than the flooding last year. However, this doesn't seem to warn drivers enough. Our drive took us almost to the first Cheltenham turn-off to hit the accident today. Just two cars, but they managed to block the outside lane while police cleared the carriageway and got them on to the hard shoulder.

Yesterday an accident just after the M42 joins the M5 caused a tailback along the the two motorways and even down the A38 dual carriageway that passes my house. Yesterday's accident took several hours to clear, and happened around 7am. As a consequence I was late into work, and likewise several hundred other motorists. That's two in two days. There have already been several others so far this year. A few years ago I remarked that in the first 10 days of driving to work, I encountered 7 accidents and twice the motorway was closed. I think the motorway only got closed once last year, but there were several accidents.

The journey I take is from Junction 4 of the M5, down passed Bromsgrove, Worcester, Malvern, Tewkesbury, Cheltenham and Gloucester, finally leaving the motorway at Junction 11a. My trip at both ends is just a few minutes, along dual carriageways, so the bulk of the journey can average 60-70 mph. It's a 45 mile trip and usually takes 40-45 minutes on a good day. On a bad day like yesterday it can take 2 hours.

There seem to be 3 factors that people are not getting.

Firstly, that the weather is to be respected. Driving in the rain, wind and snow or on wet or icy roads is not fun, especially in the dark.

Secondly, use the correct lane. This is especially true of road hogs who insist on sitting in the outer or middle lanes, when there is nothing on their inside. The two outer lanes are for overtaking only. Driving with the excuse that a mile or more ahead you will be overtaking another vehicle is not good enough. These people seem to believe they have every right to restrict traffic flow and bunch cars up, making the likelihood of an accident occurring much greater.

Thirdly, respect other road users. It's not unusual any more to have someone suddenly appear in my rearview mirror, decelerating from 100mph to 70mph, to a foot away from my bumper. I saw a van do it once for a major logistics company, to someone else, while driving in the rain. It annoyed me so much I actually called their "Am I A Good Driver?" hotline number and complained. Just because you can do more than 70mph, doesn't mean you have the legal right to do so, or insist everyone gets out of the way as soon as you appear. If they are overtaking another vehicle, then give them a chance to do so. Hassling them only makes the more resistant. It also means they aren't concentrating on the road properly, as they also have to concentrate on you and watch out for you hitting them when you don't stop in time.

Any one of these is a potential danger, a combination of two or all three is just asking for trouble.

Another annoyance for many people is articulated lorries. During rush hour they also cause excessive traffic build-up, which again increases the risk of accidents. On several occasions I've even seen articulated lorries drive in the outer lane of the M5 over a certain stretch where they seem to believe they have the right to use all lanes. Now that I take a colleague to work, if I spot this again, rest assured I will be getting him to take photos.

A while ago I made a suggestion that any vehicle weighing more than about 4 tons should be restricted from using any road (motorway, main road, country lane or side street) during the hours of 7am-9am and 4.30pm-6.30pm. It seems others had a similar thought as there was a government petition at one point. While I don't believe that lorries are necessarily the cause of all accidents, they do put pressure on some drivers to drive like they do. Taking heavy goods off the road might not be the complete answer, but it might help to make the roads during congested periods a little less stressful.

Obviously the the optimum solution would be for the government to properly invest in our public transport infrastructure, so that for me to get to work wouldn't take over 2 hours as it would currently do. Regular bus and train services, use of appropriate stations and decent rolling stock all need investment and improvements. But then that would also mean we wouldn't use our own transport, and would reduce the fuel consumption (reduced tax income), reduce car ownership (reduced license income) and reduce traffic congestion (reduced toll income), so I can see why the government might be reluctant to invest. However, with global warming and the rise in accidents, surely we should be thinking more about reducing our road usage. I'd rather live in a world with less pollution at the very least.

File Under: cars / driving / rant

Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll

Posted on 14th January 2008

I got hold of Lost Cities last week, and this weekend DanDan and I played a game of it. We would have played more, but he has still yet to finish his homework :)

It's a fairly simple game and as a consequence pretty quick to set up and play. Although the box specifies a minimum age of 10, I would have said those younger can grasp the gameplay without too much difficult. DanDan certain understood the concept of playing and taking the cards, and building up the expeditions from investment cards to numbered cards. He hadn't spotted that he quickly ran out of time building the expeditions beyond the 20 points needed, as he spent time trying to build up all 5 expeditions. I did the same to begin with, but in subsequent rounds concentrated on 3 at maximum. It made a big difference. DanDan said he really enhjoyed the game, and Nicole liked it simply because it meant he had to do maths to play the game.

For reference, should anyone need them, an English rules translation is available online. It's a shame that The Games Cabinet no longer runs, as that was a great source of reference for the English language versions of the rules. I note there are links to other language versions (mostly Portuguese) on Boardgame Geek, as well as some other interesting resources, but they seem to forget that some of us buy the German versions of the games as they can be cheaper.

File Under: dandan / family / games

Look Through Any Window

Posted on 11th January 2008

A friend recently pointed me at "Head Tracking for Desktop VR Displays using the WiiRemote", a video on YouTube. While the current headset might not be to everyones taste, the software and the idea is fantastic. It shouldn't be difficult to imagine all sorts of real world uses, never mind gaming fun. It really impresses me how some people can look at something from a completely different angle and do something which the creator never intended or expected.

And just in case you think this might be a one-off, Johnny Chung Lee has several project ideas, and a few more for the wii too. I expect Mr Lee will make quite an impact at Ninendo when they recruit him, and if they don't I'm sure there will be plenty of hi-tech companies that will be delighted to have him on their research staff.

File Under: computers / technology

Boat On The River

Posted on 10th January 2008

It seems that Nicole and I have a bit of talent on our hands. These two pictures were painted yesterday by Ethne at her playgroup. Apparently she's painted an even better one, which is currently hanging up in the room they use.

Considering she will only be 3 in a month's time, yet can manage to paint a recogniseable snail and a boat on the sea (complete with sun), is quite staggering, or maybe that's just my parental pride coming out. Either way, Nicole's artistic talents have obviously come out strong in Ethne, as she's always loved drawing and painting ... especially on herself!

Seeing as I don't have a cubicle at work in which to hang my kids pictures, adding them to my website will have to be the next best thing :)

File Under: ethne / family

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