Friday, October 28, 2011

Google Language Tools Improved

I like a couple of the new features of Google Language tools:

So what does 'Canada' mean?

First note the Spanish keyboard. Nice--this makes it much easier to type Spanish.
Now notice the tabs at the tops of the text areas, allowing one to quickly change the translate from and translate to languages. And the languages are easily changed. Nice.

Also worth noting is that they now support Latin, which was not the case not too long ago. Google is about search, and to a large degree search is about language, so the work'they're putting into this shouldn't be a surprise.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Names, Damned Names, and Ubuntu

I recently upgraded(?) to Ubuntu 11.10 and I know that, like every version of Ubuntu, it's named after an animal (oneiric ocelot in this case). Why? Version numbers are natural and easy to use. I never bother to learn the dumb critter names.

Xfce Main Menu

For whatever reason the Xfce 4.8 folks have decided to bundle a mail reader and web browser with their environment. It is not possible so far as I can tell to remove the mail reader via apt (this is Ubuntu 11.10) since it is part of a larger package including useful stuff like the xterm substitute and Thunar, and the regular menu editing stuff didn't seem to see the top few things on the main menu, so I needed a kludgier way. Pointing emacs at /etc/xdg/menus/ and within the Layout tag, deleting the lines for exo-terminal-emulator.desktop, exo-mail-reader.desktop, and exo-web-browser.desktop cleaned up the main menu nicely.

Also to clean things up I removed the run widget. Why do I need a special widget to run a program? I almost always have multiple command lines open.

The crucial hints were at

Friday, October 21, 2011

2011 CCSC-E Marymount University

Last week I attended CCSC-E 2011 at Marymount University in Alexandria, VA. The location was great, and the venue was very good. The conference was also very good.

One of the highlights was proximity to the Ballston Metro stop. Admittedly the DC Metro System isn't what it used to be, a darker, dingier, smellier, noisier shadow of its past self. Maybe a sense of community will return to this country someday and people will realize that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was right when he said taxes are the price of civilization. Anyhow, the first day I drove just a few miles to the Halethorpe MARC station and caught a train to DC. Saturday I drove down to the Greenbelt Metro Station.

But at the conference itself, there were three highlights:
  1. "Going Green with Computing" with panelists Tom Camerlinck, CIO, Greenpeace; Dave Deal, CEO, Community IT Innovations, Inc.; and Jeff Porter, IT Infrastructure Director, Fairfax County, VA. This is an area of growing importance with quite a few organizations, including Google, taking it seriously. For many organizations, the point is to save money and saving energy and materials will effectively do just that.
  2. A tutorial, "Introduction to Cryptography" from Seth Bergmann, Rowan University. I went to a similarly-title tutorial at CCSC Central Plains a few years ago, and both were good. I don''t know that I learned anything new about crypto here, but it's always good to attend these things to see material I sometimes teach well-presented by someone else.
  3. Finally, a workshop entitle "How To Deliver a Gentle Introduction to LR Parsing" by David Middleton from Arkansas Tech. Obviously in an IS department I won't be teaching compilers any time soon, but it is an interesting topic and was well-presented. Middleton and Larry Morell presented a workshop entitled "Applying compiling concepts throughout the computing curriculum" at CCSC Midsouth in 2003, which was very good (admission: Larry Morell was a CS prof at W&M when I was an M.S. student there). I think those of us who stayed till the end came away with a better appreciation for LR parsing and a solid introduction to teaching LR. It was long for a late Saturday afternoon, but worth the time.
I enjoyed CCSC 2011 much more than the 2010 instantiation. In 2010 there was an interesting robotics and vision presentation by Grant Braught of Dickinson, but otherwise a fairly bare cupboard leaving me to wonder if CCSC was moving away from CS. Kudos to the 2011 committee and to Marymount University.

Maryland Charity Campaign

It appears that, except for the fact that they require Internet Explorer, the Maryland Charity Campaign is happy for anyone to sign anyone else up for deductions in any amount to any charity:

The restriction to Internet Explorer suggests that either Andar/360 Fundraising Software is done by a bunch amateur hacks, or they don't want donations from non-Windows users. Okay, I can contact the charities myself.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Google Docs' New Look: What's the Point?

If Google Docs' new look added useful new functionality, such as allowing the user to see the size or modification time of a file, and not just the modification date, I would switch to it. But all it does is replace words with ideograms, which is a step backwards. Rather than just clicking on what one wants, the apparent mindset is that we would rather hover over controls seeing what the heck each is.

Sure, learning the obscure symbols will not take long, but why bother? There are very likely simple words for each of these controls in any language Google Docs supports, and most people using Google Docs can likely read simple words.

This is just a pointless step backwards.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Free" Online Storage

A couple months ago I related my experiences with Google Documents and Windows Live Skydrive for online storage. Mostly my online storage is .tar.gz.cpt files (gzipped tar files fed through ccrypt); everything I put on the cloud with no intention of sharing is encrypted. The brief discussion is at

Since then, I have used Amazon's Cloud Drive for this, and it works fine. Since I almost always have Gmail open, though, Google is a tad more convenient. Also, I think Google's commitment to cross-platform interoperability is stronger than Amazon's, so I feel slightly more confident that I'll always be able to access the Google cloud.

So the score is Google Great, Amazon Good, Microsoft Bad. Today I finally successfully logged into my Verizon account; it only took 13 months to get in. I use FiOS at home, but don't use Windows much, and in the past Verizon has required installation of software on the home client to use a supposedly-web account. So I've been s.o.l. But today I got a notice from Verizon on changes to its privacy policy, and I was actually able to log in through a link in that e-mail. It was not smooth, as at one point I received an error message saying my phone number was invalid (I have no Verizon phone), but a shrug got me past that.

Verizon provides users with 2GB of space, but I cannot see that since some script at mylibrary/members/logincheck.aspx goes into an infinite loop, repeatedly reloading the same useless-looking page. So, as bad as Skydrive is, I have to rate Verizon's service as worse.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Powerpoint Manifesto

I highly recommend Richard Forno's The PowerPoint Manifesto to anyone who makes or attends presentations.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

IMDB Partly Fixes Missing "Favorite Theaters" Feature

With IMDB's new look, they got rid of the "My Theaters" page, replacing it with "Theaters Near You." My theatres has returned, but in an almost unusable format. They have a thumbnail movie poster with each film, which spreads things out enough that it is no longer possible to view multiple theatres at a time. Each theatre takes more than a screen page. Previously the display was multi-column with no graphics--a much more efficient use of space. Also, the theatre name font size is little different from the font used for the film name, which itself is smaller than the font used for the showtimes. So they make us scroll continuously to compare showings and show times, but make it difficult to scroll quickly because the font sizes give us no clue regarding what we're seeing.  Very bad--Google's page is much better:

{Added 15 minutes after the above] Also, when clicking on a particular film, the link no longer leads to the movie page but rather to a brain-dead showtimes page, which, for movies not playing in the immediate Catonsville area says no showtimes found. So I click on a showtime only to be told there are no showtimes. It's then an extra click to get to the actual page for that movie.

This is what you get when web page design is done by bonobos.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Generating Portable PDF

Yes, that's right, the subject, expanded, says "generating portable portable document format."  I got a shock this week when a PDF I had generated on a Linux system using LibreOffice 3.3.4 would not display on either of two XP systems I tried to show it on. The first time was in class, when I thought I was going to display an example. The issue is that LibreOffice used a font that the Windows systems didn't have. I googled it and installed a font with almost the same name, but it made no difference. It turns out one can force PDF to live up to its name in LibreOffice by specifying PDF/A-1a in the PDF options. Thanks to someone at a blog I can't find right now [ Jean at ] for pointing out to me that the settings are persistent, so when chosen once it is unnecessary to deal with it later.

The persistence seems like an inconsistency in LibreOffice: how are we to know there isn't a configuration option buried in the myriad of randomly-organized menus? How are to know the setting is persistent? It seems most are not.

To date I have encountered no portability problems with PDFs generated from LaTeX, dvips, and ps2pdf.

I Keep Leaving Truecrypt for Ccrypt

I recently bought a pair of Western Digital 1TB Passport USB drives. They seemed an ideal solution for backing up my personal system. The idea is to keep one in one location, the other in another location, and every couple of weeks do a complete backup to whichever one is least fresh. For me a complete backup, once gzipped, is about 170GB, and I thought it would be a good idea to place a 900GB Truecrypt container on each, and each container could contain several backups.

The WD drives were formatted ntfs, and so a 900GB file wasn't a problem. What was a problem was that, on both drives, with Ubuntu 11.4, the latest version of Truecrypt, Gnome instead of that Unity crap, I could not consistently copy a 170GB file to the Truecrypt container--it kept hanging.

The simple and reliable solution was to format the WD drives ext2, trashing the WD software that I couldn't imagine ever using, and then to do my backups to /tmp as .tgz.cpt, i.e., as gzipped tar encrypted using ccrypt. Then I could reliably copy the file to the WD drive.

BTW, with NTFS on Ubuntu, even with ntfstools installed, I never could change the label of an NTFS volume. But it was a three second job on a Windows 7 machine.

So I temporarily went back to Truecrypt, but returned to ccrypt begging forgiveness. A zombie process told me "It's too late to say you're sorry. How would I know? Why would I care?"

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

4-d Cables

There's an obviously true statement at the bottom of this image:

Cables have length, width, and height, and clearly can be rotated, implying that they must exist in time, a fourth dimension.Often the issue alluded to above can be alleviated by noticing the USB logo on the top of the male plug. However, almost as often, the female jack is mounted vertically, so all bets are off.

Genius, Absolute Genius

The line "if a tree fell in the forest and she didn't hear it, would I still be wrong?" is an excellent summary of why I'm divorced.

Probably the reason this song was around 7 years before I heard it is that it's now the one Vince Gill song I can name.

Gutless South African Government

Of course living in the can't do country, I have little room to talk.