Recently in IT Category

Buy A Class

buyaclass.jpgI get quite a few people sending me links to add to my Dance Links page. Most of them haven't taken time to read the bit where I say what kind of links I'm looking for, so they just end up in the trash can.

But in the 7 years that I've had that links page, Buy A Class is quite definitely the most interesting, innovative, and future-hugging site I've seen, and I've very grateful for the tip-off to Gunleik Groven who's behind it. It's got everything I love about Web 2.0 and the professional dance world rolled into one, and I wish them every success with it.

Comment preview page fixed

wingyip.jpgA very minor point, but for those thousands of commenters who may have been shy of commenting because the 'preview comments' template on here looked weird, the problem is now fixed. Comment away!

How to create dummy text in Word

There's a nifty little trick in Microsoft Word which enables you to generate paragraphs of dummy text using the sentence 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog'. In a blank document you type

=rand(#,#)

(where the first # is the number of paragraphs you want, and the second number is the number of sentences you want in each paragraph)

and then hit the 'Return' (Enter) key.

Thus,
=rand(5,8) returns five paragraphs with eight sentences in. As the sentence Word produces has 9 words in, this will return a total of 5*8*9=360 words.

I use this every time I have a writing deadline to meet with a stipulated word count, because it helps me to block out paragraphs. If you've got 400 words on a particular subject, you can see just how much that looks like on paper, and type rough headings for each of the paragraphs before you start, if you're feeling really organised and inspired. Also very useful for essays, because it gives you a graphic display of how much work you've got left to do before you can safely go to the pub.

Goodbye IE7

I tried hard to like it, but ironically IE7 made me realise how much better Firefox is, and I'm now a Firefox zealot. It was all the websites that started hanging, or not displaying, the unpredictable behaviours, and the not-knowing whether it was IE7 or a site that was at fault that made me finally decide never to use IE7 again. Firefox is faster, fresher, friendlier, and bizarrely, it's kept some of the better features of IE6 that IE7 has ditched (the same icon size & layout, for example).
Get Firefox!

IE7 - love it or hate it?

| 1 Comment

ie7.jpgYou can tell it's raining, I just downloaded IE7, mainly because I'm keeping up with the Jones(es) who's had it for ages.
On balance, I think I hate it moderately. Google results for a polarised view are currently as follows:
Google search for I hate IE7 = 838
Google search for I love IE7 = 691
My reasons?


  • Having spent well over a decade using minimized windows in the task bar to tab through different pages in IE, and just starting another instance of IE or pressing Ctrl+N to get a new window, it's very annoying that you can't move the tabs in IE7 to the bottom of the screen where all other multi-window applications sit. It's early days, but I've also found that through force of habit, I keep opening new instances of IE, only to find that I then have 4 versions of a blog entry in different windows because IE can now hold many pages in one browser.
  • The refresh button is too small and squashed between two significant fields up at the top of the screen. And why change the icon?
    Although it's puffed as an improvement in design (sleek, allows more room for content in the window etc.), for me and maybe for other people who were used to clicking many times a day at the same place, it's just plain irritating and pointless. Yes, I know I can use F5, but for some reason I don't always.
  • The toolbar icons seem to be all over the place, and even when you make them bigger (it took me a while to search through the help menu to find that you have to right-click on the command bar and select 'large icons') they're still not as huge and foolproof as the old IE. I've tried to reassemble the browser window so it resembles what I'm used to, but I haven't succeeded yet.
  • Where's the history button? I must use this more than any other when I'm browsing. I guess I should be grateful that IE7 has taught me to do Shift+Ctrl+H instead, but I can't see the rationale for removing it entirely from the button options.
  • By contrast, the 'favourites' buttons, probably the nastiest and least helpful thing about IE ever, are in one of the hottest and most significant bits of the screen - top left corner. It was because favourites were so unruly and difficult to manage that I started my links page and with the advent of deli.cio.us who the heck needs favourites anymore?
  • One thing I quite like is the option to set multiple pages as your homepage tab-array, so that when you start IE, you get, let's say, your four most commonly visited sites already loaded. But until I've learned to stop creating new instances of IE, this is going to drive me crazy, because it takes much longer to open and close a window.
  • Overall, it's like so many of Microsofts' 'upgrades' - they seem to punish the person who's got used to working with their previous programmes. From that point of view, IE7 is not nearly as bad as Word, where alt commands change and die between one version and another, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that you can still get home by pressing alt+H in IE7 - but what kind of praise is that, to say 'I'm so glad they haven't changed that?'

In fairness, I've tried Opera & Mozilla and Netscape, and the only reason I stick with IE is because I know it backwards, and can work faster with it than with any other browser. But for that very reason, it's really annoying that the changes they've made affect things like where buttons are and how you browse. The whole tabs thing is nothing new for those of us who always used IE like this in multiple windows, using the taskbar to move around - and when you take that away, what's left (and the ability to get RSS feeds is hardly an innovation, considering you could do it with bloglines and a host of other applications).

My verdict: It's probably an improvement for people who've never used IE before, but it's slowed my browsing down about 80%.

Labour party street-spam in Tooting

Labour take over a shop on the corner of Hereward & Upper Tooting Road, and ruins the landscape Now you all know how much I love Tooting, and especially the terrific range of sweet shops, grocers and greengrocers. The glory of this area is its freedom from chain-stores and supermarkets, and the unique, colourful displays that each shop has. Even the pound shops look quaint. This is a high-street that looks like its owned by its community.

Until the other day, that is, when one of the largest shops on Upper Tooting Road was taken over by the labour party, and turned into a political campaign on a street corner.

This ugly, pointless, loud display is the worst thing to have blotted the Tooting landscape in the 15-odd years that I've lived here, and shame on the Labour party for ruining my local high street in such an opportunist, heavy-handed and thoughtless way.

Whatever Labour's intentions, this bit of street-spam says to me that Labour have no understanding of local issues, no thought for the community, no interest in preserving the high street, no sense of decorum; it's humourless, colourless, top-heavy, loud-mouthed and insensitive.

What annoys me is not the politics - I probably lean further to the left than anywhere else - but the lack of imagination and creativity. If a greengrocer can display apples and oranges in an appealing way, surely local MPs & councillors should learn a few tricks from their constituents, and present policies with similar panache?

Fortunately, you can report a gripe on the Wandsworth Labour Party page. "Has a streetlight been broken for ages? A fly-tip still not been cleaned up? Pavement uneven or road potholed? Abandoned car getting vandalised? Let us know and we'll get the council to sort it out!" they ask. Unfortunately, they don't offer to sort things out when a national political party turns one of your local shops into an enormous billboard, covered in slogans and posters.

Disclaimer: I use street-spam to mean any form of 'vertical litter', whether legal or illegal, not in the specific sense of illegal bill-posting used by Citizens Against Ugly Street Spam.

Man gets 9 years for spamming: hooray!

The BBC reports that a Jeremy Jaynes, apparently the world's eighth most prolific spammer has been sentenced to 9 years in jail. All we need is for a few more jail sentences like this and perhaps the spam will stop.

I hate spammers, and would like to see them banged up as terrorists. My particular problem is with 'comment spam', which I have to spend a few minutes of every day clearing out of this weblog. If it weren't for MT-Blacklist which automatically filters out thousands of such things for me even before they arrive, I would have certainly had to ditch this site altogether.

The same is probably true for thousands of others who use blogging as a way of exercising their right to free speech, and prefer to read the kind of news collected by Metafilter rather than endless scribble about the pope, Jordan, prince Charles, Michael Jackson or Wayne Rooney.

All it needs is for a few more spammers to be jailed, and be banned from ever using a computer again pour encourager les autres and the problem would probably disappear in a matter of weeks. If 70% of emails are spam, as the BBC report suggests, then personal and commercial productivity would benefit, as well as our right to communicate unimpeded, yet I don't see spam-busting on the agenda of any of the political parties. Jaynes apparently shored up $750,000 per month from his spamming activities. How difficult can it be to follow the money and shop more of these people?

Although the UK joined with the US & Australia in an anti-spam pact last year, the onus to fight spam still rests with companies and individuals, who have to shell out for spam-filtering software, and deal with what remains manually. Meanwhile we have an information commissioner and a Freedom of Information Act, neither of which seems to be stopping the problem at source through the threat of litigation or sentencing.

No sooner had the thought crossed my mind, while I sat in Senate House Library last week, that great collections such as these may soon be endangered by investment in online learning, than news of staff cuts at Bangor University Library emerged. [Note: if this link doesn't work, then this is just more proof of the ephemerality and inadequacy of the online world].

One of the lines of reasoning from the consultancy document is this: "With neither students nor staff working regular office hours, and many students working off campus, technology is the most flexible answer to their needs, it adds"

Technology, when it comes to research, can be quite inflexible. These are the things it cannot do:


  • Allow students to read documents or books which haven't been digitized, or which require additional payment for access
  • Allow students to come across books and journals which haven't been catalogued properly (or at all)
  • Allow students gain an instant overview of a subject by walking through the open access shelves.
  • Allow students to evaluate materials quickly by flicking through hundreds of pages of a book in a matter of seconds
  • Allow students to gain from the experience of others, be they librarians, professors, subject or language specialists or private researchers
  • Give students a large, warm, comfortable space which is conducive to research, thinking and laying out materials
  • Allow students access to materials which are not top-of-the-list for digitization programmes, but are nonetheless crucial to their subject or interest
  • Allow students to be guided by people who know the collections back-to-front because they've shelved most of the materials

Personally, I don't think that University Library provision should be driven by solely what are perceived as 'student needs' but by the needs of the subject, the nature of the material to be studied, and the needs of research and study as a discipline, but I acknowledge that this is uneconomic in a world where the government wants 50% of the relevant population to be graduates.

It may seem a strange argument, but I think being able to touch, feel & smell the materials that you are studying is an important part of the mind's engagement with them, quite apart from the fact that it's easier, most of the time, than reading on a screen.

Before anyone accuses me of being luddite, I'm a big fan of IT, online resources & internet-based research - but not at the expense of technologies and resources which may be better equipped to deal with the problems at hand.

From the BBC news site: "Academics give lessons on Blogs".

That's news is it? If there's anything newsworthy in there at all, it's that academics (not students, of course, who've been at it for years) have been so dreadfully slow to catch up with a technology that puts essays to shame. And what about Wikis? Oh dear oh dear.

Google, Gutenberg & Research

Just how exciting is all the hype about Google's venture into online books? Is it really the dawn of a new era?

What seems to be missing from all the journalistic screaming is the fact that huge numbers of books and other materials have been available online for some time now. Some of my favourites:

Spell to kvell...

But how useful is it to have all these texts, if you can't spell, type, research, filter, or evaluate? A classic example of this is the difference that accents & diacritical marks make on searching. In a recent search for information on the lovely Daria Klimentova, I decided to see what came up if I spelt her name with the proper Czech accents, i.e. Daria Klimentová. As I suspected, a totally different set of pages, including an encyclopedia entry on Daria from the beautifully designed and webbified Český hudební slovník osob a institucí (Czech Musical Dictionary of People & Institutions) from the - as their logo has it - Universitas Masarykiana Brunensis, the Masaryk University in Brno, another beautifully designed site. How would I know that Brunensis was Latin for 'of Brno', unless I had a smattering of Latin grammar, geography and the metathesis of medial liquid diphthongs in Slavic languages?

A free lunch?
And in the end, apart from the limitations of Google's offerings imposed by the humanoids that read the stuff, what will or what can Google actually deliver? Are all those academic publishers who have invested thousands on online journal subscription services suddenly going to stop charging between $10 - $25 dollars an article, or forget about charging universities an institutional rate based on the number of enrolled students?

What's on the menu, then?
And what of a field like mine, which involves a notation/recording system other than text? As I wrote in another weblog entry, it's darned difficult to find some of Czerny's lesser-known works, unless you can be bothered to go to a library, request them from the stack service and search through almost a thousand pages by hand. Similarly, when I tried to get hold of a copy of Tchaikovsky's 50 Russian Folksongs for piano duet by conventional means, I found that Peters Edition still publish them, but - inexplicably - only 36 of the original 50, and with the titles only in German translation - which is no use at all if you want to cross-reference collections.

I found the full set with the original titles by looking through 60+ volumes of the complete works of Tchaikovsky at the University of London library. I only knew they were there because I saw them on the shelves as I was leaving, having failed to find them in the catalogue ; I only knew when I had found them because I read Russian and music notation.

My point? It takes minutes to flick through hundreds of pages of a physical book, but - even with broadband - hours to do the same online. Catalogues, even in University libraries, are unreliable and inaccurate, prone as they are to the errors and limitations of the person who inputs the records. Materials for study are in multiple languages, formats and notation systems, which you have to know and understand if you want to do anything more than read text in English.

Scholarship? Не пудри мне мозги!"
My rant is about the suffocating domination of English texts in what laughably passes as 'scholarship', particularly in my own field, and an insidious acceptance in some areas of Anglo-American academia that this is OK. By contrast, in Central & Eastern Europe, a knowledge of five European languages is not uncommon, and some of the people I studied with in Croatia had a reading knowledge of 12 languages at undergraduate level. A friend in Prague who speaks fluent English, German, Czech, Italian and French had her PhD dissertation proposal thrown out by the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague because she wanted to look at the Tchaikovsky ballets, but didn't speak Russian, and would therefore not have access to the relevant texts. You can guess where she went instead, of course.

Information vs. Intelligence
I've been using the net for nearly 10 years, and I still find that having billions of documents available online is no more useful than having a billion pounds in Albanian lek when you need to feed a parking meter, unless you have some knowledge and understanding about the subject in your head, critical skills, advanced literacy skills, advanced IT skills and a few languages: information does not equal intelligence.

The congress of libraries
But none of this is any use unless you have intellectual curiosity, determination and patience. Ironically, it seems to me that high information at high speed kills off the very passion for knowledge that is needed to process and use it. Furthermore, the thing that used to be at the heart of academic life - dialogue, debate, congress, conference - is also at risk. Webchat and video-conferencing are no substitute for real dialogue. It's great that you can access libraries online without moving from your seat, but not great if this becomes a substitute for travel and knowledge of an experiential kind.

Study? No thanks
'Study' is becoming as boring as it sounds - you, a computer terminal and a lot of words on a screen. I hope I am not still marking papers when essays become little more than a newsfeed from a bunch of anglophone websites, written by students who've never had the opportunity to get drunk, travel or sleep with each other, and thus are unable to put the subject, themselves and the whole notion of 'study' in perspective.

Tooting swimming times

At last! This will be of interest to nobody except other Tootingese, but Kinetika have at last published the swimming timetable for Tooting Leisure Centre online. Having a corporate website that doesn't provide information that the public might want to access is, well, typical of the dumb way that people use computers and the net. I guess I could now take down my Tooting Swimming Times page now after so many years, except that it's still more useful as a quick guide to when the pool's open to the public than the official one. It's too much to ask that Kinetika publish updates so that the public know if there's a gala on and the pool's closed. It would take them 5 minutes to update the site, whereas the number of hours wasted by members of the public turning up to a pool that's closed runs into hundreds.

One day I'm also going to challenge them on their policy of having a 'ladies' swimming' on a Saturday afternoon, but no equivalent for men. Surely we men should get a discount, or do we have to accept that this is just a kind of Feminist Tax? What have I ever done to women that I have subsidise their leisure activities?


It's not often that I get goosebumps sitting in a library, but I came pretty near to it yesterday on a trip to the University of London Library. I have been looking for months for the Czerny piano studies on which Riisager's ballet Etudes was based. I had traced about half of them, but some - in particular those that I like most - I simply could not find. Having trawled through all the online, digitized scores, I kept coming across the same old books over and over again (the School of Velocity). Then I spent a day walking round London's music shops - the same story.

My last hope (and I'd nearly given up) was a library, and Senate House appeared to have some Czerny I hadn't heard of on the stacks. Possibly one of the nicest people ever to sit behind a stack service desk fetched me four enormous volumes of Czerny from somewhere in the bowels of Malet Street.

And there they were, those elusive etudes, in a set of books that from their good condition appeared not to have been opened since 1838 when they were published. This was a different Czerny to the one I knew from being a piano student, and it was suddenly easy to see how Riisager got the inspiration for Etudes. Dance permeates these studies to the extent that you'd think Czerny must have done the 19th century equivalent of clubbing every night and come home so loved-up and buzzing that he just had to write exercises the way other people put on their favourite trance album. Saint-Saëns did him an enormous disservice by caricaturing him in Carnival of the Animals with the exercises in thirds. He might have been born in Austria, and associated with Beethoven, but he was Czech - his father came from Nymburk in Bohemia, which explains a lot about the good-naturedness of his music. It also explains why there's a Czerny Piano competition in Prague.

Think about it - these books are 166 years old, and still in perfect condition. It took less than 5 minutes to get them from the stack shelves, and probably about half an hour to flick through about 1500 pages to find what I wanted. By conrast, I have already lost innumerable music files that I created using version 1 of Logic on my Atari only 12 years ago, and even with broadband, you can't 'flick' through a digitized score.

All of which reminds me of an article I read in July this year by Bruce Stirling of Wired Magazine. He wrote a piece in the Daily Telegraph called Delete Our Cultural Heritage?. His point is that the world is suffering 'a silent phenomenon of "digital decay"'; whereas books last centuries, the rapid obsolescence of computers and electronic storage methods means that things that we created only 10 years ago may be irretrievable unless they have been printed out, filed and catalogued - and as Stirling says, can you be bothered? It's not until you come across an endangered species such as the Czerny pieces, that you realise that future generations may have less to remind them of the 20th century than they do of the 19th.

IT advice no-one ever listens to

For some reason - perhaps because I'm about to stop smoking again, and just waiting for all the 'you know it makes sense' comments - I've been listing in my head all the good IT advice that people never heed, even though not taking it is about as stupid as continuing to smoke. If you're a smoker, and someone starts telling you how stupid it is, feel free to ask them if they do any of the things below - unless they score 100%, you can tell them they're stupid too.

So, in no particular order, here's my list of IT tips no-one ever listens to:

1. Learn to touch-type
2. Read the manual
3. Read the Help menu
4. Use keyboard shortcuts
5. Learn how to search the web and databases efficiently
6. Develop an efficient filing system on your computer
7. Clear your inbox and tidy your folders regularly
8. Don't use your computer to do things you could do quicker by hand
9. Use a firewall and antivirus software
10. Don't forward 'humorous' emails - unless you actually want your colleagues to think you're a bit sad and annoying.

All further suggestions or contributions to this list gratefully received.

The picture is of a cow at Prague airport.

Free training from the BBC

It's not often that I get really excited about a web site, but the BBC's free online courses in journalism and production have just blown me away. I can't quite believe it - ready made courses, designed for their own staff training needs, free to the public. My own favourites are Minidisc for Radio, the The BBC news styleguide and Image Production for the Web, not to mention all the ones on video production. A really remarkable resource, worth hundreds if not thousands of pounds. If this is what the licence fee is going on, I'm happy to pay it.

Powerpointlessness

From Inc.com via elearnspace, an article - not a moment too soon - called More Power than Point, about the problem with PowerPoint, or rather how PowerPoint has, according to some, become the problem with American business. Russell Wild coins the very lovely phrase "bullet point coma" in another article in Financial Planning. But best of all is Edward Tufte's analysis of the cognitive style of PowerPoint [this is just a bullet-point resum of the article by Aaron Swartz), and in particular his complete analysis of a single PowerPoint slide from Boeing about the possibility of tile damage on the Columbia Space Shuttle. Also not to be missed is Peter Norvig's PowerPoint version of the Gettysburg Address.

I'm relieved to find that I'm not the only one who finds PowerPoint crass, pointless and even sinister, insofar as its main function is to establish and promote hierarchies even where none existed before. In my experience, people in offices only make organization charts and speak in bullet points and jokey clip-art because that's what Powerpoint can do. When I first saw it, I couldn't see the point of it, or who would want it.

Then, gradually, I met them, Powerpoint-crazed managers who believed that, to paraphrase Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, Powerpoint would turn their idle jottings and Ricky Gervais-style aphorisms into "...something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb"; or in Powerpointese:

Idle Jottings < Power!

  • Amaze whole room
  • Words handed down: posterity
  • "Eclat"
  • = Proverb

    (Slide 1 of 42 )

    24/09/03: Another article about this subject Absolute PowerPoint by Ian Parker, from the New York Times, May 28 2001.

  • Wireless Hot Spots

    This 'work anywhere with wireless hot spots' thing is still bugging me, so I had to investigate Intel's site to see where I could take my laptop and share in the public bandwidth.

    It looks impressive to begin with - the database of places includes Japan and Bournemouth. So I fill in the details, hoping to find that I could be eating the best biryani in Tooting and collecting my emails at the same time.

    Wireless? Brainless. The database - which is not searchable once you've got to the 'town' level - is in alphabetical order, so you have to scroll through 10 pages of entries like "212 Picadilly", "Bagelmania", "Caffe Nero (Frith Street" and so on until you find somewhere you recognise.

    Now who creates a database of locations without using postcodes? Or decides where they're going today on the basis of what letter the place begins with?

    Playing the Email Fugue

    LBC are running a competition with Intel and Dell where you can win a laptop . Don't get too excited - my reason for mentioning it is that their blurb goes like this:

    "we're giving away an Intel� Centrino� mobile technology laptop that enables you to work anywhere, anytime"

    Now call me old-fashioned (don't you dare) but who in their right mind 20 years ago would have been delighted to have won something that meant they could work anywhere, anytime. What kind of freedom is it to have a £1,000+ bit of gear which means you could in principle never be at leisure?
    Wordspy has already listed the term teleworkaholic syndrome, meaning the tendency of people who work from home overwork because they feel they have to justify their situation.

    Not for the first time, I've spent a whole morning playing what I call an email fugue this week. An email fugue is a state in which a number of different people email each other about a project or problem, adding information, suggesting solutions and expressing feelings or ideas, at the end of which everyone has the feeling that they have achieved something, but have nothing to show for it. The act of writing, sending and receiving feels like work, but isn't - no hole has been dug, nothing moved, nothing built. Is this really what we need always-on networks and laptops for?

    Serious weblogs

    Nice to see, after all the time that I've been saying that weblogs are the way forward, that some really juicy ones in one of my subject areas is turning up, such as elearnspace blog (e-learning resources and news) and -=(in between)=- "A weblog on scholarly online publishing, open access, and library related technology".

    Information Foraging

    You think you're overweight? Check this out: the world's largest pre-schoolers. Dzhambulat Khotokhov is four years old and weighs 123 pounds (56 kilos).

    Great article by Jakob Nielsen (all hail the Nielsen Norman group) called Information Foraging: Why Google Makes People Leave Your Site Faster, who says "...basic laziness is a human characteristic that might be survival-related (don't exert yourself unless you have to)". Quite agree - strange that when applied to something like piano technique we call this "economy of movement", yet if a student dares to do the same with their brain, we call it laziness (well, I don't - and nor do programmers, I suspect, if you look at what brute force) means to them).

    Thoughts on the Internet

    I agree with just about everything in this short diatribe about the internet (via Metafilter). Ironically, though, if it weren't for the Internet, I wouldn't have read it. What's more, the site is itself guilty of all the things that make the internet as unreliable as the author says, starting with the fact that there is no named author. Great little discussion piece, though...

    Say IT with flowers


    I rather liked the effect of having random flowers on this otherwise rather stark page, so here comes the hollyhock. I wonder how many people that bought posters of Georgia O'Keefe's flowers knew how she felt about her subject: "I hate flowers," she said apparently, "I only paint them because they're cheaper than models and they don't move".

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