Is Hamas a terrorist organization? Funnily enough: no.

March 31, 2010

My recent post on the documentary film “Children of Gaza” has provoked a couple of comments from someone calling him/herself “Facts First” (both to the post referred to above and an earlier one also about the Israel-Palestine conflict). While “Facts First” is most eloquent in his/her support for Israel and dismissal of Hamas, he/she has basically restated the US and Israeli position that Hamas is a terrorist organization and has no legitimacy as a government. This has persuaded me that I need to state the truth about Hamas’ legitimacy both in the Palestinian territories and the wider world.

In 2006, Hamas beat its opposition party Fatah in a free and fair election. This resulted in Hamas forming a government with Fatah. Unfortunately, supporters of both parties continued to fight each other.

As well as this factional conflict, Hamas’ position as a legitimate government partner was undermined by the USA and EU’s refusal to recognize a government that contained Hamas – their view is that Hamas is a terrorist organization and therefore unqualified to govern.

Matters came to a head when Fatah seized control of the West Bank territory and Hamas did the same in the Gaza Strip. Israel and Egypt, with US and EU support, then imposed a political, economic and humanitarian blockade on the Gaza Strip, again because Hamas is a terrorist organization.

Many critics of Hamas, including the US, the EU and “Facts First” make much of Hamas’ terrorist status. They tend to claim that Hamas’ status as a terrorist organization is a fact.

They are wrong. It is simply their opinion that Hamas are terrorists. There is an equal argument that Hamas is a legitimate political party qualified to govern the Palestinian territories.

For instance the Council on Foreign Relations says of Hamas:

Is Hamas only a terrorist group?

No. In addition to its military wing, the so-called Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade, Hamas devotes much of its estimated $70-million annual budget to an extensive social services network. Indeed, the extensive social and political work done by Hamas – and its reputation among Palestinians as averse to corruption – partly explain its defeat of the Fatah old guard in the 2006 legislative vote. Hamas funds schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens, and sports leagues. “Approximately 90 percent of its work is in social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities,” writes the Israeli scholar Reuven Paz. The Palestinian Authority often fails to provide such services, and Hamas’s efforts in this area—as well as a reputation for honesty, in contrast to the many Fatah officials accused of corruption—help to explain the broad popularity it summoned to defeat Fatah in the PA’s recent elections.

Although the USA, the EU, Israel, Canada, Japan and others call Hamas a terrorist organization, there is not an international consensus on this matter. The United Kingdom and Australia consider Hamas’ independent military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, to be terroristic, but accept that Hamas does have legitimacy. Norway is resolute in its position of recognizing Hamas as a legitimate party, and Russia also refuse to regard Hamas as terroristic because Hamas was elected democratically.

Considering the above facts, one has to wonder what exactly Israel was trying to achieve when it attacked Gaza in Operation Cast Lead, and with its ongoing blockade on the region. Israel claims its goal is to remove Hamas’ ability to operate as a terrorist organization. But this has involved the destruction of civil infrastructure in Gaza, including police stations, prisons, power and water supplies, roads, communications, commerce – and hospitals, schools and residential buildings have also been attacked. This all looks like an attempt to destroy Hamas’ ability to provide the services mentioned by the Council on Foreign Relations in the passage quoted earlier – and as no one else can provide those services, this means Israel is trying to destroy Gaza as a functional territory. Exactly who are the terrorists in this scenario?

“Facts First” has criticized my use of Wikipedia as a source of information on this subject. And I’m well aware of Wikipedia’s problems. But I think the article on Hamas is well researched, with a large and diverse number of references, and is very balanced in its presentation of the facts. In fact, I believe it is the article’s thoroughness and neutrality that makes “Facts First” dislike it so much – he/she would prefer to use US or even Israeli sources of information instead as they are more likely to present the “facts” the way he/she likes to see them. But don’t take my word on the Wikipedia’s Hamas article’s balance and thoroughness – read it and decide for yourself. And please, feel free to comment here on what has been said (and also what has not been said). All I ask is that you take “Facts First’s” pseudonym as advice: let’s stick to the facts rather than deal in opinion. And I contend that one simple fact is: Hamas is not a terrorist organization just because some governments think that’s so.


How to search the internet 2: how a modern web search works

March 29, 2010

In the first instalment of this guide on how to search the internet, I gave a little history of the search engine: I covered Archie, Gopher, and site directories like the Open Directory Project. Those are the old technologies, all pretty much obsolete now. That brings us to the present day and the modern search engine.

When I write “modern search engine”, I mean web search sites like Google and Bing. Because they all work in pretty much the same way – the only difference seems to be in the algorithms each service uses.

Now I could tell you all about spiders crawling the web and stuff, but I think most of you would just tune out after a couple of lines. So I will give you 2 lovely Youtube videos to watch instead:

The 3 Minute Guide to How Search Works:

A slightly longer video that looks at the subject from the perspective of a webmaster who wants to increase traffic to his site:

Watched them? Good. So now you have the basic idea: little programs called “bots”, “crawlers” or “spiders” are sent out to crawl over the world wide web, following links, and compiling lists of URLs that they consider to contain good information. And how do these mindless software automatons decide that the info is “good”? It all comes down to the algorithms.

It’s Google’s algorithms – the “secret ingredient” – that has made Google the world’s favourite search engine and kept them at the top for so many years. Any coder of sufficient proficiency can create bots to crawl the web; but it’s the secret algorithms that turn a regular bot into a googlebot. And there just hasn’t been another bot that can compete.

At least that’s how it has seemed for some time. Yahoo has a hard core of admirers; Altavista.com has had success mostly due to its “Babel Fish” translation service blowing its rivals out of the water; but it’s only recently that a true contender for the title of Number One Search Engine to step up and challenge Google. That challenger’s name: Bing.

Microsoft has been trying for years to break into the search engine market, with a plethora of products: Live Search, Windows Live Search, MSN Search – they even tried to buy, then made a deal with Yahoo to get that Microsoft name up there with the giants – but nothing was able to make much impact on Google. Then in 2008 Microsoft (following the tried and tested strategy of “embrace, extend, extinguish”) bought a tech company called Powerset and, importantly, its “semantic technology”. Microsoft claim that their improved technology cuts down on the risk of “search overload”, when a user is inundated with millions of barely relevant results – something that can happen when using Google. And Microsoft has used the near-ubiquity of its web browser, by incorporating Bing into Internet Explorer 8. Google is still number one search engine, but Microsoft has certainly made its mark on the territory.

So who’s going to win this battle of the search engines? I think it could still go either way. Google has years of good form and a hell of an online presence; but Microsoft still owns the desktop and the browser. And anyway, someone else might come from the left field and clinch it in the final seconds – Ixquick is a potential outside bet with their whole “ethical privacy” trip; Google’s got the “Don’t be evil” motto but it’s Ixquick who are out there actually being “not evil” (and if privacy is a major concern, don’t forget Scroogle). One thing we should have learnt from IT history is that nothing is set in stone.

I’ll bet you’re thinking “Oh well done Google and Microsoft, give yourselves a pat on the back… but what in hell has any of this got to do with how to use a goddamn search engine?!! I figured it would be useful to cover all this history and present situation stuff. Well, maybe interesting rather than useful… I certainly find this kinda crap fascinating. But you’re right, it doesn’t tell us a great deal about how to use a search engine. So I promise: the next instalment of this howto will actually cover some proper howto material. So keep ’em peeled… you definitely don’t want to miss this!!

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How to search the internet 1: the history of search

March 29, 2010

This is the first part of my guide to web search; the second part is here; part 3 is here. Part 4 is here.

The first search engine is widely considered to be Archie: a tool for indexing FTP archives which enabled users to locate resources. Its first implementation was written in 1990 by Alan Emtage, Bill Heelan, and J. Peter Deutsch, then students at McGill University in Montreal. It started off as basic lists of files that were accessed using the Unix command grep. Later, more efficient front- and back-ends were developed, and the system spread from a local tool, to a network-wide resource, to a popular service available from multiple sites around the Internet. The archie servers could be accessed in various ways: by use of a local client; by telnet; by email; and later through the World Wide Web. As the web became more widespread, its simpler interface made archie obselete, and now there are very few archie servers to be found on the internet. Wikipedia mentions an archie gateway still up in Poland; maybe that’s the last one?

Then there was Gopher – a protocol for distributing, searching, and retrieving documents over the Internet, dating from about 1991 and used throughout the 1990s. It was a predecessor of, then for a while an alternative to the World Wide Web. Wikipedia describes it as:

a TCP/IP Application layer protocol designed for distributing, searching, and retrieving documents over the Internet, and was a predecessor, and later, an alternative to the World Wide Web. The protocol offers some features not natively supported by the Web and imposes a much stronger hierarchy on information stored on it. Its text menu interface is well-suited to computing environments that rely heavily on remote computer terminals, common in universities at the time of its creation in 1991 until 1993.

Gopher was called Gopher for 3 reasons:

1. Users instruct it to “go for” information;
2. It does so through a web of menu items allegedly analogous to gopher holes;
3. It was developed at the University of Minnesota, whose sports teams are the “Golden Gophers”.

Its user interface (text, based on menus) suited the computer environment of the 1990s – mostly command-line interface on remote terminals. But by the late 90s, as graphical interfaces to the internet became more common (thanks to web browsers like Mosaic, whose integration of text and images was much more user-friendly than Gopher’s text-menu approach) Gopher was in decline. Although it still exists on the internet, it is used mostly for nostalgic reasons.

As the web became ubiquitous, and huge numbers of websites were created, organisations began to collate lists of these sites into directories. Yahoo, Lycos and the Open Directory are examples. These directories listed sites in categories by content: for instance, if you were looking for a particular site about photography, you would look through Yahoo’s list of photographic sites.

But as the web grew ever bigger, it seemed to many people that directories became too unwieldy: if you’re looking for a site about a particular photographer and you’re confronted with a list of 50,000 sites, you’ll probably give up in despair. This is where the modern search engine comes in – the likes of Google and Bing. We’ll get into all that in the next instalment of this little guide to internet search.

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I <3 Dropbox!

March 23, 2010

Well, maybe it’s a bit overboard saying that I “heart” Dropbox. I mean it’s just an online storage solution, it hasn’t got breasts or a dazzling personality! But I think it’s pretty cool nevertheless, and today I’m gonna tell you why.

For quite some time now, barely a day has gone by without me seeing or hearing something about “cloud computing”. And although I hate these buzz words that don’t actually mean very much, I finally figured that “the cloud” was something I could use.

I need to access some files an awful lot, wherever I may be. And sometimes that means accessing the files from a library computer, or a computer at a client’s office – in other words, computers that do not belong to me. And even if I do have my netbook on me, I want any alterations made to my files to be synchronized to all my machines automatically.

For reasons too boring to go into here, I can’t access my home machine from the internet. And I am remarkably ill-equipped when it comes to online resources – I use a wordpress.com-hosted blog for crying out loud, I ain’t got a web server of my own kicking around somewhere. And carrying a fistful of USB sticks is not an ideal solution – sticks can easily be misplaced or even stolen. So I decided I needed to sign up for one of those “cloud computing” services, where I put a bunch of files on a third party’s server somewhere out there on the interwebs which I can then access no matter where I am (within reason – if I’m on a camel in the middle of the Sahara and forgot to pack my satellite phone I’d be screwed. But as I own neither a camel or a satellite phone, I think we can rule out that possibility).

Because of my innate stingeyness, I needed a solution that was free. So I fired up my good friend Google, plugged in the search terms “free cloud computing storage” and let ‘er rip. And it turned up a few free solutions, such as G.ho.st, Google’s various products, box.net, oosah.com… There’s a lot out there – if you want a quick list of freebies check out this guide at readwriteweb.com.

But of course, I’m utterly clueless when it comes to all this cloudy Web 2.0 stuff. So I went to my favourite forum and had a look at what folk there were saying on the subject.

Unsurprisingly for an Ubuntu site, a lot of people seemed to rate Ubuntu One. But there were also a bunch who liked DropBox. And I kinda liked what they were saying. So I chose to go with DropBox.

Like a lot of these cloud storage services, DropBox gives you 2GB of space for free. You install this program on the computers you want to be synced (and yes it comes in a linux flavour), create a DropBox folder on each computer, then link those computers to your account. Once that’s done, all you have to do is put files into the DropBox folder on one of the computers, and before you know it those files are accessible from all your synced computers. And you can even access them if you’re on a different computer, as there’s a web interface you can sign into from anywhere!

Another cool feature is the “Public” sub-folder. If you put a file into the Public sub-folder, then right-click on it, you get a link to that file that you can post in a blog, forum, whatever. So you can make chosen files accessible for absolutely anyone you want, without having to tell them your username or password. For instance, here’s a link that will enable you to download a pdf of the novel Neuromancer by William Gibson. If you’ve never read it, I strongly urge you to give it a go. Extremely cool cyberpunk science fiction. And I’ll let you have have it for the very reasonable price of fuck-all.

Cloud computing isn’t for everyone, despite what some characters will try and tell you. A lot of people will have no need for it whatsoever. But if you think it might be useful, go grab yourself a free account and give it a whirl. I’ve certainly been seduced by the sultry maiden called DropBox, as you may have guessed from this gushing love letter. Did I say love letter? That should have said “porn”. Cos DropBox makes me horny as only a sad geek can be!!

Note: Unfortunately, some of the info here is out of date. For instance, g.ho.st no longer provides a free service (though they’ll happily take your money) and for some reason the oosah.com site seems to be unavailable. But there definitely are free services available out there. Go check it out!
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I just thought I’d add a footnote to point out there’s another free (as in beer) online storage solution out there: Gspace. This Firefox add-on enables you to use the inbox of a Gmail account as an online disk. Google gives its Gmail users an awful lot of storage – more than 2GB at the moment, and rising all the time – plus you can use any number of Gmail accounts with Gspace. This solution is especially useful if, like me, you own a netbook with limited onboard storage. It works with Windows, OSX and Linux. I use Gspace, and can thoroughly recommend it.

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Net piracy puts 1.2 million EU jobs in peril? More industry and government lies

March 17, 2010

Have you seen this ridiculous story? Apparently, a study backed by the European Union and the TUC has “found” that “a quarter of a million British jobs in the music, film, TV, software and other creative industries could be lost over the next five years if online piracy continues at its current rate.” It says that in the EU as a whole, as many as 1.2 million jobs are in jeopardy as piracy looks set to strip more than €240bn (£218bn) in revenues from the creative industries by 2015, unless regulators can stem the flow.

This is a lovely little scare-tactic story, designed to scare us all into accepting the UK government’s upcoming Digital Economy Bill, which hopes to introduce draconian powers to cut people off the internet if a film or music industry rights holder alleges that a person has infringed copyright. Anyone accused of copyright infringement will have their internet access disconnected, with no trial and no effective right of appeal.

The diabolical thing about this study is that its figures mean absolutely nothing. The claim is that illegal downloads are causing a financial loss to the entertainment industries of more than €240 billion. How did the study come up with this figure? By asserting that every single illegal download directly deprives the rights holder of the price of that downloaded material. For instance, if I download an album that costs €20 in the shops, that’s €20 I have actually stolen from the record company.

The entertainment industry has been using this formula for a long time now, so they have been able to claim millions of euros in compensation from average joes who share their music and films over peer-to-peer systems like bittorrent. But the formula is utterly ridiculous. Take “my friend” for instance. He has downloaded several rock albums over the years; and yes, if he had bought those albums legitimately he would have paid maybe €300 for them. But the point is this: if he had not been able to download these files for free, he certainly would not have gone out and bought them. Indeed, during this time he has spent a good few hundred euros on other albums. He downloaded many of these albums, to listen to and decide if he liked them – and when he decided he actually did like them, he went down the record shop and bought them on CD. If he likes a record, he wants to reward the artist – by paying for CDs, by going to concerts, by wearing official merchandise… he has absolutely no problem with paying for this stuff. But the albums he hasn’t paid for, he considers are not worth buying. So he hasn’t bought them – he never would have bought them – and the record industry has lost zero sales, and therefore lost zero money.

He likens this system to what we all used to do in the time before bittorrent. I would borrow an album from a friend and listen to it. If I liked it, I would go to the record store and buy myself a legitimate copy. If I wasn’t so keen on a record, I might record it onto a blank audio cassette; but I wasn’t depriving the record company of any money because I had no intention of buying it at all. If I hadn’t been able to copy a friend’s record, I certainly wouldn’t have gone and bought a legitimate copy. I would have gone without it. And I was certainly not alone in this.

At that time, we all saw those ominous posters that said “Home taping is killing music”. But, funnily enough, home taping didn’t kill the music industry. Plenty of legitimate records were bought. And a similar thing happened with video. When consumer VCRs hit the market, the film industry was up in arms. Why would anyone pay to see a movie when they could just get a bootleg copy? was the big question. But, as we all now know, the VCR did not kill the movie industry. Far from it: the video cassette gave the industry a new and lucrative income stream. People bought legitimate videos by the wheelbarrow-full. It’s true that the cinemas took a hit. But that loss was more than made up for by the revenues from video sales and rentals. New technology scared the industry for a while; yet within a very short time, that new technology became the new cash cow.

So, yet again the entertainment industries are worried about the new technology. All they see is doom and gloom. But if they were capable of learning from history, they would soon realise that computers and the internet will soon pour untold riches into the industry coffers. Some companies are already moving into new business models – companies like Netflix are making good money from selling an online streaming service. And in time, more possible solutions will present themselves. The digital revolution is going to be as big and important as the introduction of “talkies”. Why can’t the entertainment industries just get up off their asses and come up with new business models? Why do we all need to suffer, just because the fat slobs are too lazy to do their stinking jobs? New technology always changes the status quo – not always for the better, but very often it’s easy to see the silver lining. Why can’t the movie and recording industry bigwigs see the silver lining here? How in hell did such blind, lazy good-for-nothings ever get to be so successful? Idiots.

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Did you see “Children of Gaza”? If not: do it!

March 15, 2010

I just watched “Children of Gaza”, a documentary film on Channel 4 (UK TV channel). It was very good. It followed a group of Palestinian children who live in the Gaza Strip, in the time following Israel’s assault on the territory in December 2008. You can read about it here, and see a video clip here. I expect you’ll be able to watch the film soon on 4OD.

First of all, for those of you who don’t know about the situation in Gaza: a history lesson. This lesson is aimed primarily at US citizens, as your media generally pushes a very distorted version of what’s going on in the region. But everyone could do with a refresher course in recent Palestinian history, as we all are treated like mushrooms (kept in the dark and fed shit) when it comes to this subject. (Note: I’ve chiefly referenced links to Wikipedia here. I am aware that Wikipedia is not always scrupulously accurate; but what I say here is generally accepted to be the truth, and 5 minutes with Google will find you plenty of alternative sources for the info if you are so inclined.)

In 2006, democratic elections were held in the Palestinian territories (the “Palestinian Authority”, aka the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). The elections were closely monitored by international observers from the so-called “Quartet” (USA, Russia, EU, and United Nations), and it was generally agreed that it was all carried out in a fair and professional manner. Edward McMillan-Scott, head of the European Parliament’s monitoring team, said the poll was “extremely professional, in line with international standards, free, transparent and without violence.” So, there shouldn’t be any problem in the international community about the results, right? The Quartet wants the PA to be run democratically – so the winners of the election should get to be in charge… right?

The problem is: Hamas won the election. That is, they won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council – 74 of the 132 seats, as opposed to Fatah’s 45. And the Quartet didn’t like that, because they don’t like Hamas. Hamas is generally considered a “terrorist organisation” because it sees one of its goals as “the obliteration of Israel”. (Interestingly, the UK and Australia have designated the Izz ad-Din al-Quassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, as a terrorist organisation, but not Hamas itself. Norway actually recognise Hamas as a legitimate political organisation and have met with them several times. Of course, the USA is vehemently opposed to any kind of recognition of Hamas, and calls them a “foreign terrorist organisation”.)

So anyway, after the 2006 election, Hamas and Fatah (aka the PLO, Yasser Arafat’s old outfit) formed a “national unity” government, with Hamas in charge. The Quartet was opposed to this, and imposed economic and travel sanctions on the Authority. They also threatened to cut funds to the PA, and generally put an awful lot of pressure on Fatah to somehow “recify” the situation. The USA and its buddies are all for democracy so long as it does what it’s told. If democracy gets uppity, the international community will snuff it out just like it would Saddam’s Iraq.

And the international pressure worked. In June 2007, partisan squabbles between Hamas and Fatah turned into open armed conflict, and Fatah succeeded in seizing military control of the West Bank, though Hamas managed to hold onto the Gaza Strip. The Quartet rewarded Fatah by lifting sanctions against the West bank and renewing funds; and the Gaza Strip was besieged. All border crossings between Gaza and Israel were closed. The Quartet and Israel pressured Egypt to seal its border with Gaza. And the Israeli navy patrolled the Gaza coast, attacking any sea traffic. So Gaza was blockaded. And the rest of the world did nothing.

The Quartet said the situation was simple: if Hamas gave up its control of the Strip, the blockade would end. As long as Gaza was governed by terrorists, it would be under siege. But Israel thought this didn’t go far enough. In December 2008, Israel launched a concentrated assault on the Strip. Operation Cast Lead involved heavy bombardment with fighter jets, helicopter gunships, rockets and missiles. Israel’s stated objective was to stop Hamas from launching rocket attacks from the Strip. But many civilians were killed by Israeli weapons. Israel claimed this was because Hamas deliberately located its rockets in civilian areas. But Hamas dismissed this as propaganda. And you have to see Hamas’ point. It certainly looked like Israel was targeting Palestinian civilians. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reports that 1,284 Palestinians died, of whom 894 were civilians. Unsurprisingly, Israel disagrees: they say 1,166 Palestinians died, of whom 709 were “terrorists” and 295 civilians. Israel finally ended its attacks on 17 January 2009.

So that’s the background. Now let’s look at the film “Children of Gaza”. The documentary film-maker Jezza Neumann arrived in Gaza soon after the end of Operation Cast Lead, and met the children he was to film. The population was in shock. One of Israel’s objectives had been to remove Hamas’ capability to operate as a “terrorist”/military force, and this had involved the destruction of vital infrastructure: police stations, barracks, jails… other government offices, communications links, hospitals, schools, roads… and, whether intentionally or not, a great many civilian homes were destroyed. Whole apartment blocks had been blown up and incinerated.

The Strip was a big bomb site. And it was impossible to rebuild because the blockade stopped the import of building materials: bricks, cement, sand, everything was stopped by the Israelis. Thousands of families were living in tents.

As time went by, people strived to rebuild what they could of their lives. Men used recycled materials to patch up their houses as best they could. And a great measure of “normality” returned to the shattered streets. For instance, schools resumed lessons. But these were “schools” in the loosest sense of the word: classes took place within the bombed-out shells of the classrooms.

At one point in the film, we see one such class session. To mark the cameras’ visit, the class’s subject that day was “human rights”. The teacher asked his students to describe how their rights had been taken from them. The childen described how they had been imprisoned by Israel – life in the Strip was like being in “a little jail”.

Ibraheem, one of the young subjects of the film, stood and answered questions brightly and eloquently. Perhaps a little too eloquently: had he been schooled in what to say? But I don’t think so. As the film goes on, we see Ibraheem often voicing startlingly insightful opinions. He had been taught a hard lesson by the war. But he was still capable of seeing the Israelis – the enemy – as people. The teacher asked: “Who did this to us?” The answer: “The jews!” “Are the jews’ children to blame?” “No!” “So who is to blame?” “Their parents… the older jews!” was the reply.

Another of the children, Ihmal, had been buried under rubble when an Israeli missile destroyed her home, and she had pieces of shrapnel in her head that caused her constant pain. But the destruction of the hospitals and the blockade on medical supplies meant she could not get treatment in Gaza. She needed to go to an Israeli hospital to see a surgeon. But getting the necessary permission to go to Israel was a long, distressing ordeal.

Finally, after endless waiting, she was allowed to go to a hospital in tel Aviv. Not that it did her any good. The Israeli surgeon didn’t think there was anything he could do to help her: “There will be no operation,” he said. Ihmal would have to “learn to live with” the pain. Watching this, I wondered if he would say the same to an Israeli child. I doubt it.

Of course, children play, even amongst such devastation. Eid was coming, and the film-maker asked Ibraheem what gift he’s like to receive. “A Kalashnikov dum-dum” he replied – for boys everywhere love to play with toy guns, don’t they!

Except the games of war here have a shocking realism. The boys said how they had watched “how the Jews kill the Arabs, and the Arabs kill the Jews”, and they reproduced this in their play quite shockingly. At one point in their game of “Jews and Arabs”, 2 “Jews” arrest an “Arab”. “Where are the others?” they shouted at him. “Tell us where they are, you animal!” Then one brought over a bucket of water, and the “Jews” actually ducked the “Arab’s” head into the water! They held him under for what seemed a long time, then let him breathe. “Where are they!” the torturers yelled before forcing his face into the water yet again. I’ve always thought that my friends and I were vicious as children – but this game of “war” made our “cowboys and indians” look downright tame!

For all their horror, these games of “Jews and Arabs” were fought with toy guns (even if the water was real!) – but then we saw one of the boys playing with a real rifle! One of the boys, Mahmoud, was visited by his Uncle Khalid, a member of Islamic Jihad – and Khalid had brought his AK47 to show to his nephew. It was quite disturbing to see Mahmoud sitting on the bed, cocking the rifle and marvelling at the deadly precision of its engineering.

Then came the truly disturbing, as Khalid showed Mahmoud a video of another uncle blowing himself to pieces with a suicide bomb belt. “You see how he martyrs himself? See how it’s painless?”

“It’s like a pin-prick,” replies Mahmoud.

Khalid points out the martyr’s intestines (thankfully pixellated out for the queasy viewers of Channel 4). He describes the operation of the bomb belt. And Mahmoud is entranced by the details. At one point the boy’s mother walks in, and Khalid says “We will make your son a martyr, God willing.”

“Inshalla (God willing),” she agrees.

All these children seem to be set on a path to war; set on it by the Israelis and their thoughtless barbarism. As one father tells the film-maker: “What do you expect my son to do, when he saw them kill his brother? Expect him to kiss the Jewish soldiers?” A counsellor describes how they are seeing increased levels of anxiety and violence amongst the children. They think they have a right to revenge. And a duty. Ibraheem says “Before the war I thought only of my education; but since the war I think only about the resistance.” He explains: “I will tell them, I’m not a terrorist, I’m a Palestinian. I want revenge for what they’ve done to us. Would they accept their children being made fatherless like us?”

No, they wouldn’t accept it. And they won’t. If this cycle of madness isn’t broken, revenge will continue to spill blood on the soil of Palestine.

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How to speed up dpkg on Ubuntu

March 10, 2010

I found this wonderful little tutorial at Ubuntuforums.org. Some members have reported significant speed increase for dpkg -i. Thanks to forum member Peter Cordes who wrote it up. Please send all kudos to him, he’s the one who deserves it. Brickbats too.

dpkg -i and dpkg -S are slow when the FS cache is cold. Most of the time is spent reading ~2400 .list files from /var/lib/dpkg/info. It reads them in the order they’re listed in the status file, I suppose. Anyway, _not_ in alphabetical (info/*) or readdir (ls -f info) order.

Most filesystems allocate space in the same area of the disk for a set of files all written at the same time. So cp -a info info.new would generate a defragged copy of the directory. (not that any individual files in it were fragmented, they’re tiny, many smaller than the FS block size. ls -lhrS *.list | less, and type 50% for example, to see the median file size (~600B), or 90% to see the 90th percentile size (7kB).

But this doesn’t actually help, because the disk ends up having to seek back and forth because the files aren’t read in the same order they’re stored on disk. It doesn’t help much that the files are closer together. Maybe 18sec vs. 24sec, IIRC.

Here’s what I did:

cd
strace -efile -o dpkg.tr dpkg -S /bin/ls
cd /var/lib/dpkg
mkdir info.new
grep ‘^open’ ~/dpkg.tr | sed -r ‘/dpkg\/info/sX.*”(.*)”.*X\1Xp’ -n | xargs sudo cp -a -t info.new
# cmd line length limits prevent info/*. I could have used rsync -au info/ info.new
sudo cp -iau info/[a-k]* info.new/
sudo cp -iau info/[l]* info.new/
sudo cp -iau info/[m-z]* info.new/
diff -ur info info.new/
sudo rm -rf info
sudo mv info.new info

sync
echo 3 | sudo tee /proc/sys/vm/drop_caches
time dpkg -S /bin/ls

Result:

peter@tesla:~$ time dpkg -S /bin/ls
coreutils: /bin/ls

real 0m2.877s
user 0m0.264s
sys 0m0.168s

peter@tesla:~$ ll -d /var/lib/dpkg/info
drwxr-xr-x 2 root root 76K 2008-12-07 06:36 /var/lib/dpkg/info

Now dpkg -S (and presumably dpkg -i, too) takes
2.8s elapsed time. (Root FS = 1.5GB JFS, on a degraded RAID1 (md), at the beginning of a WD5000YS (RE2) supporting NCQ with depth 31, AMD64 Linux 2.6.28-2-generic (Intrepid user-space, Jaunty kernel), Core 2 Duo E6600 (2.4GHz), 4GB DDR2-800. But mainly it’s the HD and the FS that matter here)

I wonder how long this performance will last, as packages are upgraded. At least it doesn’t matter if readdir order changes as files are removed and added (since the file’s reading order doesn’t depend on that), but it does matter if the status file’s order changes. Since the files won’t reposition on disk, it’s only fast as long as they’re read in (mostly) the order they were written.

The directory itself can start to fragment, since it’s 76k = many filesystem blocks. XFS gets directory fragmentation fairly easily. (I use XFS for everything else, and it’s fast with a couple tweaks. e.g. -o logbsize=256k, and enabling lazy-count=1 with xfs_admin or at mkfs time.)

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