Thursday, 26 April 2012

Gdrive Dropbox and the rest

With the arrival of Google drive and changes in the Windows Live Skydrive terms and conditions remembering which online sharing/backup/cloud storage service does what can be a bit confusing.

For entirely my own purposes, I've put together a spreadsheet tabulating all the offerings and what they do. As I'm sure I'm not the only one in this position, I've made this spreadsheet available, either by clicking on the above link or going to Reuse of the content is governed by a Creative Commons Australia 2.5 license.

Happy to add other products and correct information is required. If you wish to add information please do so via the Comment feature on this blog post.

Android tablets in Asia

Android tablets are popular in China and India has the Aakash tablet, but something that has not got a lot of press outside of Thailand yet is that the Thai government has signed a contract for 900,000 Android 7 inch tablets sourced from Shenzen Scope Scientific in China, with the possibility of a further 700,000 higher spec devices for high school students.

The Thai government is paying around $81 a unit.

So while the iPad has conquered the first world, not only is it failing to gain traction in poorer countries, the basic seven ich devices out of China are building a user base, making one wonder if Android will become the South, SouthEast and East Asian default tablet operating system ...

tablets versus Ultrabooks

News this morning that ultrabook sales are flatlining and that iPad sales continue to amaze.

Now the story of both ultrabooks and tablets is an interesting one. Before tablets, people liked netbooks - small form factor, light, could run a classic software base from windows (or if if you like wearing sandals, linux).

Microsoft of course made the decision not to allow Office to run on Windows 7 Home basic which meant people had not only to pay for Office for their netbook but also an OS upgrade. However Libre/Open Office run well meaning that people with a netbook were not deprived of an office suite, and if the just wanted a word processor AbiWord offered a solid alternative.

Apple didn't do netbooks. Instead they produced the Macbook air, which ran a full spec processor, used SSD storage (just like the original Asus netbook), and a full version of the OS and good battery life.

Not surprisingly business types loved it, finding it more useful than they iPad, as for one thing you could type on it, and a second you could run Office on it.

The rest of humanity decided that they like tablets and for them tablets mean iPads.

Various manufacturers noticed this and rushed out tablets and ultrabooks of their own.

The tablets were mostly based on Android, overpriced and lacked the application base of the iPad. It's a sad fact that battery life apart, my no name Chinese Android tablet is better than J's branded Android tablet. In their rush to differentiate themselves the branded tablet makers tried all sorts of skinnings and tweaks and failed to look at the market properly.  The result was a range of overpriced tablets, all subtly incompatible.

One of the reasons why my no name device is better is because the people who put it together tried to put together an Android mimic of the the iPad - not a clone but a base set of apps with the same functionality and an interface that worked more or less the same. The branded device seeks to be whizzier, but ends up doing less and being confusing as it doesn't follow the tablet computing meme which is currently "work like iOS".

On the other hand pc sales are falling, and there's no doubt part of this is through people buying tablets instead of laptops. Vendors looked at the Macbook Air and thought "we can make a windows version of that and sell it to business types."

Not a bad idea. Light, fast startup, all your familiar tools and programs. The only problem was they failed to notice that the reason a lot of people bought the Air was it was actually cheaper than a full size laptop, and was small and light enough to carry about with you. The Air is a netbook on steroids not a laptop with an SSD and no optical drive.

One thing people clearly need is a lightweight notetaker with a long battery life. A tablet with a keyboard does this, but they do suffer the problem of not having  Office - there are various applications in the android space and Apple offers Pages, but they suffer from the problem that they are not Office. And Asus Prime apart, there really isn't a really cool tablet with keyboard solution out there.

I personally don't have a problem with the lack of Office, and am happy to use a range of products, but business types go all funny about this and claim 'corporate standard' conflating application with document format.

Unfortunately it's a sad fact  that Microsoft owns the office productivity space - that's why Office in terminal session from an iPad is a proposition, and why Libre/Open office and various logo'd version from Sun and IBM never gained any real traction.

So we return to my usual rant. If you need a keyboard you need either a tablet with a keyboard or something else. You also need good productivity software and excellent battery life. This device is also likely to be a second computer, which means you need to be able to run Dropbox, Google Drive or Skydrive - all of which work well, but that latter two are not (yet) truly multiplatform (ie Windows, OS X, Ubuntu, Android, iOS) or an alternative solution like Evernote. What you need is a netbook, and if I  ran a hardware business what I would be looking for is something in netbook format with a reaonable processor that I could sell with windows home premium for substantially less than the Macbook Air.

That way corporate IT can install office on it, install whatever the corporate document syncing solution is, and yet people have a lightweight note take that does everything they need easily and reliably ....

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Taking notes ...

During a pause in proceedings at the Semantic Web meeting yesterday I glanced around to see how my fellow attendees were taking notes. Being a Semantic web seminar we can guess that most people were computer literate and had a choice of note taking technologies available to them Of the 40 or so people present roughly three quarters used good old paper and pencil. Of the remainder, one person used a full size laptop, one person used a netbook and the rest used tablets. I didn't spot anyone using an Ultrabook, but I may have been mistaken.

The preferred tablet was by far and away the iPad, I don't think I spotted a single Android tablet. Half the tablet users typed on the glass keyboard, the others used it like a laptop with an external keyboard, which is interesting given the possiblities of using a tablet plus keyboard combination as a netbook replacement given the usually superior battery life of tablet computers ...

Seminar Report: Pragmatic approaches to the Semantic Web

The semantic web or rather the use of semantic web techniques seems to engender a fair amount of hype, accompanied by groups of wide eyed mystics preaching the gospel of open data and open access.
This seminar was different. Mike Bergman, the CEO of Structured Dynamics is a serious player with a considerable track record in the field, including the original concept of the ‘deep web’, all the data locked away in databases and dynamic web pages generated by content management solutions, and which is inaccessible to standard spidering techniques.

His basic argument was that data could be coerced if it was:

a) structured (either explicitly or implicitly say by using a standard document template)
b) could be expressed using a standard canonical model such as RDF
c) could use simple ontologies for wordld views
d) was subject to curation

It was his view that expecting organisations to provide beautifully marked up data as a public good was unrealistic - and it was better to go searching for sources that could be used and coerced (my personal favourite example is library finding aids - they usually have a lot of information and follow a standard format, meaning it is reasonably simple to write some code to pull them apart and do MARC lookups as required to assemble a set of standard RDF documents) to extract data.

As well as linked data being burdensome to produce, Mike pointed out a range of common problems including the over use of SameAs when generating mappings and the general lack of agreed vocabulary alignments (something the DCMI is looking at) and the poor curation of data, vocabularies and schemas - it is no use being reliant on an external schema if the server is always down.

To gain true value we need agreement on vocabulary mapping and alignments so that we can meaningfully map and combine data sources - Mike pointed out the LODLAM (Linked Open Data - Libraries, Archives and Museums) community as a good example of this.

He also pointed out the role of Natural Language Processing in helping elucidate structure in unstructured documents such as automated concordancing to work out which terms relate to which in a document.
He was also strong on the need for proper curation of infrastructure and data sources - the schemas, the vocabularies, the data needs to be properly managed and have persistance - ie not only available but with a long term guarantee of availability and a persisting URI even if the underlying servers change.

The seminar was non technical, but valuable for communicating what is required to make this semantic web thing work from from someone who does this for money rather than as theoretical or academic exercise.

[this seminar was organised by the Canberra Semantic Web Meetup group - slides from the presentation should be online from the group's website in the next day or so]

[slides are now online - 01 May 2012]

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

How much is enough?

We're all bombarded with mobile phone plans offering more and more minutes or more and more data for a standard monthly fee, and with ISP's offering phenomenal amounts of data - the 150Gb for $70/mo crew, all of whom do so in the knowledge that 90% of their client base won't use it and that the other 10% can be slugged with punitive excess usage fees the moment they step out of their allocation.

The point being that once you have excess capacity, enough to accomodate the outliers, you can start supersizing your offerings and in the process get people to pay for more than they need becuase it looks like such a good deal (just the same way supermarkets offer you six, as opposed to four, cents off a litre of fuel if you spend more than $150 in a single transaction)

Interestingly I think we're on the edge of seeing this with 'free' storage: Windows Live offers you a massive 25GB - probably more than most people will use, iCloud 5GB, Google is reputed to be about to offer a 5Gb Gdrive and Dropbox 2Gb with sync. There are others, such as Box with similar offerings. Evernote bases costs on usage, not data stored.

Now when my work mac slowly borked itself I burned myself a dvd of my documents and desktop - it came to just over 4 Gb for six years worth of work and projects. Embarrassingly the downloads folder came to just under 25Gb - just showing how bad I've been at cleaning out pdf's and drafts of shared documents. (The other lesson is that using de facto standard document formats, doc(x), odt, xls, ods, pdf is a really good thing)

But what we can draw from this is that for someone using their machine for work and creating a lot of text based documents (as opposed to movies or images) you need somewhere between 5 and 25GB, ie you are unlikely to fill the hard disk of any modern laptop during the lifetime of the machine. What's more, unless you work intensively with images, video and sound you are unlikely to accumulate more than ten times the average, which is still less than a disks worth.

So, people who are disorganised and profligate, like me, could happily use current free cloud storage for their work over a reasonable time without bumping into usage restrictions.

The implication is that provided one has reasonable connectivity a syncing storage model like dropbox or evernote is perfectly tenable, as is working with cloud based storage and applications, meaning that one doesn't need that much locally, making the use of low capacity machines such as tablets or netbooks a viable computing option ...

Friday, 13 April 2012

Really living in the cloud ...

I have periodically ranted on about how it's applications that are important, not platforms, the browser is the new desktop etc etc.

Well I've had to eat my own dogfood. My work laptop started showing all sorts of weird permission based problems and lost blocks on the disk so it's gone off to be poked at and either rebuilt or acquire a replacement hard disk.

That of course left me with a problem - no work laptop. I could have brought in my personal windows 7 machine fom home  but instead opted to use my linux (ubuntu) development machine.

As my mac was dying I'd had the good sense to burn myself a dvd of my recent work and move the really recent documents into either windows live skydrive or google docs, and have chrome sync things as well as installing Chromium on my ubuntu machine.

I also piped my work email into my personal gmail account so that I only needed on mail feed - incidentally this also works really nicely on the android email reader - all your work mail sitting there neatly sorted into a folder for you to ignore.

Twitter's not a problem for me as luddite  that I am I use the web version.

So how's it going?

Pretty good, but not perfectly:

  • No unbuntu evernote client. NixNote/Nevernote is slow to update and the web version is a little slow
  • No editing complex spreadsheets with macros. Windows Live's Excel client doesn't like them and neither does libre office. But at least you can look
  • Google Docs doesn't like some embedded images . So far Libre Office has got me out of the hole
Otherwise it's all there - you really can do everything that you would normally do on a normal desktop or laptop, which means that you could probably get away with something more basic such as a netbook in a lot of cases.

The key of course is that I'm sitting on high speed university network that basically doesn't ever go down. If I was working at home on our attenuation challenged adsl service that seems to go down several time a day it might be a more frustrating experience.

I don't have enough experience of working plugged into a 3G network to make a call on how good an experience that would be - certainly when I recently did a review for librarything I wrote the review using AbiWord on my netbook and uploaded it as I was only getting a reliable 2G GPRS service at the time as opposed to the more usual 3G service.

So, conclusions

1) yes you can work in the cloud using free apps but Google Apps and Windows live is not an either/or  - you really need both they both have strenghts
2) you need a really really good reliable network connection
3) the underlying operating system is irrelevant but it does need to provide a decent pdf viewer and office aware suite capable of dealing with the newer Office 2010 formats
4) having essentially the same browser across machines is a boon, especially when you can sync data
 between them
5) dropbox (or equivalent) is your friend - keep your work there by default
6) Skydrive and its 25GB storage is a lifesaver

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Clay Johnson - the Information Diet

I've just reviewed Clay Johnson's book for LibraryThing - see if you're curious.

On the whole I didn't like the book - a potentially interesting idea spoiled by an overstretched analogy and a lack of appreciation of life outside of the American bubble - in its way proving that America is a parallel but separate reality.

As always your milage may vary but this is one I'd take a long look at in the bookstore before deciding to buy ...

Friday, 6 April 2012

only 54% of Australian homes have wifi

I tweeted a link to a report from the Register to the effect that 54% of Australian homes have wifi compared to around 74% in the UK. At the same time another survey claims that less than a third of 'smart' tv owners have plugged their tv's into their home network.

The real question is why so low - almost everyone seems to have a laptop or a tablet so you would tend to expect that they would have ADSL and a wifi router at home - or is it because a reasonably large number of people use 3G in preference over the sometimes erratic and pathetic fixed infrastructure that is Telstra's copper network.

Certainly 3G is a revelation - I recently purchased a Virgin broadband key and 4GB of data to free me from the perils overpriced hotel wifi and the service is  as fast and reliable as hotel wifi and at 4GB with 30 day expiry and a 'free' key (usb modem) for $25. Recharges are similarly priced.

At home we use around 8 or 9GB of data a month - we're not big downloaders on the whole,  and the service can't cope reliably with streaming media.

Given what we pay for our service, buying the equivalent amount of data from Virgin would be cheaper, except that of course we need wifi for the tablets, the kindle, fixed ethernet for the laser printer and the internet radio and sometimes we want to run multiple devices at once, but in a house hold of one (which is of course a growing trend getting you internet over 3G would see worthwhile and cost effective ... 

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The logistics of early printing

I was watching Stephen Fry on TV last night talking about early printing, and I was struck by the thought that it must have been a damned inefficient business - say about an hour to set up and proofread a page and about a minute to print a single page, meaning that printing 500 pages on an early printing press would take most of a day, and book of a hundred or so pages close on three months to print and bind.

I'm going to guess that a good copyist could write a legible page in under ten minutes, meaning that it would take a little more than two days to produce a single copy. Now of course the printer needed a couple of lads to help him and they needed to be paid. So if we say a copyist was paid the same as a printer we really ought to have two copyists doing this to account for the printers lads. If you work through the maths you can come up with the conclusion that in three months our pair of copyists would have managed to knock out around a hundred copies as well as ending up with a terminal case of writers cramp.

The important point is that printing books was only five times more efficient than copying - a decent gain but not startling. Of course as the size of the print run goes up it becomes more and more efficient, but even with a run of a couple of thousand it can't have been that efficient.

And this goes part of the way to explain the paucity of printed books in sixteenth and early seventeenth century even in moderately well off homes - they were expensive and hard to produce - hence the lack of penetration.

Chapbooks and pamphlets were another thing entirely - by late Tudor times pamphlets and ballad sheet were widespread and sold for a penny or so they helped spread the news.

It's interesting that government was also quick to adopt the technology - when Henry VII died in 1509 Richard Pynson, the royal printer was used to print copies of the decree announcing pardons on the accession of Henry VIII to ensure their widespread (and accurate) distribution throughout England.

The licensing of printers in Tudor times has always struck me as a parallel to the control of xerox machines and gestetner machines in the old Soviet Union - no one or only a very few were going to use them to produce a copy of Solzhenitsyn, but as a way of producing a flyer or samizdat newsletter they were unparalled ...

The end of the letter?

Postal services are dying the world over.

In the States the USPS is closing a swathe of rural post offices, and in the UK the cost of letter delivery is about to skyrocket rendering first class mail unaffordable.

In Australia the personal letter service still exists, but in an attenuated form - no Saturday delivery - a single delivery anytime during the business day, and no next day delivery except for mail in the State and Territory capitals and a few other larger towns. Subsidised by the parcel service, at least it's affordable, at $0.60 for a standard letter.

The demise of the letter service has implications for historians of the recent. Before the advent of the penny post - the cheap universal postal service - from the middle of the nineteenth century people did not write letters.

There was of course official correspondence and the occasional personal letter between the great and the good and their spouses, but on the whole people didn't write letters due to the lack of a reliable delivery service, cost, and a lower spread of literacy.

Come the nineteenth century we of course see a rise in literacy and with the penny post letter writing. However because the post was still slow these letters tend to be definite epistles, describing what people have seen and done and in effect act as eyewitness accounts of the times.

And people wrote a lot - if for example you take a look at the Frank Kelmsley blog - a reposting of the diaries of a Canadian soldier in Europe during the first world war the first thing that is remarkable is just how many letters he received.

They also wrote about things - for example Robert Byron's letters home Beijing which give a picture of life among the foreign community in 1930's Peking.

Nowadays with Skype and email people no longer write letters. And because of the immediacy of communication they no longer write long letters - people are more likely to recount matters in a Skype call and only write emails as short notes.

And this has definite implications for the business of history. In one sense today's Robert Byron might well blog about his experiences but then blogging is a public forum and they may be inclined to some reticence on occasions ...

And in this we somersault back to the eighteenth century and earlier where we are reliant on people's diaries and on official correspondance to work out what people thought and felt about matters ...

when did the great war stop being great in NZ?

Way back in August last year I blogged about how using Tim Sherrat's work harvesting data out of the Australian newspaper archive coluld let you see when people changed their usage of a certain stock phrase - in this case when they stopped referring to world war one as the 'Great War'.

Tim has now gone and done it again - this time for the New Zealand newspaper archive. Unfortunately the archive stops at 1940, but their just a hint that it's going to parallel the Australian pattern.

Tim's work can be found at