Thursday, 23 August 2007

Zoho does Gears ...

Zoho has added Google Gears support to Zoho writer, meaning that their web based wordprocessor can now work offline and away from the internet.

This is an interesting development, but one that buys a lot of (potential) problems:

  1. If you want to work offline on a document why not simply export it to the word processor of your choice and then re-import it. Granted, using Gears allows you to keep the same interface, but that doesn't quite cut it
  2. How do you do your version control. Re syncing when one person is editing the document is fine, but when its a collaborative edit how do you resync - after all someone may have edited the document after you've modified it offline

These are major questions. Anyone who has ever worked on a document collaboratively knows that version control and syncing can be a nightmare.

So why would they do it?

There doesn't seem at first sight to be a compelling business case. Too tricky, too difficult and breaks collaborative editing, which is their unique selling proposition.

Well even with mobile internet, the internet isn't always on everywhere. In fact in a lot of places it simply isn't on at all. But it still begs the question why offline when you can export and work on with a standard word processor. After all good as Zoho is it's not as fully featured as Star/Open Office or Microsoft Office.

But then there's already devices like the Easy Neuf, basically an internet access terminal with some local compute and software execution. Now take it one step further and imagine a lightweight (in computing terms) portable computing device, sort of a mobile Easy Neuf. Could be a phone with a keyboard, could be someting like an OLPC, could be something we havn't seen yet, but the key thing is that they have some limited processing capability yet are supposed to have persistent internet connections.

And if it's portable, that's what it doesn't have. So suddenly you work on the plane, on the train, and then resync as soon as you have connectivity, without having to carry a fully featured computing device. And that is very interesting because the one thing we know about fully featured computing devices, aka laptops is that the battery life is crap. A pda with a keyboard does much better ...

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

girls _really_ do like pink

this has turned up in a couple of places, eg new scientist and guardian websites.

A couple of researchers at Newcastle University in the UK tested what colours people like best. Interestingly most people liked blue best but there was a strong prefernce among women for pink and pink-like colours. This also seems to be culture independent as they also reran the test on a group of Chinese migrants who grew up at a time when pink girlie things were not widely available, if at all in China, and they showed the same preference mix.

The hypothesis is

  • in a hunter gathering society women do most of the gathering. Liking pink may give an advantage when selecting the riper fruits and berries, and we do know that there is a strong preference for red and possible evolutionary reasons for it. (see my posts here and here)

  • the preference for blue could go back to when we were savannah dwelling apes and the bright blue sky meant good weather and blue water was possibly good clean water. Well it's an idea anyway, if not quite as convincing as the pink preference hypothesis

There's at least one thought experiment here - do traditional desert dwelling Australian Aborigines have the same preferences? Or only one of them?

It would be really interesting if for instance the female preference for pink was demonstrated but not the overall liking for blue?

Why? Well the interior of Australia is hot dry and red, a hot relenting blue sky signifies drought and there isn't a lot of water around. Yet the ancestors of the peoples who became both the Han Chinese and the races of western Europe speaking Aryan languages (and Turkic speakers for that matter) all started out on the central Asian steppe where a blue warm sky meant warmth and good weather.

And I guess it might also explain the Chinese belief that read was a lucky colour, the colour of prosperity.

Certainly some interesting hypotheses to play with ...

Friday, 17 August 2007

GooglePack. Google Docs and changing the world

There's been a lot of (virtual) ink spilt on GooglePack including Star Office and what it means for Google Docs.

My take on it is fairly simple. They're complementary. It allows people to work on documents offline and then post to google docs, share them and all the rest of the collaboration age stuff. It also allows people to work on documents anywhere, even if they are using a shared computer in an internet cafe at an airport, and then finish them off working on their own computer, then repost, republish them.

And crucially, Google Pack represents an easy simple way of getting star office/open office onto pc's. Easy auto install, no buying or downloading media, no burning install cd's. Now you can do it witha click of a mouse and twenty minutes connectivity.

So what would this mean for student computing (see my previous post for background)

Basically the way I see it is as follows:

Students (almost) universally have a computing device
Google ( are giving away Star Office, and Aqua Open Office for the mac is not far away

=> there is no reason to provide a basic word processing/spreadsheet/presentations/web any more
=> google pack gives us a support free deployment for this software
=> google docs, zoho office fill the gaps
=> webdav provides maintainable filestore to allow students to save their work to university systems that are backed up
=> and the lms/vle and collaboration facility allows students to do most tutorial work

and this means

the computer labs increasingly become a specialist facilities environment
nasty packages can run on thin client / vm’s
ACE or whatever can give access to computing environments
all we do is mandate the formats submissions are made in, not the package
students largely are self supporting
students access most facilities via their own connection (as at a number of mainland European uni’s, eg the Sorbonne)

and these few students without access to a computer?

My pat answer is to set up an ANU computer recycling project (yes, I’ve done this before {} to solve a similar problem) and also incidentally enhance the institution’s green credentials, and reputation as positive caring institution etc

Possibly a tad radical, but I actually think it would work as a model and solve a number of our problems.

So GooglePack gets us Star Office into the environment. Also once we've Star Office out there and built a Star Office culture we can perhaps look to a linux base desktop environment and thus reduce licensing costs further. After all if your word processor, browser, mail client are the same do you care?

I think not. They even don't have to be exactly the same. The resurgence of Apple in the university computing environment suggests you only need to be complementary as long as it works, is reliable and predictable.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

internet killing culture ? [followup]

just by coincidence, Graeme Philipson had a slightly different take on this in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald (or the Age if you're in Vic)

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

does the internet kill culture?

There's recently been a thread on the Guardian's blog pages about whether the internet is killing culture - all based around the theory that all these bloggers writing crap and wanna be thrash metal stars on MySpace are clogging up the cultural bandwidth.

All the cultural establishment are getting all huffy that people aren't using the orthodox record labels and book publishers and doing it by themselves.


People have always done this and always produced crap. Look at the number of dire magazines available, derivative mass market paperback novels and the like. There has always been a lot of rubbish out there, just as in the punk era when technology allowed bands to produce their own music on vinyl and cd there was a lot of not very good stuff in circulation. But the not very good stuff never really made it.

Like blogging. I blog to write down my ideas and practice writing skills. I won't pretend it's deathless prose and never expect to get famous from it. One day I'd like to do some serious writing. Just now I'm blogging with a purpose.

And if other people think what I write is sensible I might get an audience.

Now we know that sites are full of teenage rants and right wing hooehy. Well someone has to start somewhere and everyone is entitled to their views (I'm with Voltaire on that one).

I don't think a lot of _literary_ writing and cultural commentary is a lot better than some of the blogs I've read, the only claim to authority in the more conventional publications is often not much more than it's written by someone who claims some cultural authority because they went to Oxford, slept with some famous artists and once had a small volume of poetry published, and have brown nosed the right people.

Well I went to St Andrews, once peed beside John Maynard Smith, and have been among other things chair of the UCISA systems forum. I think I have as much right as anyone else to have my views heard.

Oh, but I didn't brown nose the the right people ...

No more student computer labs ?

Student computer labs fascinate me. Actually they don't, but a large part of my professional life has been tied up in their provision and the facilities provided.

However I'm now beginning to wonder if the way we think about student labs is outdated.

When student labs first came about it was in the days of timesharing systems and all one needed to provide was several rooms full of Wyse WY-85's, VT220's or whatever as all the software was on the timesharing system.

Then came the rise of the pc and the network. Originally universities provided labs full of pc's as they were expensive and crucially the software was expensive. Not to mention the fact that computer lab provision was one of the metrics used (in the UK at least) to assess teaching quality.

Over the years people have tried thin client in various forms, but it's never really taken off, in part because Citrix licensing makes the cost of a large scale deployment prohibitive, and desktop pc's were cheap.

The world has now changed, due to the rise of the laptop and the wireless network, not to mention cheap broadband. Suddenly the idea of a thin client/web 2.0 environment seems attractive, especially as students universally have access to a computing device of their own and some sort of network connectivity, but due to the need to work increasing numbers of hours to fund their studies, can't drop in to use a general purpose student lab.

What they need is access to some basic tools, and a compute/execution environment for the specialist and expensive software they need to use. As students almost universally have access to a computing device and network connect we don't even need to provide the hardware to run the thin client on - a software client such as citrix's ica will do fine.

And with the rise of virtualisation and technologies such as the vmware player we can potentially give students pre-rolled environments to work with.

Possibly high end cheap printing is also a requirement, but we already know how to do that.

So suddenly we're talking about providing services not facilities. Of course there will also need to be small labs of high end specialist hardware, but really for the bread and butter stuff we're talking about providing access, and actually suddenly our lives become much easier - need a new app?, roll it on a vm. Apps don't play nice together? no worries separate them out to separate thin client sessions.

And of course suddenly we don't need to worry about having kit stolen from open access labs, hardware refresh and maitenance and the like ...

Friday, 10 August 2007

docx and apple iWork

unless I've misread things, I get the distinct impression that iWork08, the new updated apple office suite doesn't handle docx either, leaving us with neo office or neo office until the aqua version of open office appears.

Given that the new version of Mac Office appears to be delayed to January this continues to make working in a multi platform environment just a tad challenging ...

Retro computing (ii)

Like I said, I found a cd drive for the old wall street g3 powerbook I'd acquired, which was pretty cool. Borrowed an old Jaguar (os x 10.2) install set and hey presto! forty minutes later I had an old, slow g3 running an old version of os x.

and there's the rub. jaguar really doesn't cut it. Most of the obvious common freeware doesn't work, eg no text wrangler, no neo office, no journier, not even aquaemacs, so I'm kind of stuck for a basic set of tools.

What did install was:

  • Camino 1.04 (means I can use google docs etc)
  • abiword 2.4 (loathsome, but hey it's a word processor)
  • nvu ( a bit touch and go but it runs)
  • mac emacs ( the old version, no sexy interface)
  • vim ( the old version for 6.2)
so I've got a writing/blogging machine out of it, which is a lot of what I do. I've got an old version of acrobat and ie, not to mention applemail, and I can always ssh from the terminal to another machine. What I am lacking is a spreadsheet (but google docs or zoho could perhaps provide that functionality) and a presentation tool (zoho probably).

So really what I've got is something that's kind of like a web 2.0 thin client. Put that way, it might be an interesting experiment using it ...

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Mobile printing and a web enabled mobile phone ...

If we use the framework proposed in my previous post we can easily extend this to printing via mobile phones. Teppo Raisanen in his paper on a framework for mobile printing proposes a scenario whereby people use their mobile phones to print documents that they retreive from their filestore.

Now, in a managed student printing environment we don't want students randomly walking up to printers and blatting jobs at printer's IR ports but we can do something clever that allows them to access their filestore and then select a file for processing.

Imaging the following:

We provide a webapp that allows the students to see all the files in their filestore. The ones that we can print are not greyed out. The easy ones are pdf and text as we know how to do that. However if we use something like open office as a backend processor we should be able to open Open Office in command line mode and batch convert the document to pdf and submit it through as before. Formatting may not be perfect in all cases but the student can create a ps spool file from their mobile phone which they can release to printing at a time and place of their choosing.

And that's probably a good enough approximation to Teppo Raisanen's retrieve anywhere / print anywhere scenario for most practical purposes.

[Addendum - while researching this I came across who offer a web based on demand conversion service - cool!]

mobile printing ...

Printing, the joy of any IT manager's life. Except this time it's mobile printing.

Well of course most people don't actually know what they mean by mobile printing. It's got the word mobile in it so it must be really trendy and important, and because it's trendy we need to provide the service.

Actually in a university context, it's quite clear what people need.

Students need to be able to (a) print to any student printer on campus, not just the one in the lab where they're situated, and (b) print from their laptops to student printers.

Option (a) is really easy. We did this at York years ago. We create a virtual print queue which puts the spooled jobs for a particular student into a directory named by that's student's user id. Jobs are held in the spool directory for some arbitrary time, say seven days. Student goes to print location, and logs into a print station (really an old pc running linux) which automatically fires up an application that lists the print jobs in their directory and gives them some simple choices (print colour, print b+w, double sided, and delete). Students can print selectively when they want to, where they want to and pick up their output. No wrangles about missing pages, no forgotten printouts littering the place.

It's good, it worked.

Option (b) is slightly more tricky, but if you have (a) in place not terribly so. Pharos have a commercial solution, but it's for XP and Vista only and involves installing drivers on student's laptops. It's also quite flexible and involves having the spooling operation take place on the laptop.

I have a better idea.

First of all we give students a print to pdf app. Mac and linux users can do this out of the box (ok Mac users can, linux users need to fiddle a little) but windows users need to create a virtual printer. Students then print their documents to pdf. Nice thing is that they have the opportunity to check the layout.

That's part one. Part two is to generate a web page with a file upload feature. Students connect to the web page, choose the pdf file they wish to upload and click ok. Behind the scenes we do some simple checks using something like jhove to make user the file really is a pdf file (otherwise we dump it and tell them what we think it is) and then with a bit of ghostscript generate a postscript print job we dump in their spool directory to allow them to print next time their on campus. As we only allow pdf and automatically convert everything to postscript they won't be tempted to use it for extra storage. But they can print their files next time they're on campus and they can make that decision when they're on campus rather than printing the job now and hoping the output will be there when they want to collect it.

The other joy is that they can always print the file at home, and that as the web upload is just that, an authenticated web upload they can be anywhere on the planet, rather than connected to the campus network in one way ot the other to do this.

Ok that's the idea. Now it needs to be refined developed, finessed and something built...

YouTube wierdness in Canberra ...

Canberra, like most of the south east of Australia, is either in drought or just coming out of drought. And by drought we don't mean a few months of a pissy hosepipe ban like you get in England, we mean 5 years of drought where pasture turns brown and dies, trees die and nothing grows.

This makes life hard for farmers. No crops, cattle and sheep feed is expensive, and a lot have gone to the wall.

Now Canberra, being the bush capital, still has working farms on areas that have not yet turned into suburbia. Some are real farms, and some are basically just horse paddocks where fat teenage girls care for fatter ponies. However on the rare day I drive into work I pass a working farm with cows and so on.

A few weeks ago a sign appeared 'please feed the cows bread' - not your usual 'please don't feed the animals'. Obviously the farmer was trying to keep his herd going even though he couldn't afford much in the way of feed.

Then a few days ago an extra piece of board arrived on the sign - just tacked on with a url

And yes there it is on youtube - the whole story.

Shows how community politics and campaigning are changing under the influence of YouTube etc