Saturday, 31 December 2011

The funeral of Kim Jong Il

We have all seen the pictures of a grey snowy Pyongyang, the car with the the oversize portrait and the following car with the absurdly oversize wreath of white roses, the wailing crowds, the serried ranks of soldiers bowing in respect, and the son leading the funeral car by holding the mirror, as if leading a horse.

At first it seemed merely to show how far the world has come in the last twenty years - for those of us who grew up in the cold war, the funerals of dead dictators in distant cities formed part of the backdrop of our lives. The funeral seemed like a throwback to the time of Brezhnev and Mao.

But the other thing is how Confucian it was. The white roses and chrysanthemums. The wailing crowds - in Shanghai you can still hire professional wailers - and the funeral walk. Not the death of a communist leader more like the choreographed funeral of some past emperor from an earlier time ...

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Saturnalia and solstices and other celebrations

As I'm sure you've noticed, today's the solstice, and in another three days we're going to have another sort of celebration.

If you've ever wondered about the three day offset, I've a post on it over on one of my other blogs.

However, if you're one of my the regular readers, or even if you've just happened by, compliments of the season, and to quote a Bangkok cabbie a couple of years ago, 'happy jingle balls!'

Monday, 19 December 2011

Kim Jong Il and the war of 1905

Today’s reports of the death of Kim Jong-Il and the subsequent uncertainty are the latest in a chain of events that started with the Russo Japanese war of 1905. Given the the events in the lead up to 1905 one could make a plausible argument it started earlier, but 1905 will do

One of the key learnings of that war for Russia was just how fragile the Russian hold on Primorye and the  strategic port of Vladivostok. If the war had gone on longer they could have concievably lost Vladivostok as well as losing warm water access at Dalian.

That learning was reinforced during the Russian civil war when the West, along with Japan, attempted to sustain a viable puppet government in Siberia, based first of all on the Menshevik SR rump government in Omsk, and later by engineering a coup by Admiral Kolchak against the Omsk government to ensure that there was no rapprochement with the Bolsheviks.

Japan, which had occupied Korea in 1910, devoted 70,000 soldiers in support of the west, and clearly hoped to  play a significant role in any rump Siberian state.
Under pressure from the west, Japan withdrew in 1918, but  events in Manchuria showed, Japan still retained ambitions to expand beyond Korea.
The Russians also realised this, retaining control of the rail line to Vladivostok via - Harbin as long as possible, and indeed by not risking a war with Japan until 1945 after victory with Germany was secure.

It was into this context that Kim Jong-il was born, most probably at a Soviet army camp in Eastern Siberia, in 1941,where his father, Kim il Sung was being groomed to lead  a Soviet puppet state in Korea. The date is significant – already by 1941 the USSR was planning for a war in Manchuria and Korea, and before Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Darwin.

While the Japanese Communist party was a significant force in post war Japan, and Stalin may have entertained hopes of proSoviet government in Japan, Kim il Sung and the DPRK was a backup plan to ensure the security of Primorye, Vladivostok and access to the mineral resources of Eastern Siberia. The last thing Russia wanted a pro US state in Korea.

By 1949 it was clear that there would be no socialist revolution in Japan, and that the DPRK route was going to be the only way of establishing a friendly buffer state on the Korean peninsula.

Later, after the Sino Soviet split the DPRK had an even greater value to the USSR as a means of protecting Primorye from the Maoists, especially after the government of China began to claim that Primorye had been unequally and unfairly annexed by the Russian empire from the Qing state.

What the Buryat or the Evenk or other tribal peoples inhabiting the area thought was of course ignored, as were the wishes of the vast majority of Koreans.

However such was the strategic value to the USSR of the DPRK that it even managed to acheive a degree of East German style prosperity, and was possibly even a little richer than South Korea during the seventies.

Of course, when the Soviet Union came apart the DPRK lost its major backer, but it struggled on, perhaps on the odd crumb of aid from Russia as the strategic imperatives remained the same, even if the flags and slogans remained the same.

It’s no surprise that Kim’s last foreign foray was to meet Dmitry Medvedev in Ulan Ude.

Korea is a hostage of geography and its recent political history a result of this hostage-dom. With Kim’s demise there is the possibilty of change, but to a large extent it will depend on the ability of the army to manage change and for Russia to resist the urge to meddle and pursue its own strategic objectives ….

Thursday, 15 December 2011

A fantasy on the genitive plural

For those of you following my Russian strand, I've just added a little bit of creative writing about the genitive plural  to one of my other blogs ...

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

2011 - what worked

For the last couple of years I've done a 'what worked'  personal technology review at the end of the calendar year. Like the Inca new year it's now a tradition on this blog - here's the view for 2011

Evernote has turned out to be the real success of 2011. Accessible from tablets and phones running iOs or Android, and from Macs and Windows natively, with a web client for everything else it has turned out to be incredibly useful. Notes, web clippings, invoices for tax purposes, contracts, all sorts of work stuff and personal research material, it handles it all.
One Note was good but was hobbled by a poor web client and lack of true multiplatform capability

I changed over Chrome as Firefox seemed to have chronic memory leaks. I have used Firefox since but Chrome delivers, and the silent background updating means that bugs and issues are fixed quickly and silently

The best $285 I've spent in a long time. Truly game changing in that working with a tablet means working with a truly portable device, one that can be used from the sofa, bed, the kitchen bench, basically everywhere within wi-fi reach, and also it socialises the experience.
It's telling that J, who tends to be a technology refusenik wants one of her own (this time a Lenovo IdeaPad)  for compiling teaching materials via evernote, and general web based research. It'll be interesting to report next year how the experience went ...

Still delivering...


I was a 
really reluctant convert to Windows 7. Having been a Linux and OS X user for years I felt kind of dirty going back to Microsoft. But, it's like driving a Holden - they're pretty good these days, and kind of fun ...

Cloud services

Windows Live SkydriveGoogle Docs, all these services that let you create, maintain and store documents remotely have really helped this year, making it easy to build and maintain a portfolio of working documents and backgrounders on line and accessible from anywhere. Coupled with One Note and wikidot, invaluable.

Cooler e-reader

still wonderful, light and versatile with wonderful battery life

Asus Netbook

Still good, and as both using as a tool to catalogue books and
our trip to Thailand  showed, light weight, reliable, versatile, and coupled with cloud services. highly effective

Dropping off....

Given I used to be such an evangelist for Linux I've hardly used it this year apart from a couple of vm's now and then. Ubuntu's move to Unity hasn't helped but them I'm finding I can do everything I want on Windows 7 or my tablet computer ...

Again, ashamed to admit it but the Open Office/Libre Office split and Oracle's shenanigans have ended up with me increasingly using Office 2010, with Skydrive for document portability, and Google Docs for anywhere anytime document creation, no matter which computer I use

Monday, 12 December 2011

dem stones, dem stones, dem dry stones …

I had trouble sleeping last night, and about three in the morning one’s mind starts to wander and I got to thinking about the Archepiscopal Museum in Ravenna, or more accurately about a collection of inscriptions that they have there, that irritatingly they won’t let you photograph.
Ravenna was of course the seat of the last Emperors of the West, of various Ostrogothic kings and later of the Byzantine exarchate of Italy, and was one of the wealthiest cities in Medieval and early Renaissance Italy.
I’ve previously written how the current Renaissance exhibition at the NGA allows you to track the evolution of technique and of art from a purely devotional activity to a rather more secular one.
So with the museum in Ravenna which we visited last year on our trip to Europe – or it could if they organised the display of inscriptions.
The late Roman and Ostrogothic ones are beautifully carved and the letters are well set out. The Byzantine ones perhaps less so but still pass muster. Lombard ones from the ninth and tenth centuries are increasingly crude, badly set out, letters crammed together when the stonemason ran out of space etc etc.
And then the miracle. One can see culture returning. The inscriptions get clearer again and better set out.
And when I saw that collection of inscriptions I thought ‘you could make an online exhibition of this’.
But as I said they wouldn’t let you photograph them. I’ve tried mining Flickr for open source/creative commons licenced examples, but no, it’s clear that photographing Ostrogothic inscriptions is not the first thing people think of doing when on an Italian holiday.
So I’m afraid that the online exhibition will have to remain in my mind, as I designed it in the wee small hours, but should you go to the Archepiscopal museum in Ravenna, be sure to look at the collection of inscriptions and see what story it tells you ….

Russian spam

One of the side effect of being interested in Russian history is its effect on the spam you get.

In among the usual invitations to enhance the dimensions of one's penis, have longer harder erections etc (does anyone else think that these say something about the sexual insecurities of the American male - I've never given it much thought despite a happy and fulfilled sex life) comes the Russian spam - from the trite 'hello my name is Elena and I want to chat' to the bizarrely confronting 'hello I am your hot Russian pussy', sometimes in English, sometimes in Russian, often accompanied by pictures young physical looking women in serious danger of hypothermia, to the plain odd - the advert for a mig welding kit accompanied by the obligatory young and clothing challenged woman , or offers for sets of (overpriced) spanners.

Normally of course, all this goes into the spam sump and is deleted, but sometimes one sneaks through, or I  happen accross it while checking the spam sump's contents for a missing email - usually one from some supplier that includes some advertising blurb - things like the email from the credit card company telling you that your statement is available for download, which has a pile of advertising included - the 'buy more shit at Christmas' meme

But I digress. The English language spam from Russia, or more properly the former USSR is just that on the whole, spam selling sexual titillation to the lonely and inadequate.

The Russian language spam is different - is it aimed at Russians living abroad, or does it tell us something about life in Russia today, its insecurities or its inadequacies. Or indeed plain old fashioned sexism where Marya still needs to get her kit off to sell welding rods ..

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Renaissance–pictures from the Accademia Carrara

This year’s major summer exhibition at the NGA is Renaissance – pictures from the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo.

I guess the first response is ‘Where?’ – in fact the Accademia Carrara has a good, if obscure collection of works from the late Medieaval onwards through the Renaissance and it was this collection that has been mined for the current exhibition – starting with late medieval devotional works that – while more stereotypes and individualistic than Byzantine works of the same period show the same stilted repetitive composition – here’s St Peter – don’t worry he looks the same as St George, you can tell them apart one has a big gold key and the other a sword.

Iconography to tell the stories to the people by the use of standard set of images. But behind the seemingly similar images you can see signs of change – a crucifixion that might almost have been drawn by Goya – portraits of young men that start to look like people rather than stereotypes.

You see a similar effect in the Madonna paintings. The Madonna moves from this stereotypical image to a much more individualistic pictures of a real woman with a real child. Now personally my reaction to Madonna paintings en masse is ‘God! not another bloody virgin Mary’, but put together as they are you can trace the evolution of style, of individualism, as well as the gradual improvement in technique

There are two other things that are interesting – first of all the exhibition covers the change from painting in tempera on smooth wooden boards – as in Byzantine icons, to canvas as in modern oil paintings with oil based paints, which allows more fluidity and larger paintings.

The other is the change from purely devotional art to the development of secular portraiture, first by the inclusion of pictures of the sponsors of the works in devotional paintings to portraits in their own right – saying ‘here I am, look at me’ such as in the portrait of Giovanni Bendetto Caravaggi, Rector of Padua University, which is most definitely all about saying how important a scholar Giovanni Caravaggi was.

The change in technique from board to canvas and the development of secular portraiture is neatly brought together at the end of the exhibition with two full length portraits by Giovanni Moroni that could easily pass as Dutch old masters. Comparing these with the first, late medieval,  paintings in the exhibition shows just how far art travelled during the Renaissance.

The exhibition is on from now until Easter. Being members we went to the members private viewing on the opening night. Like the exhibition a couple of years ago of paintings from the Musee d’Orsay the NGA had managed to get access to the paintings due to restoration work back home.

Unlike the opening night of the Musee d’Orsay exhibition, there were no frightening haircuts or beards on show – perhaps because the exhibition this time required a serious interest in art history. Of course there were those there  who were there to be seen but make no mistake – this is a serious exhibition – not intellectually easy but definitely rewarding.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

All the Ways are open [Review]

Annemarie Schwarzenbach // All the Ways are Open // Seagull Books // translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

This is not a travel book. It purports to be but it is not, instead it is a set of highly impressionistic pieces by Annemarie Schwarzenbach recounting experiences during her journey to Afghanistan in a 18HP Ford with Ella Maillart.

Ella Maillart published her own account of the journey as the Cruel Way, a book that is much more a travel book in much the same way that Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana is a travel book.

That said Schwarzenbach’s book is enjoyable, in no small part due to the polished translation, Its impressionistic nature adds rather than detracts to its charm, giving glimpses of a more innocent world now vanished.

And that is its value – not as a travel book but as a portrait of a world that was ….

Thursday, 1 December 2011

3 months with a zPad

as I’ve previously mentioned on several occasions I bought myself a no name Chinese made Android tablet roughly three months ago.
Since then I’ve used it fairly intensively and this is a fair summation of my experience:
  • Apples are not the only fruit. Tablets don’t have to automatically be iPads. The Android experience is pretty good.
  • The software ecology in Android isn’t quite so rich – there are quite a lot of iPad only apps out there, but everything you need for something resembling work and recreational stuffing around exists for Android.
  • You don’t need to pay $600 for a tablet experience. My tablet cost me just under $300 direct from an overseas wholesaler . Lenovo and Acer periodically have specials on tablets for around $350, which seems a fair price if you want some local support and a  device sourced from somewhere in Australia
  • You can type on a glass keyboard but if you’re  seriously taking  notes invest in a cheap bluetooth keyboard or use a netbook.
  • It's really good as a way of sharing images or handing to someone to show them a document or a web page
  • It would be really nice to be able to print …

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Russian and me

When I was six I wanted to be an archaeologist. I also wanted to be a train driver and an astronaut, but unlike the latter two the urge to be an archaeologist stayed with me.

I have no rational explanation for this, it just did.

No one around me - family, school or whatever - had much idea what an archaeologist did other than digging up old things - so wanting to be an archaeologist sort of turned into a fascination with late antique and early medieval history.

Now you would have expected that with that sort of interest somewhere alone the line I might have learned some Latin, some Greek, perhaps some old French and a bit of Old and Middle English.

Well no - while I can puzzle out a little Middle English and Old French, and on a good day manage a simple bit of Anglo Saxon, that's just what I've taught myself over the years. A smattering of random phrases and words. My Latin and Greek is even worse.

Never learned them you see.

Now this isn't because I'm a linguistic klutz, but rather because I'm not. I learned Russian as well as the more conventional French plus a bit of Spanish and German  on the side.

This was back in the cold war days, when the ability to speak Russian was a rare and useless accomplishment. We didn't talk to them and they didn't talk to us with the result that it really was a singularly useless accomplishment, unless you ended up working for Foreign Affairs, or some related agency and even then that probably meant sitting in a darkened room translating chunks of Izvestiya and Pravda and producing summaries on the implications of an upswing in tractor oil usage in Uzbekistan.

Or I could have become an academic - except that I'm not a literary type.

So I did something else.

But actually what studying Russian gave me was the same thing that studying classical languages gives some people - an entree into a strange alien half recognised world, which while their motivations may be the same the culture is different, they have different interests and interactions, and more interestingly the way a different society works (or not).

And strangely, like my love of archaeology this fascination with a now vanished world and its history has stayed with as in my recent post about Fanya Kaplan and Bruce Lockhart.

And the odd little stories - how during the civil war the SR leaning Siberian provisional government in Omsk tried to withdraw the Kerenskas - the paper rubles issued by the Kerensky government between March and October 1917 in favour of their own notes, and how the population refused to hand over their Kerenskas and accept the (probably worthless) Siberian rubles. (In case you're interested there's a vague mention of this in Dr Zhivago where Pasternak talks about people refusing the lemons,  the yellow banknotes issued by the Omsk government)

Or the role of the Japanese in the allied intervention in Vladivostok and the way that it really was a precursor to their expansion into Manchuria to gain access to additional resources.

Or the way that Vladivostok was an invented city - in 1860 it consisted of a few trapper's huts, yet by 1918 it was a respectable little city, even if it did lack a decent sewage system - something that reminded me of Seattle, which also started out as a little outpost clinging to a forested coast - it might even be interesting to do a 'compare and contrast' bit of analysis comparing the settlement of the American and Canadian Pacific North West with the Russian settlement of Primorye ...

Odd what fascinates people, isn't it ?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Photography update

A few weeks ago I blogged about my intent to try some good old fashioned wet film black and white work. At the time I said that I reckoned I could do the job for less than $200.

So far, sourcing via ebay, I'm well on track as this spreadsheet shows - just under $115 for the hardware. I'm assuming that I won't have access to a dark room, and as a consequence the change bag is a necessity for getting the film out of the cassette and into the developing tank.

That's why I went for a small format developing tank, and a film puller - while in the old days I just used to pop the end off the film cassette by brute force (or occasionally with the aid of a bottle opener) but I had the luxury of a dark room then with enough space to spread out.

Given that a change bag is kind of cramped inside I reckon that being able to retrieve the leader and then feed the film into the tank spool might be a better approach under the circumstances.

I obviously still need to source some developer and fixer plus a couple of measuring cylinders but I don't see that breaking the $200 budget. All costs are in Australian dollars, but at the moment costs are near enough 1:1 with the US dollar to make currency fluctuations irrelevant. If you'd prefer to see pounds just multiply all costs by 0.6 or 0.75 for euros.

The other interesting thing is that there is obviously a trade out there in wet film technology and film cameras ....

Monday, 28 November 2011

Who needs a landline?

Our landline died a couple of weeks ago, or more accurately, our analogue voice service did.

The ADSL service kept on working so we're not really sure when the analogue service died - I just happened to be sitting having breakfast one day and noticed that the phone base station said 'check landline'. So I did, and sure enough it was buggered with no dial tone.

Did the usual - unplugged everything, plugged in an old corded phone I keep in case of bushfires and the power going out, and definitely nothing. Plugged everything back in, logged into the phone company website and logged a fault.

After three separate visits, various phone calls, an occasion when they sent me an SMS saying the fault was fixed when it wasn't, they decided the fault must be on our side of the installation - possibly downstream of the ADSL filter/splitter that they installed to try and fix our ADSL dropouts.

All of this has taken about ten days so far. Some of it down to the phone company's inefficiency and miscommunication, and some of it down to procrastination on our part.

All this time we have had no analogue voice service. Have we noticed? No. We have our mobiles, we have a Skype account that lets us call landlines in Australia for free and landlines overseas for pennies.
We even have a cloud based fax service for dealing with those places (mostly overseas hotels and travel agencies) that need to to have credit card information faxed to them. Basically, while we're dependent on the ADSL service, the analogue service really doesn't matter any more,

Tellingly, at one point the phone company helpfully redirected our landline number to our Skype dial in number (this is a number that lets you call my Skype account as if it was a standard landline). tellingly we were not overwhelmed with voicemails - in fact we had exactly zero calls.

The only noticeable impact of not having a working landline is all the calls I've racked up dealing with the phone company - who to be fair have offered us a month's free line rental, which will probably offset the cost of these extra calls somewhat.

If it wasn't for the thought that we might have a creeping problem with our internal phone wiring, I'd be tempted to ignore the issue and leave the service permanently down.

However what it has proved is that the analogue service is basically irrelevant and we could happily move to a naked DSL only service. In fact the only reas we havn't is the attenuation and drop outs our ADSL service is prone to in the early evening due to it being basically overloaded ...

[update 01/12/2011]

We finally have a working landline - has only taken 17 days and 4 the last of whom we hired to check the cabling.

A Greek guy - described the efforts of the previous three as 'They bloody idiots' and fixed the problem in about 40 minutes after tracing it to a duff connector installed god knows how long ago and by whom, but which looked suspiciously like a Telstra style splice unit ...

Monday, 21 November 2011

KCL to open a Russian Studies Institute

Back in February 2010 I wrote a post commenting on the short sightedness of closing Paleography at KCL. In the post I suggested that it was just as short sighted as the wholesale closing of Russian faculties in the nineties.

The justification for closing Russian departments, departments of Slavic studies, departments of Soviet Studies etc was something along the lines of 'We've won the cold war, Russia is no longer a credible threat, we can't justify the investment', which of course really meant we can no longer get funding from the military and the spooks, and no one else will pay for it - oh yes and Russian is hard, no one will study it.

Well studying Russian is hard. I know, I studied it back in the cold war days. But Russia sits on a vast part of the world's mineral wealth, some of the central Asian successor states are rich in gas and oil, and have immense strategic significance. Just because the genitive plural is mind numbingly complex is no reason for not studying Russian. Just as the complexity of Chinese is no reason for not studying Chinese given the economic significance of China.

Russian companies own aluminium plants in Queensland, newspapers in London and god knows what else. Russia  also still  posesses a fairly serious military capability.  In other words Russia is economically and militarily significant and that means it's in our interests to know something about their language and culture, if only to negotiate more effectively with them.

Unfortunately the wholesale closing of Russian faculties means that the people who could conceivably have taught the mysteries of the genitive plural are now pursuing alteranative careers such as running market gardens in Queensland and the pool of expertise has largely been lost to academia.

So it was with a wry smile that I saw a report this morning that KCL was to establish a dedicated Russia Studies Institute. The wheel is coming full circle ...

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Britain, Russia and Brest Litovsk

An interesting little conundrum here. On August 30, 1918, Fanya Kaplan attempted to assassinate Lenin.

To put this is context, this was some six weeks after the murder of the Tsar and his family in the Ipatiev house, and nearly six months after the signing of the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, which settled the Eastern front in world war I.

What is less clear is the British role in all of this.

Immediately after the (post revolution/pre-treaty) ceasefire in the east British secret agents continued to organise partisan groups that sneaked across the ceasefire line in the Ukraine to harry the German and Austro Hungarian forces there, with the aim of continuing to tie down a substantial part of the German army which might be otherwise deployed to the Western front. It wasn't all one way - various Habsburg proteges such as Basil the Embroidered were involved in attempts to create new states in the west of Ukraine.

The British are also claimed to have tried to persuade the government of Russia to allow the transit of Japanese troops prior to Brest Litovsk to fight on the eastern front, and when initially it appeared that Trotsky was against a treaty with the Germans, to persuade the Russians to maintain at least a token force. They even sent a general, General Poole, to take command of the Czechoslovak legion with the aim of reinforcing the token Russian force in the east.

In short the British were afraid that a settlement in the east would allow Germany to move its forces west, and maybe finally achieve breakthrough on the western front. Which is exactly what Ludendorff  tried to do during the spring offensive in 1918.

All this came to naught. Lenin, fearing that continued involvement in a war with Germany, however token, would inevitably divert resources away from any internal conflict, and would mean that the Bolshevik government would have to compromise with other factions and have to form a more moderate coalition of the left leaning parties, forced through a pro-treaty motion in the Central committee, effectively overruling Trotsky and mandating him to make an agreement, however distasteful.

Enter Bruce Lockhart – alleged diplomat but clearly a British ‘black operations’ officer to advance the British position, and responsible for organising several plots, including one to rescue the Tsar.
Bruce Lockhart (his surname, not his full name) was arrested immediately after Fanya Kaplan’s failed assassination attempt. It’s clear that Bruce Lockhart and another British intelligence officer, Sidney Reilly had a more than passing involvement in the plot.

The question is – was the assassination attempt in revenge for the murder of the Tsar and his family, or more an attempt to remove Lenin in the hope that the ultra left Bolshevik faction would implode and a more moderate government emerge which would repudiate Brest Litovsk and again open hostilities in the east?

And was Britain’s earlier apparent lack of interest in a serious attempt to free the Tsar and the Imperial family because they expected other things to happen which would allow the Tsar to leave for exile, much as later happened for the Kaiser and Karl of Austria?

[by happenstance, when checking one of the background facts while correcting this post I happened across this article from the BBC, which gives an alternative but not dissimilar view]

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

daily life with the zPad

there's been a flurry of posts recently about how a quarter of iPad users hardly use them.

as someone who bought himself a no name Chinese android tablet a few months ago I thought I'd add my $0.02 about it.

First of all I do use it a lot - and I do mean a lot - so much so that the inkjet printed zPad name and banding information has worn off the back.

The way you use it is interesting - all these click and read operations - like email, like google reader, scanning the news on the BBC and Guardian apps, checking the weather, Twitter, all can be done from the lounge room or a chair on the deck, in a way that couldn't be done comfortably with a netbook or full size laptop.

Anything needing more than two lines of text to be written, photo editing, any vaguely serious work remains on a 'proper' computer.

In short, the tablet socializes computer use - just as in the same way reading the paper can be a social activity where one can engage with the cat, pass the device to one's partner if one finds something particularly interesting, wander into the kitchen with it.

I would however still take a netbook travelling in preference because of the convenience of having a keyboard and a set of editing tools, but certainly I could imagine taking the tablet travelling, and possibly a bluetooth keyboard is all that's needed to make the difference.

So, back to the quarter of iPad owners who never use it. The one question that doen't seem to be asked is their pattern of conventional computer use. Those of use locked into the great buzzing booming world of technology forget that there are a lot of people out there with fairly minimal computer skills and who only use a computer because  they want skype, they want a little bit of email and to deal with online banking and billing.

These people probably don't create or consume much in the way of content, nor do they feel the need to.  Just because they suddenly acquire a tablet are they not going to change their behaviour - people on the whole change when they need to, not when the potential exists

Monday, 14 November 2011

The war of 1911

When I blogged about the ‘Long War’ hypothesis I completely failed to mention the Italo Turkish war of 1911.

No excuse other than ignorance on my part as while it doesn’t alter the hypothesis that the first world war really started in the east with the Russo Japanese war of 1905, the war of 1911 uncannily predicts the first world war in the Middle East some five or six years later with the use of armoured cars and aircraft by the Italian forces and the use of native mujahadin levies on horseback by the Turks, led by a dashing commander – not Lawrence of Arabia, but one Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk.

And the Turks damned near won. Italy, which had decided that the Turks really shouldn’t be left to govern what is now Libya, and that the people of Libya would be much better off having the Italians as colonial masters (after all the world was made to be ruled by the European powers and France and Spain had divided Morocco between themselves a few years previously). The Turks, and the Libyans, had a different view and put up a fairly stiff resistance despite having no significant military presence in Libya. And despite their eventual defeat, the Turks learned that they could  European armies could be beaten.

The other side effect was that the Ottoman Turks learned early the value of military aircraft using them to some effect during the Balkan war and later on to attack Greek and Allied targets in the north Aegean during the Gallipoli campaign – where the commander on the Turkish side was again Mustafa Kemal.
One can speculate, but Kemal’s experience in Libya, where the Ottomans so nearly beat the Italians must have added to his determination to resist at Gallipoli – for the simple reason that he knew that European armies could be beaten …

Thursday, 10 November 2011

zero thru' one of minus one

a little gmail message count snafu:

If you click on the picture to blow it up and  look at the right hand figures you'll clearly see that the message count is displayed as 0-1 of -1. This little gem appeared after I deleted a message - it fixed itself on refresh but even so ...

Sunday, 6 November 2011

A cultural weekend

Sometimes it seems like all we do is work.
Being human we do need a break and this weekend with its promise of 30 plus weather breaking down into storms seemed an absolutely ideal time to go and take in a little culture.
Saturday saw us decamp to the Portrait gallery to see their exhibition of of new portraiture from South east Asia – some of which was interesting and some of which was simply odd.
I personally found Vivan Sundaram’s photo collages and Nusra Latif Qureshi’s prints especially striking.
In Sundaram’s work I was especially struck by what seemed to be beautifully photographed Indian familty portraits that looked as if they could date from the 1930’s set in conjunction with artworks in a way that one suspects was never normal in middle class India. For example:

Sunday saw us catch the end of the Fred Williams exhibition at the NGA.
Fred Williams  has a style of inspired minmalism building picture of the Australian Bush amiout of sparse paintings of swathes of colour enlivened by what can only be described as textured blobs.
I have a great weakness for such minamalist paintings – I am a quiet fan of Rosie Scott’s Cornwall paintings for example, and Fred is definitely a master of the abstracted minimal.
What was especially nice about the exhibition was the shear range of paintings allowing one to trace the evolution of his style from his early student work on to his mature work.
What was also nice was that as well as his landscapes they included some of his portraits – proving that the man could indeed paint in an (almost) conventional style if need be…


Photography, as we all know has gone digital – and for its utter convenience it’s difficult to  see a reason to go back to the good old days of film.
Except I’ve never been totally happy with black and white photography on digital, I’ve never quite found a technique to get the depth of contrast one sees in 1930’s photographs with their high silver prints. For example, this UK National Portrait Gallery picture from the 1930's of Jasmine Bligh, one of the first BBC television announcers.

So I’m starting a little experiment to see if you can get some thing similar by choosing your source media carefully – amazingly, you can still get a range of black and white films of various characteristics from a range of online retailers, and ebay is your friend here for sourcing them.
There are also still people who develop films, admittedly for around $25 a time –. not cheap, but I’ve thought up a little project that should make the whole exercise fun and cost effective.
I have a digital negative scanner. I also once, admittedly nearly forty years ago, was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, taking my own pictures and developing my own films. While I still have my own enlarger, I no longer have a developer tank, change bags, film loaders etc I could process my own. So if I could source the things required, for example a film developing tank, a change bag in lieu of a darkroom, the chemicals, and so on for less than $200 I'd still be ahead. And I do still have my film cameras.
So my project is this – source a tank and a change bag from ebay, and I should be right  to process my own films. The chemicals might be a bit of a problem in Canberra, but there are still shops that sell them in Sydney and Melbourne, meaning I could if necessary take the train to Sydney to pick some up – carrying a range of strange chemically smelling  liquids and powders through security at an airport is probably not really going to be feasible.
Then once in business work my way through a range of films to find one that gives me effects I’m after.
First thing was to check my film cameras. One of the first problems was that my Vivitar SLR had died – probably only a battery, but the TTL meter was never totally reliable when I used it, and while I still have an Olympus Trip in working order, it’s not the best for composing shots. Probably meant that a new camera was required for the project – but of course no one makes film cameras any more …
However, if you look on ebay for old film cameras it’s clear that there’s a trade in old hi-end camera bodies and lenses among afficinados but that wasn’t what I looking for – I need something good but basic.
Well, I was outbid on an old Pracktica, but I managed to snag a Seagull ( a Chinese clone of an old Minolta model) for around $30 including shipping – and assuming that it’s OK I should be in business.

So in anticipation I've ordered my first batch of film - Lucky SHD ASA 100 from China - popular with the lomography crowd ...

Thursday, 20 October 2011

No more computer labs

Stenden School Workspace
Originally uploaded by Arjen Stilklik.

I've periodically fulminated about how University computer labs are an outdated concept and how they should be replaced with a mixture of workspaces for people to either use their own technology, or places full of high end specialist equipment - and even that is kind of moot given that reasonable recent desktop can do what a three or four year old specialist Unix workstation can do in terms of raw compute.

And now that spring is here, the thing I notice when I walk across campus is laptops, or more accurately students sitting outside in the fresh air using their laptops. Note their laptops, not the institution's. I have no figures for any of this but I would guesstimate that students only use institutionally owned computers for dedicated lab exercises or to access software that's not readily available due to cost.

The rest happens on their own machines or via google docs, or whatever.

What's interesting is that this idea seems to be gaining a little momentum - with the recognition that a lot of computing takes place elsewhere.

However, there's three things that need to be considered before completely closing down labs (to be provocative I used to say we should close them all tomorrow and see what happened).

1) There needs to be a service of last resort to cover those whose laptop breaks, dies, gets stolen. I used to be a fan of recycling old computers for this, put linux and libre office on them and sell them very cheaply, but these days computers are cheap enough for most people to afford a decent machine and an academic Office licence.

2) we need to carefully evaluate specialist software. Some might be better provided as virtual PC's, some might still need to be deployed on dedicated hardware. The advantage of the virtual pc route is that it provides a mechanism for the 'old but worthy' bits of software that don't run well on new hardware to continue to be supported

3) we need to ensure that we adequately provide these services that we expect students to use, and that access and setting them up is simple. Email is easy. It's the rest that is difficult. The services required include a filestore service that can be used from the desktop and allows material to be shared easily. A printing service to allow access to printers while on campus. Collaboration services such as wikis and a blogging platform for group exercises. Easy access to the learning management system. An online essay submission system etc etc. We need a thorough understanding of what services are required to move to providing services (which is what we are doing here) rather than providing resources.

However, assuming that we can meet #1 and #2 and #3, I'd say break out the beanbags. My own real epiphany came in the King James Library in St Andrews - turn up, login via eduroam and do your work just as if you were sitting at your desk on the other side of the world ...

Blackberry Fail = #firstworldproblem ?

There's an article in today's Toronto Globe and Mail with a similar title to this post.

I'm not taking issue with the article as it's clearly supposed to be amusing, but with the idea that a collapse of email services (or any other twenty first century messaging system) is a first world problem.

It's not. Visit any country struggling up the ladder and you'll see that cellphones are everywhere, and smartphones are not far behind - witness the blackberry toting tuk tuk driver we encountered on our trip to Thailand earlier this year.

It's a simple story, but worth telling. We were in a tuk tuk in Ao Nang when the driver grunted sorry and pulled over to the side of the road. It was in the middle of a monsoonal squall and I half expected that the tuk tuk had died in the rain.

Not a bit of it. The driver pulled a plastic bag out of his pocket, unwrapped it to unpack a blackberry, which he looked at, tapped a response, re wrapped it and set off again. Now a blackberry must have been quite an investment for him but is obviously how he kept in touch with his touts and regulars to pick up traffic.

The thing which always impresses me about poorer countries is how good the hi tech infrastructure can be and to what extent services are enabled by them, and indeed how cheap smartphones from China are changing the way things get done in these countries.

A dead email solution is just as much a problem for a tuk tuk man chasing bookings or a millet farmer trying to decide if this is the week to sell his crop as it is for anyone in Pitt Street

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Stuff elsewhere ...

I've got stuff scattered in various places on the internet. To try and bring some coherence to this here's a couple of  noteworthy snippets ....

  • I've done a semi autobiographical review of Trinity Tales on my wordpress blog. The review has been picked up by Ninth Level Ireland, which is mildly cheering. The review is also linked to from my LibraryThing page for Trinity Tales

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

the trouble with indexing ...

One of the problems I find with all note structuring applications is indexing and categorisation. Most of them have moved away from the strict hierarchical categorisation model (if it's this it sits in this bucket, and if it's that that bucket) by using tags but even so you do tend to end up with a pile of thematic buckets.

This is absolutely fine when collecting material with a purpose - I'm going to write a paper on X - but not so fine when collecting ideas - what I describe as post-its on a wall.

Post-its on a wall is a technique I've used a lot. Write down an idea or concept on a post-it. Stick it on a white board Write down another on another post-it. If your'e clever you can use tricks like using different colours if the idea or concept comes from somewhere else. Draw a line between the two post-its describing the relationship between the two. Do it again. Draw a line. And so on.

You end up with what I used to call a connectedness diagram, but is really an informal representation of linked data. It's a technique I find really useful for understanding and organising material. It's also not a new technique, I used it, with sheets of butcher's paper and coloured pencils at the end of the seventies when revising for my finals and finding links and references across and between modules (We can say this about foraging behaviour in prosimians because their visual systems have this characteristics, and the environment in which they live lacks distinct seasons, etc)

I havn't really seen an alternative to the post it technique - mind mapping tools like freemind for some reason seem to lack the flexibility required, and what one wants to do is to arrange and diagram the relations between objects.

One alternative which does seem to do the job well is LORE - the literature object re-use and exchange tool developed as part of the Aus-e-lit project.

I'm going to guess that conceptually it started out as an annotation tool to allow the linking of notes and material together, but crucially what it allows is for you to develop and diagrams sets of links between objects and share them with collaborators (or the whole world should you want to) but also to creatively organise material.

Such a model also delivers what I call 'active curation'. Texts in other languages can often have ambiguities in translation, especially as when the language is something like Middle English.

One could take two versions of the same text, link the two and compare the readings and perhaps reference similar less ambiguous bits of text in other documents, etc, etc, to show why a particular interpretation should be preferred over another.

And of course this is not just for Middle English, the same approach could be taken to analysing witness statements, when investigating criminal cases, especially where we are talking about cases such as fraud or other forms of financial malfeasance which can be extremely difficult to prove but where the case is built of little facts and inconsistencies ...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

and there's pliny ...

in my off again on again investigation into note taking and annotation software I happened across Pliny.

The download link for the Mac version was broken for me but I found a second copy on SourceForge which downloaded and installed just fine.

Like the Zotero client it provides annotation, which is the thing that Evernote does not do, which at the least allows you to flag relevant passages in documents.

However Pliny does not look as if it has had substantial development since 2009, and if I was a serious user I would be hesitant committing to it long term - Zotero overall would look to be a better bet, with a larger user community behind it, especially in academia.

However Zotero would need to truly escape from the Firefox ghetto and perhaps get itself onto iPads and Android tablets to be truly useful, given that seems to be the way the world is going ...

Zotero standalone

Just to say that I've been playing with the Zotero 3.0 standalone beta  in a very desultory way.

Basically it seems to have taken a leaf out of Evernote's book and the standalone client has many of the same capabilities as Evernote.

Certainly this would offer an opportunity to break out of the Firefox space, the question really comes down to whether Zotero's citation and bibtex output capabilities are enough of a usp given that their storage costs seem to work out rather more than Evernote's freemium model.

More when I've delved into this some more ...

The Vitruvian Wheelbarrow

Last night I watched a show on the ABC (I think it came from Channel 4 in the UK originally) , Rome wasn't built in a day, in which a group of tradies try to build a Roman villa using the techniques described by Vitruvius as a guide and only historically or archaeologically attested tools.

This means that most hand tools are allowed, and most of them are pretty similar to those found in Bunnings or Mitre 10 today - if you doubt me go look at the rather fine collection of tools from Silchester in the Reading Museum.

However Vitruvius does not mention wheelbarrows. Neither does any other Roman author, so no wheelbarrows. In fact one of the archaeologists in the show had a tanty over the builders trying to sneak wheelbarrows on site.

This of course begs the question as to why Vitruvius doesn't mention wheelbarrows. The obvious answer is that the Romans didn't use them. Certainly carvings of Roman squaddies building things, eg Trajan's column are fairly wheelbarrow free.

Now the Romans were reasonably clever and innovative, and also in contact with a lot of other cultures so the old 'they didn't think of it' argument is a bit thin. Let's assume that they did think of it and it didn't work for them, and try and work out why that might be the case.

At its simplest, a wheelbarrow is two levers, the shafts in an inverted V pivoted at the apex of the V on the wheel. This means that most of the weight and force acts down through the wheel. Overload a cheap wheelbarrow often enough and the wheel, its axle, or the mount will break. This is why builder's wheelbarrows often seem to have overly robust wheels and axles.

Modern wheelbarrows are built of steel. Nineteenth century ones, as used by navvies building the first railway lines in England were of wood, but often with cast iron wheels. Wooden wheelbarrows were probably heavier for their strength but nothing precludes using wood for the shafts or the frame.

What is interesting is the adoption of cast iron wheels. Obviously the wheel and it's axle was seen as a weak point and hence the adoption of cast iron to reduce the risk of failure. Equally there is nothing to stop you building a wheel barrow with a wooden wheel, perhaps with an iron rim and straps for strength.

The question is whether nineteenth century construction workers adopted the iron wheeled wheelbarrow because of its greater durability or because it was cheaper (or both). Answering this question would probably give us a clue as to why Vitruvius does not mention wheelbarrows - it might simply be that making one durable enough was uneconomic for the Romans. Handcarts and extra slaves to push and shove may simply have been more cost effective .

[update 07 October]

I'm quite possibly wrong on some of the above. Wikipedia, who else, has an excellent article on wheelbarrows, and I now know that the Greeks may well have used wheelbarrows, but they seem to have disappeared from the historical record in Roman times only to reappear in northwestern Europe sometime between 1150 and 1250. I'd personally view this date with some caution, as it coincides with the appearance of illuminated manuscripts and their associated maginalia - which form a source of information about daily life along with some more fanciful suggestions such as alternative uses for trumpets - in the area under consideration, but there appears to be reasonable agreement that wheelbarrows were relatively uncommon until the 1400's.

I could wave my hands and claim that this was possibly in part due to the ongoing shortage of labour after the Black Death, which made using a wheelbarrow with its risk of breakage and accompanying cost of replacement worthwhile, but I am making it up with no evidence at all.

Certainly a very superficial study of pictures in which wheelbarrows feature suggests they were used for lighter as opposed to heavier work, so I still feel my suggestion that it was not until the advent of iron wheel assemblies and mounts that the wheelbarrow became useful in heavy construction, such as canal and railway building in eighteenth and nineteenth century England.

This is however only a supposition, and having been wrong once, I could be wrong a second time ...

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Living with the zPad ...

I've had my zPad, my no name Android Froyo tablet for about a month now and it has changed my life.

Admittedly only in some small ways, but there's definitely change there. For example I now use it most mornings to check my email my diary and the news headlines while making J a cup of tea, feeding the cat etc.

And that's a function of it's instantness and portability, and the fact that both the Guardian and the BBC have free Android apps (the SMH doesn't, but then we get the print edition anyway).

The other thing I ended up using it for is happenstance browsing ( or creative buggering about if you prefer) where you look at the weather, hop over to the Irish Times web page, something about an early medieval burial site catches your interest, you tweet the link, google for the detailed press release etc etc.

Previously this would be done from my laptop in the study, now it's easy to do sat on the sofa stroking the  cat and while talking to J.

And that change in behaviour  is purely the result of form factor - it's easy to hand across to someone else, and it's comfortable to hold in your hand for happenstance browsing, while a laptop of a netbook has to end up balanced on your knee. In other words, while it doesn't let you do anything you didn't do before it does make the experience more congenial.

And that's it's key - congeniality. While in some ways it does less than a netbook or a full size laptop, it does those things that don't demand intensive input - such as blogging - in a good enough manner that it gets you out of the study and into the house. The keyboard, once you get used to it's eccentricities, is god enough for composing short emails and notes. I did start writing a blog post on it, but gave up - sometimes a proper keyboard is just plain better.

Strangely the one thing I thought I'd use it for - as an Evernote based replacement for meetings paperwork - is the one thing I havn't used it for - yet ...

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

victoria and calixtus ii

While I was recently circumnavigating the globe to take in a Project Bamboo management meeting in Maryland followed almost immediately by the DCMI conference in the Hague, I started reading Lytton Strachey's biography of Queen Victoria.

When describing the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Strachey recounts how a Chinese, in formal (Chinese) dress appeared, and no one knew who he was and where he had come from, but that he was co-opted into the opening procession on the ground that there was no official Chinese representative present.

The gentleman in question later disappeared without anyone being any the wiser as to his identity and whether he was indeed Chinese.

This instantly reminded me of the man who appeared at the coronation of Callixtus ii in 1119 claiming to be Archbishop John, Patriarch of India. He also was allowed to take part as he looked plausible and appeared to add gravitas to the proceedings.

Of course, in the world before the First World War, governments really had no way of identifying individuals with any degree of reliability given the near universal absence of passports or identity cards which made it extremely easy for people to travel and present themselves as other than they were - such as King O'Malley, one of the founding fathers of Canberra and quite probably in retrospect a complete shyster.

One of the things you realise reading English travel writers of the 1930's was just how new and imperfect this new world of passports was. For example, volunteers for the International Brigades from the UK simply bought an excursion ticket to Paris as no passport was required to buy or travel on that type of ticket. When they got to Paris they then made contact with people who facilitated their onward journey. Or indeed Laurie Lee who basically just bummed a ride on a boat to Spain - no documents, nothing.

The bureaucracy of passports and visas was very new - take for example the care with which Peter Fleming explains his difficulty with his exit visa from the Soviet Union to Manchuria and how he had to double back and leave by the route he first thought of rather than the more convenient one, or George Orwell explaining the bureaucracy of obtaining an exit stamp in civil war Catalonia - something that both writers clearly expected their audiences to be unfamiliar with.

This is now a vanished world - we are all too familiar with the joys of ESTA's, landing cards, exit cards and the like, and of course it would be almost impossible for someone to masquerade as something that they are not given that we all leave a trail of clicks and cookies behind us these days , and are much more monitored than we were even ten years ago ...

Monday, 26 September 2011

travels with a laptop redux

Note taking on my recent conference trip wasn't all as hi-tech as I may have seemed to suggest in my previous post. On day two of the conference I ran very low on battery and my laptop shut down on me forcing me to the old fashioned pen and paper note taking

I then typed the notes in a structured and coherent manner into evernote

And the notes actually look better, are more coherent, and it took no longer that the 45 minutes I usually spend editing my notes.

So, while evernote is a great tool, I've come round to the idea that note taking on paper and writing the notes up afterwards - the discipline is to do this consistently and structure the notes sensibly.

So I think my conference workshop/toolkit looks like this:

  • netbook + psu + mouse
  • small digital camera + transfer cable
  • android tablet computer
  • cool-er e-reader
  • cable to charge tablet from netbook
  • ditto for e-reader
  • australian power board, and plug adapters as required
  • 2m ethernet cable (hotel cables are always too short, knackered or both)
  • headset for skype
  • go-sim phone to minimize roaming charges on these occasions when you want to call someone but can't access skype (airports for example)
  • decent hardback notebook and pens
the e-reader stays on the list due to its excellent battery life (and being small and light it's ideal for sticking in an airplane seat pocket) The zPad's there really as an experiment, I'm actually not sure just how useful it would be in practice until I try it seriously. Making sure all the devices you lug about charge via usb saves carrying the psu's with you.

Taking an ethernet cable with you is essential - it's surprising how many hotels only provide a wired service. Unfortunately the ethernet cables provided for loan have usually had a hard life and have been twisted and bent in unfortunate ways and have broken clips.

As for power adapters, I havn't yet  found a universal power power adapter ( the ones with multiple prongs or ends) that actually accepts an Australian plug reliably and will at the same time plug into a Dutch or German Schuko plug receptacle - most of the cheaper ones don't deal with the Australian thin angled prongs properly or are intended to plug into a flush two pin power socket as opposed to a recessed one.

The only other problem I had was not having a US phone number in the states - possibly the answer would to get one of these dual sim phones an a cheap payg sim which you chuck  away when you get home. That way you could make local calls and still be able to use the go-sim sim for international calls ...

solving the zPad calendar sync problem


I've finally cracked it - add the device to my GooSync account and then sync using the funambol client.

It shouldn't be this complicated but it does seem to work....

Thursday, 22 September 2011

travels with a laptop

Well I'm seven days into a 10 day circumnavigation of the world with a Project Bamboo meeting in Maryland at the end of last week, a trip to see family in Scotland at the weekend, a session with eduroam and a borrowed desk in St Andrews on Monday and now the DC-2011 conference at the Netherlands National Library in the Hague, where I'm presenting tomorrow, and then a 22 hour flight home from Amsterdam via Frankfurt and Singapore.

Throughout this marathon I've been toting my work 15" MacBook Pro which after what seems like three hundred million security checks, not to mention typing on my actual lap, seems increasingly heavy and bulky.

So I looked round this afternoon at a moment when nothing particularly interesting was happening at what my fellow delegates where using.

There was a sprinkling of people like me either using full size Macs, Dells or Thinkpads. Quite a few, mostly from the US, had Macbook Airs. The Europeans tended to netbooks in preference, and of course there were a few iPadistas. I didn't notice any Android tablets in use.

So, what do I find I use on the road?

  • Evernote - notes are typed directly into Evernote these days
  • Google Docs, for writing, reviewing slides and recording expenses in a spreadsheet
  • Gmail - which I've now got configured as allowing me to masquerade as my corporate email should I want
  • Google Calendar
and that's about it. While I have a local install of both Libre Office and Microsoft Office, I hardly use them, and the same goes for the standard mail client. Otherwise it's all websites for flight check-ins, conference stuff and seeing if it's going to rain.

So I need the web, but nothing particularly fast in compute terms. Given my use of the Google ecology, using Chrome as a browser seems to be a first choice, but what to choose as a lightweight portable computing platform?
  • mac book pro - too big and heavy  evernote ok, chrome's ok
  • mac air - expensive but long battery life evernote ok, chrome's ok
  • netbook - light cheaper than the air but shorter battery life, evernote ok, chrome's ok
  • chromebook ??? evernote support ??? web client ?
  • linux netbook, ookygoo interface, native evernote compatible client not stable, web client a possible alternative, installing chrome hampered by ookygoo window manager
  • ipad, good battery, glass keyboard, evernote, must use safari but some specialist apps
  • zpad, uncertain battery, android,  glass keyboard, evernote native, better though not perfect integration into the google ecology
On balance, I think the answer is a netbook with a native evernote client. Most times you can manage your battery life pretty well even when there's nowhere near enough powerpoints to go around, and there's usuaully more than enough in workshop sessions - just pack your travel adapters. My experience last year taking the ookygoo to Providence has shown me how little you need to stay productive. While the same might be true of a conventional laptop, they're heavy and bulky, and actually a pain to work with on your lap for an extended period.

The need for chrome and evernote drives me to a windows netbook. While I'm sure an Air has a longer battery life, is lighter and generally more aesthetic, the fact remains that the windows netbook cost me $250 as opposed to a touch over $1000 for an Air. If it wasn't for my lingering uncertainty about the zPad's battery life a zPad and a bluetooth keyboard might do the job, but again the cost is the same as a discounted netbook, so I'd probably go for the netbook on the grounds of greater perceived reliability, and a much wider software base.

As for the Chromebook, I don't know. The model is incredibly sound, and almost everywhere you go has wi-fi. In practical terms I'm using my laptops as internet terminals already, the only question is whether I'm emotionally ready to abandon having a local client.

I suspect my answer is no, purely because of my dependence on evernote and the fact that the local clients are much more responsive than the web based client.

So next time I go travelling, I think it'll be with a netbook. The zPad might tag along as well purely for it's instant on and general immediacy when checking schedules, flights and Google maps, but I think a netbook for note taking because of it's half way decent keyboard. A Chrome book could be an alternative, but at more than one and a half times the price of a discounted netbook, it would have to be a hell of a use case ...

Monday, 19 September 2011

Eduroam ...

As is fairly obvious, I work at a university, and my institution, like many others in Australia provides an eduroam service so that academics visiting other campuses can log in to the wireless network using the credential from their home institution.

Until now, I'd found it mildly useful, perhaps because most of the visits to conferences and meetings that I make tend to take place in hotels and other places offsite from university campuses.

Until last week. I'm currently half way through a back to back trip to a Project Bamboo review meeting at the University of Maryland and a conference in the Hague.

UMD had recently deployed an eduroam service. I just opened up my laptop, logged in and there I was - magically connected and authenticated against ANU half a planet away. No more fiddling about setting up network connections or using visitor accounts. Quite magical really.

Then to add to the fun, midway through the trip, I stopped off in Scotland to see my father at the weekend. I also realised that I hadn't writing my conference presentation. However I had time on the Monday morning before I went to the airport before I flew on to the Hague.

Now I'd most of the presentation done - but in Google Docs as I'd started it at work, did a little at home, and then meant to finish it off in Maryland. That meant to finish it off I needed the internet, if only to download it to work offline.

My first though was 'Coffee Shop'. That's a problem as the rural north east of Scotland is not well endowed with wi-fi enabled coffee shops. I'm sure they exist, but I don't know where. And then I had a brainwave. I could drop down to St Andrews and use the University library there as I was sure they'd have eduroam enabled.

So, on my way through London, a quick check of the St Andrew's website to check that they'd got eduroam onsite, they had, and a courtesy email to St Andrew's library asking them if they'd mind if I borrowed a desk for a couple of hours.

I didn't realise when I sent the email that this was a big ask, as the main library was in the midst of refurbishment for the start of semester, and the library was operating out of St Mary's College, but they were truly wonderful and let me sit in the Georgian magnificence of the King James library while I worked on my presentation - as always the paper was submitted months ago and things always change slightly between the submitted paper and the conference.

More to the point, I again connected quickly and seamlessly, and everything just worked. Networking as it should be. Thank you eduroam, and thank you St Andrews!

Monday, 12 September 2011

Living with a zPad

Well, one week on I can say it doesn't disappoint.

I especially like its 'instantness' - want to check your email or the weather - just pick it up. Want to check a  document - just go into evernote. None of the interminable buggering about Windows 7 is prone to coming out of hibernation or sleep, or even OS X with its pretence that it's woken up quickly, when all it's done is show you your dekstop while furiously cranking up in the background.

Battery life is pretty good too. How good I'me not sure yet but it seems good enough, even with GPS running to make it through the day with periodic wakeups for email checking, dropbox and evernote syncing.

The screen and image display quality is pretty good, images of paintings, photographs, are sharp and clear, and the image form factor is excellent. Book reading is similarly sharp and the text is highly legible.

However, for recreational reading (ie stuck on planes and trains) I'd still use a an e-reader on a long trip t because of the near infinite battery life of 6-8k page turns between charges - enough for a three or four week trip (not to mention the lower weight).

The weight is comfortable in both portrait or landscape, not nearly as light as an e-reader, but comfortable enough for reading through a pile of rss feeds on the couch, and making notes.

The onscreen keyboard is good, once one gets used to it's habit of occasionally slipping into pinyn character assembly mode, but for extended typing one would probably want a portable bluetooth keyboard. I still think I prefer a netbook for travel and notetaking in conferences because of its general purpose style nature, I'm prepared to concede that one could imagine replacing a netbook with a tablet given that 90% of everything is in a browser anyway.

My only real irritation is calendar syncing or rather it's lack. I thought I'd found the solution in that GoogleCalendarSync.apk was missing from /etc/system/apps, and that all I needed to do was install it.

Unfortunately installing the calendar sync tool wasn't as straightforward as some blog posts suggested as protections have been set on the system such that I can't install it as a normal off the shelf user, either from the command line or using one of the common installation tools for non market place apps.

Once I've cracked that I also need to install the contacts syncing apk, and possibly a similar library for Google Docs. I am working on this, and incidentally learning a bit about Android configurations along the way ...

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Changing to Chrome

For the last fortnight or so I've quietly ditched firefox - which seemed increasingly slow and bloated - for Chrome on both Windows 7 and OS X.

Apart from being more responsive, I've hardly noticed the difference, except that Chrome seems to have a little trouble rendering one of our in house private sites ( the one that lets you check your leave and salary balance).

Both addthis and evernote have chrome plugins, and they both installed cleanly and work well. Unsurprisingly the components of the Google ecology (Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Reader, Blogger)  that I use all the time work very nicely, as do all the common websites that I visit,

I have not used it (or its open source equivalent Chromium) on Linux extensively enough to comment on performance but my dabblings suggest it should be equally slick ...

zpad - first look

Despite ranting on elsewhere about tablets versus netbooks, I am now the proud owner of an Android powered tablet computer.

Why did I buy it?

Convenience, for access to evernote and my mail

What did I buy?

A zPad - which is an Android 2.2 (Froyo) tablet with a ZMS08 CPU @ 1GHz, 16 GB SSD, 1 GB RAM and a 9.7" capacitive screen. It's styled to look like an iPad and Android has been skinned to make it look a little more like iOS than usual.

What was in the box?

A zPad, a fairly skimpy Chinglish manual, a USB cable, a power supply with a Chinese straight pin end and a converter for Australian power sockets.

What did it cost?

Around half what an equivalent iPad would cost and around a hundred bucks less than an Acer Iconia

How did I buy it?

Mail order via DHGate from a wholesaler in China. Service was prompt, efficient and the unit was well packed and took a week to get here.

What's it like?

Rather good. The screen is bright and clear, and as responsive as my iPhone 3. The keyboard has a PinYin mode which caused me some confusion at first but it works well as an English language keyboard once you realise how to avoid going into PinYin character choice mode. All the Android apps downloaded so far just worked.
WiFi setup was also trivially easy. I've made a couple of stuffups along the way, including breaking calendar syncing that I'll need to fix, but that's due to my unfamiliarity rather than anything wrong with it.

What next?

I need to spend more time with it and use it seriously. Certainly it looks very promising.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Mork food …

Saturday morning we had bagels and coffee for breakfast. Nothing unusual in that except that the bagels were distinctly … purple.
They were supposed to be blueberry bagels and for some reason, the bakery had used fruit puree  rather than berries themselves, and the result was that the bagels had come out distinctly purple, looking what J described as Mork food, incidentally revealing that her youth was not all Russian novels, renaissance art and Tudor history as she would sometimes have you believe.
And that got me thinking. While purple fruit is common, such as plums and damsons, purple food is not. The only other time recently I’ve had purple food was at Cabbages and Condoms in Bangkok where we had dumplings dyed with onion juice to make them come out purple.
As primates we’re quite good at detecting red fruit as it’s probably ripe, and given we evolved in equatorial forests, where trees fruit randomly, being able to see in colour was useful. Having stereo vision was also useful as it probably meant we were less likely to fall out of trees reaching for the fruit.
The same argument probably holds for fruit bats being able to see  in colour and have stereo vision.
But purple is a colour that can be difficult to see, even though lots of fruits are purple/black such as plums, blackcurrants, blackberries and mulberries.
But the interesting thing is that these are all temperate zone fruit, ie fruit from regions where primates did not live. But of course birds lived there, and birds can see different and more colours from us, which would lead me to guess that these fruits appear more brightly coloured to birds than they do to us.
And at a stretch, I guess this could explain why purple food is uncommon. We have a natural affinity to red and yellow food as tropical fruits when ripe are often red and yellow, but not to purple food, as while we have learned to enjoy purple fruits, we don’t have that association between purple and food buried way back in our evolutionary past.

Friday, 2 September 2011

reading books on the bus

yesterday, for the first time in a long time I rode the bus to work. It was a lovely bright sunny day and the first day of spring, and like most Canberra buses they had Mix 106.3 piped through the bus. And because Canberra is a low density city the 20km commute took around 40 minutes, even though the bus turns into a direct service straight to the CBD for the last 10 or so kilometres.

But what was really interesting was what my fellow passengers were doing.

When I used to ride the bus to work regularly, which is about four years ago now, people either listened to their iPod, read books and newspapers or stared out the window.

Well I'm glad to say people still stare out the window, but precious few were reading a newspaper or a real paper book - mostly it was a swathe of e-readers of various brands, the odd ipad and smartphone - you could tell the smartphone users by the way they flicked on to the next page repeatedly.

The other interesting thing of note is that the iPod phenomenon seemed to have been and gone. People were stil listening to things, but things stored on their phone.

Also missing in action were netbook users viewing spreadsheets and email and furiously composing offline memos - I'm going to guess that they have migrated to tablets.

So what does this mean?

Well I don't know. One bus ride on the first day of spring does not a survey make, but we could probably say the following:

  1. despite the absence of a clear market maker such as Amazon with the Kindle, e-readers have wide adoption in Australia.
  2. there are a lot of different brands of e-readers in use, but I spotted a couple of Kobo and different Sony models and a Kindle, plus some others I didn't recognise
  3. dedicated MP3 players are on the way out - people prefer to use their phone to reduce the number of devices carried
  4. Netbooks are also on the way out - possibly being replaced by tablets
  5. Tablets are not there yet - people still see them as too expensive to flourish on the bus or else penetration remains low
This is all based on the #170 bus service - which goes through a range of suburbs, some well off, some less so. Most commuters were heading to either the CBD or the City West terminus, very few people used the bus for a short two or three kilometre journey suggesting that most people would have enough time to read or listen to music if they so wished.