Friday, 27 July 2012

Social networks and Beowulf

There's a research paper which argues that Beowulf, the Iliad and the Tain are more like reality than Shakepeare or Harry Potter. This seems to be causing a bit of a flutter and some angst among literary types.

Basically two physicists worked out the social graph in Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Tain and compared it to the social graph in well known works of fiction and demonstrated that it was different, and that the epics had graphs that were more like each other than the works of fiction.

They then compared these with the social graphs of people like company directors given that leaders of warbands  are not that common these days

From there the made the leap to say that the epics were more rooted in 'real' messy events than works of fiction. In real life shit happens and sometimes people make what look to be astoundingly stupid errors.

Fiction flows more and has less left field type stuff.

What would be interesting is to take various of the norse sagas and compare them to something like the Tain.

Why? Because we know that most of the personages in the sagas were real. In the Tain, which is essentially the retelling of a war over cattle in pre Christian (and pre literate) Ireland we don't know if it's based on real events or not.

And if that works we could then apply the analysis to a range of other stories, such as the dreamtime stories or various semi mythological south east asian epics ....

Monday, 23 July 2012

Dropbox as an active filestore

I've written previously about what you could do with cheap android tablets with an external keyboard as note takers but one of the problems has always been getting the data off of the tablet without ending up with multiple versions of the same document on different platforms.

I think I now have the answer.

I've been using Writebox, a minamalit text editor for Chrome that saves text files straight to your dropbox folder, which then syncs next time you are online - very useful for spotty internet connections. They are text files which mean that they can be read by just about anything under the sun, and highly portable between platforms. This also solves my abiword instability problem allowing me to work on a variety of platforms with ease

You can of course get the same effect by saving notes from any text editor you like to your dropbox folder. Writebox's advantage is that it's a native Chrome app that you can install into Chrome on any machine without you having to remember to save to dropbox, or indeed learn multiple text editors if you switch between platforms,

And then I thought 'I wonder if you can get the same effect with Android ?'

Up to now I've been using text edit on Android which lets you email files, but a couple of minutes googling uncovered Epistle, an app that saves files from Android to your dropbox account. This means that you can write notes on something basic, and then combine/edit/pretty them on a full size machine before saving them whereever.

This is not very new as a concept. In the late 1980's DEC had a product known as pathworks. Basically what it meant was that your Vax filestore was connected to your networked pc as a disk and that your pc could read and write to these files. This turned out to be incredibly useful as it meant one could create a vax text file from home in a terminal session and then import and edit the document at work the next day - in fact one of my tricks was to write reports as text files on my Mac Classic at home, paste them into a vax editing session in a terminal window, save the files and then format them up the next day.

And in fact all through the dial up years of the nineties it was the same. While we ditched pathworks and went to pc-nfs as a campus networking product, it was still the same - dial into a unix server, transfer a file and there it was sitting in your pc filestore. (Which was the same as your unix filestore - infact the filestore was common to anything that could NFS mount the fllestore. At the time I used to rave about the concept of the one-touch filestore - save it once, open it anwhere)

Of course the world changed, personal computers took over the world, and the need to move documents in this way disappeared. Now that typically (and I know I'm not typical) everyone has more than one computing device the need to move data between devices is more and more common. It's not surprising to learn that the whole dropbox concept was dreamed up as a solution to not having to carry documents back on forth between home and work on a usb stick.

Using it actively as a filestore rather than just as a transfer tool means that data can moved where it's most appropriate - basic notes on android or a linux netbook, formatting and structuring on a PC or Mac. Just as in the same way one could get the Vax to output the results of a data manipulation onto disk and one could import it in excel for further analysis.

In my continual quest to avoid having to carry reams of paper to meetings I've just ordered myself an Android tablet and keyboard combination. With a combination of Evernote to hold scanned copies of reference materials and epistle for writing notes I should be sorted. The only possible downside I can see is these people who persist in sending out word attachments rather than something platform agnostic like pdf.

I'll post further about this once I've tried it for real ...

Thursday, 12 July 2012

BYOD meets software licensing

BYOD - bring your own device - is the new black in IT trends - the concept being that employees bring their own device to do work and because all these great cloud services out there - Google Apps, Evernote, Windows Live to name but three,  and suggesting that they and you don't need to worry overmuch about software distribution, device standards, upgrades and all the rest of that painful shit that's kept me in a job these last thirty years, because you can do it all through a web browser.

Certainly as far as the student body is concerned, BYOD is a no brainer. Campus is crawling with students with their own laptops using web apps and doing stuff. The library has opened up individual study areas and it's full of students doing things on their laptops and tablets.  While I'm sure some are playing fruit ninja, most of them are not.

We don't know what they do and what they connect to but we do know that given pervasive internet they will use it. A lot.

So, we could conclude that, save for access to specialist software, eg engineering simulation packages student computer labs are dead. Everything is on the web, and everyone has a device that can access what they need.

Now we turn to staff. I'm running a couple of projects and have recently taken on a couple of new team members. Both started out by volunteering to try BYOD.

After all, all they needed to do was write some code, document it it, produce some reports and upload it to our collaboration service - which is based on Sakai and has a web based interface.

Both lasted about three days. It turned out that they needed Office and they needed access to some other tools. They could have bought them themselves but that didn't seem fair, and software licensing agreements meant that we couldn't just give them a copy and ask them to uninstall them at the end of their contracts.

Libre/Open Office didn't do it, and the standard templates weren't there. GoogleDocs for much the same reason. No presentation templates. And to cap it all our webmail service wasn't up to it (personally I pipe mine through to gmail).

So taking the line of least resistance they both now have corporate desktops.

Now this isn't an ummitigated tale of woe. It's a learning experience.

I've had what is essentially an unsupported macbook as my work machine for years, but it's a corporate machine and I have an officially licensed copy of office. I have a correctly licensed copy of office at home - it means I can work from home should I want to. I thought BYOD would work. It probably would have if licensing wasn't a problem.

So to make BYOD work for you, you need (a) to know what applications people really need, (b) consider if its cost effective to make changes to use the cloud based alternatives and (c) if it isn't, have an effective mitigation strategy in place. You also probably need to think about browser standards especially if people are using something odd eg a PowerPC version of Linux for otherwise perfectly sensible reasons ...

BYOD isn't hype, it can work, you just need to have a proper strategy and set of policies around it

Friday, 6 July 2012

Who needs an e-reader ?

As part of my background reading about Myanmar I've found myself relaying on Project Gutenberg and a few other sources for nineteenth and early twentieth century accounts of Burma.

The books themselves are mostly out of print, and while you do happen across reprints now and again, often from Thalland or India, or companies offering print on demand versions, I tend to go for the electronic versions.

The Gutenberg versions have the advantage of being free, and of course you get immediate gratification - you can download them immediately and start reading.

While I'm not averse to buying digital versions of more recent books a lot of them fall into the trap of not being recent enough o be available in a digital format or old enough to be out of copyright.

These more recent books usually end up being bought second hand as paperbacks through AbeBooks from the US or the UK - Australian second hand book sellers don't on the whole seem to have cottoned on to the fact that the second hand book trade is no longer a business where gentlemen can work gentlemen's hours and charge gentlemen's prices.

The e-books are in the main available in epub format on the whole and can be readily read with just about any e-reader, and that's exactly what I do, using my Cool-er and where appropriate I make notes on post-its or in a notebook which I transcribe into evernote. What I will end up doing with this material is anyone's guess - anything from a travel book to a Victorian murder mystery, but that's by the by.

But yesterday I had a thought. As I've said before no name 7 inch android tablets are incredibly cheap and getting cheaper - under a $100 on ebay for a no name generic device. And while rude things have been said about the seven inch form factor it's almost ideal for reproducing the size of the older, smaller penguin paperback.

While Google have announced the Nexus with a price tag of around $200-250 and Apple are rumoured to be producing a small form factor iPad, it remains the case that generic devices are considerably cheaper.

However, they are not directly equivalent. For $100 while you'll almost certainly get a capacitive screen, you will usually get 4GB rather than 8Gb storage, and probably a slower processor than in brand name devices. This doesn't actually matter that much as you will not be driving the device particularly hard and ebooks don't take up a vast amount of storage. The other thing you won't get is a warranty. As always your mileage may vary.

However, don't assume that they are junk. My experience with the zPad has convinced me that there is a lot of good low value hardware out there. Certainly the Thai government has thought so, buying 900,000 low cost devices to use in schools, primarily as a way of getting textbooks to students in poor areass

Using a free epub reader application you've turned your device into an e reader, but one on which you can make notes, and because they have wi-fi and support the android dropbox client (and the evernote client) one on which you can save and sync your notes elsewhere.

Sure the battery life is probably not wonderful, but you get something that you can use comfortably for three or four hours, good enough and cheap enough to use on the bus, and one which coupled with a keyboard you can type seriously on if required.

As a recreational reader, the standard e-reader is great - long battery life, easily good enough for a long flight to Singapore or Bangkok, and lightweight. But constrained, it does one thing well and only one thing. And if you are buying books from Amazon you do need a Kindle to read Amazon's drm protected books in Amazon's special format

But if you're not travelling, and you read generic format books in the main, you don't need a kindle. You don't need fantastic battery life. All you need is something that lets you read the files. My now slightly elderly Cool-er does this wonderfully well. But if it was to break, or if I was to get suddenly serious about this background reading I wouldn't replace it - I'd buy a no name tablet as a reader/note taker for the simple reason I could do it all on one device ...

Rupees, a puzzle, and ebay as a research resource

As part of my background reading for a possible trip to Myanmar I was reading Andrew Marshall's The Trouser People last night. In the book he basically retraces a Victorian administrator's steps through the Shan states, using a device not dissimilar to Emma Larkin's use of Orwell to report on the state of Myanmar.

At one point, when he is up in the wild borderlands of the Golden Triangle he reports seeing currency dealers selling big coins - he describes them as being like milk bottle tops - which turn out to be 1840 East India Company silver rupees.

Now I've seen something similar in Laos with old British India silver coins being sold in markets - not for tourists but because the hill tribe people still view them as source of wealth.

My curiosity was piqued by this and I wondered wether the coins I'd seen for sale in Laos were the same as the 1840's coins Andrew Marshall mentioned.

So I Googled. And in the course found the best source of pictures to be ebay - when you think about it not surprising - coin collectors and dealers regularly trade coins and have to provide reasonable quality pictures of the items for sale.

The coins I had seen in Laos were later. 1840's rupees have a 'Young Victoria' head not inlike that one used on British coinage from the same period .

And then I noticed something slightly intriguing. The head on the half rupee coin is slightly different, indefinably slightly more Indian looking. The layout of the lettering 'Victoria Queen' is different as well.

If you look at the two images below you'll see what I mean - the upper image is from an 1840 rupee, the lower from a 1840 half rupee coin

So, I'm guessing that they used different engravers/designers for the half rupee and rupee coins, and while they worked from the same illustration they produced slightly different versions of the same obverse.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Applications, files and the new normal ...

Files. Working with computers used to be all about files. Creating them, modifying them, deleting them. The horror that autosave hadn't been enabled and that your laptop had just run out of battery. Opening a spreadsheet and getting complete junk.

All things of the past. First of all you had google apps always saving changes to cope with the uncertainty of the cloud. Much better to save lots of time than have someone lose work because they lost their connection.

And then there's iPad and Android apps. You don't save things. Or Office Live - no save button, just close and walk away when you're done. Or evernote - your item is just there.

For example I'm writing the first draft of this using Write Space, a text editor that's an application that sits in a chrome browser.

Incredibly lightweight and enigmatic - data is saved somewhere. No menus other than the standard browser select keys.

You get your text out by selecting and copying it to paste into something else.

Or look at textedit on android. It does a little more, it actually lets you save files, but you don't have to - it remembers what you were working on last, and you can email the text should you want to.

Now we all know that they are really using files underneath - ones with strange odd names known only to the application. It's the content management approach where you create content and the system looks after it for you and finds it for you again absolving you of responsibility.

Want it as an evernote note - just copy and paste. Or a blog post.  Or a word document, or paste it into an ide.

Let the system save it and open it up on a different machine different operating system.

Now if you've been doing this for years you can either get all starry eyed about this or incredibly paranoid about having to trust an application to look after your data. I personally swing both ways. Too many years of open (fred, ">fred.txt"). On the other hand no more incantations to connect remote file systems and no more finding that you can't connect to that resource from here.

The more interesting question is about the iGeneration, the kids that just grow up with this and think its normal to share documents and just save them somewhere.

It's got advantages. No more USB drives lost somewhere. No more traumas moving between platforms and machines. And sharing notes and documents is a whole lot easier

It's also got challenges. What is individual work in the age of sharing? Why should I use a particular application when I skip between platforms. And probably a lot more besides.

It also finally breaks the concept of files. What we now have is documents and content. We don't have directories any more - we have labels, tags, a user created organisational folksonomy that we can search for.

We have a big pile of stuff, just like we used to. But we can search and find things, even if we don't quite know where they live ....