Thursday, 18 December 2014

Are Netbooks still a thing ?

A couple of days ago, I went over the road to a coffee shop for an offline discussion with a colleague. We were in search of some space where we could hide in plain sight to discuss some issues relating to a new project.

We chose the coffee shop next to Arts faculty, where you are as likely to find people discussing Aristophanes as their blocked sinks.

The atmosphere is reasonably hardcore and quite a few people had computing devices on the table. The students have long since departed for the summer taking their shiny iPads and Macbooks with them, so we can say that the devices on desks represented devices used by working academics and researchers.

As is my wont, I had a look around me while waiting to order to see what people were using.

There was, of course, the usual sprinkling of iPads and high end Android tablets, but strangely not that many MacBooks, with the MacBooks being outnumbered by Windows notebooks, of which none looked to be SSD based ultrabooks.

What there was though, was three people sat at separate tables using netbooks. Unfortunately I couldn’t sensibly (or politely) rubber neck to see what operating system was in use so I’ll assume windows.

Using a netbook makes some sense for someone that deals with words - the keyboards on a lot of netbooks were quite nice to type on, and if you have a windows desktop in your study, you can of course write your notes straght to dropbox, and then work on them later on your full size machine, yet have something reasonably lightweight with reasonable battery life to take to the library - as well as being next to the Arts building, the coffee shop is also opposite the Asian studies library - and being early summer people are probably trying to get on with their research.

Still it remains interesting that three or four years after netbooks dropped off the market they’re still in serious use …

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Wednesday, 17 December 2014

handwriting, keyboards and effective notetaking

This morning I tweeted a link to a Guardian weekly article on the merits of handwriting versus keyboards for writing. Coincidentally I’ve just bought myself a fountain pen - my first for what must be close to forty years.

The pen is nothing special, just a twelve dollar Lamy with a steel nib, but it writes nicely on good quality paper, and more importantly my handwriting approaches legibility.

In the previous forty years I’ve used a mixture of quality rollerball pens such as Uniball and Edding fineline felt tips which have allowed me to handwrite - scribble really - notes quickly, but at the expense of legibility. I’ve never got on with cheap ball points or cheap paper - it’s why I still use a pencil for scratchpad work.

I’ve tried other things - handwriting recognition on a palm pilot was a notable failure of the early naughties, although the device was in many other ways a superb tool - so much so that I bought an external keyboard and used it for many years to take notes in meetings and seminars. I still have my old palm pilot, keyboard and docking cradle, and I used to promise myself that someday I would get jPilot configured on one of my linux machines and start using my Palmpilot again.

Realistically of course, that ship has sailed.

I have however continued to experiment. One of the most successful experiments was to use a no name Android tablet with a keyboard as a notetaker.

Type the notes in a semi structured form using a tool such a TextEdit, and email them to myself, clean them up and during the cleanup process reformat them as markdown (or wiki style syntax for wikidot), generate a pdf and put them straight into evernote, or indeed circulate the pdf as meeting minutes.

Very powerful, but flawed. Battery life was one issue, startup time was another, as was network dependence. All of them could be lived with and worked with.

I also found the seven inch keyboard a little tight for typing, hence my resurrecting my old Eee seven inch notebook. Doing this addressed the keyboard issue, and using Retext as a native markdown editor sped up matters but in fact I’ve usually ended up typing sets of oneline notes into abiword and converting them with pandoc to markdown or saving direct as a pdf to evernote.

But in all of this I’ve found a problem. Notetaking at best is an active exercise where you listen to what is being said, write down interesting things, draw arrows, reflect a little, write down questions and thoughts, link blobs together.

What I end up with is more a sort of mindmap. Especially when rather than a structured presentation it’s an ad hoc ‘draw on the wall’ session, or indeed a coffeeshop discussion.

Hence the fountain pen. Legible notes in a note book, scan them, send them to evernote, add comments, photographs of a whiteboard, all these things.

At the same time there’s definitely a role for taking notes straight into a computing device of some sort, especially in well structured seminars and presos. I guess my problem is that I havn’t yet found my ideal device - something fast enough, light enough and with decent enough battery life.

Until then it’s probably my old eee, or no name tablet, with a pen and notebook as backup …

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Wednesday, 3 December 2014

2014 - what worked

In previous years I’ve done a ‘what worked’ post about this time.

I’m not doing one this year, for the simple reason that when I look back at the 2013 post, not much has changed.

To be sure, I’ve taken to using ReText for writing notes and the resurrected ookygoo as a writing machine, but truly not much has changed.

We have a better, more stable network connection and using the TP-Link box to allow failover to 3G when the adsl service goes away has been one of my better ideas, as has investing in a second portable 3G router for travel.

The real change this year has been in terms of media consumption - it’s the first year I have bought no music CD’s whatsoever - even managing to satisfy my love of Renaissance and early Baroque through downloads alone, and the first year that I have bought more ebooks than printed books. In fact I’d say that I have bought almost no new physical books - in fact I’d say two, and they were only bought as paperbacks because of the Amazon/Hachette spat, and happened to be on special.

I’ve still bought some second hand out of print books in dead tree format, but with the increases in the availability of digitised texts, even that’s been decreasing - I actually can see a time coming, say in five years time, when I might only buy ebooks …

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Thursday, 27 November 2014

Apple knows you know

I have a work provided iPhone as well as my own personal phone.

I actually don’t really use my work phone - I have a work phone principally because I used to travel a lot overseas and in Australia and by giving me a phone it meant I could do the ET phone home thing when there was a problem without having to try and reclaim the cost of calls.

And smartphones allow you to do more - I’ve never quite been at the stage of a colleague who ssh’d into a recalcitrant box from his iPhone while transiting in Seoul - but you get the picture.

Now the iPhone ‘knows’ some things if you scroll down on the lock screen it will tell you the temperature and what events you have scheduled - and in the afternoons how long it would take you to drive home - strangely enough always 29 minutes.

Now I usually go to the supermarket to do the weekly shop on Wednesdays because we like to to the Farmer’s market and deli shopping together on Saturday mornings. So every Wednesday I’m off to Mawson to buy the staples plus some fresh salad, bread, OJ etc.

Yesterday for some reason I checked the outside temperature before leaving work on my iPhone rather than my personal phone. And I noticed that it said it would take you 23 minutes to drive to Mawson right now - ie my phone ‘knew’ it was Wednesday and that I go to a supermarket in Mawson that day.

Computationally quite interesting and slightly scary …

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Tuesday, 25 November 2014

And can we make a decent open access reading list ?

I recently suggested that it might be able to put together an open access reading list for the classics.


So I did, purely as an experiment. I picked a very random (and very short) list of university classics departments and downloaded their introductory reading lists. Some were fairly short some were more oriented to summer reading (and the suspicion that most students would do little if any). I collated the Exeter, Tufts, Warwick and KCL lists and came up with the following:



Author

Book

Source

Online

Homer

Iliad

KCL, Tufts

Adelaide e-books

Homer

Odyssey

Exeter, Tufts

Adelaide e-books

Sophocles

Oedipus

KCL, Tufts

Adelaide e-books

Sophocles

Antigone

Tufts

Gutenberg

Virgil

Aeneid

KCL, Exeter, Warwick

Adelaide e-books

Tacitus

Annals

KCL, Exeter

Adelaide e-books

Juvenal

Satires

KCL, Warwick

Internet Archive

Plato

Symposium

Exeter, Tufts

Adelaide e-books

Plato

Republic

Tufts

Adelaide e-books

Herodotus

Histories

Exeter, Tufts

Adelaide e-books

Suetonius

Lives of the Caesars

Exeter

Gutenberg

Seneca

Letters from a Stoic

Exeter

Internet archive

Ovid

Metamorphoses

Exeter

Adelaide e-books

Lucian

True History

Tufts

Adelaide e-books

Theocritus

Idylls

Tufts

Gutenberg

Aristotle

Poetics

Tufts

Adelaide e-books

Aristotle

Nichormachean Ethics

Tufts

Adelaide e-books

Longus

Daphne and Chloe

Tufts

Internet Archive

Thucydides

Histories

Tufts

Adelaide e-books

Xenophon

Anabasis

Tufts

Adelaide e-books

Horace

Satires

Warwick

Adelaide e-books

Aristophanes

Clouds

Tufts

Adelaide e-books

Aeschylus

Oresteia

Tufts

Adelaide e-books


In the main I found the texts on the University of Adelaide's ebook sitse. Adelaide E-books (ebooks.adelaide.edu.au) is a paricularly good source of texts and in some cases has alternative translations, as well as links to wikipedia etc. It's not just classical texts, there's a good range of English literature texts as well.


All sites allow downloads in both epub and mobi format meaning that the books can be read on a kindle or on a tablet, including one of the cheap no-name Android tablets that can be picked up for less than a $100, in some cases considerably less.


I've made no attempt to assess the text for accuracy, but what this little paper exercise shows is that it is perfectly possible to create an open access reading list.


While you may argue that having to own a tablet is a barrier to access, most (potential) students already have a suitable device, and with a decent second hand paperback copy of Suetonius's Twelve Caesars costing around $10 with shipping we can argue that even if you have to buy a tablet the exercise is better than cost neutral ...


Open classics - a modest proposal

In the sciences one of the great current tropes is open access, ie publishing research papers in journals that do not require a subscription to access them, and equally importantly making research data available for re use and reanalysis.

There are other parallel movements such as open textbooks, open online courses etc.

Classics is also an area ripe for open access. Much of the material revolves around texts and the reanalysis of texts, and authoritative translations abound. I suspect that many classicists only know a number to texts from translations.

Acquiring the key texts and translations is not particularly difficult or costly - many have been around for years and reasonable second hand copies can be picked up through the various online second hand booksellers for a few dollars.

But of course, that does present a barrier for access - first of all one needs these few dollars and scronly one needs the time and the inclination to hunt for decent second hand copies and then wait for the postal systems of the world perform their miracle of nineteenth century technology.

Absolutely fine for a dilettante with a disposable income like me, less so for a student undertaking a course, especially one in a country such as Australia where the classics are most definitely fading.

So, to my proposal:

  1. Assemble a list of university reading lists
  2. Identify the most commonly listed items
  3. Identify suitable online (free) sources where possible
  4. Make the resource list available online

A very simple idea, and one that can be extended to other areas, for example medieval studies, English literature etc.

The virtue of this idea is that it works to reduce the cost of access, and also encourages ‘reading around’ a topic, ie don’t just read the set texts, read related ones, and get some understanding and insight.

In a time when books were paper and most university towns had a couple of second hand bookshops stocked with cheap second hand paperbacks, happenstance and reading around could be done very cheaply - forty years ago I used to play a game with myself on a Saturday afternoon - take my spare change after I’d attended to the week’s expenses, count it up, split it in half, and see what I could find in the way of interesting reading for half of what I’d got left of the week’s money.

Nowadays such a game wouldn’t be possible - second hand bookshops are mostly online which robs the exercise of the happenstance element - and happenstance is an important part of learning and discovery.

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Monday, 10 November 2014

A distraction free writing machine

A week or so ago I upgraded my old EEEpc to Crunchbang linux - and I’m quietly impressed with its capabilities as a distraction free notetaker and writing machine.

Since the upgrade I’ve used it seriously for two or three meetings and to write a couple private documents, including an old style put in the mail letter. Performance has been more or less flawless.

With only ReText (for markdown) and AbiWord (for anything pretty) and no mail client other than Alpine for getting stuff off the machine this means you can focus on the text, or when using it as a note taker, on what’s being said. No other email, no twitter, no urge to distract yourself with wikipedia.

And it’s good. It’s fast (and fast to boot), and nicely responsive.

There are some downsides - the browser is a pain to use, though, with the export capabilities of both Abiword and Retext there’s no real need to use external services like MarkdowntoPDF or Cloudconvert.

Basically, documents are written on the machine and then either emailed off to Dropbox if they need more work or to Evernote to archive. I originally didn’t bother installing printing, but I’ve since added printer support just for the ease of producing bullet lists or handouts.

One of course needs to be realistic - it’s a five year old low power machine with a small non standard display - you cannot seriously expect to run anything and everything on it - for example I’d have doubts about running an R session on it, or doing any serious text manipulation.

Or indeed anything meaty written in Java.

But I have other machines for that. What I do have now is a small format machine that can fit in a man bag, has a decent keyboard and battery life, and being small and light can be taken along on a trip as a second writing machine …

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