Saigon MobileDevCamp 2011

Submitted by tomo on November 8, 2011 - 2:16am

This past weekend was the third annual Saigon MobileDevCamp held at Bach Khoa University. Although I'm mainly a web developer, as the event was billed as a brother to BarCamp, I decided to go and check it out, meet some people, support my friend Dan, and see if anything from the event could be applied to the upcoming BarCamp Saigon on December 11th.

Like BarCamp, the venue is a local university. However, the quality of facilities between a regular Vietnamese university like Bach Khoa and a foreign-operated campus like RMIT are on a quite different level. Most rooms were without air conditioning and became quite hotter than I'm accustomed to. In the morning there were a number of sessions on developing mobile apps (I checked out a session on PhoneGap but missed the Unity 3D session). In contrast to the BarCamp ideal, guest speakers were invited to give sessions which were planned and scheduled beforehand. Topics were confined to the "mobile development" theme.

After lunch, the main event would be a 24-hour coding competition. As I was already waking up far earlier than usual to attend the conference which I hadn't even properly registered for, I had no intention of joining the hackathon but I would eventually be overcome by my friend Cong's excitement for Doing Things.

So that's it. We lost. We learned some lessons.

1. Be one of the first to present if you can.

2. Don't single out and alienate judges.

3. Don't build clean, well-architected software with maintainable code. In real life, this matters. For this competition, it doesn't.

The greatest tragedy perhaps (besides not winning) was that the presentations were all made in private with the judges. Having groups present their apps for everyone to see, or at least putting them somewhere online, would have been the BarCamp way. As we didn't receive any feedback or anything from the judges, it would have been nice to share what we all worked on for 24 hours (multiplied by nearly 100 people) and be able to learn from others' experience. Even if there wasn't time for all to present, I don't think I was the only one interested in seeing at least the demos from the winners.

Having just gone back to the United States for a week, here are some reasons why I no longer live ther. I didn't move abroad because of these reasons, but now that I'm living in Vietnam, these are some of the reasons why I won't move back.

1. Lawn-mowing. I'm allergic to not only the job of mowing lawns and the grass clippings and plant matter that gets tossed into the air, but now the sound itself puts me on edge. Somehow all the dust in the air and sound of motorbikes in Saigon doesn't have the same effect.

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I have turned the Correct Horse Battery Staple post's Foreign Language Random Password/Passphrase Generator into a Google Chrome extension.

Here is what it looks like:

And in the Chrome web store:

Chrome App Store screenshot of Multi-Lingual Password Generator

Go install it and easily generate a secure and memorable passphrase anytime you need it!

Police are investigating.

Submitted by tomo on August 17, 2011 - 5:53pm

If you read much English-language Vietnamese news online, you'll often read this conclusion and chuckle silently: "Police are investigating."

These are crime stories and you may imagine to yourself that police are investigating, how they're looking for clues (cue CSI: Saigon), and at what point they conclude their investigation conclusively. (There are far fewer followups in the papers.)

There's a new Tumblr about this phenomena of police investigating things. A sample:

[Sorry, the link went down.]

Police are investigating all sorts of claims. Even children's arithmetic puzzles.

Seriously, every quote from the police: "we are investigating". Here is a bunch of random samples from recent news articles at Tuoi Tre:

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Inspired by XKCD, this is a password generator for those of you who know English and Vietnamese or another language. Once a random set of words in your languages has been generated, images for those words will be shown to help you visually remember your new password. If the random password seems too hard to remember, you can always spin the wheel a second time!

Each time you click, 4 random words from the selected languages will be loaded. I chose the number 4 so as to not overload Google Image search, so you may want to run it twice to get 5 or more words for added security. I find that the images help to visually remember the password.

If you still want a password like "!Agt:m%p>" then it's also an option below.

Choose Languages

English

Vietnamese

Japanese

German

French

Your Random Password

Click that button up there!

Or use this harder to remember but shorter string of 9 characters

The other day there was an XKCD strip about password security. The idea is that we've been trained over the years to use passwords like 'Tr0ub4dor&3' because they mix upper and lower case, use numbers, and special characters. But a password like that is based on a common English word using a common substitution pattern (l33tsp34k) of letters for numbers and is much easier for a hacker to guess than four random words like 'correct horse battery staple', which is longer but much easier to remember.

A good password should be random. Humans aren't random and 'Tr0ub4dor' looks random enough but it isn't. Even translating the word into a foreign language is by itself weak. Generally, if you come up with the password yourself then it's not anything close to random.

Plenty of software exists to come up with passwords made up of random characters. The problem is that these passwords weren't meant to be memorized. Writing your password down somewhere sort of defeats the purpose.

So four random English words makes a pretty good password, but is still hard to remember if they are obscure and unfamiliar words. Out of the over one hundred thousand words in an English dictionary a few thousand are commonly used.

So a few thousand English words are generally useful. But those of us who are bilingual can basically double the size of the vocabulary used! This foreign language random password generator seeks to take advantage of that numerical weapon, and with a large number of possible languages (and even more language combinations), even if a hacker got an encrypted password file it would be as hard to crack as a random 9-character totally impossible to remember string.

You can increase the security of your password further by using a "salt" random string (non-dictionary word) that you remember and always use with your passwords, and by adding punctuation in one of the words.

UPDATE: There is now a Chrome extension that makes creating passwords on the fly really fast and easy! Check out the Correct Horse Battery Staple Google Chrome Extension

Looking back at Pre-1975 Saigon

Submitted by tomo on August 8, 2011 - 2:31am

Men drinking at a sidewalk cafe in Saigon circa 1961

 

Looking at photographs of pre-1975 Saigon always make me wonder how differently things could have turned out had South Vietnam and North Vietnam remained separate countries. Would South Vietnam be as developed, modern, and affluent as South Korea is today compared to the starving citizen-prisoners of the Hermit Kingdom? If you've seen old photos of both Hanoi and Saigon you'll notice that even then Saigon was much more modern, cosmopolitan, and affluent compared to Hanoi.

In some ways, today we haven't really changed all that much since 1975, if you ignore the forward and backwards steps in the two decades after the war ended.  The streets are still recognizable, mostly they've just changed names.  Freedom has been replaced with Revolution. The black and white renditions of wooden cafe seats are even nicer than the red or blue plastic chairs I'm often in today.

Anyways, I've been looking over the 245 photos of 1961-era Saigon scanned in from Life magazine all weekend.  I hope you enjoy as much as I did, even if loading them takes awhile.

 

A map shows the train used to terminate at Ben Thanh market. Saigon had grade-separated highways back in 1961.

Saigon.

The internet speed in Vietnam is back to dialup level.  There are rumors of another cable cut as well as maintenance that will last more than another week.  This after weeks of "undersea cable maintenance" after which we had awesome download speeds for awhile.  This means a lot of large transfers from sites outside of Vietnam are unbearably slow.  In the meantime, go buy your favorite movies or TV shows on DVD for 10,000 VND, it'll be quicker.

There is a time of day when speeds are much better.  It's in the wee hours of the morning, when most of the population has stopped downloading porn for the day.

If you're slightly resourceful you can take advantage of that window of high speed internet by downloading to a server outside Vietnam during the daytime and then downloading from there to your home PC at nighttime.

Attachments: 
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Last week I was interviewed by Sketch Magazine, a monthly publication for Vietnam's Japanese community.  So the September issue will feature a little something of my thoughts on living in Vietnam from a foreigner or Viet Kieu perspective.

One question that came up was: How did I end up in Vietnam? And why?

This is a question that's pretty commonly asked in the expat community.  Nobody chooses where they were born but we expats all had some say in the foreign country we moved to.  I traveled around North America, Europe, Asia, and some of Latin America before deciding I wanted to live somewhere in Southeast Asia, finally settling on Ho Chi Minh City.  

When I ask others how they ended up here I get a variety of answers.  You could split them into "planned" and "accidently".  Those who ended up here accidently stayed because of: 

  • a girl (often now an ex-)
  • came on holiday and became addicted to cheap beer
  • came for school and decided to stay (a lot of Germans, Koreans, and Australians)

Others come here due to Vietnamese blood relations, and some come specifically for the business opportunities.  And then there are the true expats, the ones who were sent here or came to work for a specific job.  Traditionally, they would get a fat expat compensation package with housing allowances (thus driving up housing costs for all) and other perks, but this is changing.

So what do those expats who didn't come here with a job in hand already do? 

1. Freelance.  With Vietnam connected to the world via internet (barely, sometimes), many of us with creative skills such as programming or writing can continue to work for clients back home.  Due to the much lower cost of living compared to Western countries, one doesn't need to work as many hours or maintain as many clients as before.

2. Find a job.  This is a bit harder since there may not be the breadth of positions available to match your specific work experience.  Having a PhD in some applied science may be worthless here.  Nobody may have heard of the university you thought was famous.  But most people I know eventually get a real job here (ignoring survivorship bias).

3. Make your own job.  This could be by starting a company, something which is within the reach of most foreigners here, whereas it would have been a highly risky use of savings back home.  Others shop their skillset around to companies who might not have had a position open if you can make them realize you are the solution they just weren't looking for.

4. Teach English.  This is what people do while they are in the process of #2 or #3.  Some people do this for years.  Teaching English in Vietnam is the easiest way to make decent money in Vietnam, assuming you're from the US, the UK, Canada, or Australia/New Zealand (but they also hire good English speakers from the Philippines, Europe, and other countries).  Teachers are in high demand and salaries are often more than you'd make back home.  Teachers don't even need high school degrees, much less college degrees.  Some English teachers find a school before coming here, but it's absolutely not necessary.  The situation is similar in neighboring countries like Cambodia and Thailand.  But with low cost of living and high salaries, Vietnam is probably one of the best countries to come and teach English in.

That covers the where, the what, and the why.  But how?  It used to be quite easy for most Westerners to stay in Vietnam on a 6-month business visa without actually having any business here.  They've since cracked down a bit but it's still possible and quite common to stay on a 3-month tourist visa renewed multiple times.  The laws on the book (not so much in practice) are always changing though, so more on that next time.

Barcamp Saigon Summer 2011 Parting Thoughts

Submitted by tomo on July 27, 2011 - 2:31am

Sunday we had our 4th and largest Barcamp in Saigon. About 570 showed up to the premier free and open tech event in Vietnam. Here are 5 of the things I took away from it.

1. The most people sign up in the last few days before the event.

(if the below graph doesn't load, try reloading the page)

Traditionally, we would get a 50% show rate of the registrations but this time we had 999 people sign up and 570 show up. Without any setup for cross-checking registrations we don't know how many showed up without pre-registering. Because so many signed up after we settled financial calculations, it wasn't possible to accommodate the unexpected people with free food.

2. Barcamp is a recruiting event. Sponsors came with recruitment in mind. Non-sponsors can also try to muscle their way in. Giving a presentation is a great way to advertise your company and the people who ask attentive questions might be good hiring candidates. But giving a presentation as an individual is also a great way to advertise your hireability to companies.

3. Morning rush - everyone should have an equal chance in getting their presentation on the schedule as long as they show up to the opening. But it's kind of chaotic. When the dust settles, most sessions are in the morning while the afternoon schedule is sparser. A lot of people end up leaving before the closing ceremony and t-shirt giveaway, not that there's a problem giving out all shirts. Other Barcamps do it differently. Some use a voting system and I've thought about some implementations for next time.

4. Serial event organizing needs (infra)structure to make organizing less stressful over time. Without huge Google or Microsoft campuses in town, we're lucky we do have the large (although far) and impressive campus of RMIT to depend on. If we want to go Yangon-scale, we may need a totally different location.

As a tech-heavy event with talks on web scalability and high throughput, it's no good when the official web server falls over under load (I blame Windows). Good internet connectivity at the end is also a must.

Other skills the organizing team needs: Fund-raising, logistics, graphic design, legal, and the ability to get the word out.

5. Outsiders are awesome. I'm really grateful for the guys who brought Barcamp organizing experience from Cambodia, China, Southeast Asia, Germany, etc. to Saigon to share with us. Barcamps are often bootstrapped by foreigners. Outsiders also expose us to new ideas in technology. But I was happy to see at least some local ideas find an audience in the foreign attendees.

Barcamp isn't just about the sessions. It's as much about people coming together and sharing ideas outside of the sessions. The organizers' task isn't to control who speaks, unlike traditional conferences. Our job is to provide a platform for everyone to share knowledge with anyone who is interested. The trend, I hope, is for more people to realize that they do have knowledge that's interesting and worth sharing and to give them the opportunity to speak in front of an audience and further develop their ideas when putting together their presentations, and also get feedback from strangers that they otherwise would have never met.

Some newspapers reported about Sunday's event (in Vietnamese):
http://dddn.com.vn/2011072504147776cat187/rmit-viet-nam-to-chuc-thanh-co...

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