Saturday, 30 January 2010

second thoughts on the ipad ...

slightly shamefaced about this, but suddenly realised that I'm a content consumer spending around an hour most days reading blogs and online news.

Something like an iPad would of course let me be really sad and do this anywhere within range of our wireless router, making it more like reading newspapers rather than this strange thing I slink off to the study to do, rather as if it was some secret nefarious act.

In effect it socialises the personal consumption of online media. It is easier to pass and share a tablet format screen to one's life companion at breakfast that it is a laptop, that provides a screen to hide behind.

And the device forms part of an ecology, where you use your general purpose computer for writing, you ipod to listen to music or in may case podcasts (spot the talk radio addict), your camera to take pictures, your e-reader for complex documents and recreational reading and the ipad for recreational reading of blogs and online news sources.

And that's the other point - at $500 or so the iPad is not expensive. Given that we pay around $1000 a year for the Canberra Times, the Guardian Weekly, New Scientist and the the weekend Australian, we could buy an ipad and still have $500 left over for content subscriptions.

Maybe Mr Jobs is onto something after all ...

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The iPad ...

Well the world's been all a-twitter about Mr Job's latest creation. Like ninety nine percent of the world I havn't seen one yet but judging from all the blogs and news reports it seems to be essentially a big iPod touch with an optional keyboard/charger. As I've blogged elsewhere the keyboard means that you can use it as a general purpose computer but it doesn't mean that the iPad is a general purpose computer - instead it's a content display device, as witnessed by the deals with Penguin, Harper Collins et all, and it's ability to play movies etc.

As such it's more of a threat to the Kindle's and other e-book readers of the world rather than netbooks like my beloved Ookygoo (Asus 701 Eee SD), prnicipally because the Ookygoo has a full range of applications, is light, portable, and has good wifi access. Basically you can do your email, surf the web, read blogs, write notes locally, use skype, access Google Docs, all with a package weighing slightly less than a kilogram. The iPad isn't really set up for that.

On the other hand it makes my e-book reader look jaded - or possibly not - it just depends how superb the screen is for reading on in practice ...

Monday, 25 January 2010

Holiday Plans (again)

Despite having had six weeks in Europe last year, we're already planning another trip. Normally we wouldn't run to two European trips in successive years but since my father is still going strong at the age of 93, it seems right to visit him again while we still can.

Bu what else to do? Well this time we can only really manage four and half weeks, and we thought we should have a bit of an adventure. Last time we never quite got it together to do an adventure and instead visited the Dordogne and a mad frenetic unprepared half researched visit to Asturias.

This time we plan on something rather more fun:

Fly to London and spend two or three day visiting the things we havn't visited but should have, followed by Eurostar to Paris and then a sleeper to Venice. (The last, in fact only time we've been on a sleeper together, was in Thailand on 2005 on the overnight train to the Lao border. Previous to that I'd not been on a sleeper since the mid eighties rattling from and to Scotland from Wales and London in these pre RyanAir and EasyJet times. Judi beats me in the exoticism stakes having last been on a sleeper from Calcutta to the Nepali border in 1994).

A few days in Venice, with a side trip for a day to Ravenna to see the mosaics, then the fast ferry to Patras in Greece and a rattle on a local train to Kalmata in the Mani for a week's R&R and Byzantine churches.

Then another rattle across Greece to Athens, a day or so in Athens and then somehow to Scotland, probably via London, to see my father, regale him with stories of rural Greece and Italian waiters and then a flight home with a stopover somewhere - Singapore, KL, Hong Kong spring to mind and home.

Can we do it?

Well the man in seat 61 seems to think such a trip is possible. So we've taken the next step, ordered a Thomas Cook European rail timetable to see what's possible in the Pelopennese and our plan is to book accomadation and work backwards and forwards from there as a fixed point booking hotels and short term rental apartments in London and Venice as dictated by the requirements of getting to and from the Mani.

In the meantime we've started developing a wiki of links an a draft schedule as we build things out. Given that the earliest we can book trains is ninety days before we travel, June may be pretty frenetic as we organise what's actually possible.

Whatever else it will be an adventure - just like our 2005 trip to Laos and Thailand.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Hotmail for over a decade

I've just had an email from Microsoft congratulating me on having a hotmail account for over a decade - from what I remember I think it was a little bit longer than that, more like eleven and a bit.

Previous to that I used RocketMail, and I still remember the thrill in 1997 of being able to email from the BA lounge at Heathrow just by opening a web browser on one of the locked down NT4 pc's they used to provide - no one really expected you to use a laptop for casual email back then. Even better was the thrill of being able to email from the Yacht Club in Kas in southern Turkey by simply buying some time on a dialup windows 95 pc for a telephone numbers's worth of hyper inflated lira - though a lot less than a dollar.

So now webmail is everywhere - and what's more email means webmail for most people, and basically that means gmail, with hotmail aka windows live and yahoo close behind. Either that or its a service on your phone - and again almost certainly one of the big three - certainly when I got myself a new phone these were the options available - making access pervasive, and of course as all your mail sits on a server somewhere you can access it from anywhere - hence its runaway success with students, travellers, netbook users, etc etc. Basically just about everyone.

And of course, because of this runaway success, we now have Microsoft in the shape of Windows Liver@edu and Google with Google Apps for education battling it out to persuade universities to outsource email with them ...

Certainly a long way from 10 minutes on an NT pc in Heathrow!

Friday, 15 January 2010

Repository system usage and community strength

Most institutions use DSpace as their institutional repository solution. And those that don't probably use Fedora. The reasons for this are complex but can probably be summarised as:

  • Both are free
  • Fedora is a repository engine and while richer requires extensive configuration and the development of front ends, or buying into the VTLS pre-rolled solution
  • Dspace can be built on a spare server in an afternoon (Yes, it can, I've done it) giving you an instant repository never mind about the management issues
so as a consequence you'd expect more Dspace repositories than Fedora. And you do: the Dspace community website lists 755 live implementations while the Register of Open Access Repositories (ROAR) lists 502, and for Fedora the community site lists 172 while Roar only lists 26 Fedora implementations.

So we can say that ROAR is under reporting usage, especially as the Fedora site breaks down the listings to 71 universities and 16 National or public libraries, both of whom could be presumed to be interested in Open Access.

So while we can say Fedora is less popular than Dspace we cannot say how much less popular. Especially given the availability of Fez as an open source alternative to VTLS's commercially licensed VITAL front end suite.

Given the ease of running up a Dspace instance as opposed to a Fedora instance one might be tempted to argue that institutions using Fedora have a greater commitment to their repository given the greater effort taken to deploy it (though Fez may make this less true).

What I can't come up with though is a sensible metric for this. Average number of items might be a suitable crude number as if one platform was little used once deployed, ie the hosting institution was not committed to populating their repository you would expect the numbers of items to be low in that repository. Unfortunately this could be completely wrong - if there were a large number of small institutions using one platform to the exclusion of the other - ie small institutions use dspace due to its lower resourcing demands - to create small but well populated repositories (after all 20 researchers, even if highly productive will produce less material than 200 researchers, or so you would hope).

Answers on a postcard ...

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Scholarly HTML

There's been a flurry of posts about the concept of Scholarly HTML, ie self referential truly portable HTML for scholarly publication, allowing you to save a web page for reuse.

Well, that's a laudable aim, and would certainly aid the migration of content. However I think we're asking the wrong question here.

Thinking about reuse is the key - how are we going to reuse it? As a website, as a preprint lodged in a digital repository, a paper document, or reading it on an e-book reader etc etc?

What we actually need is an archival format that can easily (and I do mean easily, no standing on one leg with your finger in your ear geekery here) and faithfully (consistently may be a better word) produce documents in a set of derived formats such as pdf epub, odt and the rest. This id different from initiatives such as TEI as they're targeted to ensuring the accurate transcription and representation of paper texts in an electronic format. XML versions of docbook might be a better starting point

The format has also got to be publicly known - and natively readable - so it's easy to write new transforms - and deal with embedded non text media - XHTML anyone ?

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Why paint portraits in 2010 ?

Last night was hot sticky and I couldn't sleep, and I started thinking about my visit to the National Portrait Gallery, and why we still have portraits, when a good photograph is so much better a representation.

When I worked for AIATSIS we had a set of photographic portraits of past Principals in teh staff entrance. Individually they were unremarkable. Collectively they told a story - the first few were of old white males, the rest of aboriginal people including a black woman, Marcia Langton. Collectively they told a powerful story of increasing emancipation and status.

In the beginning portaits existed to show what someone looked like - or not - think of all the minatures and renaissance marriage market portraits. However it remains the case that before photography portraits were the only way to get a representation up there, and mostly it was all about power and status. Having your portrait painted was an expression of power, wealth, and if it included your children, fecundity.

I once saw a wonderful documentary by Roy Strong explaining why the British National Portrait Gallery was full of pictures of fat bastards (I paraphrase). Basically rich people were better fed, wore better clothes and had nicer looking children, and owned lovely background landscapes (like Derbyshire). So the picture said 'I am rich, have nice food to eat, nice clothes, clean underwear and don't smell'.

And this is why eighteenth and nineteenth portraits are full of sleek smugness. Interestingly you look at portraits from Renaissance Florence and this is not the case, the people look harder, edgier, more pressured - the portraits are more realistic, more an accurate representation.

Now towards the end of the nineteenth century it became possible to have large monochrome portraits, and so gradually the use portraiture to emphasise status faded away, although look at any wedding or graduation photograph, my own included, and you can see the continued use of the image to demonstrate status and success. It's just become democratised and moved to photography.

Portraits became restricted to the great and the good, by reasons of tradition more than anything. And because they no longer needed to be strictly representation they became more 'modern' in style. Unfortunately they also became utterly sterile, as in the case of Brian Organ's portraits of the British Royal Family. Impressionistic but not impressionist, and about as involving as the endless socialist realist portraits of long forgotten members of east European politburos.

At the same time as portraits moved to photography, you also had the rise of impressionism. This had two effects - portraits which were impressionistic in style and those that were truly impressionist.

For example the portrait of FW Pring Esq is imprssionist in style, all pastel strokes and vaguely reminiscent of a Van Gogh self portrait but revealing nothing about the individual as a person - a nice enough picture but not involving. On the other hand the portrait of Grace Cossington Smith is highly revealing.

Grace Cossington Smith is in my opinion overrated as an artist - basically she went to England, came back, lived a privileged suburban life and spent the next forty years drawing pictures inspired by what she saw out of her window or from pictures in the Sydney Morning Herald. Apart from some pictures of the Sydney Harbour Bridge being built she produced nothing of note. In short she was a boring person, and not someone who led a characterful life. Her highly impressionistic portrait captures this perfectly with blob of red for her lips capturing her prissy expression - the expression described by Les Dawson as "looking like a hen's bum".

And this is it - portraits are no longer about wealth and status, but about what they reveal about the person within. Brett Whietly's "Wendy Drunk" is basically a quick scribble, but says far more about the person than any formal portrait of a past prime minister or governor general - because it shows the person within, and not that they can afford a decent suit...

Monday, 11 January 2010

Idle hours

To the National Portrait Gallery to look at their new building and summer exhibition, Idle Hours.

Fort those of you not in the know, for years the Portrait Gallery was in Old Parliament House, but it has recently moved to new purpose built building. Old Parliament House is now the Museum of Australian Democracy - in my more jaded moments I am prone to think both the acronym and location of the museum singularly appropriate, but that's being cynical.

The Portrait gallery is nothing on the NGA - smaller, dominated by pictures of prominenti past, although there is some light relief in having a portrait of Hilda Spong, not to mention FW Pring, Esq.

Overall it's rather more like a good collection in a country museum, like Bendigo or Ballarat. As well as Pring and Spong, he permanent collection contains the obligatory set of nineteenth century portaits of smug fat white bastards and the odd colourful native, but it does also contain a few better more interesting modern portraits, and is worth a visit for those.

Likewise the summer exhibition. Treasures from the Musee d'Orsay it is not. It is however much less pretentious, smaller, and more intimate, including a truly magnificent Brett Whitely 'Wendy Drunk' a portait by Jude Rae that has almost the same control of light and shade as seen in some early Dutch paintings, and a wonderful massive self portaint by Michael Zavros of himself lying on his back listening to his iPod.

No it's not the NGA. It's a different experience and not a bad way to spend an idle hour or so ...

Friday, 8 January 2010


Originally uploaded by moncur_d.

despite being six weeks away new chairs signal the horrible realisation that start of semester will be upon us sooner than we think ...

Why the fascination with e-book readers?

Well that's a good question. It comes from my interest in digital preservation and archiving, which might at first seem a little odd given all the effort ensuring that the digitised copy, image or whatever is as accurate as possible, and as least likely to change as possible. Reformattable free flow formats such as epub definitely do not measure up against these requirements.

But people tend to forget two things - firstly what we are creating is digital copy of the cultural patrimony of the society concerned - ie the books, the stories, the literature, the songs, the poems that all go together to make a culture - and secondly one of the aims to promote access - this is why we spend all this time when we build systems to make sure that people, ie ordinary people off the street, can access the material.

Access is not just for scholars. And when we are digitising to preserve content this is doubly so.

I was especially struck by this when I worked at AIATSIS. One of the things happening there was to digitise tape recordings of Australian Aboriginal language, story telling, music and chants. These tape recordings were possibly the only copies of in existence, and the tapes were degrading and rotting. Given that Aboriginal societies were pre-literate this was doubly important. However what we were preserving was not just for use by linguists and anthropologists, but also by the people from that particular group, so that they could pass on and refresh their memories of the old stories and songs, digital cultural repatriation if you like, and also in a society without books or photographs, and with prohibitions on displaying images of those who have passed on, develop a connection with the past by hearing someone identifiable as their grandfather or uncle speak.

And for these purposes, a CD or an MP3 recording was good enough. They didn't care about preservation formats or the like, all they cared was that the data was safe and they could get another copy if their $35 no name mp3 player broke.

So yes, preservation was important, but only as a means to guaranteeing reliable and repeatable access and dissemination.

So e-readers. When we digitise books we can either digitise the content or the appearance or both. In the case of handwritten books there is clearly an advantage in doing both, if only to allow amusing discussion of the roles played by monkeys in medieval scriptoria. Printed books, well, but then OCR is cheap these days.

And that's fine for preserving content, but not access. Now wierdos like me might want to occasionally read texts such as William Fowler's translation into Scots for James VI of Machiavelli's The Prince - the implication being that James VI couldn't read Italian - because we're interested in history, language and our cultural heritage, and like twisting our brains doing translations. However to do this we don't need a photographically accurate copy of the text, we just need the text, either as an epub or fed through something like an espresso book machine to provide a one off printed copy.

And while it might at first sight look like scholarship it isn't - it's allowing access for all sorts of reasons, cultural, artistic etc.

Like art galleries it's about access. It doesn't matter if you visit them to get out of the rain, to pose as an intellectual, or are deeply interested in impressionism - it's about access pure and simple.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Success is just by being there ...

I was reading today's Guardian article on the iSlate hype and one of the links took me to an informal experiment where someone compared reading a dickens novel on an iPhone, in a paperback book and an e-reader.

The interesting thing is that the iPhone triumphed - clear bright screen and most importantly the phone is always with you. This is actually an important point - you're already carrying around the phone for lots of reasons, and it fits in your pocket. If you take a book or an e-reader with you you need to carry a (larger) bag with you to carry it - as an extreme example Judi read a new translation of War and Peace over Xmas - at 10cm thick and the best part of kilogram it took some lugging, and didn't fit easily into a standard bag.

Also most books and e-readers have a common flaw - they use ambient light to enable you to read the pages - if you use Stanza on the iPhone the screen is sharp and backlit, and the text is indeed readable in poor light, and while I havn't tried this, it's probably a whole lot easier to read on public transport - and of course if you get bored you can always listen to a podcast or music stored on the phone.

So the iPhone wins because it has a good screen and you're carrying it anyway.

Or does it?

For the use case of travelling on public transport, waiting in airports and the rest it probably does. For sitting reading something complicated I have my doubts. I've completely unrigorously compared reading the History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, reading the same text on my iMac and iPhone with Stanza, and on my Cool-er e-reader, and the Penguin edition in paperback.

And this is what I found:

  • reading on the iMac screen is clumsy feeling - no matural or simple page turning and the three column display requires some complex eye/head movements. (incidentally using Adobe's e-reader application is no better)
  • reading on the iphone or the Cool-er is a more natural experience - you can relax, make notes etc, etc
  • The Cool-er was better than the iPhone as the display was larger and the page size felt more natural (and also being shortsighted I found the smaller text required me to hold the phone at a more precise distance)
  • reading the paperback is better, more because we it's easier to flick back and forth, check the notes etc, but this could be in part because the penguin translation is a more recent and better translation, and after 40 odd years of reading I'm a power user of dead tree media.

So what does this mean?
  • Ergonomics (text size, display size, ease of use) are important
  • Prior experience of dead tree material sets our expectations of what the reading experience should be
  • We need to learn to be screen reading people, just as you need to learn different rules to learn to read Hebrew, Chinese, or whatever

And for the iSlate?
  • Being pervasive is good. A lightweight tablet or netbook with a good display, good reading software, good music player, and something equivalent to the iTunes/iPod/iPhone ecology, and a softphone means you carry one device, you can use it to make notes, do other work etc, and while you might need a little bluetooth headset for the best phone experience, you would have a device you could carry everywhere, and what's more only one device you need carry everywhere
  • To be usable as a general purpose computer, or even just a note taker you need a decent input solution - either handwriting recognition - been around since the Newton and the original Palm Pilot and never really popular - or a projection keyboard - like the iTech unit. Adding a classic qwerty as in the kindle increases the form factor making the device less likely to turn into a Martini (anyplace, anytime) device.
  • Battery life could make or break any device - pervasive is good, being out of battery is not. Books don't run out of battery, and most e-readers have very good battery life. Specialist devices like the Midori aquapad are probably a better inspiration than existing windows tablet pc's