Friday, 31 October 2014

Reviving the ookygoo

A long time ago, 2009 to be exact, I bought an EEE pc 701SD linux netbook to use as a travel computer - and because of its kiddified UI we nicknamed it the Ookygoo.

UI restrictions apart it was truly excellent machine, and I used it for both work and recreational travel till 2012, by which time Asus had more or less lost interest in the netbook concept and upgrades to the OS and the installed software more or less ceased, meaning that though the machine still worked, things like the web browser were old, insecure, versions and quite rightly a lot of sites told me to upgrade or bugger off.

So it ended up in a drawer. I bought another windows netbook for travel, and a cheap Chinese tablet and keyboard combo for note taking. Well, the windows netbook has all the Microsoft problems of being slow to boot and pummelled by the upgrade cycle, and the note taking tablet has proved to be a little more erratic than I hoped even though I used it successfully for project scrum notes and client engagement meetings for a whole project.

So I always resolved that before the Eee went to the recycler I’d put a decent operating system on it. So last night I did just that.

Choice of operating system was a little tricky - the Eee has only 512MB (that’s half a gig) RAM, a slow early generation atom cpu, and an 8GB SSD.

There’s problem with some of the early SSD’s whereby they are quite prone to ‘fading’ after a lot of repeated write and delete operations, which means that using them for something very churny like a swapfile can bring on this ‘fading’ effect quite quickly.

When the Eee first came out, a lot of people put together dedicated distros but these are all long gone or hopelessly out of date.

After some googling I settled on Crunchbang, a distro I’d used extensively on a Virtualbox VM. I chose it because it was debian based, and debian has good in built support for the Eee 701, and has a very low memory footprint, meaning that you are unlikely to start swapping just running the window manager - and as it was a 2009 model I suspected that the SSD was probably a bit more robust that the SSD in the original 2007 version.

However, to keep things lightweight I decided to go distinctly old school - nano as a text editor and alpine as a mail client. My reasoning was that as a note taker, and given that I write most notes in Markdown, nano would be just fine. Markdown is so simple that you could write it using vi, but these days I find vi a little too hard core for day to day work - can never remember the bloody buffer commands. With a local install of pandoc I could generate odt and pdf versions of documents if necessary, and that alpine was good enough to email documents to myself - reckoning that it reality most notes get cleaned up before being circulated or archived.

Using Dropbox is an option but that adds to the memory usage. Using just nano and pine the machine is probably going to hardly ever swap, and of course it’s distraction free, leaving you to concentrate on what’s being said.

Installation was straightforward - it basically just worked.

I downloaded the iso of 32 bit version for older machines, used dd to write it to a USB drive and booted the Eee from the USB to test if everything (including wireless) worked.

Then I restarted it and ran the installer - there’s a bug in the installer which means that all you get is a flickering line when you start it - it’s a known Debian bug and the fix is nicely documented on Crunchbang’s website . Installation took around 45 minutes plus another 45 or so to apply updates, install pine and so on.

I havn’t used it in anger yet, but the machine seems stable, so the next step would be to give it an outing, and see just how useful it is in practice …

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Friday, 17 October 2014

Yosemite ...

Normally I'm very cautious about OS upgrades but this morning I felt wild and impetuous and upgraded my work Mac to Yosemite, Apple's latest version of OS X - one of the advantages of living on the dark side of the world is we tend to get first go at updates.

The process basically just worked, although it took a bit longer than Apple claimed, and the system was pretty unusable during the post install optimization phase - budget at least a couple of hours, or perhaps a little  longer.

A few things needed nudging:

  • Dropbox needed a reinstall - just like after the 10.9.5 upgrade
  • Amazon Cloud drive broke and needed a java install
  • GanntProject (admittedly I was running quite an old version) broke and needed an update
Everything else seems to work, although switching between apps and app start times seems slow, but then it was with Mavericks, but once running everything seems reasonably responsive on what's now a four year old MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM.

My only real gripe so far is the use of Helvetica Neue as a system font - yes it's legible, but it's a bit too heavy for my taste, but if that's the only annoyance, things are not too bad ...

Monday, 13 October 2014

University rankings and altmetrics

I was on holiday last week, and we drove down to Victoria for a few days. On the way there I listened to the radio and someone (I forget who) was talking about the THES rankings and making the very good point that individually the various ranking tables don’t mean a lot as they all use different algorithms and tray and measure different things. but that if a university scores consistently high in a number of these tables it suggests that in some way it is better than one with either inconsistent scores or consistently low scores.

Better here means that its is good at teaching, good at research, and is effective in promoting this.

So with altmetrics, impact rankings and the rest. Individually the various scores don’t mean a lot, but collectively they are an indicator of engagement. I’ll say engagement because this is still a nebulous topic. There are people who publish highly cited research but don’t promote it. Typically these people are well known in their discipline. Then there are those who communicate well about their field and have an impact through teaching, through social media, and the rest. And of course there’s some people who are somewhere in between.

Like ranking tables, high scores are good. However before dismissing inconsistent scores (high say on social media, low on research impact) we need to actually ask a very difficult question: What are we trying to measure, and how will we know we’ve measured it ?

The first part is probably relatively simple to answer, the second one rather less so, as we need to decide on what we will accept as evidence and what it tells us about engagement

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