Thursday, 21 July 2011

And what about the filestore ?

The odd thing about this synced everywhere world is that no one is talking about the role of company or institutional filestore.

Which is kind of interesting. One of the remaining justifications for maintaining a central corporate filestore is control of intellectual property. The other big one is ensuring data integrity.

Of course people don't save things logically to the central store anyway - disk space on their laptop is such as to be effectively infinite, and the reason dropbox is so popular is that users don't need to think about it - just set it up so it syncs your working documents folder - never mind that a copy of your files is now spinning somewhere in Ktoznaetistan ...

Yet there is a role for corporate filestore - control of crucial documents, be they financial data, research data or what ever. Control does not just mean access it also means measures to ensure the integrity of the data, and by implication the value placed on it.

Windows live mesh

In a previous post I mentioned how I thought the ideal filestore for a Chromebook style device would be something like dropbox.

You don't of course have to use dropbox, you could of course use Windows Live Mesh that does much the same thing, syncing files between (windows) computers and also between these computers and Skydrive.

And it's now multi platform - or more accurately you can now use it to integrate Mac devices, which probably gives them about 98% of the desktop and laptop computers on the planet. Linux doesn't really count, sorry, but that's the truth.

Crucially of course you can't yet access them natively via Android or from an iPad. Native access is one of the advantages of multi platform sync - having all the documents right there on a highly portable device. No more ruffling through folders at meetings, or discovering too late that you havn't printed a crucial spreadsheet. Hunting through folders with a browser window isn't a substitute.

Compare dropbox's ability to display pdf files on an iPhone or iPad out of the box - or Evernote's (sorry to bang on about it) true multiplatform access.

But it does mean that online/offline/online working is now possible on a 'normal' computer. Sync your documents, work on them on the plane, sync them again when you get where you're going. Couple this with folder sharing, and you've got a pretty effective content creation mechanism...

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Chromebooks and the Ookygoo

I've just tweeted a link to the NZ Herald's review of the Samsung Chromebook, ie Samsung's new laptop designed for the Chrome environment.

In the Chrome environment you have a browser and you run applications in the browser, and store files on the web. Your laptop is not actually a standalone local computer but is in fact an internet terminal.

Exactly how we've been using our Ookygoo, our Asus travel computer for years - purely because the dumbed down interface didn't allow for a lot of flexibility we didn't really use any of the local applications portfolio, with the exception of using the factory installed version of OpenOffice a couple of times at conferences to deal with long complex documents. Most time loading stuff into GoogleDocs is more than adequate.

Also being fundamentally stateless it's an excellent way to work - your data is elsewhere, files are uploaded to somewhere in the cloud, meaning that if the laptop is broken or stolen you havn't lost your data. It's just like having a portable diskless workstation of old, with all the advantages and disadvantages of that - the advantage being is that your data is accessible from any internet connected device that supports a reasonably recent browser, the disadvantage is that you do need that recent browser (and why the ppc imac ceased to be my home desk machine) and that internet connection

Where the Ookygoo scores, and my newer windows based netbook is better, is that it is possible to do stuff locally, or more accurately, where you don't have wifi access.

And this is the rub. One thing that my various experiments with Evernote have taught me is that the ability to have a local document cache is key. If you work with documents, be they copies of emails, pdf's, word files or whatever you need a local copy to add files to and modify. In essence what you need is a dropbox style filestore where you can sync when you get back online. That way you can work on a plane say, and know that you can sync as soon as you get to your hotel, and that the documents will be there in the cloud and shareable with colleagues.

And the lack of this offline capability is probably the greatest downfall of the Chromebook model. It's reliant on good wifi (or 3G) access. Now good wifi access is spotty, as free (as in beer) access is limited for most people to work, home, and just possibly the coffee shop on the corner, with paid for hotspot or 3G internet access being a pretty expensive option on a regular basis, especially if you roam between networks. Certainly my experience with the Ookygoo has shown me that you can do pretty well with access in hotels and coffee shops, but it's often not good enough for serious work on the road.

So, love to play with one, and I think it's great as a travel computing option, but I'm not convinced as to its long term usability as a work solution, especially where there is a substantial offline component - on the other hand it would make a great low maintenance for environments like schools where IT support can be minimal at best, and kids only go from home to school and vice versa, and with all the data stored in the cloud, the 'cat ate my laptop' style dramas are avoided ...

Friday, 15 July 2011

Using Evernote on the move

A long time ago, Ok, a year ago, I mentioned the existence of cheap logoless Android tablet computers. Like Christmas, alternatives to the iPad have been a long time coming but its now possible to buy reasonable looking devices for under $200.

Now they are not iPads, they use resistive touch screens, and from the various English language reviews I've read (and there's not that many out there) battery life is so-so and the speakers are less than flash.

Unfortunately people seem mostly concerned with using them to play videos, while I actually want to do something else - use Evernote on it as a means of stopping the lunacy of having put all my documents into Evernote, and then printing out the relevant ones before a meeting.

But didn't you spend a lot of time arguing that netbooks have advantages over tablets and even go and buy a new netbook?

Yes, I did. And I still believe that for a lot of purposes, mostly revolving around ease of input and content creation that a netbook has significant advantages over a tablet. But equally, having played with Evernote on an iPhone having a tablet like device is ideal for accessing and reviewing documents - pdf's mainly, and as such having a portrait orientation screen is useful.

In other words there is a role for tablets, but as substitutes for armfuls of A4, not as substitutes for netbooks as data input devices. Question is, is it worth $200 to find out if the logoless tablets are a sensible device for this purpose?

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Crowdsourcing with retirees

Retirees, old people, the people you swear at in supermarkets when they can't use the self scanning terminals properly. Well they're not all like that and we will all be old (or dead) one day.

Retirees of course have often had professional careers and have significant, if slightly out of date, expertise. They also often happy to undertake volunteer work, as often they have time to spare. Spot the number of weekday volunteer staff in any museum or art gallery if you have any doubts about this.

Now one of the major problems in digitising museum collections is not photographing and recording the objects, but transcribing the accompanying labels, some of which may have been written over a hundred years ago (and despite what people say, people in the early 1900's or earlier were just as prone to crappy writing) in difficult faded handwriting. Pre computer age retirees, say those who were 45+ in 1990 are of course expert in reading crappy cursive as it was an important lifeskill in deciphering handwritten memos, doctor's scripts, court transcriptions and the rest. They also, quite often, have significant professional expertise in record keeping - in the days before extensive computerisation it was part of their job.

Of course the other advantage in harnessing those retirees who are between 65 and 75 now is that while they learned their skills before computers became widespread in their professions, they are young enough to have had to have used a computer in one form or another in the latter part of their career.

It would be an interesting project to engage people of this ilk in a digitisation and transcription process and then to compare the transcription accuracy with other projects not using retirees to do the transcription.

I suspect that you would find the retirees to be more accurate, if perhaps sometimes a little slower on transcription ...

How many (long) wars?

I've been thinking further about the long war model for the conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century, and now feel it may make more sense to think in terms of two long wars - a European long war which starts in 1914, subsides into a de facto ceasefire in 1923 with the conclusion of a peace treaty with Turkey, only to begin to smoulder again in 1936 with the Spanish civil war, the Saar, followed by the 1938 Anschluss and Sudetenland crisis.

1949 will still do as an endpoint as it marks the end of the Allied military government in Germany and the creation of the GDR and the Bundesrepublik.

In the east, we can posit a second long war, beginning in 1905 with the Russo Japanese conflict, or perhaps a decade earlier with the first Sino-Japanese war, which can be argued to mark the start of a sustained attempt by Japan to expand into Korea and China, and also to acquire territory in the Russian Far East.

That way, Japan's alliance with Britain, France and the US in the 1914-18 conflict makes sense as an attempt to acquire German concession of Kaitschou in China to add to Dalian, which it had acquired as part of the Russo Japanese war and to build a zone of control.

Equally the Japanese reluctance to withdraw their forces from the Amur and Primorye region in the wake of the Russian civil war and the Soviet establishment of a client state in Mongolia, their involvment in Xianjiang, and the Japanese encroachment in Manchuria and Mengjiang make considerable sense.

At the same time we can see Soviet policy aimed at countering Japanese influence and building an effective buffer between themselves and the Japanese area of control.

The endpoint remains 1949 with the establishment of the People's Republic of China, and which marks the end of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Manchuria.

Pre Raphelite drawings at AGNSW

Last weekend we played hooky and went to Sydney, and while we were in Sydney we took in the exhibition of Pre Raphelite drawings which is currently running at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

For those of you interested, John McDonald has a thoughtful and well written review in the Sydney Morning Herald. Well worth a read, as is a trip to the exhibition itself.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

a monopoly of booksellers (part deux)

hot on the heels of news that the Big A was to swallow Bookdepository, comes news (smh, Bookseller) that here in Oz, Pearson, the owners of Penguin, are to buy the online assets of RedGroup.

The reports might be a little confusing but what it means is that the Borders and A&R online sales businesses have been split from the rump of the Borders and A&R bricks and mortar business, and sold off. Borders was a franchise in Australia, originally operated by A&R, which was in turn owned by RedGroup, a private equity group, currently in administration.

Strangely, this might be a good thing as it might provide some local online competition for the Big A, and importantly, allow a way for Australian and NZ publishers to get their material on sale online (as well as short circuiting the absurdity of having books shipped to the UK from the publishers warehouse, only for them to be shipped back again...

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A monopoly of online booksellers

News that Amazon has bought the Book Depository opens the prospect of a near monopoly of online booksellers, given that Amazon already own AbeBooks, the online used book store (and incidentally via Abe a chunk of LibraryThing).

Now the reason that people use online stores are twofold (a) they're cheaper (or should be) and (b) they have everything. Here in Australia we have Borders still hanging on, and well almost no one else. Borders of course is not cheaper, and doesn't have everything, but at least you can have a browsing experience.

Otherwise you buy your books from overseas. And now you really don't have any alternative to the Big A, which doesn't strike me as healthy. One only hopes that competition overseas keeps the buggers honest ...

Otto Habsburg ...

As a coda to my posting on the end of the first world war, today brings news of the death at 98 of Otto Habsburg, otherwise ArchDuke Otto von Habsburg, the eldest son of Karl, the last Emperor of Austria Hungary.

ABC NewsRadio had a nice obituary from Deutsche Welle this morning, which is currently not up on either broadcasters website. Other obituaries include:

Monday, 4 July 2011


I've long been fascinated by the Russian revolution.

Put it down to studying Russian at highschool, and the almost apocalyptic nature of the revolution and subsequent civil war. It is a big, dramatic, frightening story of chaos and collapse, including some very odd characters, some just odd, like Basil the Embroidered, some dangerous, like Nestor Makhno and some both very odd and dangerous such as Ungern von Sternberg.

Simplistically, one could say that the cartoon version goes something like this. "the Bolsheviks seize power. Armed forces loyal to the tsar (and/or the provisional government) try and crush the revolt. Bolsheviks organise a coherent armed response. White forces collapse into individual factions and ethnic liberation groups. White forces fail to come up with a realistic alternative government. White forces collapse into ill disciplined maurauding mobs. Red army crushes individual White armed groups".

As a cartoon it's not too far from the truth. What it misses out is the interventions by the western powers in Azerbaijan, to attempt to secure access to the oilfields, in the north at Archangel to try and bolster the white forces, or in the east, for much the same reason.

The Vladivostok interventions are perhaps the least well known, but the most interesting. Canadian, British, American, Italian and Japanese forces invaded Siberia via Vladivostok with the aim of bolstering the Omsk government of Admiral Kolchak which in 1919, looked most like a coherent opposition and a proper alternative government.

Vladivistok was the port of intervention as it was the terminus of the Trans Siberian railway and the idea was for the forces to proceed west along the railway. Most Russian settlement in Siberia was a string of cities along the railway, separated by forest and largely inhabited by tribal groups who hoped that all the forigners, both Western and Russian would simply go away.

Neither the American or Canadian forces engaged in any substantial military action, although the Italian forces did, in conjunction with the Czechoslovak legion control large parts of the Trans Siberian railway by the use of armoured trains. The American, Canadian, Italian and British forces amounted to less than 10,000 men in total.

In contrast, the Japanese deployed a substantial force of around 70,000 men and clearly intended to establish an amenable regime in Siberia.

In the end it was not to be. The white forces collapsed, and the Japanese, under American and British pressure, withdrew their forces at the end of 1922 despite engaging the Red forces on several occasions in the course of lending support to the Primorye republic.

The point of course is that the Japanese didn't go away. While they withdrew from Russian territory they of course retained control over the South Manchuria railway, which allowed them to later stage the Mukden incident and later occupy Manchuria and establish the short lived puppet state of Manchkuo.

This is a story little known in the west, but one that perhaps ought to be better known, as it clearly was a dry run for Japanese expansion out of Korea into northern China, and thus for the study of the causes of the second world war. Unfinished business indeed.