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.