Monday, June 18, 2007

This blog has moved

There's an idiom in the software industry: "eating your own dog-food". If you've built some software, it's not right to ask other people to use if you don't. Hence, I've moved my blog to Qatar Journal.

Every user of Qatar Journal can have a blog on the site, so if you'd like one, you need to visit the signup page, choose a username, enter your email address (twice) and click 'Create Account'. Users can also choose to receive a nightly summary of all the local news headlines.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Is Qtel a bit simple?

I've been banned from QatarLiving. I'm sure the ban wasn't intentional, but I've been banned nonetheless. This morning, it was obvious that QatarLiving discussions were being attacked by someone with the intent of disruption. There was some speculation about who was responsible. Eventually, someone at the website banned the IP address of the attacker.

Unfortunately, Qtel employs a few Internet filters, and everyone behind a particular filter has the same public IP address. Thus, a system which is meant to make the web safer for Qatar's surfers has rendered one of the most popular discussion sites in Qatar completely inaccessible. This has happened before, of course. At the beginning of the year, Wikipedia saw a fair amount of abuse coming from a single IP address, and blocked the entire country from anonymous posting. It's not as if people don't know a solution to these problems - it's just that no one at Qtel is willing to make the fix.

Setting up a decent filtering proxy should be trivial, but Qtel's implementation masks users' true IP addresses from the sites they visit, and restricts the ability of site operators to punish abusers. How simple is Qtel? I'd say it's plain stupid.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Best blogs in Qatar

<BLUSH> This blog has been chosen as one of the best blogs in Qatar. I'm choking back the tears, but will still manage to give a 10-minute acceptance speech, given half a chance.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Qatar Journal - The Online Newspaper for Qatar

At the end of its first week, I'd say the launch of Qatar Journal has been a success. It's taken less than two months from the initial idea through to launching the site. I had hoped to launch a couple of weeks earlier, but I wanted to be in Qatar when it happened.

The response has been good from journalists and PR companies. I'm now getting a steady stream of stories, which is easing the administration of the site.

The technology has had some teething problems, with my server running out of memory on the first night, but it's now settled down. I've got a very long bug-list, which I'll start fixing in a couple of weeks. None of the bugs are serious, just annoying. Ben Figgis has pointed out a bug in the Qatar Journal feed that doesn't seem to be affecting slashdot, so I'll need to investigate. It's nice when people point out a problem, because noticing the bug is the difficult bit. Fixing is usually easy. Thanks Ben.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Still in the UK

Sorry, I've been away from a PC for the past two weeks. I'm still in the UK because Sara has had surgery. She's OK, and is getting out of hospital today, but we can't return to Doha until at least May 20.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Qatar Journal

I had a leisurely coffee with Qatari from QL last Thursday. We were talking about the state of the IT sector in Qatar, and generally solving the world's problems. Anyway, he was hassling me saying I should have some sort of commercial project, because there was money to be made.

I'm a bit skeptical about making money from websites. There were a lot of good ideas during the dot-com boom that produced no cash. He started quoting some figures about google ads, and how little you need to spend on hosting. Anyway, I went home that night and had a chat with Sara about it.

There's a gap at the moment for serious local news. QL and others serve the demand for informal chat, but the local papers have abysmal websites and mainstream news sites don't cover Qatar. Thus, I'm going to start up a news site, named Qatar Journal. The official launch will be on 12 May 2007 (exactly one month after my chat with Qatari) - it will be rough around the edges, but it's better to launch quickly and fix things as we go along.

Basically, there's going to be no editorial. The easiest way to scare advertisers is to start getting cynical about press releases, so I'm going to leave all discussion to the readers. Obviously, there's going to be an editorial element in choosing stories, and here I have an advantage over the newspapers' sites: I only need to pick around 10 stories a day, whereas they are publishing (almost) everything.

Anyhow, I just wanted to blog this before anyone starts asking - "why are you trying to compete with QL?". I'm not. I'm a regular QL reader, and it's great. Qatar Journal is an online local newspaper, and when it generates its own community, it will have a very different tone to QL. Hopefully, some readers will visit both sites, but I would guess that most QL regulars will stick with what they know - I'm not trying to poach anyone.

Let me know what you think about the site, and keep an eye on progress. Everything should be working very soon, but it'll take a couple of weeks to get the site looking professional.

Also, discovered Alexa today. Here is an image snapshot of Qatar websites (April 2007), and a permalink for future comparison.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

First TC meeting

So, Gord and I are at the security conference for a few days. Here's a few things I've learned:
  • The current malware products are sophisticated - the HackDoor client looks a well-designed piece of software engineering. I'd always assumed they would be fairly naive. The server side looks simpler, but then server programming is simple ;)

  • Phishing scams have avoided those banks which have implemented two-way authentication on their websites.

  • Firewire ports and PCMCIA slots have direct memory access, so can be used to copy an image of your computer's RAM even if no one is logged in. This can recover useful forensic material even after a reboot cycle, as modern BIOS's don't clear RAM. Eek.

  • Vista has an option for encrypting the filesystem. However, files are cached in RAM in an unencrypted state. Eek.

  • There are no data, from anyone, on the scale of the IT security problem that exists in the gulf. Honestly.

There aren't many delegates from Qatar at the conference beyond the staff of Q-CERT. That's a shame, and I can't work out whether it's down to a lack of interest or poor advertising. I'm sure if they'd mentioned the free Ritz lunches, the attendance would have been much higher.

Monday, April 09, 2007

iGov ictQatar IT Forum

TOO MANY ACRONYMS! The Gulf Times (and probably every other paper) today announced there's going to be a meeting at the Ritz tomorrow to talk about developing government IT services so they can be accessed through the web. I could probably make some useful suggestions, if I were invited. But I'm not, and neither are you.

Why bother advertising a meeting if it's not open to the public? That's like me issuing a press release saying "Family meeting, 7.30, around the dinner table. We're going to talk about the state of the bathroom." Of course, Wednesday's papers will follow up the story with photos of Hessa al-Jaber shaking some guy's hand. There won't be any details of what was discussed - just a photo and a repeat of the purposes of the meeting. Grr.

Given that I'm not invited, here are my suggestions. The important ones are non-technical.

  1. Scatter the money around. Don't spend millions on a single project to do everything - it will fail, and all your money will have been wasted.

  2. All initial projects should be finished within three months. A two-year project will fail, and you will be two years behind schedule.

  3. After three months, see who's got something working - give them more money and more responsibility. Stop funding the projects that haven't achieved anything; look for new small projects instead.

  4. Replace the leaders of failed projects. Publicise the successful projects.

  5. Insist on compliance to internet standards. If someone is using an ActiveX control, Macromedia Flash, or non-validating HTML, take away their money. They don't understand the web, and eventually you will be embarrassed if people believe their solution is representative of the State of Qatar.

  6. Insist that people use a free database in their solutions. It saves on costly licenses for still-born projects, and the database code will be cleaner if programmers believe they need to swap from MySQL to Oracle at a later date.

  7. Apart from following internet standards, and using free databases, don't enforce any other standards. In particular, enforcing Microsoft products will halve your pool of talented programmers; enforcing project management and system analysis methodologies will double the bureaucratic overhead. Both of these will encourage failure.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


Today, I saw a photo of my niece, Natashia. She looks like a happy little kid, and I'll get to meet her at the end of April when we take a trip to the UK. Because I've never seen her, I sometimes forget that I have a niece, so it was a nice surprise to get an email this morning full of photos.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Interview hell

I've had a few interviews recently. Well, no one is prepared to call them interviews: they're just quick chats; a get-together over a coffee; an informal introduction. If you're not offered a job, then you can't be disappointed because it's never made clear whether there was any job to be offered. You're just left asking yourself - 'was that an interview?'

When Sara was looking around for jobs, she'd come back from interviews and say "I thought it went really well - like we agreed about a lot of things", but I've never had an interview like that: it's always excruciating. I leave the interviewer to do a lot of the digging and I'm pitiful when it comes to selling my CV. It's not that I have low self-esteem. In fact, quite the opposite - I have a very-high opinion of myself. It's just that, in front of strangers, I'm incapable of talking in glowing terms about why I'm so wonderful. At the back of my mind is a voice shouting 'come off it, big-head'.

On Wednesday, I had my worst interview to date. I'm never too hot on introductions - I speak too fast and never know what to do with my non-shaking hand, but in this instance I also managed to criticise the interviewer's choice of school for his child. We were chatting (the awkward bit after shaking hands, but before sitting down) and it just came out. He asked - 'I hear you have a son - have you got him settled into a school yet?' I replied, rambling, that we'd been applying to schools, and there were basically three that were any good, and hopefully we'd got into the one that was within easy driving distance of the compound. Inevitably, his child's school was not among the three. I dug myself deeper - 'well, not to worry' I said.

It went from bad to worse. The first interviewer was American, but his Aussie boss arrived after about 10 minutes and asked me about what I could do. "Well - I'm basically a coder. I'm not bad at Perl, but I can get by in most languages. Most of my work has been on Unix, but I hear that there's no jobs for Unix coders in Doha, so I'll do anything really." He gave me a look that said 'no way, mate' and then asked "when you say you're a 'coder', do you mean that you're a computer programmer". He then did a mental calculation of how long he'd have to talk to me before leaving. I got another 15 minutes, during which time I told him that I hadn't done any real work in three years, and didn't have any salary expectations. At one point I said "really, most of my skills are outdated, and it's difficult to match my CV with any current job". The most embarrassing part was that we both knew how awful it was, and I'm sure he was trying to avoid laughing until I'd left the room.

When I met up with Sara afterwards, she asked how it went. 'Not too bad,' I said. The horror was still sinking in.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Are sites ever unblocked?



The following website has been blocked by the filter run by Internet Qatar:
I feel that this blocking is in error. As far as I am aware, this site
is devoted to discussing the merits of the Perl programming language,
and supporting users who live in the Taipei area.

I assume the site was blocked because your filtering software was
designed for use by the Chinese government, and a simple rule has been
enforced that blocks all Taipei sites.

Many thanks

Nigel Gourlay

Monday, February 26, 2007

Creating PDFs for the Sony Reader

Chris sent me a few pretty pictures. He also reminded me about the ebook reader from Sony, which takes a (closed) format known as BBeB as well as a 600x800 PDF. Finally, sourceforge's shell service has been repaired, so I can now upload again to

Tomorrow, there's the first meeting of QISF - the Qatar Information Security Forum. Although it's going to be an introductory talk, with a very general topic, it'll be interesting to see how many people turn up for a get-together.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Slow progress

I spent some of last week with a potential employer; they're into packet radio and need someone to look after a bunch of computers - some of which were familiar and some of which were new to me. Interesting stuff, but they haven't made me an offer, so I won't be counting my chickens just yet.

Sara's been out of the country most of the week, but I managed to get along to the first QSTP tech-talk. It was an entrepreneur who talked about Arab start-ups, venture capital and incubators. There wasn't much talk about the IT side of things, but the audience was full of technologists from the new universities. It was a good place to chat, and I met a couple of people who I'll try to keep in touch with.

Not much has happened with readng. I've been wrestling with font issues on my SuSe system, which are now solved, and I've been trying to put together some sample pages for the site. Unfortunately, mocking up a single page with groff is proving almost as difficult as typesetting a whole book. I keep telling myself that the second book will be easy.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

QSTP tech-talks

Ben Figgis has invited Qatar Perl Mongers to the QSTP tech talks. RSVP to

Monday, February 12, 2007

Unix text processing

My new task is to read the relevent chapters of UTP (1.7MB; source available here) and TUM. In particular, I need to get my head around troff, the Unix typesetting system (now, mostly known as groff). I'm convinced that I can secure groff and use it in the typesetting chain for readng.

Here's what I think will be the sequence: (1) ASCII or HTML; (2) groff mm or mom format; (3) postscript/PDF; (4) PNG image.

I know it's a little nasty, using an image format to display pages of text, but that's just tough. HTML in any flavour doesn't give the necessary control for pretty typesetting, and readers want books to look pretty.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

ReadNG - it's like reading, but without the 'i'

So, out of the much nonsense that was spoken over the past week, the silliest is probably this. After several beers with the camel gang, we decided that readng was the next flickr, and that all we needed to succeed in the web 2.0 world was poor spelling. I've registered the domain name, and written a blurb - let the flood of offers begin. It was Sara who was the first to note that maybe avid book readers might find intentional illiteracy rather annoying. What does she know. Pah.

Camel soup

Chris and Paul have now left. We spent a time in the desert, where we survived on our wits and wild berries. It was touch and go, but when we returned to civilization, we were changed. I was reborn, and dedicated the rest of my life to small-to-medium-sized animals. I salute you, my furry compatriots! Chris and Paul have decided to travel the world as nomadic programmers. And then we went for a chicken biryani, with milky tea, but the smell of the camels remained with us, forever...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Java, Perl and toy planes

Got a few hours work done this morning. Managed to update my java geolocation code for the first time in 18 months. I haven't really done much java in the past few years, so I'm always a bit frightened about changing my old code. I'm not convinced about my abilities to spot bugs any more.

I updated the perl geolocation code at the same time, and fixed a bug that had been hanging around for 6 months. I might have a bash at update instructions - since I became a dad updates haven't been particularly regular.

I was disappointed to receive this email responding to a lecture invitation. What an idiot.

Chris and Paul arrive tonight. Paul emailed yesterday to say he's flying the first leg of the journey in a Fokker 50. I suggested he might have to make plane noises on takeoff. Chris is bringing me a slug, which I'm going to turn into a cheap fileserver.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Friends from UK

Robin and Claire were visiting over the past few days, so no coding has been done. I promised Paul Hastings that I'd update the InetAddressLocator, but as yet, I haven't even installed a Java SDK. Oops. The weather's been great for pottering about Doha (Corniche, Souks and Sports City). On Friday night, Chris and Paul arrive, which means either I get to see the sights all over again, or I give them a map and directions.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

RDF::Core and Perl mongers

This morning, I finished tidying up the work I did before Christmas on memory usage in RDF::Core. I've posted the bug reports here. One of the problems with having a holiday is that when you return to work, it takes you days to catch up on projects. I should really make better notes, or keep a TODO list, or something.

Sent an email to CMU about Qatar Perl Mongers, asking them to publicise the society amongst staff and students; received a reply from Chuck Thorpe. Hopefully, there might be some munging soon in Qatar. Once there are a few people signed up to the mailing list, I'll start begging sponsorship to fly an open-source guru out to speak, but that depends on finding enthusiastic members, of which there are currently none.

Warned gutenberg to move their catalog to a mirrored position, as I don't want to gobble up their bandwidth when I release my search code (maybe this week).

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Qatar's Internet security

The Gulf Times announced today that OISSG is holding free security training seminars in Doha over the next couple of weeks. OISSG is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to information security. Sounds tempting, until you realise it's a sales opportunity. Expect to be frightened by cyber-criminals; baffled by the complexity of the problem; and have doubts raised about your ability to protect your systems. "Don't worry, for a small fee, you can have peace of mind by buying our stuff."

If only there was a local IT security organisation looking out for the best interests of Qatar. Well, there might be soon. Q-CERT is being set up and is recuiting. From the job specs and application procedures, you could be forgiven for thinking the jobs are limited to US academics. However, Q-CERT is undeniably a good thing - I just wonder whether its main focus will be to protect the new universities and financial centre, or whether it will also try to fix some existing problems.

The recent wikipedia silliness has exposed a security vulnerability that is politically charged. Resident web-surfers know their requests are funneled through an automated filter, which occasionally protects them from their own seedy surfing habits (or just blocks sites at random). It is also well known that there is no censorship in Qatar. Bafflingly contradictory? Nope. The local ISP does the filtering, and it is operationally independent from the government.

The filter is now a well-publicised single point of failure, which any technologist will tell you is a tempting target for an american teenager. Knock out the filter, and you knock out web access for an entire country. Will Q-CERT recommend removing the filter? If so, it might be tough to find the decision-maker responsible for censorship when the role was abolished in 1996.