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Australian schoolkids could be getting Linux laptops for high school

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Australia’s prime minister Kevin Rudd has been pushing a “revolution in education” since before the election. Labour’s plan was to digitise the education sector and bring a laptop to every schoolchild. Well, now, those laptops might run Linux. Red Hat’s CEO is over here right now talking with federal officials.

It makes sense from a cost-cutting point of view, and also from a “not wanting the kids to play Counter-Strike during class” one, too. Instead they’ll be playing Tux Racer. The chances of this adoption happening (at least in New South Wales) aren’t all that low, either: just look at how Brazil, Germany, Italy and others have deployed Linux in their education sectors. The article also points out that Red Hat is already used widely in the NSW state government.

If this happens, it will bring about a huge increase in the awareness of Linux in Australia, as well as force more and more institutions to be standards compliant — all those schools are going to have to know what ODF is now. The best part is that these switches are just going to become more and more common as Linux makes advances and the world becomes more aware of its options when it comes to technology.

Written by atroche

October 15, 2008 at 8:06 pm

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Chaser’s writer slams VSU

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Dom Knight (a former writer on the Aussie show The Chaser’s War On Everything) has posted a long, scathing attack on Voluntary Student Unionism, and on the Rudd government for not getting rid of it more immediately. They’re reversing some of the damage that Howard did, but are still fucking around.

Dom sums the whole situation up well:

No-one seriously objects to the government funding Olympic athletes, or running an art gallery, or paying for community centres, so why is it any worse when a university or a student union does it?

and:

John Howard destroyed our valuable campus culture to make an unimportant ideological point, and the sooner his work is undone, the better.

Worth the read.

Written by atroche

October 13, 2008 at 9:12 am

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Thesixtyone : A massively multiplayer music discovery service

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Music discovery systems (or social music sites) are great at recommending me songs based on what I already listen to. However, last.fm, which I’ve been using for years now, only really suggests artists that are well-known. This is the case for most of them, in fact. This makes listening easier, but also makes the process somewhat less exciting. The status quo might change, now, with the arrival of thesixtyone, a newish social music system which makes it easier for obscure artists to get that crucial-but-elusive initial exposure.

How does it do this? The site rewards users with reputation and influence for finding new, attention-deserving music before other people do. You get points for listening to under-the-radar music, and can spend those points on “bumping” whichever track you like. More obscure songs are expensive to bump into the limelight, but if other people digg bump the sound later on, then you’ll get rewarded for it. If you’re bumping a track that’s already been around the block and on the front page, you’re not going to get many points for just jumping on the bandwagon.

This way, the system actively encourages people to find the obscure and unheard of and promote it as well as they can. Users who have a high “level”, with lots of points, have considerable power in making the reputation of certain bands. Sounds more than a little bit enticing, doesn’t it?

If you’re like me, it’s an effort to sit down and listen to unfamiliar material – I generally don’t start enjoying music until I’ve heard it a few times. I’m too lazy, especially as of late, to make myself listen to new stuff. The MMOG-player that still hides in me somewhere is enjoying “levelling up” by listening to tracks like this. There’s a lot of shit there (especially the large amount of awful home-made techno), but the good stuff does rise to the top.

Luckily, the website already has a large, established userbase (of artists and listeners) now, having been around for over 6 months, and there are always plenty of freshly uploaded song awaiting opinion. The music coming from the more popular artists is great, and some of the leading bumpers consistently pick music worth listening to. Radiohead (known for their passion for alternative distribution methods) even have uncut, unpublished songs posted.

I never realised until I started using thesixtyone how annoying it is to have to keep a tab on the same page to keep the music playing, a la last.fm. I’m not sure how thesixtyone does it, but the tracks keep playing no matter how much you navigate around the site. Impressive. The site is slick, with little unobtrusive popups of information appearing when relevant. It’s great for a couple of guys with little financial backing.

Anyway, congratulations to them on how well they’ve done so far, good luck to them. Check out their site now. My username is atroche.

Written by atroche

July 9, 2008 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Mount&Blade .950 Impressions

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(download link)

Mount and Blade is an indie sandbox third-person action-RPG. It’s the much-loved baby of a Turkish couple, and they’ve been working on it on their own for years. I bought it for about sixteen Australian dollars mid-2005 and I occasionally go back and have intense, all-night sessions of it for a few days, usually when a new version is released. I’ve been really glad that their project hasn’t fizzled for lack of funds – in fact, back in January this year Paradox Interactive (who make Europa Universalis and other epic, time-consuming historical strategy games) signed them up for publishing! Obviously I was excited when I read on The Independant Gaming Source that version .950 of Mount and Blade, their first release with all their new-found money and resources, had been pushed. I’ve played it for a few hours now and thought I’d just announce it’s existence along with some first impressions.

Firstly, more has changed than in any other release. The entire structure of the map is different: it’s now divided into five different kingdoms to whom you can pledge your allegiance and fight for in campaigns. The quests system has been given a huge overhaul, and there’s a database of people, places and factions that updates as you discover more about the world. Each town (as far as I can tell so far!) seems to be completely different in layout, though they aren’t populated with unique characters yet (except for the taverns of a few major cities.) It’s a huge jump in variety and world-detail from previous releases, though, and if they keep it up by release they might finally have some good story arcs.

Instead of choosing your stats and starting equipment, etc., you are given a series of choices. Not moral choices like in The Elder Scrolls series or in Ultima but basic things like “You were the son of : a) an impoverished nobleman, b) a merchant, etc.” I really don’t like this – it just means I’ll have to eventually learn what each of these background choices does when I want to create a character. It might make sense for beginners who don’t want to be overwhelmed by choice, but for people who’ve been playing a while it’s a bit of a hassle.

Speaking of hassles, the game consumes your time needlessly. There’s this one type of quest given to you by a small town (who only give, it seems, about three different types!) where you have to train their peasants to fight before bandits come again. It works like this: you stare at the screen for about 15 seconds waiting for the game-time hours to go past before fighting one peasant (which consists of 10 seconds of finding him and about three seconds of beating him to a pulp because he’s naked and armed with a stick). Surely this whole process can be bypassed? It seems like a real time sink. The penalty of losing those in-game hours is enough without having to sit their twiddling your thumbs. Not being able to speed up time when running long-distance errands also leads to boring thumb-twiddling. Very unnecessary.

The combat seems to have changed too, not that I’m so into the game that I can quantify it in any way. It just seems a lot harder to hit a target from horseback – which I suppose isn’t such a bad thing because it means you have to develop your actual skill and not just the characters. It also means I’ve spent a lot of time circling ’round my horse for 4 or 5 attempts at an enemy! Hardly the game’s fault, though.

I wish I had more time so that I could get to higher levels with M&B, but university is getting in the way. I imagine the fun really starts when you’re an experienced leader and a great fighter and waging war with giant battles and castle sieges. I’ll work my way up there and post some more of my impressions here.

Written by atroche

May 5, 2008 at 9:22 pm

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The Age ignores Digsby

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The Age, Melbourne’s broadsheet, had an article in their thursday tech section outlining the best muli-protocol IM clients for Windows. They showed Trillian, Pidgin and Miranda – but not Digsby. When I’m in windows this is what I use – it’s not open source, but it’s run by a cool group of people who update it and post on their blog regularly. The thing that has always bugged me about the three IM clients mentioned in the article is the interface. I love Pidgin in Linux because it fits in so well, but it’s always felt awkward in Windows. It’s hard to describe and I can’t be bothered downloading and installing trillian and miranda right now, but Digsby “feels” nicer. Plus, its integration with Facebook and GMail is superb.

Anyone who chats on Windows should check it out.

Written by atroche

May 2, 2008 at 9:50 am

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The Great Ubuntu-Girlfriend Experiment

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Introduction

I’ve toyed with Linux since 2002, when I first installed Mandrake. With the latest release of Ubuntu, I was interested to see how far Linux had come since then in terms of being used easily by the mainstream. So, I tricked my grudging girlfriend Erin into sitting down at a brand new Ubuntu 8.04 installation and performing some basic tasks. It’s surprising how many seemingly simple things become complicated and even out of reach for someone without a knowledge of Linux. There are a lot of little things that could be done to make the experience a lot more friendly for non-computer-literate people – some of them easy to implement, others not at all.

Erin was impressed with the heron

Erin’s knowledge of computers is limited to word processors, spreadsheets, Photoshop and a reasonable amount of browsing on the Web. Fairly standard stuff for a university philosophy student. All I did to the system (before leaving Erin at the log-in screen) was to install it and create a user account for her. She had no problems logging in, and loved the stylised heron background. Then I gave her one by one the tasks I’d set her. I didn’t give her any help at all.

First task: Tell me what the capital of Bosnia is.

As soon as she heard this, Erin grinned, rolled her eyes and said “easy!” Her eyes found the Firefox shortcut at the top of the screen, and very soon Wikipedia told her Sarajevo. A good start, the task was completed with absolutely no trouble at all.

Second task: Watch a video on YouTube.

(note: this is a problem specifically with YouTube – it detects whether or not you have Flash using JavaScript and then puts a link to Adobe’s webpage instead of displaying the plugin. Firefox’s standard behaviour is to ask you to install it in an automated fashion. Just bad luck I happened to choose YouTube!)

This proved more problematic. Erin went to YouTube and searched for a Beatles video, and seemed to assume that it would work straight away. When it told her that she needed a plug-in she groaned, but clicked the link they gave her. It took her to the official Flash plug-in page, and gave her the option of downloading a gzipped tarball, an RPM or a YUM.

Flash Download Page

Because she’s using Ubuntu, the RPM and the YUM are going to be of no use – not that she knows this. Erin tried the .tar.gz, and it downloaded to her home folder. It opened in the archive manager, and she extracted it to the default. Then, she was lost. She tried double-clicking the file, and Ubuntu just asked her what she’d like to do with it. The option “run” results in it crashing. No clue was given to her that she should open up a terminal and type ‘./flashplayer-installer’. To be fair, there are links to installation instructions, but the average person acclimatised to Windows is not expecting to have to read complex information before installing a program – all they need to do is double click it. Obviously her attempts with the RPM and the YUM went nowhere. Frustrated, Erin conceded defeat.

Flash Installer Dialog

There are other ways to install flash on Ubuntu, such as by using the inbuilt package manager. Why doesn’t Firefox tell her to do this, or do it automatically like Rhythmbox does with codecs? Ubuntu ship Firefox with their own special modifications, couldn’t this be one of them?

Third task: Download a Spice Girls Album

Erin’s first reaction was to go to the Applications menu, and look first in the Sound & Video folder, and then in Internet. I presumed that she was looking for some kind of Limewire equivalent. Erin has downloaded music using uTorrent before in Windows, so she went and got utorrent.exe from their website. It downloaded, and she double clicked it. It asked her if she wanted to open it with an application, and, confused, she tried to open the executable with itself.

When this didn’t work, she sat frowning for a while before heading to ScrapeTorrent (where I’d shown her to get torrents months and months ago.) She downloaded a Spice Girls torrent and it asked her if she wanted to open it with “Transmission”. She hesitated, then clicked yes. It started downloading immediately to her Desktop. She sat back, folded her arms and gave me a self-satisfied smirk.

Open Torrent Dialog

The only problem I see here is the name of Transmission in the menu. I imagine that her problems would’ve been reduced if only they listed “Transmission BitTorrent Client” instead. How on earth is a user supposed to know what Transmission is? The icon certainly doesn’t help. They do this with “Firefox Web Browser”, so why not Transmission? Weird. They could even just put “file-sharing client”, and when it loads up for the first time a wizard can help the user understand what BitTorrent is and how it works.

Fourth task: Draw me a little picture and save it in three formats.

Erin’s done a fair bit of photoshopping before, and from her attitude I could tell she thought it’d be easy. She went to the Graphics menu in Applications and selected “OpenOffice.org Drawing”, which makes sense for anyone uninitiated. However, I think she was expecting a simple Paint-esque program. Instead, she had opened an unfamiliar vector-based illustrator. It took her a long time just to find the buttons to make a line, or change colours. Eventually she made the picture and saved it as three formats. Because she went to “Save As…” instead of “Export…” she could only save it in strange and unfamiliar formats such as odg, otg, sxg. I could tell that she was perplexed as to why she couldn’t just save it in the formats she was used to.

Obviously not having experience with a vector-based illustrator was Erin’s downfall in this task – but, then, how many people have used one? I don’t understand why there isn’t a program like KDE’s KPaint for Gnome/Ubuntu. (Also, why is OpenOffice.org Drawing installed in the Base package? Seems pretty unnecessary – if only because I don’t know anyone who uses a program like it.)

Fifth Task: Burn an album from my music collection.

Erin knows that my music collection is on the same computer that she is using, in Windows. Before trying to find it, though, she looked for a CD burning program in the Sound & Video menu and found it with “Brasero Disc Burning”. Thankfully it wasn’t just called Brasero. I was impressed with the way it opened straight up to a screen with four big buttons, each with the common tasks anyone would want to do. Erin had no problems working out which button to push, and then it asked her which files to add.

Brasero\'s Welcome Screen

Erin looked in her Music folder (created by default in Ubuntu), and her home folder and the desktop. She avoided the “492.8GB Media”, which is my Windows partition, and the many strange and unhelpfully-named folders in “Filesystem” could only have scared her. She minimised Brasero and went to the “Places” menu for the first time, launching the search program. She tried searching for music in her home directory and music folder, but found nothing, and didn’t try “Filesystem” or “492.8GB Media”. She also told me later that she thought it was stupid that you couldn’t specify which type of file you want to find. Nevertheless, she was unable to burn an album from my music collection.

Search Dialog

No problems with Brasero, their team did well for making it so user-friendly. However, Ubuntu really should be make more clear where the computer’s other partitions are. It should detect if there are Windows installations on the machine and provide well-named shortcuts to them. If this had been done, there wouldn’t’ve been any trouble. Also, the search function should, instead of “Filesystem”, have a “Whole Computer” option. How is someone not experienced with Linux supposed to know that folders like “etc”, “dev” and “mnt” contain all the workings and files on the machine?

Sixth Task: Change the speed of the mouse

No issues here, Erin found “System Preferences Mouse” within a few seconds and the slider bar was right there. Easy.

Seventh Task: Change the theme of the computer.

Again, very simple. Though she moved down to the Ts to find “Theme” first, she saw “Appearance” soon after and changed the theme to Mist. Couldn’t be simpler.

Eighth Task: Find a picture on the Intenet and set it as the desktop background

Went straight away to a website with background images, and grabbed one. Instead of just clicking the “Set as Desktop Background” option in the right-click menu, she saved the image to her home folder and then changed the background from the Appearance menu she’d found earlier. No problems.

Ninth Task: Change screen resolution.

This was easy from the Preferences menu under Screen Resolution, and she changed it to the smallest size available: 720×400. However, she clicked “Keep settings” straight away, and couldn’t work out how to get it back because the screen was too small to display the entire height of the Screen Resolution menu. Eventually I had to do it for her by tabbing through the options.

Messed Up Screen Res

This is pretty ridiculous – you can’t make it shorter and you can’t move it up past the top of the screen. There’s no way I can see of being able to change the resolution using that menu when you’re on a small resoltion – without tabbing to invisible options that you don’t know are there. Maybe I’m just missing something, I’d be happy to be enlightened.

Tenth Task: Photoshop a picture of her face onto my body

She opened Firefox, went to Facebook and found pictures of her and me. So far so good. Then, she opened up GIMP (which had “Image Editor” after it in the menu). Her multiple attempts to maximise each of the purposefully small windows showed that she was confused with the change from Photoshop’s one main window to GIMP’s scattered one. After she worked out what was going on, she just copied and pasted the images straight from Facebook. From there, it was easy, because GIMP has the same icons and functionality as photoshop does for cutting out and pasting parts of a photo. I had to stop her when she started finding out how to match our skin tones: “How can I make my skin colour more like yours, all pasty and yellow?”

Erin\'s head on my body

I don’t understand why GIMP doesn’t just layout its windows like photoshop does. It wouldn’t lose usability, surely, and it would help the transition of first-time-users immensely.

Eleventh Task: Log onto MSN

She went straight to the Internet category of Applications, but was uncertain about “Pidgin Instant Messenger”. She asked “Does it have to be MSN?”. I said, “not really”, and so she opened up Pidgin. It asked her to add an account, and gave her a drop-down box of IM protocols along with inputs for “Screen name” and “Local alias”.

Pidgin Account Adding Screen

Because Erin’s only experience with IM clients has been the official MSN ones, she didn’t understand what a multi-protocol one could do. She thought that “adding” an account was creating a new one on the network. Also, she understandably didn’t know what “AIM” was, which is what the protocol menu defaulted to. Moreover, MSN doesn’t use the term “screen name”, so she obviously wouldn’t associate it with her normal login.

So, she tried to sign-on using a made up username and password, and obviously it failed. She then went back to the add screen and found the MSN protocol. However, she put her login under local alias instead of screen name, but she fixed this the second time around after it didn’t work. Then she was online, able to tell her friends about how much she hated Linux.

The problems Erin had could easily be solved by some sort of first-time welcome screen that explained what Pidgin is, what it does, and asking if she’d like to add and log into existing MSN, etc. accounts. Perhaps changing “screen name” to something more appropriate based on which protocol is selected would be helpful. Also, why does local alias seem like a necessary piece of information required to create an account? Seems like it confuses more than aids a new user.

When Erin tried to quit Pidgin, she pressed the X in the top right, and it went to the notification area. When I told Erin that she hadn’t quit it properly, she tried to quit it by clicking in the lower-left hand side of the screen, where she’d usually find her MSN icon in Windows. She just changed desktops, of course, but eventually she found it in the top-right. When you first close Pidgin it should tell you that you haven’t really quit it and that it’s just going to the notification area and what it will look like.

Twelfth Task: Install Skype

Erin went straight away to skype.com. I think she was wary after her experience with Flash, but Skype have a great download page for Linux, where it lists different packages for the more popular distros. Ubuntu was at the top, and Erin saved the .deb file to the default location. When it was done, it opened with the Package Install and there was a big button saying “Install”. She clicked it, and it installed. Perfect.

The only problem was, she didn’t know where it went. She looked in her home folder, the desktop and the menus up the top. For some weird reason she didn’t look in “Internet”, where it had popped up. Regardless, after a package is installed, if it’s available in the menu it should say where it is. Or, copy Windows’ “new programs have been installed” bubble that comes out of the Start Menu. Either thing would’ve solved this problem.

Conclusion

The main issue with the desktop experience is that the geeky programmers and designers assume too much from the average user. They assume the user knows about the way in which programs are installed, or how the file system is set out. The average user will not go out of their way to google for help or even read the associated documentation that comes with Ubuntu and its default software. The little information pop-ups and guided wizards are critical to explaining how the user can accomplish the basic tasks they most probably are trying to do.

I’d love to see a welcome screen for the first time you open up your desktop, with little videos explaining a few key concepts to how Linux and Ubuntu work. Maybe it could ask “What do you want to do?” and then explain how they could do this.

Linux won’t truly be ready for the desktop until someone computer illiterate can sit down at a the computer and with little effort do what they want to do. Erin’s intelligent, quick to learn and is reasonably well-acquainted with modern technology. If she had as much trouble as she did, what chance to the elderly or at least the middle-aged stand?

Written by atroche

April 27, 2008 at 8:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Ineffective Time Travelling

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I often have fantasies. Some of them involve my travelling back into the past, using knowledge ahead of my time to benefit. Knowing to invest in Microsoft, or telling my previous self how to avoid mistakes, I do it without thinking sometimes and it’s embarrasing in its uselessness. Sometimes I think about chatting with pre-Newton scientists and advancing science by hundreds of years – becoming rich and powerful in the process. Recently, however, I’ve wondered just how well I’d be able to do such a thing. My knowledge of how the amazing technology we have today is, to be honest, rudimentry at best. I doubt I’d be able to tell Ye Olde humans how to generate electricity, let alone design microchips. What, exactly, would be gained from an average person travelling back in time to tell of the future?

My high school science education has given me a basic grounding in the general theories of how the universe works. Light waves, atoms, evolution, DNA: I grasp them. If I could find the right people (maybe Leonardo Da Vinci or Isaac Newton, depending on how far back I go), I could get those ideas fermenting in the minds of that time. I can’t see them reaping the benefits right away – the theories would need to trickle slowly from the fringe to the mainsteam to the applied.

So I imagine that I could move science forward hugely if I found the right scientists to talk to in the right time, but I wouldn’t be able to take over the world with robots or the Internet. A shame, really.

Written by atroche

April 23, 2008 at 5:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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