Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Chromebook - first week

It's a week since I first acquired my Chromebook and it's been good so far.
We'll gloss over the embarrassing moments when I tried to click on a button on a web page by touching the screen, or indeed when I tried to swipe between windows.
In fact it's proved pretty good for writing and for web based research - we use dit at the weekend to check out background information for what might possibly be our next trip and write up notes.
While it's not instant on, it's no slower to start than my no name tablet and certainly a lot faster than either of my windows based machines, even from hibernate.
Typing is good, and while there's a couple of oddities with the mousepad I havn't quite mastered yet, switching between windows and opening new windows is pretty good.
To my relief the system appears to cope quite well with our erratic ADSL connection and happily switches to offline editing, which is fine for writing.
I've also been using InoReader, my web based RSS reader of choice these days, on it without any problems.
While I've had it on the kitchen bench I still prefer my tablet for breakfast time email checking, and flicking through a couple of news apps - while we still get a print newspaper delivered, the delivery people appear to have been taking lessons from our ISP, with a very liberal interpretation of before 0700 recently.
And I think that's part of the clue to replacing the Eee linux netbook as a travel computer - the Chromebook does all the work stuff, the writing, the banking and so on, and take a tablet to do Skype and basic surfing, and the stuff that works better in a hand held environment, ie the Chromebook is good, better than a windows netbook, but not a complete replacement ...
Written with StackEdit.

Friday, 26 July 2013

page numbers on ereaders

It's a common complaint that ereaders do no do page numbers.
Actually it isn't tue - it's Kindles that don't do page page numbers. Others do. My venerable Cool-er, which I still use for Gutenberg epubs does page numbers. And the way it does it is mindnumbing simple.
It effectively does a
 linecount=$(cat file | wc -l)
    echo $number_of_pages
on the epub document to come up with the number of pages. This is of course entirely arbitrary. The original published edition could have had 42, 50, 54 lines to a page all dependent on the font used and the whim of the original typesetter. It's important to realise that the job of the ereader is to display text in a meaningful fashion, so what they have done is decide that a page is 40 lines long.
That this is an arbitrary decision doesn't matter. We're not trying to reproduce a printed edition here - we are most definitely not talking TEI-C.
Having made the arbitrary decision that there's 40 lines to the page, the Cool-er sticks with it - boost the font size and the page numbers will stay the same, it just means that one 'page' flows over more than one screen and that the 'page number' will increment part way down the second screen.
Why does this matter?
Well, if you are reading for pleasure it doesn't. But J has been teaching nineteenth century novels again. Five or so years ago, you could be fairly confident the kids would all have the Penguin edition, and they would all have more or less the same page numbers, so you could get them to do a critical analysis on the second and third paragraphs of page 96.
Now you can't. Some have kindles, some have other book reading apps on iPads and android tablets and all the devices/applications do something different in the page number space ...

[update - after a conversation with @fatrat this weekend we've managed to establish that some more recent members of the kindle family can display pseudo page numbers for some e-books where page numbers are enabled via the inclusion of an APNX file in the file bundle- however the basic problem still remains]
Written with StackEdit.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

So what do you actually use -Q2 update

Following on from my post back in April tracking what I actually use here's my quarter 2 update:

  • Dropbox – used mainly to sync files across computers irrespective of file format
  • Libre Office – platform agnostic document editor for off line writing. Often used in conjunction with Dropbox
  • Evernote – used as a notes and document management system (Nixnote is used on Linux to access my evernote files)
  • Wunderlist for 'to do' list management
  • Chrome – browser extraordinaire
  • Gmail – email solution
  • Postbox - lightweight email client for windows to cope with slow connections
  • Evolution - linux email client principly used in conjunction with Libre Office
  • Google docs – fast means to create quick and dirty documents irrespective of platform
  • Windows Live writer – offline blog post creation TextEdit – android text editor for note taking and integrates nicely with evernote and Gmail
  • Kate - my favourite editor
  • TextWrangler - my secondmost favourite editor
  • Stackedit - Google chrome markdown editor
  • Pandoc - converts markdown to a range of other formats
  • Microsoft Skydrive – used for document backup
  • Excel Web App – for these occasions when Google Spreadsheets or Libre Office Calc will not do
  • GanntProject for gannt chart generation
  • InoReader for RSS feed tracking
  • Twitter for tracking interesting things – rarely for messaging
  • Hosted Wordpress and blogger for blogging, and wikidot for creating structured web pages
  • Hojoki for tracking documents and tasks (Gives unified visibility of GoogleDocs, Skydrive, GitHub, Dropbox and Evernote)

Obviously my Chromebook is too new to have much of an impact. I was finishing off projects and doing documentation most of the last quarter so a lot of my workflows were like this

create meeting notes on seven inch tablet with Textedit as markdown document
  export note to dropbox
    finesse with Kate or TextWrangler
       feed through pandoc to create odt
          Libre Office to apply standard template and generate pdf
             export to evernote/circulate via email using evolution

I came late to Stackedit - a chrome based markdown editor - it has the advantage that one can post directly to a blog or project website and might have speeded up some of the above.

Almost all the initial note taking was on my seven inch tablet, serious report writing was either on my official work macbook or my personal windows laptop, and some of the text conversion and formatting stuff was done with my Ubuntu laptop.

Task and deadline reminders were managed with Wunderlist. At the end of it all I had three and a half weeks in Sri Lanka for which I took my Windows netbook, whiche meant the basic requirements of email and web access for things like flight confirmations.

Written with StackEdit.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Shiny new Chromebook

Well my refurbished Chromebook has arrived - and rather nice it is too.

Connecting to the campus network was fun - connecting to the standard slow network just worked, but our more secure network that uses Radius authentication was rather more of a puzzle.
Being me I of course tried entering all the settings by hand - after all I was the guy who worked out the settings for linux connections.
After trying to do all the clever stuff, with I might add zero success, the answer turned out to be mindbogglingly simple - select the network type (PEAP) enter your username and password and leave everything else as default.

ChromeOS obviously worked it out from the settings and came up with a working configuration.

Other than that initial little snafu it's sleek, it's light and it works - however I'm yet to test it on our flaky home connection and see how it copes with our on again/off again network.

Even though it's a basic model the screen is reasonably sharp and gives the impression of a decent product and it's pretty good weightwise at 1.4kg and thin enough not to squat in your bag like a fat oversized hardback.

The keyboard is a standard chiclet style keyboard and good enough to type on and the trackpad is responsive and generously sized - using it is certainly more of a quality experience than my windows netbook which lumbers when it gets out of bed. Even offline it should make a pleasant writing machine.

As always it's experience that will show just how useful it turns out to be long term ..
Written with StackEdit.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Cosmas Indicopleustes

Long term readers will remember my obsession of a few years ago with Sighelm and his possible travels to India and Ceylon.

(This also ties in with my more recent interest in African contacts with Sri Lanka)

There's not a great deal of information about Byzantine contacts with Sri Lanka, however I've just recently come across Cosmas Indicopleustes made a well documented journey to India in the mid 550's visiting Christian communities in South India and Ceylon.

Cosmas specifically mentions a community of Persian Christians in Ceylon, and extensive trade with Ethiopia - which in this context probably means the ports of the present day Somalia and the Swahili coast, which correlates with the appearance of murals of black women among the so-called concubines at Sigiriya which are possibly roughly from the same period as Cosmas ..

Written with StackEdit.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

OCR and Percy B Molesworth

I recently tweeted a link to an article on using OCR from the command line. The article reminded me of my previous experiments with OCR.

In between then and now I'd played with both Zamzar and Adobe File Conversion services trying to convert Florence Caddy's account of her time in Sri Lanka to editable text. Both failed for various reasons, as did the Calibre e-book management application.

So I thought I would try OCR out on Florence Caddy's book - in the end I didn't have to as I found a version in epub format that met my requirements. I was probably being a little ambitious as one of the problems with OCR is font recognition and artefacts caused either by blobbiness in the print, or dirt picked up in the scanning process and I suspect the original scanned PDF I had would have had a reasonable number of these.

However I did try and baseline how much work it would be by OCR'ing the obituary of Percy B Molesworth provided by the NASA Astrophysics data system. In this the pages have been scanned as images with headers and footers added. (Percy Molesworth was a late nineteenth century British astronomer who worked in Sri Lanka.)

The actual text of the article is about one A4 page but spread across two pages. To process it I used OCRfeeder running on my Linux laptop and inside of OCRfeeder selected the tesseract OCR engine and the initial results were not too bad - good enough to play with without needing to try an alternative engine.

OCRfeeder by default exports in ODT format making Libre Office an obvious choice as document fixup and editing tool.

Using Libre Office I cut and pasted the relevant chunk of text into a new document, and fixed the formatting so that the paragraph structure reflected that of the original document (While I was doing this I found it incredibly useful to have the original pdf open on a second laptop while I worked on the Libre Office document.

I then ran the Libre Office spell checker which fixed up most of the minor errors such as aud for and. This basically left a few complete bits of garbage to be fixed manually - dates for some reason were bizarre, and the fact that Percy had a twelve and a half inch instrument produced a string of garbage.
However, at the end of the exercise I had a usable document which I could save and export from Libre Office as required.

The key thing is the time it took - 30 minutes to do a page of A4 text, meaning that your average five to six hundred page nineteenth century travel book would take a little over eight weeks assuming the same amount of work per page, and a standard working week. The major time consumer was not the initial OCR process - that took me around five minutes, and most of the time was due to my reminding myself how the application worked, the majority of the time went into the fix up and edit process.
With that sort of time, retyping the text is probably a viable option ...
Written with StackEdit.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Finding Ebooks

Recently, I paid money for an ebook that I could have found myself for free. Purely my mistake, I wasn't paying attention and ended up paying 10 bucks for a pdf when I could have found a more useful epub for free.

What's interesting here is what the people who sold me the pdf must have done.

  • they must have trawled gutenberg and various university archive sites to build a comprehensive data base
  • uploaded the database to Abebooks
  • set in place the appropriate automation to pull a particular book from its location when an order came in, upload it to yousendit and send me a yousendit link.

Very slick. As I suspect there's not a lot of interest in nineteenth century travel literature I suspect that no one will get rich out of this but it shows what one can do with cloud services and a very little thought.

Incidentally I'm not pissed off - it was a learning experience. I actually really liked the use of yousendit - we've played with something similar to allow people to make restricted access datasets available for download to anyone requesting early access.

In fact I'm a little envious. I'd thought of starting a little side business as a finding service. The model was similar.

  • You pay me twenty bucks to find a book for you.
    • If I find it I keep five bucks
    • if its available as a mobi, epub or pdf
      • if you want me to download it in your preferred format and send it to you that costs another five bucks
    • if it's a paper book
      • you send me the excess and I order it on your behalf

You of course get any money left over back at the end of the transaction. I didn't expect to get rich out of this -it was more of a hobby business. But some people in Ohio have beaten me to it (and done it better) ...

Written with StackEdit.

Monday, 15 July 2013

ipads and female empowerment

It's long been claimed that access to mobile phones has helped empower women in various poorer, more traditional countries, by allowing them to have conversations outside of the immediate family group.

We have of course, also, over the last few years, had the facebook phenomenon in various countries where facebook has become a platform for political discourse and social change.

I also wonder whether we might see a similar effect indirectly due to the adoption of iPads in various of the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia.

This is completely unscientific, but when we were in Sri Lanka we stayed a number of days at a reasonably nice resort in Habarana as a base for visiting Sigiriya and Polunaruwa.

For some reason this resort also appeared to be particularly popular with families from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. While their menfolk were dressed in western clothes, almost to a woman the women were dressed head to toe in a black burka. There were variations, some were clearly more stylish than others, and there was the occasional woman who dared to walk round with her husband with her veil up and her face exposed to feel the sun.

But the interesting thing is that they all had iPads, and walked round the resort using  them. Not every person who uses an iPad is of course a potential revolutionary, but of course it opens a window on the outside world, and perhaps provides a way for women to communicate outside of the family group ...

Friday, 12 July 2013

Today I ordered a Chromebook ...

I've written about Chromebooks in the past, and some of my doubts still remain and the lack of Skype is a major irritant.

However last night my Windows 7 Dell laptop took 45 minutes to boot after Microsoft's latest upgrades. To be fair, after a restart boot time was about the same as usual - reasonable but by no means fast.

While I was in Sri Lanka we took a Windows netbook with us, which worked well, but took an irritatingly long time to boot, and would, as always with windows, download and then insist on installing updates at inappropriate times - when you are about to go for a flight like hell do you want to wait while Windows fiddles with itself.

I've also said in the that I can do most of my work on the web. I've also been successfully using my seven inch android tablet and keyboard combo for note taking, but I'm afraid Steve Jobs was right, and I either need some surgery on my fingers or a bigger keyboard for full out writing.

So, I've put my money where my mouth is and ordered a Chromebook - a refurbished unit from Acer's factory outlet. I did think about the sexy Samsung model but more prosaic Acer alternative seemed a significantly better deal, especially if I end up screaming in frustration and installing Chrbuntu or Crouton ...

[update 16/07/2013 - it's taken Acer to decide  that they can't deliver to a post office box despite the fact that their website states they use Australia Post, the very same people who provide my post office box - we'll see how it arrives ...]

Monday, 8 July 2013

Google Reader replacements

Well, nearly a week since Google Reader went to the great filestore in the sky.

After a few dalliances I've settled on InoReader as it doesn't seem to have some of the performance problems/growing pains of the OldReader or Feedly.

InoReader, being web based allows me to switch platforms easily, but does have the disadvantage of not currently having an android client.

During the transition I used netNewswire occasionally and I still have an affection for it as a product - simple, light, and with a sensible set of integrations but without remote syncing it loses some of its usefulness.

And that's the rub - I'm an OS tart flitting from Windows, to Mac, to Linux to Android and back again. The loss of reader reinforces how dependent I've become on synchronisation and the ability to flit between platforms and at the same time to what extent the underlying operating system has become irrelevant, with the use of browser based applications, or for more classic applications files increasingly saved to dropbox or Google Drive, and then reopened on a different platform with a different application.

If it wasn't for the wonderfully erratic state of our home internet connection, something reinforced by our recent trip to Sri Lanka where the internet was pretty nearly universally available and very stable, a Chromebook would almost certainly work for me. 


I've been playing with Hojoki, a web based application that moniors activity on your Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote and Skydrive accounts (and others), and allows you to add taks and todo's to files.

Nicely, it also records activity on shared documents so you know when changes have been made.

Very simple, but if you have documents spread across multiple locations it certainly helps keep track of things.

It's early days but it's looking promising as a productivity enhancement tool ...

[update 05 September 2014]

Well, I've been using Hojoki pretty successfully for a couple of years, but this morning brought news that the service is to close as of 15 September ...

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Reading Books on the MRT

As part of our recent trip to Sri Lanka we had a couple of days in Singapore on the way back - the connecting flight times were horrible - and during that we rode the MRT - Singapore's internal train service - to quite a few places.

Previously I've written about my impressions of people reading books on the bus in Canberra, so while I was on the MRT I looked around to see what other folks were doing.

Singapore is assertively high tech. Everyone seems to have a smartphone and a good number of them seem to be in use at any one time - certainly a good many people were using their on the train, either to make calls, text, check email, or play games.

Oddly, and this could be an aspect of the time of day as we were not riding during peak hour, there didn't seem to be that many tablets in use although quite a few people sported oversize phablet phones, and as far as I could see, no e-readers.

But there were people reading books - good old paperback books. Now some of them could be students reading them for school - quite a few of the books being read seemed to be nineteenth century English classics - but they were books, not versions downloaded from Gutenberg ...

Monday, 1 July 2013

African contacts in Sri Lanka

I've previously written about how African Kilwa coins could have ended up in norther Australia courtesy of a Somali sailor signed up with the Dutch East India company.

I've recently just come back from Sri Lanka, and was quietly amazed at the extent of Dutch colonial remains and forts on the island. While we tend to think of the Dutch East Indies as present day Indonesia, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century a lot of the Sri Lanka spice trade was under Dutch control. When I saw the extent of the VoC presence in Sri Lanka I began to wonder if the presumed boat might have come from Sri Lanka rather than  from further west

At the same time Somalis and other east Africans had been sailing to Sri Lanka for the spice trade since Ptolemaic times or earlier, which might have provided an alternative rout for Somali sailors to sign up with VoC.

However I also saw something that made me wonder if perhaps two separate shipwrecks separated by several hundred years might have been more likely and the sources of the VoC coins and the Kilwa coins.

When we climbed Sigiriya, a quite remarkable 200m high rock in the middle of Sri Lanka with substantial arachaeological remains on top of it,  we hired a guide at the suggestion of our driver. The guide turned out to be fairly useless and intent on telling us about how many concubines the king had and how the monks didn't like pictures of naked ladies, rather than the history of the place.
However as well as showing us the the standard frescoes, he did show us a damaged fresco showing a woman of clearly African appearance.

(picture by Lucy Calder - http://lucycalder.com/about)

The interesting thing about the picture is that it implies substantial contact between Africa and Sri Lanka for a long time and well before early modern European contact.

When I originally wrote about the Kilwa coins in Australia I posited that it was a single find, in part because I was not aware of the extent of Somali links with Sri Lanka. These links suggest a second possiblity that it was separate shipwreck - perhaps of an east African trading boat blown off course. This is not as unlikely as it sounds - back in April 2013 a boat full of undocumented migrants from Sri Lanka sailed into Geraldton  400km north of Perth.

The thing about Sri Lanka is that there is nowhere directly south of the island except for Antarctica, so a ship setting out for what is now Indonesia which sailed a little too southwards rather than westwards would tend to end up somewhere on the Australian coast. The same is equally true for a boat setting out from Somalia aiming for Galle - head a little too far south, miss the island, and you end up in Australia ...