Babar Haq

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The courts should have been moved

My article published in PTI's journal "Insaf Ki Awaz" March 2014 issue.

We often see Islamabad being mentioned as one of the better planned capitals of the world. We, the residents of Islamabad, can testify to these mentions. Islamabad city is divided into several sectors and zones. Each sector has a central business hub of its own, commonly known as markaz (center). Being a new city, certain administration sections of the city were set up in temporary buildings. In 1980s, after F-8 markaz was developed the government decided to bring district courts there.

Initially this worked but as Islamabad's population boomed this place started looking like a fish market. A place designed to be an open and airy market could never be affectively used for courts/commissioner offices. The place started to shrink as lawyers start occupying open areas to build their chambers. In the current security situation in Pakistan, these courts became a nightmare. Hence there been multiple attacks on these courts.

The trader association of the markaz was the first group of people who asked for movement of these courts. This was obviously hurting their business. Early 2013 lawyers started occupying a public park near the markaz. This ended up in ugly tussle between trader associations and lawyers. CDA eventually took action and demolished all of the chambers being built in the park.

A building was being constructed in G-10 for these courts. However in 2007, newly formed Islambad High court was established there instead since its own building was not ready yet. In October 2013, former vice president of the Islamabad High Court Bar Association (IHCBA), Chaudhary Muhammad Akram filed a petition in Islamabad high court for shifting of district courts from F-8 Markaz to the judicial complex in sector G-10. Like all cases in Pakistan its still under hearing. Media has also brought this issue into limelight multiple times.

After last terrorist attack on these courts on 3rd march 2014, incumbent government (PMLN) briefly talked about shifting of these courts. Sadly they announced that courts cannot be moved until Islamabad high court building is completed. Common sense suggests that Islamabad high court should be immediately moved to a temporary building to make space for f-8 courts. Instead government has decided to further fortify f-8 court premises ruining our capital's beauty.

Some offices in that markaz are not interested in moving the courts as this will raise their office rents. Sadly, they give more importance to personal interests over national ones. Our individualist approach worsens our problems. Residents of Islamabad have given a clear mandate to PTI in 2013 elections. They look towards them to pressurize the federal government to move these courts at the earliest.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Inaccessibility of Pakistani embassy in Riyadh

According to this report, Pakistanis residing in Saudi kingdom are the highest contributors to foreign remittance Pakistan receives. They contribute 29.5% of the total according to the statistics taken from last fiscal year. Despite this high remittance rate, the quality of service the Pakistani Embassy Riyadh provides to its people is very low. They struggle to get answers to simple queries like What are your working hours? How to get a new passport? etc. The embassy fails to cater to such queries even through telephone and web.

If you go to their website via Ministry of Foreign affairs portal, there is a static page with lots of telephone numbers. Their main phone number is always busy during working hours. During non-working hours no body picks it up. If you try any of the other numbers, it connects you to the exchange and asks you for an extension which never gets through. In my umpteen tries, I have never been able to talk to a human. Numerous people have raised this issue on web forums, but to no avail.

It is not difficult to to fix this in todays IT era, when VOIP call center solutions are easily and cheaply available. Another cost saving solution could be to divert all such queries calls to Pakistan and setup a call center there.

Internet is the perfect tool to resolve such scenarios. Pakistan consulate Jeddah has a facebook/twitter account which responds quickly to all the queries. They also have a very informative website. Recently an appointment system is announced to avoid passport application queues. A FAQ guide available on their website is not that helpful but at least it answers some of the basic queries. 

Unfortunately, Riyadh embassy sadly does not provide any of these. Email is some thing still very alien to them. Even if there is an address listed some where you can be rest assured that you will never get a response.

I do accept the fact that our embassy is over stretched and under resourced. Keeping in mind how much we contribute to our country's economy, this excuse is completely unacceptable.Some advanced countries embassy's after office hours route their calls to their foreign office in their home country. I do not expect that from our embassy, all I am asking for is a simple yet efficient way of getting in touch with the embassy.

Monday, October 15, 2012

epassport.gov.sa Passport portal review


The URL "epassport.gov.sa" on several billboards around Bahrain causeway intrigued me to visit the site. Advertisement itself was in Arabic except for the URL. This portal could turn out to be a big blessing for expatriates in Saudi. It takes a couple of clicks to sign up for a new account. Well this was true till some time recently, now once you sign up you have to visit the passport office to get your account activated. :(

There are two major tabs to explore: 1) E-services 2) eDashBoard

eDashBoard

eDashboard provides you with all kinds of personal information. The options you get are
  • Address
  • Dependents
  • Sponsorees
  • Driving License
  • Vehicles
  • Traffic Violations
  • Labor Importation
  • Passports
  • Travel Records
I find the last one (Travel Records) very interesting/fun since it provides details of each and every exit/entry you made to the kingdom. This includes date, carrier, flight number and destination! This is quite helpful in filling immigration and visa forms as they often require such information.

E-services

E-services portion is the more useful one. Outstanding feature of the portal is that you can issue single exit/re-entry for your dependents, more details below. There is also an options to print your exit/re-entry visa, not sure if its valid for traveling though. Once you register you also start getting SMS alerts every time a dependent of yours exits or enters Saudi Arabia. You will see following services under the eservices banner:

Query Traffic Violations

Simple and straight forward.

Query Available Funds

(This is the amount you submit for various government services for example)
  • Sponsorees Deposit
  • Vehicles Deposit
  • Driving License Deposit
  • Passports Deposit
  • Labour Deposit

Query Health Insurance

Simple and straight forward.

Query Hajj Eligibility

Simple and straight forward.

Sponsoree Services

(maids, drivers e.t.c)

*Dependent Services (Coolest)
It shows you details of your dependents with photos (for males only) like Iqama number, Iqama expiry date, birth date, information on any valid exit/re-entry visa. On top of that, you can also generate single exit/re-entry for your family online. Just deposit the money using SADAD or any other payment method and you can generate a single exit/re-entry for your dependents. Currently, it does not has the option to generate multiple exit/re-entry visa online. Though, you can view/print them. However, I am not sure if the immigration is willing to except those print outs.

Query Vehicle Insurance

Simple and straight forward.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Pakistani embassy, Riyadh

Recently, for the first time I had the chance to use one of the services offered by our Pakistani embassy in Riyadh. My passport was out of pages so I had to get a new one. The purpose of this post is not to bash our embassy for all its inefficiencies. In fact I want to appreciate it for doing a good job and suggest a few improvements. My guess is they entertain around 500 passport applications a day. Handling such a crowd (keeping in mind our nation's attitude) is not a simple job.

Now, the Pakistani embassy in Riyadh can also process applications for computerized passports. NADRA has developed an automated system to handle passport requests in Pakistan and it seems like they have replicated exactly the same system in Riyadh embassy.

I had to take a day off from office in Dhahran to go to Riyadh for this. They follow a "token" system. I had been told that I have to be there early in the morning to collect my "token". Tokens usually finish by 8+ am. There is only certain number of passport applications that can be processed in a day so the tokens are limited. I reached there at 7:45am and the token number I got was like 100 +. The guy handing out the tokens advised me that this would turn up some where around 11am. So I went for breakfast, came back around 11am and waited till 2pm. This is when my turn came. Once your number actually turns up, the whole process takes only 15 minutes. All this unnecessary wait causes severe congestion at the premises which results in a lot of unpleasant incidents.

There are a lot of ways this can be controlled. In today's high-tech world, implementing a simple appointment scheduling system over the phone/Internet is not difficult. In fact both methods can be used in parallel. A quick search on Google showed me a couple of open source solutions as well. Yes, the solution to the problem is that simple. This will avoid all the crowding at the embassy and also help people plan their visit.

Unfortunately there is no way to convey any feedback to the embassy. There is no comment/suggestion box at the embassy and no working email contact. Currently they have two websites. One is linked via the new (ugly) renovated Ministry of Foreign Affairs portal and the other is this old one. It looks like the consulate is currently using the old one. The contact email address on them is parep_riyadh@yahoo.com. No matter how hard you try you will never get a response from this address. In fact they have actually removed the address from the older site now.

There must be a way to get in touch with Ministry of Foreign Affairs in such cases where local embassies cannot be contacted. Would definitely expect better performance from mofa under the leadership of our highly qualified foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

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Monday, March 05, 2012

Mediatomb (dlna) on SAMSUNG (46") LED UA46C5000

Finally, I decided to get rid of my CRT tv and replace it with a Samsung (46") LED. A nice contemporary tv. To watch movies on this tv, I didn't need a separate dvd player anymore, I could hook up my usb drive and use its media player to play movies. This wasn't enough for a lazy person like me. The effort of copying the movies to a USB and then playing it was cumbersome for me.

At the same time, I had also bought a desktop machine as an "always on" server. I almost never used it on its direct attached (CRT) monitor but accessed it remotely via ssh. It runs my web server and I do all my downloading on it as well. I found that Samsung LED TV has a vga port as well so a computer can directly be attached to it. So I decided to attach this desktop to my new t.v. This would also enable me to access Internet (youtube) on my tv. I also got hold of Microsoft wireless keyboard/mouse to fully utilize this architecture. These keyboard/mouse work flawlessly on Ubuntu. Surprisingly, Microsoft is good with these kinds of accessories :) I also noticed an Ethernet port in my t.v and hooked it up directly with the PCs Ethernet port using a crossover cable. I assigned them some 192 series ip and was happy to see that I could ping my tv from my linux box :)

Life became easy for me but I wanted more. Every time I wanted to watch a movie I would have to get hold of the keyboard/mouse. I wanted to skip this step. This reminded me of the Ethernet port. I looked up my t.v's manual and discovered that its a certified "dlna" device. Samsung tvs come with a proprietary software "myshare" which can be loaded onto a Windows PC and the tv will recognize it as a dlna device and start showing all the movies in its media player. This could be done over the wireless network but 1) it would chock my tiny wireless dsl router 2) I would have to buy a wireless dongle for my tv. Aslo since I had already connected my pc to the tv over ethernet I would just go ahead with that.

Since I do not have a windows machine anywhere near my house :) I started researching for a dlna server on linux. All of the ones I tried would show the movie in Samsungs media player but clicking on it would give me some media not supported kind of error. All the movies were in avi format. I was looking for some thing which would just work as I was in no mood of conquering another of those open source's steep learning curve. I saw a lot of people talking that "media tomb" and saying that it just works. Installing it was just a apt-get install. Installation was simple but same issue surfaced: unsupported format. Doing some more reading made me look for the right configuration file for mediatomb. This landed me no where. Even this configuration file didnt work. Eventually, I found this one and it worked. The only change I had to make was to mention the ethernet IP I want it to bind to. It plays avi files well, the only format I would need. My samsung remote's regular fast forward buttons do not work I have to use the arrow keys. I guess I can live with that.

All in all it was a good decision. Now to watch movies all I need is my tv remote :)

No wonder my wife bought me a t-shrit saying "I am not handicapped, just lazy"

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Firefox jre plugin for ubuntu 10.04 stops working

A couple of days ago in my efforts to join a webex session I realized that my firefox java plugin was not working. Then I remembered reading some where that Sun Java is being removed from ubuntu for some xyz reason. Details in the source links at the end.
As always my first level of support is freenode server, ubuntu channel on irc :) There everybody actually laughed at my 10.04 :) since most of the people are after the latest and the greatest. Never the less I finally managed to find a link giving me everthing step by step. So here is what I did to get my java firefox plugin back.

  1. sudo apt-get purge sun-java6-bin (Please note it will uninstall all softwares depending on java)
  2. Put the line deb http://www.duinsoft.nl/pkg debs all in the file /etc/apt/sources.list
  3. import the gpg key with the command (all on one line)
    sudo apt-key adv --keyserver keys.gnupg.net --recv-keys 5CB26B26
  4. sudo apt-get update
  5. sudo apt-get install update-sun-jre
Everything starts working.
Source:
https://help.ubuntu.com/community/Java
http://www.duinsoft.nl/packages.php?t=en

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

VOIP using dual mode IP cordless phone

My first exposure to VOIP (voice over internet protocol) was back in 2001 while working on my final year university project. My buddy Hasnain and I were implementing a protocol PINT (PSTN/Internet Interworking). We implemented it on Linux using Kdeveloper in C++/QT.

That is when I switched to Linux for good as well. Since then I also have been using gnomeeting and have seen it grow into ekiga. Once I moved out of Pakistan, I started using ekiga regularly to call home using diamondcard.us as the service provider. That is the default voip service available with ekiga. Diamondcard.us voice quality to Pakistan was not that good so i also subscribed to another service connect2pakistan.com. I was overjoyed to find that my Nokia e51 has a built in voip phone. Therefore I was able call any one on my contact list via voip with a single click. Sadly, it drained out my battery life very quickly.

On the other hand, I had a regular cordless PSTN phone lying around at home. It would be days before it would be used. Eventually one day it just died. I think the reason was lack of use :) This gave me the idea of having a cordless phone which would be my sip phone as well. Gigaset came up to be the first result on google. Some time back it was bought by Siemens. The only problem I saw in their phones was that they were mostly over kill for my needs. It had tons of features which I would never need. Never the less I ordered one from Amazon since IP phones are not available here in Saudi. Here is what I got myself http://www.amazon.com/Solution-Accounts-C610A-IP-1-Handset-Telephone/dp/B004SBDQMG

I think this is the first time I have got myself something known as DECT based cordless phone. Interestingly these kind of cordless has 3 items. One main base which connects to the wireless router and PSTN line. The cordless and its charging station can be placed any where at home since it communicates with the main base over wireless. The phone is extremely easy to configure via its web interface. It can be configured to use up to six VOIP service providers. Users can configure prefix dialing based rules but I choose my connection every time a number is dialled. It has a lot of other stuff which I do not think I will ever use like face-book, email and also built in answering machine. Weather update on the home screen is pretty cool though.

Since the VOIP connections are always connected you can also get local numbers by providers to be diverted to your phone. For example connect2paksitan.com offers a Pakistani number for around $5 a month. The best part is that the voice quality of the phone is amazing both over SIP and fixed line.

I identified two problems upon setting up the phone. Since normally this kind of equipment comes with adapters I assumed that it would be 110/220V but sadly since it was ordered from Amazon US it was 110V only. Can live with this especially in Saudi since Khobar/Dammam normally has both sockets in most homes.

Secondly callers number would not appear on the screen every time there was an incoming call. Googling made me realize that CLI settings in these phones are region based and since this was for US it wouldn't work in Saudi. So obviously my next step was to look our for gigaset's support. There were two thing I did. One I sent an email to gigaset support via their main web site. Secondly searching gigaset support middle east came up with linked-in profile of the CEO of gigaset Dubai. Well i added him to my linked in.


Next day interestingly the CEO did add me to his profile. So I instantly sent him an email explaining my problem. By evening I was on phone with gigaset support Saudi Arabia :) After he got all the details of the phone and where i bought it from :) he sent me a firmware file which i uploaded to the phone. There it was CLI working like a charm.

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