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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.


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 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 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 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

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


  • 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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