Thursday, 26 November 2009

Teaching with twitter ?

I have become mildly obsessed with Twitter - in part because it's exasperating - I can see a lot of use cases to do with getting the message out, eg York's use of twitter for system status messages - but they all turn into sand because of the inanity, spam and general irrelevance of much of the content on twitter.

However there's also been a thread of people trying to make the classroom experience (or perhaps even more the virtual classroom experience) better by providing ways for students to interact, for example there's Wild, and also a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about someone using twitter for classroom interaction.

All good, but why not use some inhouse micro blogging service, or in the case of online learning a chat and post facility ? Can it only be because of the hold twitter has on the group mind?

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

EasyJet and Ryanair

When we were overseas this year we used EasyJet and Ryanair for shorthaul flights inside Europe.

At the time I blogged that generally EasyJet were helpful and Ryanair out to gouge.

Well on one of our EasyJet flights one of our bags came back from baggage reclaim minus a couple of new items of clothing which had gone in still with the shop tags on. EasyJet were wonderful - even though we couldn't provide receipts (first rule of travel - throw nothing away) they were prepared to accept our reasonable and honest estimates and proposed a perfectly sensible settlement value. Not only that, they sent us a bank draft in Australian dollars to save us bank charges.

Somehow I feel if it had been Ryanair we'd have been told to piss off long ago. So the morals of the story are:
  • If you have a choice - don't fly Ryanair - check for alternatives on BMIBaby, AerLingus and the rest - with Ryanair's extra fees you may not be as out of pocket as you think
  • EasyJet are good people to deal with
  • Keep every receipt and ATM docket - you might need them when you get home


I've started running again after a fairly long layoff, basically because I was tired of being slightly overweight, and because quite frankly, at the age of 53 I could feel myself beginning to lose strength and fitness.

Riding my bike to work isn't really an option - too far, too hot, too much traffic - one of the downsides of living out in Fadden. (Weetangera was ok, only a couple of scary bits and they weren't really that bad)

So I got myself a pair of shiny new shoes from Running Warehouse and off I went. The first time I tweeted I'd started running again - something I put down to the adrenaline high, because my performance was pretty pathetic.

Today was better, not much but a little better - and in true geek fashion I've started keeping a note of how I'm going - check out if you're interested ...

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


writing from a position of partial ignorance here - all I've seen are the Google posts - but based on my experiences over the past year or so since I started playing with lightweight, ie old, machines - the newest and most powerful being my Asus netbook - aka the ookygoo.

The lessons learned can be summarised as:

  • you don't need a whole lot of compute power
  • you do need good internet access
  • the operating system is basically just a launcher for the browser
  • you spend most of your time in a browser
in fact you spend almost all your time in a browser. In fact I even find myself using zoho and google docs at work simply because it's easier. Both the Asus eee and Crunchbang linux show that realistically all you need is a reasonable user interface to the host operating system. And a decent display - eg google reader doesnt't display well in the Eee's 7" display - on the other hand this would be less of a problem on the slightly larger 10"/11" displays more common in current netbooks.

ChromeOs apparently uses a debian derived (apparently partly via Canonical/Ubuntu) to provide a fast browser launch - so your browser is the user interface, and as life's about the cloud these days that's all you should need (other than a 3G modem and a decent data contract ...)

The more interesting question is wether we will see ChromeOs bundled on machines to provide an instant-on environment the way Splashtop is on some devices, the instant-on environment providing an alternative to other more heavyweight environments with a marked startup time - the use cases including using the splashtop environment for flight checkins and email checking in snatched moments in a cafe but the heavyweight OS to run a preso ...

Monday, 16 November 2009

Playing hooky ...

Faced with an unseasonable 34C day and still waiting for the man to come and install the evaporative cooling system, we decided to play hooky and drive down to the coast.

Typically, by the time we got there the sky was full of dark threatening stormy looking clouds. Still squid and chips at the Quarterdeck in Narooma, a rootle round Tilba followed by a long walk along the beach at Camel Rock made for an excellent day.

What made it even more excellent was to be rewarded by the sight of a group of whales offshore waving their flukes. We watched to see if one would breach, but of course they didn't.

Fortunately I'd forgotten my camera, elsewise we'd have a montage of black blobs against a wine dark sea. We thought we might swim but the ocean was still cold after winter's storms, so after our free whale watch it was back up Brown Mountain in thick mist and back across the high plains to a cooler Canberra ...

Saturday, 14 November 2009

slight complication in the epub game ...

good news and bad news time: Stanza does happily import pdf's and export them as epubs without difficulty. The bad news is that as most pdf's are created without a lot of the metadata fields filled in originating pdf, meaning the resulting epub created has the name of the document and the document author set to 'unknown'.

Stanza doesn't care - it opens the file you ask it to open and so if you've created a file called thing.epub it will open the file as thing.epub.

The Cool-er is annoyingly cleverer. It knows the file is an epub so it opens the epub file to display the document name - not the filename, and of course as the document name is unknown as it was never set in the original pdf that's what you get - a document called unknown (and often created by unknown). If you have two such documents it picks the first one it finds and doesn't display the second - logical but annoying.

So the next stage is to unpick an existing epub - edit the files appropriately and then zip them back together ....

a little later ...

which following the tutorial turned out to be fairly easy.

Let us say we're editing a file called lnt.epub - my sequence was:

$ mv lnt.epub
$ unzip

edit the following files on the OEBPS directory using the text editor of your choice


replacing all the unknowns with appropriate text - title, author etc


$ zip -r OEBPS/content.opf OEBPS/toc.ncx OEBPS/title.xhtml

(if you're feeling paranoid or your version of zip doesn't support this could be done as three separate commands)

$ mv lnt.epub

Check the result with Stanza. Now this is where there's a problem - in my version there are two spurious unknowns. Now originally I didn't edit the title.xhtml file and that produced an epub with four spurious unknowns. Editing the title.xhtml file got rid of two of them so I'm guessing there are a couple of other fields - and certainly changing the appropriate values in part1.xhtml got rid of the unknowns, even though I didn't change the values in part2.xhtml - something I thought might provoke an error by the application parsing the epub

Now I'm hacking this - the jedisaber tutorial doesn't mention doing this so I'm going to guess I'm working with a revision to the format which I don't quite understand as yet, certainly there should be a way of supressing these values ...

What also is clear that given a suitable application to extract text from a pdf and convert it to xhtml it would be reasonably simple to write a perl script to build the supporting files programmaticaly from a template.

It also means that it os relatively straightforward to anyone with text that can be converted to xhtml to package their books as epubs - an ideal way for small specialist publishers to redistribute their back list.

Friday, 13 November 2009

making epubs from pdf's

As I've said earlier, I've found that epub files are definitely easier to work with on e-readers than pdf's.

My initial thought was, given I've a reasonable amount of stuff in pdf format to convert it. But how?

PDF files are essentially modified postscript with some embedded metadata but epub is a zip file based format with a manifest, formatting css and the document source material in xhtml - conceptually not unlike an open office document file in structure.

My initial thought experiment, based in part a very useful howto on hand creation of epub files was to write a print driver (ok, a ppd) to print the pdf to xhtml based on public domain pdf to thext and pdf to html code, apply a default style and create a manifest based on the embedded metadata.

However Stanza also allows the saving of pdf files in epub documents. Given that they have the technology, and I suspect that their epub conversion is perhaps a little more sophisticated given both that their native format is epub and they are now an amazon subsiduary.

A bit of creative play might be in order ...

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Starkey at his best ...

Personally, I've always found a lot of Tudor history hagiographical rather than concentrating what for me is the rather more intersting question of what happened to turn a late medieval backwater into a player among early modern states (and conversely why others didn't).

Be that as it may I've always found David Starkey's television shows models of explanation, wit and acidic clarity and understanding of realpolitik.

About the same time as his recent interview with Varsity in Cambridge, he also gave a lecture on Henry VIII as part of the Guardian festival of ideas. Immensly entertaing and provocative as ever, it's now available as a download.

Definitely recommended.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Interead Cool-er e-reader two weeks on

A couple of weeks ago I bought myself an e-book reader - an Interead Cool-er - and since then I've been using it on and off - mostly to read texts downloaded from project Gutenberg. Here's my list of dot points frm the past two weeks

  • the filesystem doesn't supress ._ files if you download via a mac
  • books in epub format are definitely better than using pdf
  • it's not an ipod moment but it is good, and is better than reading from a computer
  • reading quickly becomes natural -even allowing for the 'shazam' page changes
  • bright sunlight makes reading out of doors impossible
  • battery life is good
  • download and loading of texts is straight forward
all in all it's more like one of the early non-ipod mp3 players to use rather than an ipod - good but missing that hooked in ecology - which I guess is what Amazon is trying to create with the Kindle.

The real revelation is just how much easier epub formatted documents are to work with than pdf's - certainly epub is something I'll have to investigate.

Am I glad I bought one - the answer's yes - I've found it invaluable for reading stuff without having to print it out. Was it the best $300 I've spent? - possibly not, but certainly the money wasn't wasted - I've probably saved some of that in paper and in buying reprints of translations of classical texts from DoDo. Incidentally I've used it for some recreational reading as well, and that flows pretty well as well even if you do feel yourself to be a bit of gink at first sat in bed reading from it.

I'm certainly not done with buying conventional printed books but e-readers offer a decent alternative and certainly have a role as an adjunct to print on demand as a distribution model.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Inanity, twitter, and self organisation

a lot of what's on twitter is alleged to be fairly inane - ululations in the dark, and so on. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, maybe just because I find something boring and uninteresting doesn't mean it isn't important to that person.

However, it's fairly clear that a lot of people have similar doubts, and for that reason we get twibes and lists to let people find communities of interest, and that's a very interesting phenomenon, that the need of groups of like minded people to contact and share with each other is sufficiently powerful that it supports self organising add on technologies.

The other thing is that make use of things like twibes is a fairly deliberate action, its declaring yourself a member of a community that wishes to exchange links and news about particular topics.

The other question is, will these self organising groups end up like either usenet - a minority playground for trolls and sad anoraks - or like some of the specialist mailing lists, little inward looking communities of self selection - or will it turn into something generally useful and self sustaining?

Twitter is clearly useful - as a way of getting instant information and sharing links it's invaluable.
One of the nicer uses I've seen of it is by the The computing service at york where they use it to get service status updates out.

This is particularly nice as (a) it means that even if everything is down you can get a service update as it's independent of all local servers, and (b) it provides an rss feed making it easy to repurpose into other things - such as displaying on a faculty web page.

As usch it's agenuinely useful use of twitter. As to twitter itself, it has also gone through massive growth in the last eighteen months and is continually changing through the development of add on services. So far the signal to noise ratio seems to be acceptable ...

Friday, 6 November 2009

Syncing my Google Calendar with my Nokia

I recently got myself a Nokia E63, and while my provider did an all you can eat deal for email - effectively turning it into a poor man's blackberry, calendar synchronisation wasn't included.

However, I found a company called that provides a basic sync service for GBP5.99 (say $11) for a year, using syncml. They also do a 7 day trial.

I tried the trial service - seemed to work pretty well so I signed up for the full service. Obviously with any sync service you need to make sure sync via wi-fi where possible as it tends to rack up data charges - the raw ics file out of my calendar is around 850k, just to give an idea of things.

Setting up was fairly easy - they send a magic sms message to configure sync and once you've provided lgin information and the like you're away. Once set up it just works. Synchronisation is on demand allowing you to choose which network to sync over.

The basic service doesn't transfer tasks - you pay extra for that. Now while I use tasks inside of google calendar as a set of reminders, I tend to work off the screen while ploughing through the to-do's so I reckoned I didn't need it so didn't pay for it, reckoning I can always upgrade later.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Crunchbang Linux - the conclusion

I've been using my crunchbang installation for about a week now, mainly for writing using kwrite, reading email and blogs via gmail and google reader, through firefox, and the odd bit of terminal work.

Nothing computationally heavy, and I havn't used any heavyweight Ajax applications. All on a 700MHz 192 MB PC - less grunt than a netbook.

basically it's

  • fast to load
  • stable
  • application install (kwrite) no worse than standard ubuntu
  • text input via an editor is responsive
  • web browser performance no worse than under more heavyweight installs
  • menu configuration is a bit of a black art
  • networking configuration likewise
  • the pre-installed apps function well
  • fast to shut down
Conclusion - good and a worthwhile alternative to Xubuntu or Fluxbuntu, especially for older machines.

Email and big attachments

yesterday I tweeted a link to a Google blog post about why sending big attachments was bad.

Well inefficient, not bad. The post makes the very good point that sending the same big attachment to a group of people is highly inefficient of bandwidth, and would be better using embedded links to reference the same document from a webserver or what ever. If nothing else it save on local mail storage.

True, and if they can convince marketing departments we'll all be a lot happier.

But point to point sending of attachments - I doubt it. For a start it's not a an ideal use case for a webserver, and the I send you a link and you download it type services detract from the immediacy of email, and while they save a little bandwidth and storage probably, the efficiency losses probably more than offset this.

And of course there's digital faxing - which of course isn't faxing, it's scanning a document to pdf and emailing it straight from a copier to an individual - exactly as the original HP digital senders did ten or so years ago - which is a much underated trick. Contracts, delivery notes, signed tax submissions, all can be sent via email, saving the desperate hunt for a fax machine, which seems to be something that increasingly only banks and telcos seem to use.

And as they're usually pdf's as graphic images these attachments are reasonably large. Not massive, but large. But I doubt if they're any less efficient than a fax machine, and the aggregate costs are mor than maintaining a special device and an analog phone line ...

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Twitter, hashtags, lists and communities

Twitter is an interesting phenomenon, and its evolution is one of its more interesting aspects.

Initially Twitter was essentially generic version of the Facebook Friend Feed - great if you're eighteen and think the world revolves around you and your mates, but not so great as a communication medium. Most of the content was fairly inane (just like Facebook), and disjointed. To be sure there were amusing people such as Stephen Fry to follow, and some interesting ideas such as Cry for Byzantium, but depth was generally lacking.

The use of hashtags allowed the construction of folksonomies, such that if you were interested in the medieval period you could include #medieval in your posts. Now we could argue about early versus late, high middle ages, whether we mean 476-1453, when the renaissance became truly distinct etc etc, but basically everything posted would be medieval - it reduced the noise.

And as a folksonomy we can make it up as we go along, making readily guessable tags such as #viking, #anglosaxon, and perhaps less guessable ones such as #britannia.

And as you use the search you start to find people who you wish to follow, as they post regularly on related topics. You can now create a list to allow people who follow you to follow the people you follow - possibly a bit incestuous and circular, but it means that your feed starts having crowd sourced characteristics, so if one of the people you are following misses something there's a good chance you'll pick it up anyway by someone else on his or her lists.

For example, let's say I see a blog posting about the Jorvik viking festival next year. Despite regularly tweeting with #viking I don't because (a) I used to live in York and (b) I don't now and (c) won't be visiting when the festival is on (all true). However I also have someone called Pete on my list who doesn't have my hangups about that and who posts the link. And maybe I have someone else called Karen on my list who posts a different but related link. That way the message still gets through in a structured and sensible way.

Of course I'm ignoring the role of reputation. All of us #medieval users have to assess the worth of someone's postings before adding them to the list, just as fifteen years ago with usenet news we wrote complex kill files to filter out the known loonies and people with fixations about leather underwear.

But in a sense reputation is implicit - if the quality of the information I post is good, I have a reputation and am thought to be 'serious' - and so very gradually it turns into a community of people sharing common interests - a social network by any other name.