Catching up

The value of conferences is that information passes faster and more efficiently than anywhere else

A Tweet by Tim Bray reminds me that tomorrow (2013-01-01) sees the 30th anniversary of the replacement of NCP by TCP/IP and the [re-]birth of the Internet as we know it today. I barely remember the pre-1983 Arpanet, having only used it sporadically while working for an American corporation, but I know that even then, compared with using a ‘network’ limited to one's office or company, it was like entering the maze of twisty little passages, all alike (not different!). Passing information in those days wasn't as easy!

The TUG meeting in Boston was full of information, however, from the tricky little details of using \csname to the tricky little details of changes to updmap. With the speed and power of modern interfaces, even textual interfaces like Kile or TeXMaker, it's easy to forget that under the covers of every system there is still an engine at work, which needs programming in some way or another. I was there largely to discuss and present about automation in thesis document classes, and this proved to be a lively topic,as virtually everyone there, whether academic or not, had been through this particular mill at some stage, and therefore had something to contribute.

The summer brought a family wedding which was held in virtually the only patch of warm, sunny weather we got (I don't know which spell the couple used to invoke this).

It was held in two conjoined tepees in a field in a remote corner of Herefordshire, with a bouncy castle and ice-cream van for the kids, and a hog roast for the feast. Everything went wonderfully, and we enjoyed the break immensely. Oddly, a friend's daughter's wedding back home the next week also featured a hog roast: in my absence from weddings in general over the last few years perhaps this has become the standard. Mmm, pork…

The XML Summer School in Oxford in September was also enormously productive. The publishing industry is at a crossroad, as I have said in several earlier posts, and the classes and discussions on e-publishing and ebooks were ample evidence of this. If you're in any way involved in the field, get in touch, or look at signing up for 2013 when registrations open in the spring.

One of the most significant innovations (which has actually been under development for some years) was announced in October: the ORCID system for assigning every author a globally unique ID. This will, with any luck, finally put the nail in the coffin of the mutually-incompatible and proprietary systems, and let us have a single way to identofy this John Doe from that Doe, J. Get yours now.

With all this going on (and my parents' diamond wedding anniversary) it was too much to expect to be able to make either either Balisage or Worldcon, but next year Balisage is going to be essential: the way to avoid information overload is to get to the information before it gets to you.

Monday 2012-12-31 21:15:42 Up

Busy year

Feet never touch the ground and yet I still don't seem able to fly

This is nearly as embarrassing as last year, having neglected this blog for so long. I won't even start to explain the excuses (no boss, no thesis, no time) as it seems a much better use of the remains of the holiday to just log what's been happening…

The misery of Winter 2010 (broken boiler and frozen pipes on Christmas Day) finally passed, and a new boiler and much better thermostats were installed to replace the 30-year-old system that had in turn replaced the original ducted fan hot air heating (possibly the stupidest imaginable way to heat a house, and yes, I am aware of how the Romans did it).

Spring passed in a flurry of LATEX courses: our biggest workload is now courses for publishers and people in non-science-related fields — I carefully avoid saying ‘Humanities’ as academia is only a part of the user base. Fortunately, most clients' competitors have not come across the idea of automating document production, so the competitive advantage is still there, to say nothing of the improved quality. Several clients have been so public-spirited as to allow us to create public versions of the styles and classes we have written, thereby increasing the choice available to everyone…we haven't done so yet, but it's on the list for 2013. The same applies to the academic thesis classes we have been writing, but more of that later.

April saw the Open Courseware Consortium's conference in Cambridge, where I met the nice folks from the Shuttleworth Foundation to talk about open source XML editing and some of the interface changes I am testing (more on that later, too). They seem to have picked Aloha, which looks like a good choice for the ‘first-cut’ HTML5 but still suffers from the conflict between the need to maintain structure, and the authors wanting to make the document look pretty too early in the cycle. Whatever the results of my tests, it's clear that the last 30 years of WYSIWYG hav led authors to believe they have a right to create an arbitrary appearance and an arbitrary document model at the same time, and still have people take it seriously.

Monday 2012-12-31 19:11:17 Up

Celebren, publiquen

The Kraken waketh

For most of my working life I have looked on in apprehension as the printing and publishing industries plunged from one chaos scenario to another.

In the late 70s, the ‘new technology’ (new to publishing, that is) was the either the Salvation of the World or the Whore of Babylon, depending in which side of the managment/union divide you stood. When we (the PPITB) presented our conclusions on the effect of computerisation on employment to PIRA, the NGA were speechless with rage that programs like TEX should allow not just non-union, but wholly untrained people to create typesetting; and even management looked unnerved at the thought that technology might have got the jump on them.

In the 80s they were proved right on one count anyway: quality went down as companies equipped with smart but untrained people used DTP to do what had needed a journeyman with a 5-year craft apprenticeship behind him to produce a decade earlier. Companies with a reputation for quality gritted their teeth and started printing customer-generated material that would never have made it through proofing before; but Maggie Thatcher had done her work, and the unions could only whimper.

In the 90s, publishers started using origination from non-experts, and they too began the long trek downhill. It had been done many times before, but never on this scale. At the same time, proofreading suffered a decline, and in newspapers was largely abandoned. While this was going on, the industry was being urged to adopt something called SGML (and half-way throught the decade, XML instead). Some of them did, flinching at the cost of the software, and burdened the poor typesetter with the job of producing film first, and reverse-engineering the SGML from it. This must rank as the best example of failing utterly to grasp the point of a technology that I can think of.

In the first decade of the new century, however, there was a change of heart. Publishers (and even some printers) began to admit that there might be some merit in using XML as the master source format, and generating all other output from it. A few of the more wiley souls had quietly been doing this for a while, but the payback was regarded as a very long-term investment. The speed of development of both delivery and interface technologies is now providing opportunities for this investment to be realised well ahead of time, although the speed of back-end implementation is failing to keep pace.

All of which bodes ill for the unequipped publisher and typesetter. A client brought me a book which he said his publisher couldn't open or read. Despite being a scholarly work of some complexity, with passages requiring Greek and Hebrew as well as sean-chló Irish, it had been done in Word 2003, and the publisher's toolchain was equipped with even older (Mac) versions of Word and DTP software. Neither of them were aware of XML yet, and not even of the significance of .docx files: not the author, despite the excellent work done by the DHO; and not the publisher, seemingly at all.

Light is on the horizon, however — the XML SummerSchool has a new Publishing and XML session (which I'm chairing), and we have an excellent set of speakers and a lot of enthusiasm from publishers. Publishing has survived the past decades by adapting — perhaps not always as fast or as sure-footedly as they might — but there are always opportunities for those prepared to grasp the live wire.

Wednesday 2011-06-15 13:22:29 Up

Still no passengers for the Clue Train

…igitur ex fructibus eorum cognoscetis eos…

In an article on industrial design in the 1970s, James Pilditch describes when EP Taylor, a Canadian multi-millionaire, bought a brewery in the North of England. Pilditch asked the Company Secretary what, in his opinion, was Mr Taylor's gift. ‘His grasp of figures’ was the immediate reply, ‘He can read a balance sheet in two minutes and know all about the company’.

With the greatest of respect to Mr Taylor and Mr Pilditch, that may well have been true in 1970s Britain, but ways of doing business have changed significantly since then, and much of what was once evident through a balance sheet is now hidden by creative accounting and the series of blinds that can be erected to divert inquisitive eyes from what's going on.

One of the most obvious signs of trouble, and one that was not in existence in Mr Taylor's day, is the deterioration of the corporate web site. It's not a secret by any means: it has been well-known since the publication of The ClueTrain Manifesto. When Chris Locke invited me to sign the manifesto over a decade ago, it was a sub-second decision, but I didn't think it could get much worse.

Now we know it can, but the one thing that sticks out of a web site more than a cash shortfall does out of a balance sheet is the skewed emphasis on priorities. When you see protuberant links to ‘Our Investors’ and ‘Our Partners’ taking up more real estate than links for customers or links to products, then you know the company is headed down the tube.

While I'm all for investment (and partnerships can be interesting as well), there is no substitute for selling the goods or services to paying customers, and no amount of peddling your tail to the VCs is going to help if you can't. The current pox of ‘partnerships’ is a particularly Good Clue, because it means management is spending more time schmoozing on the golf course than down on the shop floor making or selling.

The recent Nokia/Microsoft deal is a case in point. Nokia make good phones: the user interface has become a quasi-standard, and in some parts of the world, ‘a nokia’ is the word for a cellphone. That kind of market penetration, like Hoover or Walkman or Google) is worth a lot, and Microsoft knows it…when did you last hear someone refer to their PC as ‘my microsoft’?

Microsoft make some quite good software. They also make some unutterable rubbish, but the flagging fortunes of their pocket-sized version of Windows needed a platform with a much wider coverage and reputation to survive. Hey Presto! and a little low cunning and an injection of Microsoft blood into Nokia, the two are joined at the hip, with six years' and more of OS development tossed into the trash (actually, Microsoft's distaste for Open Source software had something to do with it as well).

To be fair to Nokia, their ‘Investors’ link on their home page is low-profile, but it's there. It remains to be seen how much they remain a phone maker before the Borg assimilate them. Funny — when I was in the printing industry, Nokia was known as a paper manufacturer, and a very good one.

The loss of the Maemo and Meego operating systems is disheartening, but Nokia never really grokked the fullness of an Open Source operating system on a phone. They have some excellent engineers, but their management had blinkers. Regular readers will remember my pæans of praise for my old N800, now living out a retirement in Belarus. That wasn't a phone, of course, but Nokia consistently failed to spot the obvious: that it wasn't a ‘tablet’ either, but a fully-fledged pocket computer, capable of doing everything a laptop could (and I did).

Its successor, the N900, didn't get the support it deserved, but by then I was already jumping ship, largely because Nokia had failed again to provide the device with a fully-working suite of applications, even though they had made the same mistake with the N800. Those who do not remember their past…etc.

Which brings me back to the topic of this post: as one of my co-signatories said, ‘The clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery’. Nokia's balance sheet may be as white as the paper they once made, but the clues have been there for everyone to see.

——————————

Thought Pilditch, James: ‘The new power of people’. In Talk about design, Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1976, 0214202631.

Friday 2011-02-18 21:46:00 Up

Android comes calling

Flossy OSs for phones have a little way to go

My old Sony Ericsson flip-phone started to crack up earlier this year, so I took the plunge and went for a HTC Hero. That also involved changing provider, which was a welcome break, as O2 have become a pain in the butt to deal with (of which more later).

The Hero isn't exactly new, but Meteor were offering a good deal to switch, and weren't going to penalise me as a new bill-pay customer by demanding €100 up front to enable my phone to work in the UK, like O2 did. And the Hero runs Android, which was an added attraction. My iPhone-using friends sniped at it as the poor man's iPhone, but I see them changing their itune recently :-)

First impressions were very good: it's robustly made, reliable in operation, and hasn't dropped a bit in six months. The HTC-suppied apps were adequate to get started, although like the Nokia-supplied apps for my old N800 they showed all the signs of manufacturers' must-jump-on-the-bandwagon knee-jerk reactions. They would have done better to pick some good apps from the Market and ship them instead. But that's easy to fix — just install them yourself and forget about the HTC ones.

The Android Market has an amazing selection of apps, ranging from complete garbage to fantastically good. I installed K9 email to replace HTC's mail (I do all my mail via IMAP, as web interfaces are useless on a handheld, and don't provide enough facilities even on the desktop). Android meshes faultlessly with Gmail and related Google apps, of course, and shifting my contacts into Google was a snip, thereby finally breaking the last tie (file format) with my very first contacts list on an Atari Portfolio :-)

Other essentials were soon tracked down: BlueRSS for newsfeeds; Groundhog Newsreader for Usenet; Deluxe Moon (well worth it); Golden Weather (replaces the HTC app which HTC screwed up in the most recent update); NeoReader for all those QR codes; Evernote for taking notes; Twicca for Twitter (Twitter's own app has some serious problems, and HTC's client is even worse); and the Kindle reader (although I haven't bought a Kindle book yet). Some of the dodos were the OpenTable restaurant booking client, which fails every lookup; and the WW PointsList (not WW's own, but only has tables for US foods). Among the bells and whistles are the LOLcats app; TheFuelApp for diesel/petrol prices; Currency Converter; and Pocket IKEA :-) So far, so excellent. The biggest glitches, however, were Google's.

The Android wireless config does not provide settings for proxy servers, which makes all Android devices useless on corporate and campus networks, effectively cutting out half their entire potential market. No students anywhere will be able to use Android on their university wireless network, and no business user will be able to access their company wireless if either of them uses a proxy, which must by now be close to 100% of them. Quite why Google let this happen is unknown: there have been widespread complaints, but not a whisper of explanation or apology. The rumour is that it was a ploy to get vendors to accept the device, because they would then be able to charge their ridiculously high data charges in those locations. The charges have come down now, of course, except for roaming, but Android remains without any way to use proxied APs. Weirdly, the configs for IP connectivity via your provider's 3G network do have proxy settings, precisely where they are never needed, but not in regular wifi, where they are. Go figure. This is unlikely to be fixed: Google don't see it as interesting.

The other Google problem is Bluetooth. Again for unfathomable reasons Android ships with no Bluetooth support except for pairing. No file transfer, no OBEX, no remote control, zilch. There isn't any excuse for this except laziness: the code is freely available, but no-one seems to have felt it necessary to do the job. OK, so Bluetooth is a bit long in the, but it has its uses: headsets, remotes, and especially for handhelds, keyboards. The remote problem can be fixed with the wonderful RemoteDroid app, which runs a server that needs installing on the slave machine (a little jar file: should work anywhere), although it needs to be on the same network, as it's IP based, not Bluetooth.

I used a Bluetooth keyboard with the N800 for years and it worked perfectly. Although LATEX isn't yet available for Android (I know some people interested), there is at least one LATEX editor (VerbTEX) which slaves the processing off to a server. And there are plenty of other text-input UIs which need a keyboard. I found a rubber keyboard at UKHDMI which is great, but the supplied Android daemon fails to load. I've gone into detail elsewhere, so I won't repeat it here, but again the lack of BT support in Android means that keyboard manufacturers must write their own drivers, which is a retrograde step.

However, I'm not giving up: these are serious problems but not showstoppers, and the overall functionality of the device is a hands-down winner. Just mind how you go with that roaming data…which brings me back to O2: I bought a prepay SIM to resuscitate my flip-phone, thinking I could get it unlocked to go to the UK, and buy a cheap SIM card with a data plan there. O2 wanted me to top up with €150 credit before they would unlock the phone, so it goes into the WEEE along with their poxy SIM. Stay well clear of O2, and if you have one of their phones on billpay, get it unlocked for free now if you can, and then go sign up with someone more responsible.

I did end up buying a SIM for the UK, from Three, which works in the Hero just fine (very sensibly it was supplied unlocked in the first place), but although I can buy credit with my credit-card over the counter in a Three store, they won't register my credit-card for online top-ups because it doesn't have a UK postcode as my address. Other UK providers apparently don't have this problem, but Three had the better data plan. A pity they don't have better accountants.

Saturday 2010-09-04 18:25:12 Up

Publishing and corporate inattention

Find 'em, frame 'em, flog 'em, forget 'em

Publishers get a lot of stick from authors and vice versa. They don't get as much from the readers, because in general the average reader isn't much aware of what publishers actually do, let alone how they do it.

One area of contention is republishing. It's hard enough to get even a good book published to start with, given the publishers' incessant attempts to bring out ludicrously inappropriate volumes which get remaindered in a few weeks. The skill of choosing a saleable title has all but vanished from publishing houses, but even worse, the skill of knowing when to bring out a new edition is almost entirely absent.

Part of the trouble is the abandonment of copyright: if the original publisher is now out of business, and has no successor, and the original authors are dead and gone, even if copyright has not expired, there is no easy way to bring out a new edition without the risk of challenge from some anal-retentive who just wants to case trouble. Many good and useful books are no longer available, and probably never will be (unless scanned by Google). Yet publishers continue to moan about the lack of good material while first-class material languishes unrepublished for the want of a better law on abandonment, and for want of publishers with some guts.

I'm tempted to start compiling a list of worthwhile books which the publisher has adandoned even while they constantly complain that they can't find profitable books to publish.

There is a growing corporate amnesia in publishing: the older editors who remember a particular book are retiring, and the company is forgetting how to publish successful books. And the market has its own reward for forgetful companies: a slow and painful death is the accepted punishment for stupidity, ignorance, carelessness, and a failure to retain the intellectual resources of their staff while all the time carping about the damage to intellectual resources done by the Internet.

Neither of my publishers so far has had even the vaguest idea of what I was writing about. They asked me for estimates of volume when they were supposed to be the experts in publishing books in the field. The truth is, of course, that they knew virtually nothing about the field they were publishing in, and both were big publishers (Thomson and Kluwer), respected names but woefully ignorant. And there, I think, is the reason for the failure: both my publishers were nice, decent people, hardworking and honest, but they simply shouldn't have been trying to publish books without knowing what they were publishing: they were way out of their depth.

It's hardly surprising, then, that publishers are missing the boat every week. A brief trawl recently for a cookbook that was popular in homes and schools in the 1960s and 70s reveals that it is unobtainable even in second-hand outlets because its content is invaluable. A single used copy on Amazon is priced at £278, and owners of the paperback are publicly volunteering to photocopy it to give to others. This is a flagrant breach of copyright, but no-one will sue because there is no-one left to object, and those who ought to be paying attention took their eye off the ball long ago.

I'm going to be meeting some publishers soon, and I think I might raise this over a pint and see if they really are as unaware of what is going on as this seems to indicate. In the meantime, if you want to do something useful for humanity, and create some new jobs in the process, see if you can find a politician who hasn't been bought by big media, and explain why the law on copyright abandonment needs to be abolished.

Saturday 2010-08-28 21:58:22 Up

Finally all singing from the same hymnsheet

A uniform platform has significant benefits

After the (mostly) successful upgrade to Karmic nearly a year ago, I felt emboldened to try again on more machines. I should point out that last year's upgrade wasn't an upgrade: it was a fresh installation from CD. I had tried doing the network upgrade on a previous system (Red Hat, I hasten to add, not Ubuntu) and the resultant spectaular mess made it clear that inline upgrades were not an option. I have no idea what planet the Fedora upgrade programmers came from, but it certainly wan't mine.

However, with one fully working and up-to-date system, it was time to bring all the rest into line. But these are all production systems, and I badly wanted to preserve their users' home directories rather than have to restore them from the overnight backups, which take forever. I took a unanimous executive decision to use the online upgrade on one machine to see if it had improved, knowing that if it failed I did have a working backup, even if it would take all night to rebuild it. One problem: under Ubuntu you cannot skip a version. You have to upgrade stepwise, and these were all running Edgy.

Full kudos to Ubuntu, the upgrade worked from 6.10 to 7.04, and from 7.01 to 7.10, and right on up the chain to 10.4. I was duly astonished, and I take my (non-red) hat off to the Ubuntu folks for a fine piece of engineering. At each stage there was a list of obsoleted packages, all of which were correctly replaced by better ones, with the single exception of Okular replacing KDVI/KPDF, which I wrote about in the earlier article — a more spectacularly crass decision I have rarely seen.

Not Ubuntu's fault, of course, but KDE's, although a black mark to Ubuntu for not spotting this and raising a protest. I used to swear by KDE in the Fedora days, when Gnome was a nasty, obscure, and bafflingly difficult interface to use (plus I was a migrant from CDE on Digital Unix at the time, which made a difference). But KDE became more and more clunky, Gnome underwent a Road-to-Damascus moment, and when I moved to Edgy I realised that Gnome and Ubuntu were the way forward. There are many fine packages for KDE, and I would be lost without some of them, so when KDE brought in Okular to replace KDVI and KPDF I was shocked. Okular has the makings of a good program one day: integrating support for the various file formats is an excellent idea. But someone needs to take the designers out into the fresh air for a while and explain what they are doing wrong. Usurping screen real estate for an unremovable sidepanel is simply not on; and downgrading the print options by removing Print Current Page has an immediate and disastrous effect on productivity. Again, on their planet, perhaps this is acceptable behaviour, but not here.

Fortunately, although 10.4 also removed my carefully installed KDVI and KPDF, it equally carefully allowed me to put them back again afterwards, so I can continue working at full speed. I can't say the same for the Galeon browser, though. Another victim of KDE's overblown belief in their own superiority, they axed it in favour of a seriously degraded fork called Epiphany. After three years, Epiphany is still not even at the stage Galeon was five years ago: it is missing features, some of them important (like the option to specify ‘Never for this site’ when asked to save a password) and it crashes on any attempt to view video in any format. Galeon is installable, by forcing it past the one obsolete library it wants, and soft-linking that back in /usr/lib, but Synaptic believes it is broken, and nags you, and if there's one thing I cannot stand it's nagging software.

But having upgraded one machine, with all the data preserved, I went for the whole hog and did them all, joyfully allowing them to wipe the odd Windows partition in the process, as Windows has now become an obsolete embarrassment. Each system is now running 10.4 LTS, with all facilities (except Galeon!), and despite the older hardware, they are as fast as the brand new Windows box in the next office.

Unanimity has unexpected advantages, too. Having preserved and imported the essential configs from backups, the Firefox bookmarks and other preservables could be propagated to all systems, so the carefully-collected material of past years is not lost. It's a pity that KDE won't be worth preserving if they continue in the current vein of arrogance.

Friday 2010-08-27 19:22:14 Up

Canned responses from an ISP are not ‘Customer Service’

Is there intelligent life in ISPs?

Last year I switched from the ailing and incompetent ex-state telco because their crufty copper wouldn't support broadband in my area. I took the 3× package from my local cable provider: phone, Internet, and TV for the same price as a slower Internet alone would have cost with the telco.

Thus far, so good: a risk, but it worked excellently (still does when connected), and I got close to the claimed 20Mbit/s on a good day, enabling me to give away some of it via my FON router. Then it started losing both phone and Internet for hours at a time, at random.

At this point I should digress to explain that the local cable provider was once known as Cork Multichannel, back in the days when the only TV stations on air were the two state-sponsored ones — worthy in their own way, but unimaginative and hidebound. Cable provided the BBC, ITV, and S4C, and while they bungled a few things, the service was adequate. Then they became Chorus (what Marketing lamebrain thinks up these names?) and then they sold out to NTL, whose nest-fouling antics are well-documented elsewhere. Now they are now part of something called UPC, whose marketing and publicity is even lamer, and about whom, frankly, m'dear, no-one gives a toss.

Each time I report the fault, I listen through their Ovaltiney of an announcer prating on about how they are now UPC, and then get a very pleasant helpdesk operator with a canned script and about as much technical knowledge as a very small gnat (not her fault: theirs).

Each time, they ask me to wait while they remote-check my modem (it's working fine except it has no signal: I tell them this, because the fault is up the street in their cable closet).

Each time they claim the signal is going into my modem but not coming out. Yes, really: they claim to be able to read the input signal level inside the modem (ie from the other side of the demod circuit), remotely, and see the input waveform not coming out again. Right. Maybe this is possible with the right remote diagnostics, but I'd rather have it interpreted by a signals engineer than a helpdesk operator, thanks.

And each time, about 30 minutes after my call, the signal miraculously re-establishes itself, and everything is fine again. Only a nasty suspicious mind like mine would dream of suspecting that a fault call triggers an action on a controller to do a remote reset of the substation switch, ‘just in case that fixes it’.

So finally they send a cable guy, who did run the modem diagnostics and said it was just fine, but that the signal in my street was not what it could be, and that they'd send someone to fix it in a few days.

Nothing so far, but it failed again this evening, and again I listened to the snake-oil from Mr Smarmy, and explained my woes to the nice operator. Who went through the same script, tested the modem, told me it was being looked into, and for security she couldn't tell me when the engineers would come to my area to fix their degrading kit.

TV is unaffected throughout; and now, of course, the phone and Internet came back 30 minutes later, in the middle of a very fine Spaghetti Arrabiata and a glass of Aldi's Chateau Soussans 2006 Margaux, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this. There is life there, Jim, but not as we know it.

Monday 2010-07-12 20:35:26 Up

Away with the faeries

Keeping my head below the parapet while writing shouldn't have meant no blogging

'Twas a dark and stormy night when I wrote the last post here, and far too long ago. My excuse is that I've been writing my thesis, and while that really isn't a valid excuse for not keeping this page up to date, I'm afraid it'll have to do for the moment.

However, progress is being made: chapters 1 (Intro) and 3 (Surveys) are done and corrected, and 4 (Testing) is close to completion. That leaves the Lit Crit, which is ongoing (new stuff still being added), and then the actual tests.

In the meantime, there is still a thing called a ‘life’ out there, I believe. If you find mine lying around somewhere, please return it to the owner.

Monday 2010-07-12 19:45:15 Up

Upgrade, downgrade, upgrade, downgrade

Be careful what you wish for: it may bite you in the ass

Way too much stuff has passed over and under the desk. For years I have been extolling the virtues of my Nokia N800 PDA, which does pretty much everything my laptop used to do, but fits in my pocket. Nokia call it an Internet Tablet, but it's actually a pocket computer, which may explain some of Nokia's current difficulties: they are thinking like a phone company, not a computer company, and they've missed the boat so many times it's becoming boring.

I sat in a break at the Balisage conference last year, on a Skype conference call with the other organisers of the XML Summerschool, using the N800. Someone thought it was a phone until I showed them that it did all the PIM stuff, browsed the web, did my email and newsgroups, tweeted, IM'd, edited Word and Excel documents, ran Emacs and Saxon and LATEX (did my PDF slides using Beamer), let me ssh back home to fix a broken server, and still had space for my music and some videos for the plane home.

The only thing it wasn't, was a phone (although Skype made up for that) and I kept bellyaching about how I didn't want it to be a phone as well because you look such a fool trying to talk on the phone and read a spreadsheet on the same device. However, my cellphone eventually died, so I went looking for a new one, and followed a colleague's advice and went for the HTC Hero. I couldn't afford an iPhone, and didn't want a Blackberry, and — thank goddess — didn't even consider the Nokia N900 because every indication on the Maemo mailing list was that it was a turkey.

OK, so now I'm contradicting myself. No, the Hero doesn't run Emacs or Saxon or LATEX. No, it won't let me edit Word or Excel. In theory it will let me ssh, but I'm quite willing not to spend my own time fixing other people's broken servers remotely. What it does, though, is enough to persuade me to part with the N800: it's lighter, slightly faster, and it's a phone. The Android Market has plenty to keep me occupied, and if I'm away locally on business, I can still bring the old laptop on the train.

I haven't been away long-distance since changing over, so I'll need to consider what to do if I have to hop the pond, although with the economic situation as it is, that looks unlikely to recur for a long time.

Right now the N800 is ‘resting’: used but immaculate, fully loaded with all the above-mentioned software, depersonalised (no trace of me), and you get the nice black hand-stitched leather slipcase and the amazing Stowaway fold-out pocket keyboard. Offers by email, tweet, or text, please.

Monday 2010-07-12 19:50:03 Up

Happy New Year

I suppose Samhain (Hallowe'en to you) was a good time to install a new version of the operating system…

I have Ubuntu on almost all machines except a couple of big RHEL servers and the domestic Macs. The oldest desktop is a Dell something-or-other with a 1024×768 screen but it's been happily running 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron) — so why would I want to upgrade?

Partly I was getting tired of needing to use a new facility or test a new package, only to be told that it required more recent libraries than I could install without major internal surgery. Plus the upgrade tool was rather explicit that 8.10 and later were unable to support my nVidia Geforce4 graphics card because the existing driver had been obsoleted by changes in the Xorg code; but that my installer would automatically switch to the older (FLOSSy) nv driver which would at least get me running. Everything was backed up, so I took the plunge.

They either lied, or something went wrong that they were unaware of. The upgrade went right ahead and installed the new driver which it knew was incompatible, so the newly-installed system simply hung at the login screen. Several hours of poking at the drivers convinced me that they just hadn't bothered to check. Several more hours of emailing the CLUG convinced me that it wasn't worth repairing the damage. I was resigned to reverting to 8.04 until someone mentioned 9.10 — I'd been looking at it, but had assumed that if 8.10 had dropped support for my graphics card, there wasn't an icicle's chance in hell that 9.10 would have put it back.

Wrong. I wiped Intrepid Ibex and installed Karmic Koala and it came up first time, full graphics mode, and even Compiz is working (so eat your heart out, Snow Leopard). Lots of good stuff, a few stupidities (not Ubuntu's fault): no KPDF, no KDVI (KDE has integrated the first into KDEgraphics and apparently dropped the second on the floor; but they have removed the ‘Current’ [page] option from the Print menu, which is plain daft); and some prat has removed the list of current buffers from the Emacs ‘Buffers’ menu — what am I supposed to do, guys? remember all my files in my head? C'mon, put it back.

But there goes the doorbell; kids wanting another blast of the pressure hose, I guess…Happy New Year to you all.

Saturday 2009-10-31 20:02:00 Up

Honey, I shrank the chapter

Do we really want to allow authors to put anything anywhere?

We've been typesetting a book for a colleague of mine, a Festschrift for a colleague of his. As usual with these works, each chapter was contributed by a different author, and my colleague had the task of putting them together.

We consulted about it beforehand. He uses OpenOffice (perhaps NeoOffice, I can't remember) on a Mac, but he had taken in all the chapters and edited them and arranged them, and was pretty much ready to go, when the publishers reminded him that their policy was for endnotes, not footnotes. Not a problem: only Chapter One used them, and we were using XSLT to create LATEX code for the formatting, so no changes were needed except to switch in the endnotes package.

However, which checking Chapter One, my colleague observed that all bar one of the footnotes-now-endnotes just said ‘My italics’. The author was quoting extensively from other sources, and highlighting relevant words and phrases. My colleague agreed with his publisher that such repetitive notes really weren't needed, so he left the only ‘real’ one and deleted all the rest. But as he deleted the final endnote of Chapter One, all the rest of the book (twelve chapters) vanished.

Ever a man of cool mind, he hit Undo and brought them back. No harm done. But that final endnote of Chapter One was back as well. Assuming that he had slipped a finger, he again deleted it…and again all the remaining chapters disappeared. At this point he brought them back with Undo, and saved the file for me to look at.

Well, well, well. The first time I had had to dig into ODF XML in earnest. It's nowhere near as bad as OOXML (so no surprises there, then), but footnotes and endnotes are inside more multiple containers than a Russian doll, and that was where the problem lay.

ODF allows multiple paragraphs in a single footnote/endnote — perfectly reasonably; all general-purpose markup systems do that, from DocBook to LATEX. But in ODF, as in OOXML, everything is a paragraph. Neither system has any concept of depth, regardless of the repeated and redundant nested sections in Word documents and the Byzantine sewer of ODF's footnotes.1 That means ODF (and perhaps OOXML; I haven't tried it) allows anything at all in a single footnote, even twelve whole chapters because everything is a paragraph, and the only evidence of the text being in chapters is the style name, which is not checked because it's not a controlled vocabulary.

And that's what my colleague had unwittingly done. Having edited the first chapter, his cursor had been at the end of the last footnote, and had remained there while he pasted in twelve more chapters, which promptly and silently went into the footnote container and stayed there.

The reason is clear: OpenOffice believes that the cursor has no business being in element content at any point after the last text node, so there is actually no way (that I have found) to insert a new paragraph sibling to your current ancestor paragraph when your cursor is at the end of a footnote.

This slavish adherence to the WYSIWYG model is fine for shopping lists and business letters, which are short, transient, and not subject to any reprocessing. It's not suited to a serious editor, and if OpenOffice wants to be taken seriously by the publishing community it is going to have to change this, and preferably introduce a style margin like Word (or some other wide-angle style view) so that editors can see what they are doing. The last time I asked them, they said you could see the style by hovering the mouse over a paragraph (clearly not someone who had ever had to edit large documents), which is not meaningful when you need to see perhaps a dozen paragraph-level styled elements on a single screen.

It also makes a fine example of another technique I am researching for easing the burden on writers, and that's the distinction between ‘Insert’ and ‘New’. The first is for database programmers, markup experts, and ontology gureaux. It's meaningless for writers because with only a WYSIWYG view, there is nothing to insert into (and the interface won't allow the cursor to be in element content). ‘New’ is what writers use (new chapter, new paragraph, just like you were dictating), and when you want a new one, the editor should check its current location, scoot forward to the next place at the current level where one is permitted, and add it there, creating additional markup if needed to retain validity. If there is no place at the current level, go up a level and check there; lather, rinse, repeat.

The facility for an editor to click on ‘New Chapter’ and have the editor Do The Right Thing, instead of the wrong thing, would be a major step forward.


  1. One exception: ODF wraps lists in proper list markup. Well done, ODF.

Saturday 2009-03-07 21:41:00 Up

Narrow escape

When your ISP upgrades, make sure you don't get left behind

Every so often, ISPs have a major purge of hardware and software, and ‘upgrade’ their clients to the new service. You don't get a choice, and you're lucky if you get any warning, because alerting the clients that there is about to be a chnage might lead to some disaffection.

I've been with this bunch for over a decade, and they've given excellent service, with a responsive helpdesk and virtually no outage or downtime. The service was simple, and as most of my sites are generated rather than hand-coded, this suited me just fine.

Two weeks ago I got email that warned me about some small changes in their mail systems during an upcoming upgrade. No problem: I downloaded my mail folders and switched from IMAP to POP for a week (easy when your IMAP, POP, and webmail service all use standard mailbox files: goddess help those whose mail is buried in proprietary databases). After a week I uploaded the mailboxes and reverted to IMAP.

Suddenly this week everything stopped working: mail wouldn't log in, not by any protocol, and all my sites were inaccessible — but oddly, I could still log into their new site-owner page, and FTP still worked. I logged a support ticket and downloaded a few key files. No word of any changes, though.

Then the FTP access changed: I could still log in, but the entire directory structure was different, although all my files were still there, but in a different subdirectory. No response to the ticket. Phone calls met the usual disembodied voice saying that all their agents were busy helping other clients, and refusing to put me on hold, but offering to take voicemail. No response.

Fortunately, their web site gave local phone numbers (they're in California: I'm in Ireland, so an American 1-800 number is no use to me). A phone call early in the morning Pacific time got a harassed support person who explained they'd been having ‘a little difficulty’ in the move to a new hardware and software system, and claiming that they didn't have my alternate off-system email address (which they did have a week before because they emailed me on it). All was eventually resolved and the email and subdomains re-established (except I lost a dozen or so planned-but-nused subdomain names). Generally speaking, pretty good service, although it would have been better if they'd told me beforehand.

It was worrying that the move clearly squashed all record of my subdomains, all my contact details, and reset all my email passwords. But what was reassuring is that they had the good sense to put a non-1-800 number on their web site, and they didn't change my owner password. Everything is backed-up off-site anyway, so I wasn't worried about data loss, and because everything uses open file formats, a new environment is no big deal. To those of you who went looking for the XML FAQ, the Acronym Server, or the online book Formatting Information, thank you for your patience.

Friday 2009-03-06 21:26:00 Up

I am sailing (well, maybe)

Getting from A to B was never this difficult

One of the recurrent problems in living on an island off the coast of a bigger island off the coast of a continent is that you have to use boats and planes to get anywhere other than your own doorstep. Planes are not a problem: our local airlines do a reasonable job, and RyanAir terrifies the life out of bigger airlines worldwide.

But if you want to bring the car, you either have to drive for hours to get to a port for a ferry to Wales, or wait a week to get the ferry to France. Either way you pay through the nose for the privilege, because the shower who ended up running what was left of the direct ferry to Swansea lost their tub a couple of years ago and never found a new one. What a pity the proposal to the (then) EU by our former Foreign Minister Peter Barry for a bridge or tunnel to the UK never took off!

However, at last there is new hope: a local campaign to bring back the direct ferry service is making excellent headway. If you're interested in coming via the UK to visit, or the other way round, sign their petition and fill in their questionnaire, and maybe we'll soon be back in touch with the next chunk of land.

Monday 2009-01-26 20:35:04 Up

A new year dawns

Back on my feet and picking up the pieces

The recent XML meeting was in DC in December, and I was pleased to see more evidence of the developments I mentioned above, although the whole meeting has shrunk (as predicted) as XML becomes embedded into the wainscoting of IT development and ceases to be new. The next breakpoint is the Balisage meeting in Montréal in August (the week after Worldcon), and I hope to have available some results and conclusions from the work I have been doing on the usability of editing software for structured text.

The TEX Users Group meeting last July was well-attended, and went without any major hitches except one: the odd inability of the host institution to provide visitor wireless access. Curiously, this was not only of no interest to UCC, but they seemed to be unable to understand its importance to visitors. It does mean that organisations looking for a host site would do well to check wifi arrangements and do a physical test that it exists and works before committing to the site. Fortunately this year's meeting in Notre Dame is better-prepared in this respect.

There's a load of new stuff to go through in the next few weeks: an updated Maemo, some neat Yuletide presents, lots of books, and plenty of file-format weirdness.

Monday 2009-01-05 18-22-46 Up

Publicidad