Thursday, 17 April 2014

New Chromebook

Well I finally got a refund for my faulty Chromebook. It was a struggle but I won in the end.

To celebrate I went out and got myself a replacement Chromebook, one manufactured by HP this time.

I was incredibly impressed again by the whole statelessness thing - I literally plugged it in, waited twenty or so minutes to make sure it had a decent amount of charge, turned it on, configured the network - and then hey presto! it was all there, even down to the wallpaper I’d set on the desktop on my last(faulty) unit so I’d know if they shipped it back to me without fiddling with it.

Thinking about things and comparing things with my laptop it’s the statelessness factor that sells the whole Chromebook model.

Strangely, the same thing goes for - your files are saved elsewhere on Dropbox or Google Drive, and are hence accessible from anywhere, from which ever device and without having to have any particular software installed other than a reasonably recent browser.

If you work in various places as I do, and swap between machines and platforms, it’s somthing that is incredibly powerful …

Written with StackEdit.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Data Librarians or eresearch analysts

There’s a quasi meme going around at the moment that as libraries increasingly become portals for online resources and scholarly publication (and data publication) moves online that librarians will morph into data librarians.

You can see the logic in this one. Librarians know about citation, they know about discovery, and they know about access to electronic resources, so it would be very stupid to say that they don’t have a role to play.

What, of course they tend not to know about is sordid stuff like storage architectures, migration strategies, file formats, backup and the rest. That’s the province of information technology, and equally it would be stupid not to say that they have a role, and indeed with harvesting and handling of data , a greater role.

So why does the meme focus on librarians and not IT geeks?

Well there could be a variety of reasons.

Twenty of thirty years ago IT people were generalists - there was little formal training other than some vendor specific courses, and most people taught themselves. There was also a plethora of competing solutions, so a lot of time was spent giving advice and helping researchers choose suitable hardware and software. (yes, there were always some men (and they were usually men) who wore suits and talked about COBOL and made sure everyone got paid on the right day, but we’re not talking about them, even though they are still with us, except these days it’s Cognos)

If you had looked at any university computer centre in the nieties you would have found people in a support/advisory/enabling role. Some may have been old fashioned applications programmers who learned new tricks, and some may have been people like me who’d started out doing something else but who’d ended up in support because they were good at it.

Nowadays these people are a rarity. The older ones have retired, and there’s no clear replacement cohort.

Why? because in the nineties IT changed and it became, in the main a microsoft based mono culture, highly technical and looking for skills in complex products such as Active Directory, Exchange, Sharepoint and the rest, with the result that the culture changed - you can see this in any mixed windows and unix shop - the unix staff tend to be older, sometimes scruffier, and are more diverse, and have odd hobbies. The Windows staff tend to be younger, more focused, and just abit more corporate in their manner.

This isn’t universal, but I’m sure that if you know your data centres you’ll recognise the stereotypes.

The consequece of the change was a hollowing out of IT to concentrate on service delivery rather than support - something which brought efficiencies and may have made achieving kpi’s easier, but along the way engagement was lost between IT staff and researchers - and this enegagement has been lost for long enough now that people have forgotten that it existed.

So, as a consequence, the focus is on librarians becoming data specialists, in the main because they are perceievd in beineg more engaged with the research faculty. However this does neglect the need for quite a lot of formal IT technical knowledge to provide informed advice and discuss options - perhaps what we need is is a second meme on building technical engagement between IT staff and researchers …

Written with StackEdit.

Retext on

Back in January I played with Libre office on which of course allows the editing of native odt documents on a Chromebook on those occasions when the GoogleDocs import does not quite work.

You can also use the linux markdown editor Retext on - here the use case is less clear but given the availability of StackEdit in the Chrome environment, but it does provide an easy means of generating a pdf to share or indeed email off to some other service such as evernote.

Running Apache Tika over a pdf generated from the online version of Retext shows it to be an incredibly standard implementation:

Content-Length: 17202
Content-Type: application/pdf
Creation-Date: 2014-04-14T15:59:03Z
created: Tue Apr 15 01:59:03 EST 2014
date: 2014-04-14T15:59:03Z
dc:title: New document
dcterms:created: 2014-04-14T15:59:03Z
meta:creation-date: 2014-04-14T15:59:03Z
producer: Qt 4.8.1 (C) 2011 Nokia Corporation and/or its subsidiary(-ies)
resourceName: richard_carew.pdf
title: New document
xmp:CreatorTool: ReText 3.1.3
xmpTPg:NPages: 1

(doing the same thing with the original markdown file is utterly uniformative due to markdown's lack of embedded metadata:

Content-Encoding: ISO-8859-1
Content-Length: 197
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-1

resourceName: richard_carew.mkd

which is of course what makes markdown so portable)

Application performance could have been faster, but given that the servers are topologically a long way from where I am quite acceptable for typing, something to bear in mind if using the service for field work to type up a bunch of notes.

All in all I find the business model quite interesting - provide an execution environment, show people Macca's ads before starting the app, and have people connect their dropbox and google drive accounts to save providing storage - something that saves them the trouble of providing storage, and yet, unlike some other freemium services, lets them garner some revenue from casual users ...

Monday, 14 April 2014

Nixnote 1.5

I'm an extensive evernote user, and I've played with NixNote the open source Linux client over the years. My use case is that I'm most definitely a linux user as well as an evernote user, meaning that I need to have evernote access from Linux. Until now that has meant the web version - neither nixnote or everpad (another open source client) have delivered

Of the two, Nixnote was clearly the front runner, but even so, I'd describe NixNote up to now as promising - that's changed with version 1.5 which is stable, usable, responsive.

Synchronisation is still a little slow, but overall performance is as good as the official client on both Windows and the Mac and searching for notes faster than using the web version.

Nixnote is also availabe for Windows and OS X but I've never tested these version and can't comment. However, if you're a serious Evernote user with linux inclinations, I'd suggest giving the current version of NixNote a go ...

Friday, 4 April 2014

Big archives and data liberation ...

There is a lot of chatter around big data and how it is going to save the world.

Well it is true that some of these incredibly large datasets have value outside of allowing supermarkets to know which brand of cat food you, or rather your cat, prefers, they also tend to obscure another aspect of the data revolution.

Rather than just very large datasets it is the volume and diversity of data sets that have been put online as a result of various digitisation projects.

For example, I have found online accounts and pictures of a project to help orphaned Basque refugee children from the Spanish civil war that my mother worked for, and the details and records for the sinking of the ship my father was second engineer on during the retreat from Singapore.

It is not that these things were unknown - but even 10 years ago to find the records would have involved writing to archivists, a trip or two to the archives themselves, requests for material to be copied, etc. It would have taken a lot of time, and given that I live 20,000 km from some of the archives in question, damn near impossible.

Today I can find most things from my desk, starting with google and perhaps a few likely resources. Just as I did to find how news of Linclon’s assasination reached Australia

Such is the power of online that material that isn’t online effectively does not exist - which is undoubtedly not good, as it means that non digistised sources will tend to be ignored, skewing scholarship, but we also need to recognise the power of online access to resources and how they empower people to not only ask questions but find answers, even if the questions they have are about early medieval cats, rather than something profound.

In 1984 George Orwell came up with the memorable line
He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
Scarily true when one looks at the rewriting of history to justfy current actions. By making digitising resources and making them open and available, it reduces the risk of manipulation, something which also goes for research data as well ...

Monday, 31 March 2014

Installing Open Indiana

Over the years I've build a range of virtual machines using various linux distributions, the better to understand their capabilities and potential.

This time, I decided to revisit the Open Solaris code tree to see what the Open Indiana fork could deliver. While linux, usually in the form of RedHat or CentOS has supplanted Solaris as a platform in a lot of organisations, it's worth remembering that there is still a lot of legacy Solaris kit out there, and people still need to get to grips with Solaris.

Here are my installation/assessment notes for Open Indiana ...


  • Open Indiana is a fork of Open Solaris which I played with back in 2008/9. Since then Sun have been taken over by Oracle and support for Open Solaris has ended
  • Open Indiana is built on illumos, the open sourced base distribution for the various distros based on Open Solaris
  • Open Indiana have a website at


  • Installation was done from a live CD image onto virtual box
  • Initially the distribution would not boot, but making the CD the only device resolved that
  • booting into install mode straight forward
  • desktop application to install live cd
    • installations simple Q & A, keyboard, location, language, timezone user accounts
    • installation time was less than 30 minutes, not including download time for the live CD image
  • system boot after install was not particularly fast
  • out of the box the installed application set was extremely sparse
    • no office suite included
    • many standard tools missing
  • user required to run package manager to install office software
    • need to change from open indiana to all publishers as package source
    • open office distro is 3.1 and sourced from legacy open solaris repository
      • found alternative more recent version via apache open office site
    • poor selection of software in repositories
    • good selection of compilers and development tools
      • necessary for the ./configure, make, make install required to build and add some applications
    • users need to install gcc etc to build software
  • system reasonably fast and responsive when running


Nice distro, nice installer, shame about the software base, Anyone planning to use it for a roll out would need to be prepared to do a fair amount of building code from scratch.
What it does provide is a zero cost platform for anyone needing to get up to speed on legacy solaris systems prior to experimenting with a live system, and that is perhaps its real value

Thursday, 27 March 2014

So what do you use - Q1 2014 update

In truth there's not much change since my end of year posting back in December.

I'd add the 3G router as a major improvement. Otherwise the hardware in use is much the same except for my ongoing Chromebook problems.

The software in use is not much different either except that I'm moved from writing raw markdown to using a dedicated markdown editor, either retext on linux or on Windows and the mac. My chromebook problems have pushed me back to writing more on my windows netbook, and I even dug out my old Eee to use for some conferencing via Skype.

Working with both retext and Texts shows how agnostic I have become  about operating systems, ao indeed applications. There's not much to judge between the two editors- Texts is wysiwyg in style while retext requires an understanding of markdown syntax, but that's hardly a big ask.

Otherwise everything is much as it was ...