My colleague Marc van
Dongen's new book, LaTeX and Friends
Slashdot, the best
tech news site.
Galaxy Note 4, replacing the Note 1.
Lifesaver: the WiFlyer
pocket AP with both RJ45 and phone dialer.
New edition of the TEX
Collection from TUG with the whole of CTAN and installable
systems on DVD
office for a copy).
Software and sites: the TypesetterForum, the ClueTrain Manifesto, the Postmodern
Essay Generator and the SCIgen automatic
Computer Science paper generator, the FreeMind
mindmap diagrammer, and the Denim
The Good Guys (in alpha order):
BookMooch, the free
||Online technical books need constant curation
OK, so it’s been a year since I put finger to keyboard on
this. Mea culpa. Trying to reconstruct a life
after so long with my head below the parapet took over 12
months, far longer than I anticipated.
Anyway, back to business. Kindles suck. Yes, they were
among the first; yes they look pretty; yes, if all you want to
do is read a novel (or any continuous text), they work pretty
well. If you write tech doc, they suck.
First, there’s the binary file format. It used to be Mobi,
now it’s KF8, and it’s not unmanageable, but the EPUB3 zip is
way easier to handle, leaving aside the DRM (Digital
Restrictions Management), which I’m not involved in.
Next, the HTML. It’s like writing for a late 1990s browser written
by a student on acid. Not just that the devs never read the
spec (hey, the Mosaic devs never read ISO 8879 either), but
that they picked and chose what to support as if they weren’t
going to have time for all of it. Like there’s soooo much in
Then there’s CSS. Version 1 by the look of it.
Bold, italic, maybe both. Spacing? A little. Selectors? A
class if you’re lucky. Size? Within limits. Yes, we know the
syntax sucks, and it would have been so much easier to do it
like Panorama, but browsers didn’t parse HTML properly either,
so why expect Amazon to do so?
Gripe over: not my circus, not my clowns. Calibre does a
reasonable job of transforming my EPUB3 code into a MOBI, and
the file size is acceptable. Kindlegen does a slightly
smoother job, on first appearances, but then drops the ball
with a splatt on monospace blocks of code, links, font
changes, embedded images, and — worst of all if you’re
writing about LATEX —
no control over raising and lowering, nor on tighter kerning.
I suppose that’s a step too far for a system that can’t even
So LaTeX it will have to be for Kindle folks (including my
emulator on the Note). Mac users, of course, have jam on it
with the Apple eBook Reader, and even the otherwise fairly
crummy selection for Android manage to represent most of the
content. Now if there was just a version of the Calibre Reader
for Android, I could toss the Kindle in with the cipíní and
watch it burn.
Sunday 2016-04-03 22-15-20
||Despite the odd hiccup, Android and apps are stable
Three's connection circus seems to have resolved itself.
At least, the nonsensical shenanigans seems to have died down
of disconnecting and reconnecting to a lower-grade signal and
then refusing to reconnect to the higher-grade signal when it
comes back 10 seconds later.
True, their coverage is still patchy, but they seem to be
trying, and I haven't lost coverage in any meaningful way for
about six weeks now. I'll be travelling a bit more in the
coming weeks, to the UK, Dublin, and France, so I'll be able
to test their UK signal on the new phone, and see what roaming
has to offer in France (not data, that's for
During all this, I finally tired of trying to write proper
emails and especially replies with MailDroid, which I started
using over a year ago to replace K9. MailDroid did at least
offer an Exchange connection that worked — not that I'm any
fan of Exchange, but using IMAP meant using my own SMTP server
to send mail from another address.
Authors of mobile mail face a number of problems when
designing the edit and Reply interfaces: most untrained or
inexperienced users automatically assume that top-posting
is the only way to reply, so mobile mailers put the cursor at
the top of the edit window and add the replied-to text below.
They do usually provide a button to get rid of it, which most
people ignore anyway, but only a few allow interleaved
style replies, which is both recommended and more
courteous; and virtually none provide quoted
line markers — but AquaMail does, so that's now my
preferred mobile MUA.
The missing feature, however, is keyboard support. I have
been through half a dozen mobile keyboards over the years,
from the wonderful Stowaway
to the initially attractive but ultimately appalling rubber one from UKHDMI. I now have
Perixx and a concertina-style unbranded one very like
the old Stowaway very like (but not actually) this.
But I want to use them for email, which means editing with the
Note 4 propped up in front of me, which means I want
control-key editing commands.
That seems to be beyond the makers of mobile mail for the
moment, which is a pity.
Friday 2015-04-17 13:03:04
||Android connection algorithm does seem to be the
Unfortunately, the way that Android handles failover
connections does seem to be the problem at the
root of my lack of data.
To summarise: if you're happily connected to Three's 4G or
3G service, and you wander out of range (in my case, go up or
down a few floors in the lift), Android will quite rightly
seek another connection. Three has a failover arrangement with
Vodafone, but only for voice, not data, so Android picks up
the Vodafone connection and pops up the R for roaming. So far
all according to the book.
But the problem is, when I get back in range of Three's 4G
or 3G signal a few seconds later, Android fails to poll for
it, convinced that all you want is voice, and even trying
half-heartedly to use an Edge service over Vodafone's voice
So every time Three's signal fades, I get a
non-data connection that I have to manually get rid of by
going to Settings and searching for all signals and picking
Three's 4G offering again…and again…and again. As I leave my
office several times a day to go to meetings in other
buildings, this is a royal pain in the ass. And using the
stairs doesn't fix it — there's a blank spot half-way down
which is where Android drops the connection and searches for
There really isn't a solution to this one. Ideally, there
would be a setting to tell Android not to bother finding an
alternative connection if you lose the line for less than a
specified number of seconds. I can do without data for a few
minutes, but it would need to be smart about re-establishing
the connection silently and seamlessly.
And ideally, Three's deal with Vodafone for a failover
connection should include data. Come on guys, either that or
beef up your signal. Or do I need to find another provider?
I've been through O2, Vodafone, and Meteor over the
years, right from my earliest cellphone, and they all
sucked. I picked Three because they seemed competent and
honest and technically savvy. I hope they'll prove me right.
Thursday 2015-02-05 22:02:12
||Android connection algorithm may be defeating cellphone
I was the lucky recipient of a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 this
year. My previous phone was the Note 1, which has given good
service but which revealed an annoying problem.
To explain this, you need to understand that my provider,
Three, has rather patchy coverage, and has an agreement with
Vodafone (recently switched to O2) to allow the use
of their masts when a Three user goes out of range of Three's
own masts. This first came to light a couple of years ago when
driving to a wedding in Kerry: as I crossed the border from Co
Cork, the Note beeped to tell me I was roaming! Fortunately
there is no extra charge for tis fallback.
Cellphones test the ‘visible’ connections for
strength of signal, that being the only metric available. What
makes this suck even more is that once connected to the
failover network, Android won't reconsider Three even when it
reappears as a connectable signal: it regards the
O2 connection as continuing to satisfy the
requirements. However, you don't get data on the failover
connection, only voice. That sucks, because once connected to
the failover network, you won't get data back until you
manually reconnect to Three.
I had been doing this up to a dozen times a day, as my
work moves me around from building to building, and Three's
signal comes and goes like the Loch Ness Monster. I had hoped
that trashing Samsung's version of Android (along with all its
useless and intrusive Samsung crudware — can you imagine a
chat app that only lets you chat to other Samsung users? Oh,
yes, sorry, there's FaceTime, isn't there :-) I installed the
(which is a wonderful piece of work, guys), but the problem
So far, the Note 4 hasn't demonstrated this behaviour, and
I've been more interested in seeing where there is a 4G
signal. But I suspect most users would prefer a continued data
connection even if it meant a worse voice connection, and it
would seem that it could easily be fixed by providing an
additional option on the Search For Networks screen: Switch
Back To This Network When Available Regardless Of Signal
Strength. That would make the manual monitoring and
reconnection unnecessary (at a small penalty in repeated
And while we're at it, Three and others, how about
providing plans for tech people who use mostly data, and make
no more than a dozen phone calls or texts per month? Now that
I have a nice up-to-date phone it would be a great service.
Monday 2014-12-29 22:25:07
||A blog? I have a blog? I know I had a life
Letting a blog go stale sucks. Really. Not only does it
smack of neglect, but it implies that the digital life isn't
important to the author any more. It's also rude to your
readers, and generally Not The Right Thing To Do™.
Actually, it is important to me, but it
suddenly became only relatively so — in the last
^H^H^H^Htwo years (good grief) there have
been other things which took on a life of their own, and the
effort of writing about them, in addition to
writing them (at the same time), was just too meta a
So there's finally been a PhD, which I'm happy to report
was a success. It also spawned another
research note in the process, for which Balisage was
indeed essential, as I noted earlier. An unrelated sideline was a
on using XML to generate LATEX classes, which won
the title of most meta paper.
2014 was therefore largely spent with my head down,
writing. Once it was all finished, the major events of the
autumn took over, both sad and joyful (my father's death and
my elder daughter's wedding), amid which the XML Summerschool
So now it's nearly the end of 2014, and I am emerging like
The Mole in the Wind in the Willows blinking into the sunlight, and I
wish you all a very merry Yule.
Tuesday 2014-12-23 10:25:14
||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
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
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.
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
||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
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
April saw the Open Courseware
in Cambridge, where I met the nice folks from the
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
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
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
Wednesday 2011-06-15 13:22:29
||…igitur ex fructibus eorum cognoscetis
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
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
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
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
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.
Pilditch, James: ‘The new power of
people’. In Talk about design, Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1976,
Friday 2011-02-18 21:46:00
||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
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 looked 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
Saturday 2010-09-04 18:25:12
||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
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
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
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
Saturday 2010-08-28 21:58:22
||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
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
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
||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
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
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
Monday 2010-07-12 20:35:26
||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
||Be careful what you wish for: it may bite you in the
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,
Monday 2010-07-12 19:50:03
||I suppose Samhain (Hallowe'en to you) was a good time
to install a new version of the operating
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
||Do we really want to allow authors to put anything
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
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)
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.
One exception: ODF wraps lists in proper list markup.
Well done, ODF.
Saturday 2009-03-07 21:41:00
||When your ISP upgrades, make sure you don't get left
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,
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
||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
||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
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
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