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When the SUITS web serv­er went down a couple of weeks ago, the skies darkened and there was much out­pour­ing of grief.

In the words of one com­mit­tee mem­ber:

At approx­im­ately 1445 today, suits­beta shut itself down, nev­er to wake up again. Attempts were made to revive it by power­ing it up, but alas it failed to POST. Our thoughts go out to its fam­ily and friends.

Anoth­er expressed regret:

It was nice know­ing you suits­beta. We’re sad that you toiled alone and in sick­ness for your last few months.

But it was well-loved:

Although I did not log into suits­beta many times I did appre­ci­ate the machine and the con­tri­bu­tion it made to this soci­ety. Few can claim to have sus­tained such con­tinu­ous ser­vice to the soci­ety and its mem­bers, nev­er ask­ing for recog­ni­tion or relief.

How­ever, death can give rise to hope:

The memory of suitsbeta’s cranky innards will live on in the cron mes­sages, reboot requests, and data­base errors that pep­per my email archives. May the met­al be reborn and the warn­ings silenced.

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One of the attrac­tions of Blue­host, my host, is the abil­ity to ssh into your box, which makes admin­is­ter­ing your site that much easi­er if you know how to use the *nix com­mand line. (See related post.)

I’ll just write about two things that I’ve worked out recently.

Les­son #1: Read the README file.

Well duh, you say. The story is, I’ve had the bash_​completion script for some time (a really use­ful exten­sion that makes typ­ing on the com­mand line that much easi­er), but I’ve nev­er quite worked out why it didn’t work. Now I know why. It’s because I naively assumed that the bash_completion.sh script was the meat of it, and simply called it from .bashrc, expect­ing it to just work. It would, ordin­ar­ily, but I don’t have it installed in /etc which is where it expects to be (it’s in my home dir­ect­ory). If you have some­where else like me, you will need to set the $BASH_COMPLETION vari­able and modi­fy the bash_completion.sh script to reflect where you’ve actu­ally put it.

Les­son #2: If you didn’t set up the sys­tem your­self, things might not be as you expect them to be.

SUITS has a bunch of use­ful scripts that you can use to improve your com­mand line exper­i­ence on the under­gradu­ate IT serv­ers, and I copied them over to my account on nointrigue​.com because I like them so much. One of these scripts sets nice col­ours for the com­mand line. It was all work­ing fine until I real­ised Tor­toiseS­VN could no longer access the Sub­ver­sion repos­it­or­ies via svn+ssh, fail­ing with the error “con­nec­tion closed unex­pec­tedly”. I figured some­thing I added recently was inject­ing garbage into the stream. It turns out it was the col­our-adding script! But why? It was pro­tec­ted like this:

if [ -n "$PS1" ]; then
        . ~/.bash/colors
fi

That means that it should only have been run if it was run­ning in an “inter­act­ive” ter­min­al, and the col­our-adding script should not have been called if I was using svn+ssh. After some more pok­ing around, I found this in /etc/bashrc (which was being called from .bashrc):

# For some unknown reason bash refuses to inherit
# PS1 in some circumstances that I can't figure out.
# Putting PS1 here ensures that it gets loaded every time.

Uhh, ok, nice work, Blue­host. I guess not many of their cus­tom­ers actu­ally use ssh. At least there was a com­ment.

But even if it was called, why the col­our-adding script was fail­ing in the first place? It turns out that tput colors fails if $TERM is not set, which hap­pens to be so when using svn+ssh. (Actu­ally, this would not nor­mally pre­vent me from access­ing my Sub­ver­sion repos­it­or­ies. The com­mand line svn seems to ignore errors; how­ever, Tor­toiseS­VN dies the moment it sees any­thing unto­ward.) My ulti­mate solu­tion was to simply pipe error to /dev/null.

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I’m blog­ging this as I sit just inside the glass wall of the East­ern Aven­ue com­plex, watch­ing the con­stant stream of people walk­ing past, both inside the build­ing, and out­side in the wintry con­di­tions, hands in pock­ets, clutch­ing a folder tightly, heads togeth­er, intensely gos­sip­ing. I’m like a fly in the corner, observing the move­ments of people as they go about their busi­ness at the uni­ver­sity. If only they’d just look up slightly…

I sus­pect that the loc­a­tion of the SUITS Com­puter Art­work Exhib­i­tion 2007, as part of the Uni­ver­sity of Sydney Union’s Verge Arts Fest­iv­al, while not dis­astrous, could be bet­ter. We had ori­gin­ally inten­ded for them to be hung up with fish­ing wire from the air con­di­tion­ing grate in the ceil­ing, but the build­ing man­ager told the fest­iv­al con­veners that that wasn’t allowed (des­pite their earli­er assur­ances). We settled for sticky-tap­ing it to the glass wall instead, which also meant that we had to have them high­er up to deter van­dals and thieves.

View of exhibition from outside

So far, I’d say about 1 per­son in every 50 who walks past takes a glance upwards, pauses in moment­ary reflec­tion, and then con­tin­ues on their way. Part of the prob­lem is that because of the glare from the glass, if you’re walk­ing from the dir­ec­tion of Fish­er, you won’t actu­ally notice that there’s any­thing com­ing up. But of course, as the exhib­i­tion coordin­at­or, I am liable to over-estim­ate the beauty of the thing that I have cre­ated.

Finally, I’d like to pub­licly thank Edmund for his assist­ance in the pre­par­a­tion of the art­works, and Bal­int for his con­tri­bu­tion of his stun­ning particle sim­u­la­tion works.

Here are the PDF ver­sions of the files, if you’re too lazy to head over to see it for your­self 🙂 (warn­ing: some of these files are BIG)

  1. Inside: title, Out­side: auto­mata
  2. Inside: bal­int-2, Out­side: dielec­tric
  3. Inside: inter­net, Out­side: bal­int-3
  4. Inside: apo­phys­is-2, Out­side: apo­phys­is-1
  5. Inside: bal­int-1, Out­side: lorenz

The Microsoft Pub­lish­er files can also be found here.

Update: I’ve uploaded them to my gal­lery as well.

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After going through the Verge Arts Fest­iv­al pro­gramme book­let, I’ve jot­ted down the events that look pretty cool and I’ll try and attend some of them, time and com­pany per­mit­ting (well, the last two years were miser­able fail­ures in terms of me actu­ally attend­ing the events I inten­ded to attend):

  • Free Vittoria’s Organ­ic Rain­forest Alli­ance cof­fee: Wed 5/​9, 12–1pm, Fest­iv­al Tent, Man­ning Fore­court
  • Photosoc’s hats and feath­ers photo shoot: Mon 10/​9, 11–2pm, Isa­bel Fidler, Man­ning
  • Laura Imbruglia: Wed 12/​9, 1–2pm, Fest­iv­al Tent
  • Jazz at Hermann’s: Wed 12/​9, 5–7pm
  • Theatres­ports Grand Final: Wed 12/​9, 7:30pm, $5 Access
  • Verge Twi­light Mar­ket & Zine Fair: Fri 14/​9, 6–10pm, Sci­ence Rd & Graf­fiti Tun­nel
  • Fuck Gender, Let’s Dance: Fri 14/​9, 8pm, Hermann’s Bar
  • Harry Pot­ter and the Pris­on­er of Azkaban: Sun 16/​9, 4pm, Main Quad — needs book­ing
  • SUCS Com­edy Gala: Mon 17/​9, 12pm, Man­ning Bar
  • Zom­bie make-up work­shop: Tues 18/​9, 5–7pm, Fest­iv­al Tent
  • Art by Women: Wed 19/​9, 5pm, The Log­gia, Man­ning
  • Artist­ic Expres­sions of the Loc­al Com­munity: Thurs 20/​9, 3–5pm, Fest­iv­al Tent
  • Farewell under the stars: Sun 23/​9, 6pm, Quad­rangle lawns

Exhib­i­tions:

  • IT Soci­ety Exhib­i­tion: from Tues 4/​9, East­ern Ave — MUST SEE… not that I haven’t already seen it 🙂
  • Let the walls speak: 30 years of pas­sion­ate dis­sent: from Wed 5/​9, The Bevery, Holme Build­ing
  • Art/​photo/​lit com­pet­i­tion exhib­i­tion: from Tues 11/​9, The Log­gia

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The SUITS sem­in­ar series aims to provide a cas­u­al lunch­time chat about inter­est­ing top­ics and cut­ting-edge research, and I had the priv­ilege of tak­ing the first one… and I took the chance to talk about Wiki­pe­dia, everyone’s favour­ite wiki. The audi­ence is inten­ded to be under­gradu­ate level, but there weren’t any under­gradu­ates there…

I gave a brief insider’s look at Wiki­pe­dia, show­ing off some of the admin­is­trat­or tools that ordin­ary users can­not see. I went over some of the parts of the web­site (com­munity portals, the Sign­post, policy pages, spe­cial pages) that are import­ant tools for reg­u­lar con­trib­ut­ors, espe­cially in keep­ing track of van­dal­ism. I also men­tioned the efforts under way to form the loc­al chapter of the Wiki­me­dia Found­a­tion.

Because if I talk for too long, people might die from bore­dom (!!) so I brought along some light enter­tain­ment. I played a bit of Eben Moglen’s lec­ture on GPLv3 — the part about the arith­met­ic shop. I was going to play video from Wiki­mania 2007, but the lazy bug­gers haven’t put up any­thing yet, so I had to be con­tent with 2006 stuff — but it turned out to be a good choice. Lawrence Lessig is a fant­ast­ic speak­er — he speaks with con­vic­tion and there’s no one who can match his slides. Finally, I played a bit of audio from the Wiki­pe­dia Weekly, broad­cast­ing from Taiwan dur­ing the con­fer­ence.

Some of the ques­tions I hadn’t really pre­pared for — e.g. a ques­tion on pat­ents. I should know more than what I man­aged to mumble out… and no, I still haven’t learnt that present­ing without much sleep isn’t good.

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