Saturday, 27 February 2010

art, collage, and the digital age

I've just spent an idle quarter hour looking at a fascinating flickr sequence called 'The body in art'.

I find this particular sequence fascinating beause I've always been fascinated by what I consider an arresting image, such as the current ISIS cover.

I'd like to think it's my inner artist coming out but that's possibly being a little bit precious. However, it's why I used to collect newspaper snippets and art gallery postcards, and collage them on my walls - this was in the days before I discovered style. (Nowadays I do the same thing with flickr and online newspapers.)

So, my question is, can a sequence of images be considered a creative work in its own right?

Well if an exhibition is a creative work, this is a creative work, which means it ought to be captured and archived, something which brings a whole range of problems, as it's not just the images we need to capture, but also the metadata and additional information, as well as the metadata of the set - and that's before we even think of a derived work created by someone from existing creative commons licensed images ...

Archiving and capturing blogs is difficult
, but this takes it to a whole new level ...

Tuesday, 23 February 2010


As those of you who've been paying attention at the back will know, I've just got myself a new laptop. I also have a Windows Live account with its amazing 25GB of storage, which I'm sure Microsoft hope you'll never actually use, or at least never come close to filling the entire 25GB.

So the obvious question is - can you mount your skydrive from your windows desktop. It turns out that you can, and that Gladinet sell a rather nice applet (there's a restricted free version and academic pricing as well) that lets you do just that, as well as mounting your Google docs filestore, Amazon S3, hosts with ftp access, wedav hosts, and half a dozen others I havn't come across.

Gladinet both allows you to copy (back up) files between your pc and your remote filestore and to move files between remote filestores. As an experiment I got Gladinet to backup my Google Docs folder to my Windows Live Skydrive, and 45 minutes later, there they were, all converted to doc files for download and reuse.

As a demonstration it was pretty impressive, even if it wasn't something you wouldn't ordinarily do, given we trust both Microsoft and Google not to lose your files, although of course it does provide security for that moment when you realise not only have you deleted a crucial file but it's expired out of the trash ...

In parallel to this there's been a thread on the Windows-UK discussion list about staff and student filestore in universities. Basically very few universities offer more than 5GB and most offer 1 or 2GB - 1GB being the same as you get with google docs.

Technologies like Gladinet allow students and staff to use storage provided by other providers in an integrated manner. Given most students use their own computers for at least some of their work, wedav enabling student filestore would allow them to treat that filestore as a dropbox to then move files to their google docs folder to work on them via a low cost netbook such as my Asus travel computer, or indeed to their home machine or machines.

It does of course mean that we are expecting students to take more responsibility for their data, but actually no more than when we have them walking about with material on USB sticks to allow them to move between different computers.

This could get interesting ...

Monday, 22 February 2010

Windows licensing

Being reassimilated by the borg has led me back to the question of windows licensing, especially as Microsoft now installs a little bit of DRM software to report back to galactic central if you have any incorrectly licensed Microsoft software.

Well I don't have any incorrectly licensed microsoft software, so I don't care if it does so or not. Now to do this the application probably queries the registry, so it could conceivably record and tell the borg I've got OpenOffice installed. So what? It's not illegal to install Open Office and if the fact I've got it installed ends up being used for marketing purposes it's no big deal. After all I've just posted on my blog that I've uninstalled the evaluation version of Office that came with my machine and installed Open Office in preference.

In fact I'll make my position on Windows licensing clear - it will come as no surprise to Microsoft - I've been saying this in various fora for 15 years or so
  • For server based applications an average concurrent use model is fairer than one based on absolute seats
  • Microsoft has acquired a quasi monopoly in a range of application spaces. This is not healthy as it inhibits competition and thus development. It also allows the vendor to charge more than the market valuse of the applications as there is in effect, no market
  • Microsoft Exchange is overcomplicated, resource hungry and does not scale well
  • Microsoft is the dominant operating system provider and as such is in a position to inhibit third party software development
  • I have nothing against Microsoft Office, I just find that in Open Office and AbiWord in combination give me a better set of tools for text conversion, recovery and manipulation.
  • Archival document formats should be publicly described and it should be readily demonstrable that third party applications that can read these formats can be developed using the public description.
  • Microsoft .doc is a defacto document interchange format. Applications such as WordPerfect 8 or 9 which did not handle .doc well should be deprecated
  • Microsoft is a reality which is unlikely to go away. It is better to try and work with them than to grow a beard and snipe from the sidelines

Sunday, 21 February 2010

being reassimilated by the borg

well, I finally got my new shiny dell laptop complete with windows 7, despite dell's mildly appalling order tracking site simultaneously telling me it was due for delivery while the progress tracker still claimed that it ws still in the assembly plant in Malaysia.

Never mind, it did turn up the next day, and certainly as a machine it's pretty nice. But after two years never touching a windows machine, windows was a bit of a shock, or more accurately, the crap, especially the scareware, packaged with it was.

  • No I do not want the tracking service in case it is stolen
  • No I do not want the remote storage option, laudable as it may be, I have other machines, and other ways of storing data
  • No I do not want an evaluation version of Office 2007. I can buy it if I need it
  • No I do not want to install remote access software to let a call centre take control for remote fault diagnosis
  • Yes I do really want to use open office, even if it is written by a gang of hippies
  • Yes I do prefer Firefox - really
etc, etc - three days on I'm still weeding out crap. And windows still has a slightly clunky feel to it after OS X and Linux. Things like it saw the wireless router but I wanted to plug it into a wired connection while I downloaded data and software seemed to really confuse it, and other things are just not intuitive.

On the other hand it does seem to let me access the internet, access the computer's resources, and given that I live in the google ecology most of the time I'm online I can just about ignore it - which is a test of any good operating system.

I'm happy that with windows 7 I can do everything I can do with other operating systems, and so far windows seems stable, in other words reassimilation hasn't yet been the slightly annoying experience I half expected. Or more accurately Microsoft can't be blamed for the annoying crap shipped with their operating system. I'm particularly annoyed about the scareware, and things like having an antivirus service installed, when I've already got a subscription to another one.

It would be better if you were presented with a list of options, and more crucially for things like the tracker service, or the online backup service, that said it's $9.95 a month or whatever - sorry, but the way they had these things presented reminded me irrestibly of Ryanair and their desire to part people from their money.

As for windows, the only annoyance is that when I leave the machine in hibernate mode overnight, it wakes up to check for updates at three in the morning and then doesn't go back to hibernate mode. Ths is doubly annoying as I've got an illuminated flashing usb mouse on it (it was the cheapest in the store - honest), which of course fallhes half the night and means that the cat inevitably comes to tell me that the machine is flashing - letting the furry bugger sleep in the study was not one of my better moves.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Buzz clogs your sent mail folder

Google Buzz, Google's latest addition to gmail that harvests and redistributes content - basically to give gmail a facebook-lite type of experience has the rather annoying feature that it creates a message in your sent mail folder for every item harvested - so send twenty tweets - get twenty messages.

Now, if you use your sent mail folder to check what you said in a previous email (always a good idea if a followup email is needed) it becomes difficult to find said item by eyeballing the message list. (yes I know you could search, but it seems overkill for a message you sent yesterday).

The solution is of course simple - Buzz (a) creates the message as coming from me and (b) prefixes the subject of the item it creates in the sent folder with "Buzz:" making it easy to write a filter to delete the items. This isn't quite perfect, as gmail doesn't really believe in folders meaning that the filter could potentially delete a message if I was to send myself one with a subject line starting "Buzz:" but it's probably good enough for most cases.

(BTW, this reminds me of a problem with early versions of Eudora for the Mac which used to automatically encode binary files with binhex and prefix the encoded file with 'this file is encoded with binhex 4.0'. Unfortunately Eudora would look for this phrase and then try and decode all following text, meaning that support desk messages asking people to check for the string in messages which refused for some reason to decode could never be read as they failed to decode ... )

Friday, 12 February 2010

did an australian meteorite cause the anglo saxon migrations

One from the department of wacky but intriguing ideas:

I recently tweeted a couple of links (Mail Online, National Geographic) on whether a large meteorite hit the Gulf of Carpentaria around AD530, and the resulting debris caused global cooling in the northern hemisphere with crop failures, possibly increasing the pressure on the peoples who became the Anglo Saxons to migrate to England from Frisia and also that it was easier for them to establish and expand their poplulations as the British successor states ability to resist encroachment was reduced as the result of famine.

As I say, intriguing. If as has been suggested, the plague of Justinian had had a greater impact of the British population because of greater exposure through continental trading links, it could just be so - sick and starving versus just plain starving.

What I also like is the rather cool way it ties Duane Hamacher's apparently unconnected research into the recording of astronomical events in Aboriginal dreamtime stories, and shows that all knowledge is useful ...

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Killing Paleography

The proposal to shut down paleography at KCL has created a bit of a stoush, especially when seen in the context of all the other cuts to universities in the UK. While universities have always closed courses and departments because they're not cost effective - for example the closure of chemistry at a number of prominent universities - it always does seem that it's the Arts and Humanities that unfairly take the majority of the cuts - something that always put me in mind of Pinochet and his generals, fired up on monetarist theory and economic realism, ordering the universities in post-coup Chile to purge themselves of 'useless' subjects.

Universities are businesses. However universities are about teaching people to think, and challenge people, to stretch the best and brightest, and to do that you need to pique people's interest. Universities are not about vocational education - though there is a temptation to see them as factories for producing doctors, lawyers or accountants - but about getting people to the point where they can master complex material, draw conclusions and argue from it - which is an incredibly valuable skill for the public service, running a bank, or planning a project.

Just because there seems to be an endless supply of fusionless drippy English graduates is no more a reason for closing English faculties than the plethora of boring stay-press trousered accountants is for closing business schools, And this leads me on to the other arguement - things like paleography contribute immensely to our intellectual capital - like say character recognition and automatic handwriting recognition - as well as contributing in other ways. For example, one might think that the study of Tudor court history was for the chop, but no one can doubt that David Starkey is both and entertaining and erudite exponent of it, and that scholars of that calibre are an ornament to our society, even if some (most ?) of them lack David Starkey's pizzaz and presentation.

My other point is that when people ask what is the use of a particular subject, the real answer is that one never knows. One might guess but anything more than five years out is wild speculation.

Look for example at the closing of Russian departments in the 1990's. Well, we'd won the cold war, Russia was no longer a political or military threat, so stuff it. Looks rather different now when Russia is an economic power possessed of vast gas and oil supplies, minerals and the rest, and soon to be the only nation with a demonstrated capability to send crews for the ISS into space.

On indeed, look at the Honorable Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia, who has a degree in Chinese literature. He's roughly the same age as me, which means when he was struggling through the Chinese classics, China was emerging from the throes of the cultural revolution and notable only for producing very robust bicycles. His choice of study must have looked incredibly geeky at the time. Now it looks shrewd, especially given his undoubted language skills and the importance of China as an export market for Australian minerals - of which by the way, at least one major nickel mine is part owned by a Russian consortium ...

Sunday, 7 February 2010

The $83 machine is no more ...

The $83 home made machine is no more.

Yesterday it refused to boot, or power off. Opened it up, reseated memory, disk cables, which improved it a little more if some piteous buzzing and beeping can be called an improvement. I have this distinct feeling it's a motherboard fault - yes I could do some more diagnostics, unplugging disks etc, but given it's general failure to do anything it looks fairly terminal.

At the same time the ppc imac in the study is clearly coming to the end of its useful life - not because it's unreliable or slow, but because as I've moved to using more and more features of the Google ecology I find that the browser version supported by the operating system simply doesn't work that well with Gmail or Google docs. So it's headed to the garage as an extra machine for random extra browsing.

So what to do? Basically go and buy a new cheap laptop as a desktop replacement, in my case a Dell Inspiron 15. 64-bit windows 7 and no option for alternative operating systems so I'm going to be re-assimilated by the evil empire, but on the other hand if you work with computers I guess I should know something about windows 7, and with the option of installing virtual box I can run a linux operating system if I want. Add Firefox, Open Office, AbiWord - for its conversion tools, Zotero, and a coupld of bits and pieces and I should be right, though a decent editor might be a bit more of a problem.

I also reckon I can probably install the latest Ubuntu if Windows 7 turns out to be unbearable.

And there's a message here (isn't there always) - if you recycle old machines you've got to be willing to (a) accept that there's a higher risk of component failure and (b) feature creep killing your machines. However it's still a good strategy - I got two productive years out of these machines, and it cost me $20 - given I've still got the second user Sun monitor I paid $63 for. Makes it worth hanging on to the dead machine in case I happen across another machine to cannibalize and turn into a linux only box - which of course is the rub and why shipping old machines to the third world to be re-used is bad - they need higher support costs and more repairmen to keep them going, even though linux and FOSS saves a bundle on licensing costs.

Likewise as a reasonable number of universities in East Africa and elsewhere make use of the Google ecology to keep their ICT delivery costs down, it means that any old machines donated have to support recent environments, or else they are just valueless boat anchors ...

Friday, 5 February 2010

Archival file systems

Most file systems are fairly straight forward - objects are written to them, objects are read from them, objects are rewritten to them, objects are deleted from them. In other words files are created, modified and deleted, and as more files are created than are ever deleted the number of files grows and eventually the filesystem fills up.

In such a context backup is equally straight forward - you periodically copy the files to another lower cost medium, typically tape, and that way you build up a set of copies allowing you to roll back files to a certain point and to guard against corruption by having multiple copies. There is an implication here that the files that are most likely to become corrupt are those that stay on disk longest.

Such filesystems are however very much the middle case. There are extreme examples at both ends. One, as typically exemplified by student filestores, is the case where the system is never quiet and has a high state of churn with lots of files being created, changed and destroyed. The other is the archival filestore, as found in a digital repository, where ideally one never deletes any object from the filestore.

In both of these scenarios what one needs to do is to write multiple copies of the objects, record their checksums and the date the file was last touched (changed), and then periodically rescan the filestore for unexpected anomalous changes ie where one copy is different from all the others and if it is replace it with a known good copy. It's also true to say that as these filestores are not required to handle a lot of fast transactions the write and read performance can be variable with in limits.

Exactly because we are not envisaging their use for high demand transaction processing systems where fast predictable performance is required we can happily use commodity technolgies for the disk systems and ethernet based solutions for the network interfaces, making the solutions potentially cheap to deploy.

Essentially, in both cases we are looking at a clustered self healing network attached filestore built out of commodity technology. Add some geographical separation and we have resilence and the ability to cope with unexpected events such power loss.

The nice thing is that the system is self maintaining once deployed, and also self contained as regards the smarts involved. For our applications it only needs to present a well known interface, such as an ext3 filesystem.

If we wish to run this as a high demand filesystem and support heterogeneous clients we simply need to front end the filestore with simple boxes to re-export the appropriate parts of the filestore.

In the case of archival filestores all access should be mediated by the repository application, but of course there is nothing to stop you reusing the object between multiple applications, so the pdf of a research paper can appear in both an open access repository, a learning objects repository, or indeed a staff directory to generate a dynamic publications list.

However, the key takeaway is that it is fault tolerant. And if it's fault tolerant the individual components don't have to be super reliable - they just need to be reliable enough to ensure that you have enough good copies of the files to cope with component failure or local filesystem corruption. In essance it becomes a local storage cloud...

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

iPads and memes

This post is not really about the iPad it's about memes and production costs.

The concept of the slate computer has entered popular consciousness, in no small part due to Apple's razzamatazz. And undoubtedly it will be a success. The interesting thing is that already there are two possible alternatives - the JooJoo (née Crunchpad and possibly in a death spiral) and a hacked up no name Chinese equivalent with poor battery life.

Of the two, the Chinese machine is the more interesting - it's a simple low cost hardware hack - and something similar combined with ChromeOs or Splashtop would give a similar web viewing content consumption experience. And as Google keep on telling us these days the browser is the user interface - something which is a danger for Apple, as it becomes difficult to claim to be unique and special when other people can offer an equivalent experience. And for a web based experience its browser stability, browser performance, and underlying operating system stability - something the firefox/linux combo certainly delivers.

Apple's user interface experience, and team of dedicated, perfectionist designers, probably means that the iPad is very good at what it does. But with Apple rumoured to be making around $200 profit on the hardware in each iPad, and given that production costs for each equivalent device must be roughly the same there's obviously room for someone to undercut Apple with something pretty similar - after all the Newton lost out to the Palm Pilot, which while cheaper, was by no means an inferior device.

Monday, 1 February 2010

the crt is dead ...

interesting snippet from yesterday's Canberra Times - apparently with the onset of digital television - and the extra channels that's brought, more and more people are dumping their old, but perfectly good, analog glass crt tv's rather than simply going out and buying a set top box. Instead they're going out and buying new plasma and lcd tv's. (And doubtless hard disk recorders as well - the vcr is also a dead technology).

Net result - the recyclers are swamped with perfectly good, if old, tv's.

Basically, the extra digital channels have brought about an 'ipod moment' for digital tv sets. Question is will we see such an ipod moment for e-readers or will it be a slow incremental drift to electronic technologies?