I enjoyed reading (March)

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The web as a universal standard (Tony Bates): It wasn’t so much the content of this post that triggered my thinking, but the title. I’ve been wondering for a while what a “future-proof” knowledge management database would look like. While I think the most powerful ones will be semantic (e.g. like the KDE desktop integrated with the semantic web), there will also be a place for standardised, text-based media like HTML.

 

The half-life of facts (Maria Popova):

Facts are how we organize and interpret our surroundings. No one learns something new and then holds it entirely independent of what they already know. We incorporate it into the little edifice of personal knowledge that we have been creating in our minds our entire lives. In fact, we even have a phrase for the state of affairs that occurs when we fail to do this: cognitive dissonance.

 

How parents normalised password sharing (danah boyd):

When teens share their passwords with friends or significant others, they regularly employ the language of trust, as Richtel noted in his story. Teens are drawing on experiences they’ve had in the home and shifting them into their peer groups in order to understand how their relationships make sense in a broader context. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone because this is all-too-common for teen practices. Household norms shape peer norms.

 

Academic research published as a graphic novel (Gareth Morris): Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about different ways for me to share the results of my PhD (other than the papers and conference presentations that were part of the process). I love the idea of using stories to share ideas, but had never thought about presenting research in the form of a graphic novel.

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Getting rich off of schoolchildren (David Sirota):

You know how it goes: The pervasive media mythology tells us that the fight over the schoolhouse is supposedly a battle between greedy self-interested teachers who don’t care about children and benevolent billionaire “reformers” whose political activism is solely focused on the welfare of kids. Epitomizing the media narrative, the Wall Street Journal casts the latter in sanitized terms, reimagining the billionaires as philanthropic altruists “pushing for big changes they say will improve public schools.”

The first reason to scoff at this mythology should be obvious: It simply strains credulity to insist that pedagogues who get paid middling wages but nonetheless devote their lives to educating kids care less about those kids than do the Wall Street hedge funders and billionaire CEOs who finance the so-called reform movement. Indeed, to state that pervasive assumption out loud is to reveal how utterly idiotic it really is, and yet it is baked into almost all of today’s coverage of education politics.

 

The case for user agent extremism (Anil Dash): Anil’s post has some close parallels with this speech by Eben Moglen, that I linked to last month. The idea that, as technology becomes increasingly integrated into our lives, the more control we are losing. We all need to become invested in wresting control of our digital lives and identities back from corporations, although how exactly to do that is a difficult problem.

The idea captured in the phrase “user agent” is a powerful one, that this software we run on our computers or our phones acts with agency on behalf of us as users, doing our bidding and following our wishes. But as the web evolves, we’re in fundamental tension with that history and legacy, because the powerful companies that today exert overwhelming control over the web are going to try to make web browsers less an agent of users and more a user-driven agent of those corporations.

 

Singularities and nightmares (David Brin):

Options for a coming singularity include self-destruction of civilization, a positive singularity, a negative singularity (machines take over), and retreat into tradition. Our urgent goal: find (and avoid) failure modes, using anticipation (thought experiments) and resiliency — establishing robust systems that can deal with almost any problem as it arises.

 

Is AI near a takeoff point? (J. Storrs Hall):

Computers built by nanofactories may be millions of times more powerful than anything we have today, capable of creating world-changing AI in the coming decades. But to avoid a dystopia, the nature (and particularly intelligence) of government (a giant computer program — with guns) will have to change.

 

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

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