Twitter Weekly Updates for 2011-03-21

Chromium browser and extensions

So the Linux build of Chromium (the open source browser than Google Chrome is based on) has been out for a while now and every now and again I’ve been upgrading to the latest developer release just to see how it’s coming along. Lately, the builds have been a lot more stable, font rendering hasn’t been a problem in a long time and small features are regularly being added. It seems (for my purposes anyway) that Chromium is starting to become a serious contender as my browser of choice.

The reason I haven’t been using Chromium as my default browser up until now has been the lack of extensions that make Firefox the best browser available. Recently though, that’s changed, although the public version still doesn’t have extensions enabled.

A few days ago I upgraded to 4.0.233.0 (Ubuntu build 30813), using the Chromium daily build PPA enabled with Ubuntu-Tweak, and it’s simply blown me away. I estimated that the startup time of Chromium on my machine is about 4-5 times faster than Firefox (edit: I’m running Firefox 3.5.4 but it would be more fair to compare it to 3.7), and rendering of complex pages also seems to be faster (see this post that confirms the speed improvements).  That prompted me to have a look to see how the extension support is coming along and I like what I found, even though some of the extensions lack the polish of their Firefox equivalents (it is early days).  You can find a list of extensions at Chromium extensions, as well as follow some plugin development at Chrome Plugins.

It seems that the guidelines for extension development under Chromium is sensible and well thought-out (I’m not a developer, but it makes sense to me), and I’m pretty excited about what’s on the way. One of the nicest touches is that the browser doesn’t need to be restarted after installing (or uninstalling) an extension, and the installation process is less intrusive than Firefox’s.  It must be nice to come in after someone else has made the mistakes that you can then avoid.  Some of the more useful extensions I’ve come across so far are:

All in all, Chromium is looking more and more like it will replace Firefox as my default browser in the near future, especially if development continues at this pace.  I’m not sure if I’m ready to make the shift just yet (there are still some Firefox extensions that I can’t live without), but I’m starting to see a time when Chromium is faster, more intuitive and more elegant than Firefox.

Note: it’s not immediately apparent, but if you want to uninstall an extension go to chrome://extensions, find the one you want to uninstall, and press Uninstall.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-08-03

  • RT @cshirky: NY Daily News on hospital cover-ups of medical errors: http://bit.ly/KTdHV. Scary… #
  • First Look: Firefox 3.7’s New Design http://bit.ly/mrDKD #
  • Posterous – Do we really need another blogging platform? Maybe… http://bit.ly/Fwdag #
  • First impressions of Google Wave | Enterprise Web 2.0 | ZDNet.com http://bit.ly/33j4d0 #
  • Does anyone know anything about Silentale? It looks interesting, although I’m not sure if it’s worth keeping an eye on http://bit.ly/15HacT #
  • Would the real social network please stand up? Post by danah boyd on different types of social networks http://bit.ly/Uib9c #
  • Elsevier Journal Scandal Provokes Significant Librarian Response – 5/14/2009 – Library Journal http://bit.ly/4CCIL #
  • Course by Peter Tittenberger on Open Educational Resources http://bit.ly/PVgVi #
  • YouTube – A Fair(y) Use Tale http://bit.ly/13I5v3 #
  • Article of the Future prototypes – Information World Review…interesting take on publication…bit like a wiki http://bit.ly/m2O8A #
  • Project “Article of the future”, very exciting for authors, needs a mind shift though, will change academic publication http://bit.ly/oNKtm #

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KDE 4.3 is awesome

It’s been a busy few weeks at the university, with mid-year assessment (in all it’s various forms) having to take precedence over everything else.  Now that it’s over and students are on holiday, I’ve finally gotten around to doing the things I’ve been putting off for a while…like installing the beta version of KDE 4.3 on Kubuntu Jaunty.

The 4.x series of the desktop is getting more and more impressive with every iteration, so much so that I felt I needed to put it on show a little.  I’ve been playing around with it for a few days now and while it’s still a little buggy, it’s stable enough for me.  In this post, I’m going to go through some of the applications I use most often, and give my own thoughts about why I’m loving this update.

Desktop showing the Lancelot menu
Desktop showing the Lancelot menu
Folder view with expanding folders
Folder view with expanding folders

Desktop.  The Folder view widgets on the desktop do a great job of keeping it clean and useful, and I love the way they expand on mouseover to make navigation really easy and intuitive.  The Lancelot menu is brilliant, keeping unused applications out of the way, but making it simple to find them when needed.

Dolphin file manager with Konsole view (bottom)
Dolphin file manager with Konsole view (bottom)
Dolphin file manager with Split pane, Information, Places and File tree views
Dolphin file manager with Split pane, Information, Places and File tree views

File management.  There was a lot of controversy when the KDE developers decided to
create Dolphin and replace Konqueror as the default file manager, but it was clearly the right move.  There are a couple of things that I love about Dolphin, including the Information side panel, split view mode, Terminal view and the integration of Nepomuk semantic search.

OpenOffice.org word processor
OpenOffice.org word processor

Work stuff.  I tried using KOffice2 even though it’s a platform release (because it looks so very cool), but there are a few issues that keep me from switching from OpenOffice.org, the main one being that it doesn’t support OpenDocument or MS Word files as well as OpenOffice does, and the fonts look terrible.

BasKet note taking application (showing default example)
BasKet note taking application (showing default example)

I’ve installed and am using BasKet notepads for my note taking application, which unfortunately is still a KDE 3.5 application.  There were some concerns about the project stalling when the lead developer decided that he couldn’t continue maintaining it, but it seems as if it’s been taken up by others and may yet have a future.  I hope so because it’s a great application, even in it’s current state.  A project to watch out for in this field is SemNotes, a semantic note taking application being built on Nepomuk (see here for screencast).

Okular universal file viewer (showing PDF with annotations)
Okular universal file viewer (showing PDF with annotations)

Okular is a universal document viewer, although I don’t use if for much other than PDFs.  The feature I like most is the ability to annotate documents, although the default colour scheme of the notes isn”t great.

Calendar in Kontact
Calendar in Kontact

I used to use Kontact for email for the longest time but then I switched to Thunderbird for a while, then Spicebird and finally back to Kontact.  In terms of functionality, nothing comes close to it right now.  I’d like to say that I use Akkregator for my feeds, but it’s missing something that I can’t quite put my finger on.  The interface also hasn’t changed much in the past few years and it seems very slow.

Firefox web browser
Firefox web browser

I have to admit that I’m using the 3.5 preview release of Firefox as the web browser, rather than Konqueror.  While Konqueror was awesome a few years ago, it hasn’t kept up with the changes on the web, and is really starting to show it’s age.  There’s a lot happening at Mozilla that Konqueror jsut can’t keep up with and unless there’s a radical change of pace in it’s development, I can’t imagine using it again.

Amarok media player
Amarok media player

Multimedia.  I’m always switching between different media players, but generally I’ve been keen on Songbird and Amarok for managing my whole library, and Audacious as a light-weight player for quickly playing single files.  Gwenview (the image viewer) has been given an overhaul and

Gwenview in Browse mode with Information side panel on view
Gwenview in Browse mode with Information side panel on view

does a brilliant job of managing image libraries.  Amarok is a bit buggy right now (although I am running the beta version of 2.1) and it’s still lacking some functionality that was present in 1 (the port to Qt4 means a lot of catching up has to be done), which is why I use Songbird on occasion.  But as with other KDE apps right now, it’s in a state of transition and every release is building on the solid platform that was laid down with 2.0.

Marble desktop globe showing satelite view
Marble desktop globe showing satelite view

Marble.  This is a great tool that’s something along the lines of Google Earth and Maps, but it’s open and a native KDE application.  I’ve included these screenshots showing a satelite view, as well as a

Marble desktop globe showing Open Streetmap view
Marble desktop globe showing Open Streetmap view

street view using Open Streetmap.  It’s already got Wikipedia and Flickr integration for additional information, as well as being able to overlay additional data, like temperature and precipitation maps.  It’s a young project that’s come really far and has the capability to be incorporated into other KDE apps, like using it together with geo-tagging photos in Digikam.

The one thing that I can’t find anywhere is a decent podcast catcher…something like Gpodder for Gnome, but native to KDE.  I know that Amarok has one but it’s not working for me and besides, it’s lacking the finishing touches that would win me over.  Little things like being able to read a summary of the podcast would be so useful but is currently impossible.

I’m also not a fan of Kpackagekit, as it’s still very much in development and doesn’t always work very well.  Generally the command line is quicker anyway, but there’s always Synaptic if a GUI is needed.

Anyway, that’s a brief overview of some of the apps that i use and while most of them are still in beta, there’s so much happening in KDE right now that this post will be outdated very shortly.  Sigh…

If you’re interested in following the developments in KDE, check out KDE.News

Mozilla Open Education course – Overview

We had our first session of the Mozilla Open Education Course earlier this evening and it was pretty interesting.  There were a few technical issues with sound but generally it was very well done.  Thanks to everyone who made it possible.

Here’s a few notes that I took during the session.  I know the video will be available later but I took notes anyway and listed the comments from the presenter as it was happening, so there may be errors.  If I’ve made any mistakes, please let me know.

Mark Surman (from the Mozilla foundation)
Spoke about why Mozilla is involved and what the foundation’s motivations are.

Why do the course?

Students are living and learning on the web.  Education is not working and the web is making this even clearer.

Educators need to teach like the web, using these building blocks:

  • (open) content
  • (open) tech
  • (open) pedagogy

This course is about using these building blocks…all 3 need to come together in order for open education to work.

Why do Mozilla and CC care?
To promote openness, participation and distributed decision-making as a core part of internet life.  Education is critical to this.

Also, an experiment to:

  • share skills
  • new ideas
  • more allies
  • …have fun

Frank Hecker (Mozilla Foundation)
Elaborated on previous presentation

  • Teach people about Mozilla
  • Create learning opportunities around Mozilla technology and practices
  • Bring new people into the Mozilla camp
  • Create a global community of Mozilla educators
  • Mozilla curriculum at Seneca college
  • Incorporate Mozilla-related topics into coursework
  • http://education.mozilla.org – repo for course materials created
  • People learn things best when participating directly in the communities around that project
  • education@lists.mozilla.org

Question: will we be able to make our own ff addon?  Yes

Ahrash Bissell (ccLearn)

Why is Creative Commons involved in learning?

It’s mission is to minimise the legal, technological and social barriers to sharing and reusing educational materials.

Focusses on ways to improve opportunities for and education:

  • Teach about OER
  • Solve problems (built the “discover” tool for OER)
  • Build and diversify community (education is traditionally subdivided into camps e.g. university, high school).  Open education transcends these boundaries. Boundaries useful but should be permeable.
  • Explore better pedagogical models (learning is not something that happens in a delimited way, ideally it should be enjoyed and embraced all the time.  Models haven’t penetrated, everything the same way for the last 50 years (deeply entrenched)
  • Empower teachers and learners (certain expectations of students / teachers, “this is what it means to teach/learn”.  Little power to engage as “scientists” in teaching / learning and make adjustments.  Open source development models – emphasisise feedback, creating a system that allows experimentation in an open, transparent, participatory way.

Embrace overarching principle for engaged padagogies, not new but has become inevitable.

Crucial considerations:

  • Constant, formative feedback (must want to be assessed)
  • Education for skills and capacities, not rote knowledge (the internet makes it obvious why this is the way to go, “knowledge” is already everywhere, thinking is more important.  “Skilled learners”.
  • Leverage human and material capital effectively (reaching into peer groups)
  • Consider the bulding blocks of a participatory learning system
  • Enjoy learning

Philip Schmidt (Peer 2 Peer University)
Provided an overview of the project / sessions

Background readings available on course wiki / 20 min. interviews

Draw up a blueprint for individual / group projects:

  • (open) technology platform
  • (open) licensing
  • (open) pedagogical approach

Idea – blueprint – prototype – project!
Good idea to feed into ongoing things, like:

  • Mozilla education portal
  • Firefox plugins
  • P2PU

Next steps:

  • Decide on groups
  • Start sketching
  • Ideas more important than detail
  • A picture
  • Enough detail to start building

Zotero

I first mentioned Zotero a while ago but didn’t go into very much detail in that post.  Since then, I’ve been experimenting with it a bit and am really starting to enjoy it.  It’s a Firefox extension that facilitates the research process by streamlining the collection of information accessed through the browser.  With more and more academic content becoming available online through open access journals, it’s an innovative method of aggregating and managing content for research.

Zotero has a decent set of content management features that really do a good job of making it easy to work with the information you save.  I won’t go into the specifics here because the quick start guide makes it really clear.  As well as the content management features, it’s also very good at recognising semantic content on the web and giving you options to import that content into it’s database.  For example, if you’re browsing PubMed, Zotero is able to import citation information and then to export it in many different formatting styles, including APA.

I actually don’t use Zotero for any academic content at the moment.  What I find it really useful for is annotating and working through ideas I come across in blogs.  I find that I can clarify my own thoughts around educational technology, using Zotero as a scrapbook to develop those ideas.  Which brings me to my only problem with Zotero.  I only use it for blogs right now because it’s only really useful for content you access through the browser, which is a major limitation for me.  While it’s true that most of my literature is accessed through the browser initially, I still keep local copies that I prefer to work with.

Although I think the application is great in it’s current form, I’m really hoping that the developers expand it’s scope.  Maybe make it a standalone tool that I can use to manage all my articles, no matter if they’re on- or offline and no matter what format they’re in.  I also need more space within the app because sometimes it can feel crowded (especially the right hand panel), and making it standalone will free up a lot of real estate by taking it out of the browser.  Note: you can run Zotero in a full tab, but I like to be able to read the blog while making notes.

Those things aside, this is a great browser extension that I’d definitely recommend checking out.

Screenshot of Zotero
Screenshot of Zotero

Google Docs for collaborative writing

We’ve recently started using Google Docs for collaborative work in the physiotherapy department and it’s been great so far.  There are other online word processing environments with different feature sets (Zoho, Thinkfree, Microsoft Office Live, Buzzword), but after playing around with all of them, I found that Docs offered the best mix of features, usability and stability.  Buzzword is probably the most innovative, I’m going to follow them and see what happens in that space.

While Docs lacks many of the features you’ll find in a desktop work processor like OpenOffice.org, it’s still got a pretty useful set.  These include; exporting your work into multiple formats, commenting, bookmarking, auto-generation of tables of contents, different user roles, version history and basic text formatting options.

In the physiotherapy department, we’re using Docs to peer review articles for publication in the faculty journal, rather than emailing articles and comment forms back and forth between reviewers, editors and authors.  We’re also using it to collaborate on joint projects (like new course development) with our sister university in Missouri.  And lastly, over the past month or so I’ve been using it to provide feedback on project proposals with two undergraduate research groups.  This has been working really well for the students because they’re currently on their clinical placements and find it difficult to meet in person.  With regards the undergrad research, I’ve also been using Twitter to push out articles for the literature review and methodology sections.

By using Firefox addons and scripts with Greasemonkey, Docs can be improved still further.  One of the biggest problems in the past was that it was only available in the “cloud“.  However, now that the Gears addon is stable, Docs is available in offline mode too.  This is possibly it’s most powerful feature, allowing offline access to your work and synchronisation with the online version later.  It also handles conflicts between edits very well.

There are some issues with Docs however, highlighting the fact that as with all technology, there are going to be problems.  I came across these articles while doing the background research for the department: Why Docs is not safe, Google adapts and modifies content (discusses the copyright issues of hosting content with Google), and Painful lessons from using Google Docs.

I’m really excited at the prospect of increasing our use of online, collaborative environments.  Today it’s Google Docs, but who knows what it’ll be tomorrow?

Twitter in undergraduate physiotherapy research

I’ve spent the past few weeks experimenting with Twitter, a micro-blogging service that allows users to post short “tweets” of up to 140 characters.  I’ve been following it’s development for a year or so but never really got it.  I finally saw it’s potential in education when I realised that it’s only a small leap from spreading news quickly, to spreading ideas quickly.  Combined with a URL shortening service like bit.ly, it makes a great channel for concise communication.

I’ve been using it for a few weeks with two of my undergraduate physiotherapy research groups to post links to articles and guidelines I think they may find useful.  So far, it’s worked quite well.  I can quickly post a link to something I come across without the hassle of opening an email client (I post mainly from a Firefox sidebar plugin called Twitbin), and they get immediate notification (if they’re online) of my post.  They can then reply immediately (they don’t, but they can).  I’m going to evaluate it’s use as an alternative channel for communication in the physiotherapy department.  If it works well I’d like to try an open source, self-hosted alternative to Twitter, called Laconica.

You can see some of my tweets (posts from Twitter) in the sidebar of this blog, or at http://www.twitter.com/michael_rowe.

Here are some links from this post:
Twitter
Wikipedia article on Twitter
Twitbin (Firefox sidebar plugin)
bit.ly (URL shortening service)
Laconica (open source micro-blogging platform)

Managing content 2.0

The past year or so has seen a move towards more sophisticated uses of the so-called “Web 2.0” technologies, a term that’s thrown around a lot these days and a formal definition of which is proving elusive. Rather than trying to define and structure it, I prefer to think of “Web 2.0” as an organic approach to computing…a merging of the traditional desktop application and online services. At some point I think there’ll be no difference between “online” and “offline” and indeed the boundaries are already increasingly difficult to make out. Google Gears, Adobe’s Integrated Runtime (AIR) and Mozilla’s Prism project are all looking to further blur the lines between the Internet and your personal computer.

Two good examples of the integration between desktop application and a user’s online experience are Zotero and Scrapbook. Both are Firefox extensions that are easily installed and have a shallow learning curve.

Zotero is fully integrated with Firefox and is described as a “next-generation research tool” that allows a user to capture relevant data from sources while browsing and storing that information in a local database for offline use. It “recognises” the structure of content and “knows” where to store information like title, author, publication and other bibliographic data. With academics and researchers spending more time finding their sources online, a tool that facilitates the process of managing content is most certainly welcome.

Articles discussing Zotero:

Scrapbook is another Firefox extension that adds a significantly enhanced note-taking feature to the browser. Users are able to capture sections of webpages (or entire sites) while browsing, edit text, make notes and add comments. Again, this content is stored locally for offline use.

Both of these extensions are examples of how new technologies are blurring the lines between “online” and “offline” and creating tools that take advantage of new approaches to content management. With the huge volume of information available today, a new approach to the managment of that content is necessary. Gone are the days when renaming a document is enough. Together with desktop search and tagging, tools like Zotero and Scrapbook are essential for anyone with a vested interest in managing a large volume of content.

Edit (07/07/08): I can’t believe I left out PDF Download, another Firefox extension that makes managing PDF documents within the browser a lot easier and more flexible.  Up until the latest release, my main use of it was the option to automatically download any PDF document, rather than open it in the browser, a process that’s really time consuming.  With the newest version, PDF Download also offers the option of converting any webpage you’re reading into a PDF, which I find really useful as I prefer working with PDF’s instead of saved webpages.