Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Irish Catullus

Happenstance is a wonderful thing.

By sheer chance I happened across The Irish Catullus, a project to produce a translation of Catullus in Irish English, Scots Gaelic and Ulster Scots.

My immediate reaction was that this sounded fun, fascinating and the rest of it, in just the same way that Baba Brinkman's rap Canterbury Tales were fun.

So I went googling for more information, expecting to find a project home page, or a facebook group with updates as to where they were up to with plans for publication. (or how likely given the gfc).

Rien, zilch, nada. Not a link, just references in other pages suggesting that the project is still a goer. But no information on publication ...

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Interead Cool-er - first look

Since I've been going on about digital book readers I decided to invest in one to see what one would do for me.

I chose the Interead Cool-er as it seemed the most open - ie not tied to any book distributor- yet supported a wide range of common fromats including pdf and text - which are particularly important to me as I have a large number of pdf's that I occasionally need to refer to and currently live inaccessibly on a Window live Skydrive.

Basically we're talking about product manuals, documentation and the like, as well as pdf's of medieval texts and other historical stuff.

So I had a sensible use case for the device.

So I duly plugged it into my mac and charged it up - this revealed that the documentation supplied was minimal to the point of obscure, but it did charge and the mac did see it as a valid volume to copy files to, even if something along the lines of 'while charging you will see a red light and a display saying ''usb connection'' would have helped'.

One slight problem is that files copied from (or actually via) a Mac are created with a data fork and a resource fork, the resource fork files having a filename in the format of ._filename, just the way nfs does it when you write files from a mac to unix filesystem - problem that has bedevilled the support of heterogeneous environments.

Unfortunately the Cool-er isn't quite sophisticated enough not to display files prefixed by ._ (which is strange given it's based on a linux kernel and most unix systems do not display filenames prefixed by . by default) - something that didn't faze me but might confuse less technical users of the device.

Otherwise on initial tests of a book in epub format downloaded from project gutenberg and of a pdf of a research paper it worked well.

Page changes involve a shazam style refresh - they're not fast enough to be instantaneous and the buttons require definite pressure but otherwise the device works well with a legible display.

In use the device is lighter than expected, and definitely more plasticy in feel. While it didn't come with a carry sleeve, you probably want to lay hands on something suitable if you were carrying it about regularly in a backpack or briefcase

However after a few minutes the reading experience starts to feel natural enough.

I'll experiment further and report on my experience in due course.

Crunchbang Linux continued

Well, after my earlier experiments with CrunchBang linux I decided to install it on the $83 machine as a secondary operating system.

Installation was as smooth and as straightforwards as it was on a VirtualBox VM earlier this week with the machine coping correctly with the Australian locale and the fact that for reasons lost in the mists of history the $83 machine has an old UK format Digital Equipment Corporation keyboard.

The system disk was repartioned sensibly and the installer claimed to import and pick up my various application settings. What it failed to do was to recognise that my home directory was installed on a physically separate volume, ie a second hard disk in the machine - something I'd done originally to allow multiple operating system installs.

The other oddity was that it when updating its libraries from the Ubuntu repositories it seemed to have the gb locale hardcoded rather that the more sensible au locale. (Given I'm in Australia)

Other than that the install seems reasonably fast and responsive, and would seem a reasonable choice for an older laptop, assuming that wireless support works well.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Students living in shipping containers ...

No, not a tale of student poverty, but actually something quite upmarket, not unlike these how to live in 35 square metres demos that IKEA had in their stores a couple of years ago.

Anyway, The ANU has started building student residences out of shipping containers, which is really cool - pour the slab, stack up the containers like lego, connect up power, data, water, and there you go.

Of course it's not quite like the Jetsons - being real life it involves contractors moving earth, pouring concrete, and plumbers and sparkies to connect things up, bit it's still pretty impressive...

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

LMS migration publicity

Publicising learning management system migrations is out of my remit, but out of the people who worry about such thing, someone came up with this movie as a suggested intro - certainly touched my funny bone (and different!)

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

How not to buy a mobile phone

I've decided to buy a new mobile phone.

I know the phone I want, the plan I want, the network I want. What could be easier than to order it online?

And the order process was straightforward. Except that they wanted to deliver it to my home address between 0900 and 1700, ie when I would be at work. And it had to be me, to sign for it in person.

Obviously this was silly, so I phoned the call centre to ask if I could collect it from their local shop on campus, or alternatively have it delivered to my office address. After all the courier service they use is the same one that other vendors use to deliver spare server parts, so none of it would be a surprise to them

Calling the call centre was a big, I mean big, mistake.

The first call centre operator kept on putting me on hold while she found out that she couldn't do any of these things, and then lost the call. I redialled and got someone else. He claimed he could do all these things. He couldn't. More time wasted.

They now claimed that the order could not be cancelled and that the only way was to reject the delivery. Given their general incompetence at everything else I asked them to email me to confirm this. No they couldn't do that either.

I even got to talk to a supervisor who claimed they would credit my account with $10 as compensation for wasted time - not helpful when they couldn't actually deliver my phone to somewhere sensible.

The annoying thing is it is the deal I want (and no, for once it's not telstra or optus)...

update (21/10/2009)

Well things are looking up - first of all I found almost the same deal from Virgin, and then the company in question rang me to apologise and to agree to give me a $50 credit on my account in compensation (mind you I havn't seen the confirmation email yet)

What's more the courier company took the phone to the local (and slightly inconvenient) post shop for collection. The question remains of course why they couldn't let me collect it from a post box - again I'd still have had to show id to collect it ...

Sunday, 18 October 2009

crunchbang linux

As regular readers will know, I spend some of my evenings buggering about with old machines, otherwise known as carrying out informal technical evaluations.

Something I've been playing with recently is the crunchbang linux live cd perhaps with a view to loading it on the $83 machine instead of classic ubuntu.

After all 90% of what I do is web based, blogger gmail, and google docs or zoho for writing and comparitievly little is done with a classic locally installed app, and when I do it's usually kwrite or abiword - so crunchbang seemed a likely possibility.

Crunch bang is basically like an up to date fluxbuntu - lightweight, enigmatic with a rightclick on the desktop metaphor but not immediately obvious. In fact it's based on the ubuntu 9 base.

Now having run fluxbuntu in a vm I'm quite happy with this. So Crunchbang looked a natural, and certainly everything seemed to work on the live cd, except it was slow - very slow. Now it is the $83 machine with only 192MB RAM but lightweight distros should surely run well - after all ubuntu 8 runs pretty well.

So I have a dilemma - crunchbang looks good, looks promising, but should I trash what I've got for a new distro?

Not sure, probably the go would be to build a vm using virtual box on the 'proper' computer which has plenty of grunt and see how that goes ...

Which is exactly what I did, configuring a machine with a purposely small disk and small amount of physical memory.

The install is easy. It asks some very simple questions, including one about setting up autologin for that instant-on netbook experience, sets a mac-like default name for the host and you're up and running.

It's reasonably responsive. Installing the non-standard kwrite was straightforward once I remembered to re-initialise the libraries and it looked good.

Generally performance is very much like fluxbox, but with the advantage it's built on a more recent code base.

Would I change? Possibly. The $83 machine is very much a play machine and running something different might be fun, and as I said all I need for 90% of everything is a web browser ...

Friday, 16 October 2009

Archiving Blogs ...

increasingly blogs are being used as a means of scholarly communication, as a research diary, etc, etc, which means that in this world of scholarly outputs and the need to capture and archive them, if only because we know intuitively that many more researchers and academics blog than use institutional blog services.

Most either have a blog site running on a machine under their desk (I exaggerate, but there are cases frighteningly like this) or by using an externally hosted service such blogger or

As we know from the JournalSpace fiasco, and as we've seen with other services such GeoCities and Macmail closing down or just plain disappearing we do need to think about the long term preservation of blog content, if for no other reason that we cannot be assured of the quality or reliability of other people's backups, or the likelihood of external free hosting providers wishing to continue to provide a service.

However I have just happened across a paper presented earlier this month at iPres09 which suggests a breathtakingly simple methodology - essentially take the RSS feed of a blog and repost it to a private instance, where the content can then be backed up in a manner that guarantees its long term availaibility.

It's an extremely neat idea as
  1. it makes no assumptions about the blog being backed up other than the availability of an RSS feed
  2. no special software or configuration is required on the host rendering it ideal for archiving externally hosted blogs where it unlikely blog authors have system level access
  3. posting to a private instance means that the archive can be kept dark until such time that access is lost to the original content
The other thing which I like about it is that if a number of people feel a particular blog's content is worth archiving we will end up with multiple copies increasing the likelihood that content will be preserved - for after all institutions may decided to stop archiving particular blogs, perhaps because a research project has finished, or the academics concerned have moved elsewhere ...

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Google oddity

Google appears to have decided that National Australia Bank's internet banking service is in Dutch..

Plagiarism and authorship

Yesterday I tweeted a link on someone who had used a plagiarism detection package to show that perhaps Shakespeare did not work alone, at least for his early plays.

As always the article was accompanied by the faint sound of empires being defended as reputations, and years of literary scholarship, were felt to be under threat by the rude mechanicals.

Actually it's quite a clever technique. For example the chronicle for Fredegar is in part thought to be derived from Gregory of Tours History of the Franks and compiled by three separate authors.

Statistical analyses of phrase frequency (for that's all the plagiarism detection packages really are), would let us show whether that was plausible.

Equally, for many medieval texts there is no definitive source. All there are are copies of copies from which we synthesise a likely translation. Nothing wrong with that, translation has always been in part a creative activity to make texts read well.

However, what the plagiarism detection systems could possibly do is allow us to see which texts most closely resemble each other.

So if we have four texts, A, B, C and D and we can show that B closely resembles A, and that both have reasonable resemblance to C as also C has to D, but that D differs from A/B more than it does from C we could guess that A/B are copies of each other, that one of them was copied from C and that D was copied from C separately, perhaps by someone else entirely.

Scholars have been doing this by hand for years, and possibly with greater accuracy. However computers are good at counting things, and with cheap OCR and the digitisation of transcriptions of the various manuscripts via programs such as GoogleBooks, it would be possible to run these analyses relatively simply and cheaply.

Even if all it does is confirm existing scholarship we have learned something. If it throws up something else that could be rather interesting ...

Monday, 12 October 2009


For those of you who don't know, Australian magpies are nasty birds and prone to attack cyclists.

Over the years, people have tried various solutions, such as fake eyes and cable ties attached to bike helmets, none of which really work, even if they do help brighten up the urban landscape.

Some guys here at ANU tried some experiments to see what works and what doesn't: and

I'm now looking forward to a craze for day glo afro bike helmet covers ...

honeysuckle creek

Went up to Honeysuckle Creek yesterday - it's the site of one of the old earth receiving stations used to relay messages and tv pictures from the Apollo missions - in fact it was where the first pictures of Neil Armstrong on the moon were received.

After various programs ended in the early eighties they took the dish down and removed the infrastructure, just leaving the concrete foundations and the iron stubs of the dish mount.

Apart from some sign boards and a stainless steel marker to commemorate it's role in history it's utterly enigmatic - sure you can see the remains of a shower base and tell what was concrete floor and what was car park, but it's basically all going back to bush, other than a small area used as national park campsite.

And that's interesting as it shows just how enigmatic and difficult to analyse sites are. Here is a a well known site, where the plans are known. But over thirty years tree roots have started to lift the concrete, the tarmac has started to decay, soil and leaves have started to build up and the scrub has started to grow. And that's on a site visited by tourists and bushwalkers, and occasionally tidied up by national parks staff ...

Being wireless - part ii

The other thing with wireless communications, needless to say, is that as you're not tied to infrastructure, you can be anywhere there's a signal, which can be a boon for fieldwork, be it botany, zoology, archaeology or whatever, making the uploading of data so much more easy, rather than having to ship data about, with the consequent risk of losing data, mislabelling of data and the like ...

Monday, 5 October 2009

being wireless

It's a long weekend in Canberra this weekend, and in true holiday weekend tradition it's raining. So instead of going for a serious walk or getting on with the gardening we went for a long wet drive out into the country to find a cafe for a nice coffee and cake.

Our journey took us through Gundaroo, which we've always liked, and once even thought about buying a house in, when suddenly the penny dropped - with wireless a wireless data connection you really don't need infrastructure, ie with a skype in number to let people who only have landlines call you and a decent enough data plan you can live anywhere within range of a 3G service - you really have cut the cord, just like these irritating adds for unwired where the woman cuts the phone cable and drops her old phone in the bin, and indeed just like our asian floor installers have done.

Sociologically this is quite interesting - in Canberra where there are a lot of people who rent, not to mention a large floating student population the idea of a box you take with, plug into the wall wherever you lay your head, and there's your phone, your internet, your life, why would you bother with a fixed connection?

An there are other implications. Just as in Morocco where the cellphone network has effectively replaced the fixed wire network - greater reliability, greater coverage, greater penetration, one could imagine that in country Australia wireless broadband being a sensible alternative to stringing fibre optic cabling round country towns.

However, once one gets to the cities you need FTTH just becuase of the population densities - and it means you can defray your costs by renting spare bandwidth to the cable tv companies - in just the same way as in France you get adverts for phone+tv+internet packages for EUR40 a month.

However this cuts the other way - wireless broadband will never have the bandwidth to deliver these additional services, meaning the bush is stuck either with the free to air digital channels or the overpriced football obsessesed satellite services.

So wireless is a valuable stopgap for lots of reasons. What it isn't is a replacement to FTTH infrastructure, which leaves the problem of how you get fibre out to remote towns ...

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Technology and the (almost) virtual company

Well, we've reached that time in our home renovations where we're ready for new flooring, and we thought we'd use the same people as last time, who are basically a hard working family of asian migrants, and who source their material direct from China and VietNam.

Last time, which is four years ago now, they were in a short term temporary lease shopfront in Dickson, in ChinaTown, but that's now a stylish VietNamese restaurant.

Googling for them brought up their website and their current address, now in a rather tatty industrial unit in Mitchell.

Well we went out there, looked at the flooring displays, chatted about costs, etc etc.

But what struck me was the sheer minimalism of the operation - a storage unit, a painted out office with the displays, a couple of mobile phones, and a wireless broadband connection - and I'd guess a skype account, both for overseas chats with suppliers and to provide a skype in number for people to call as if to a landline.

And that was it. The website, some technology, and the flooring. Yes sure they had stock, storage and a truck, but basically the whole enterprise would have fitted into the truck, enabling them to move from one cheap short term leased facility to another, and as all their technology was mobile no disconnection, reconnection or cabling fees.

And of course, as people only buy wood flooring a couple of times in their life, almost every customer is a first time customer, so the fact they keep changing physical addresses isn't a problem.

Strangely impressive as a business model...