Sunday, April 23, 2006

Free Your Computer

Anyone who works in academia, or any other number of professions, spends vast amounts of their time sitting at a computer. Many of us (especially bloggers) also spend time with computers outside work as well. Most computers come set up with a fairly standard set of tools -- a windows operating system, some suite of software for writing documents, making presentations, manipulating data in a spreadsheet and so on. We may have some more exotic software, for manipulating photos and images, making web pages and other specialized tasks, but the usual set up is depressingly common. It does not have to be this way.

Without software, a computer is just an expensive paperweight. Most people are not computer experts and so just rely on the software that comes with the machine. A consequence of this is that many people run software that is out of date, lacks all the features they really need, or even run software with known defects. The purpose of this week's post is to introduce some software alternatives that can make life easier and cheaper. I will begin with a little bit of theoretical discussion on why exploring software alternatives is a good idea, before proceeding to concrete suggestions. Those who are not interested in theory should just scroll down.

In his book The Cathedral and The Bazaar, Eric S. Raymond contrasts two methods of software development. 'The Cathedral' method has traditionally been used by companies such as Microsoft. Under this method, the company writes the software, tests it and then sells it to consumers in compiled, ready to install and execute format. With this method all the responsibilities lies with the monolithic software company, so if they make a mistake, the consumer is at their mercy. This method contrasts with 'The Bazaar' method, which is favored by so-called 'open source' software developers. Under this method, software is usually distributed for free, along with the source code for the application. The advantages of this second method is that anybody can inspect the software source code for problems and make changes to the software, as they see fit. Most computers users, for a variety of reasons, use software developed under The Cathedral method. Recently though, the advantages of software developed using The Bazaar method are becoming increasingly popular.

Internet Browsers: Almost everybody reading this post will be doing so using an internet browser of some kind. Statistics show that the most popular browser at the time of writing is Internet Explorer (a.k.a. 'Internet Exploder') from Microsoft. The reason people use this browser so much is very simple. Most computers ship with some flavor of Windows pre-installed on it and Explorer is standardly included with the operating system. Once a system is fired up for the first time, it is just a matter of hitting the 'Internet Explorer' icon and off you go. Despite the popularity of Explorer, it has many known problems. There are well-known security vulnerabilities that make it easy for malicious software to be secretly installed on your machine. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Homeland Stupidity has even recommended against the use of Explorer, because of the known security flaws. Explorer also lacks many of the advanced features (such as plugins and tabbed browsing) that are available with freely available alternative browsers. So, a first step in liberating your computer would be to try another browser. One of the most popular alternative browsers is Firefox. This is a fully featured modern browser that is completely free of charge, as well as being easy to download and install. Just trying this simple little experiment is often enough to persuade people that the world of free open source software is worth further investigation.

E-mail Clients: Just as Internet Explorer comes preloaded on many new computers, so does the Outlook, (a.k.a. 'Outhouse') or Outlook Express e-mail program. This too explains the popularity of these programs. However, as with Internet Explorer, Outlook is known to have serious security issues. In particular, the popularity of this software means that it has become a common target of spammers, hackers, phishers and all sorts of other Internet scum bags. As in the previous case though, there are excellent free open source alternatives available. The Thunderbird e-mail client, which is made by the same people who make Firefox, is a great alternative to Outlook. It also has useful features that permits importing e-mails addresses, etc. from Outlook. Another alternative to Outlook, is the Mozilla suite. This has an excellent e-mail client and also includes another good browser alternative. The combination I personally prefer is Firefox for browsing and Mozilla for mail. The important point though is that there are more choices than boring and defective old Outlook.

Office Suite: In various flavors, the Microsoft Office suite of software has become something of a de facto standard for many mundane work and business tasks. This suite though is also subject to a number of shortcomings. First off, it is expensive. Second, it is massive and takes up way more hard drive space than it really needs to. Third, it does not provide all the functionality that one may wish. Many years ago, I was a big fan of Microsoft Word. However, that was back in the days of Word 4.0 for DOS. This was a tiny, highly functional program, that could be run from a double density floppy disk. It bears little resemblance to the bloated monster that is Word of today. As in the previous cases, there are alternatives available, via free open source software. The alternative many people favor is OpenOffice. This software again is downloadable for free and easy to install, even for a relative novice. It easily reads and can write in standard Microsoft Office formats. It is fully functional, although at first minor differences may be slightly frustrating to new users. Indeed, there are some ways that OpenOffice is superior to Microsoft Office. The OpenOffice equation editor is especially good. Another very useful feature is that one can easily convert office documents into .pdf files by simply choosing a menu option, and without having to go to the expense of buying and installing third party software.

Web Editors: These days many people use automated tools (like the one available at blogspot) to put content on the web. Whilst this is ok for smaller projects, if one is to undertake the construction of a web site from the ground up, many people prefer to use web editing tools, such as the dreadful Frontpage, or Dreamweaver. Frontpage is a true horror, as the HTML code it produces is highly deviant from web standards and produces pages and sites which only really work properly with some browsers. Dreamweaver, though better in many ways, is expensive and also has known deficiencies. However, once again open source software has a freely available elegant alternative web editor available, in the form of Nvu. Although Nvu has one or two quirks, successive versions of this software has got better and better. If I am not building a site by hand in plain HTML, then this is the tool I prefer. Another advantage of Nvu is that it can be used by people with no real knowledge of HTML. A non-profit organization I know of was able to leave web site maintenance in the hands of someone who only really had computer skills that ran to running Microsoft Word. Once the software was properly configured (which, admittedly can be a bit tricky, depending upon one's set up), it was possible to leave all web based tasks in the hands of this person. For these reasons then, Nvu is well worth a try.

Image and Photograph Editing: Many people like to be able to share their digital pictures with others. Often this is done using software that is supplied by digital camera manufacturers. However, this kind of software usually lacks sophisticated features. The gold standard for image editing is probably the Photoshop program. However, this is a complicated and expensive piece of software, that many non-professional users find it hard to justify paying for. This is one of the cases where free open source software can provide sophisticated functionality for no cost. The Gimp (short for 'Gnu Image Manipulation Program') is a highly mature and powerful software solution. It is free to download and can provide even the hobbyist with access to professional level features. So this should be a 'must download' for anyone with a digital camera.

Other Software: Hopefully, the above should illustrate that the world of software can be much more diverse than it is standardly. Many of one's most used applications have analogues in the open source world that are as functional, or even more functional, than their commercially available competitors. In fact, for almost any software application, there will be several open source alternatives. Before investing in a new program, it is always a good idea to check open source archives, such as Sourceforge. Of course, not all open source projects are of equal quality or at mature stages of development. This does not mean that these projects are not worth looking at, if only to save a few dollars.

In fact, there is more to open source software than the fact that it is free. If one runs into a problem with a program there is almost always a forum where users will help each other out. Searching such forums is often quicker, less frustrating and cheaper than navigating a technical support phone system. In addition, if a program lacks a feature, then it is possible to engage with the developers and request that the feature be added. For the more technically inclined, one can even go as far as to program in the feature oneself and then share the adaption with the community of users. Even those without technical skills can help out the development of a project by describing any bugs, or problems that are found with a program. Additionally, non-technical users can also play a crucial role in writing, editing or improving documentation for programs.

The Big One (Operating Systems): Perhaps the ultimate open source project is the Linux operating system. The history of the development of this operating system is described in Glyn Moody's book Rebel Code. It turns out that for those who are sick of the Windows monopoly on the desktop, versions of the Linux operating system can easily be downloaded and installed. Most Linux distributions also make it possible to retain Windows along side Linux. There are a very wide range of Linux distributions available. Each has a particular type of application and user as it's target. A list of descriptions of various Linux can be found at Linuxdistros, along with information about their target audiences. In addition, most Linux distributions come with all sorts of software applications included. For example, the Firefox browser and the OpenOffice suite are commonly included, as are even games.

A nice feature of many Linux distributions is that they can be run from a so-called 'Live CD'. One can download the operating system (for free, of course) and save it onto a standard recordable CD-ROM. Then, it is possible to boot one's computer from the CD into the particular distribution (it may be necessary to make a few minor system changes, which have no lasting effect to do this - instructions are usually provided). This enables one to 'test drive' a version of Linux, without making any radical changes to one's computer configuration. If you do not like Linux, then just remove the CD and restart the machine and nothing will have changed. This is a really nice feature and one I recommend experimenting with. For what little it is worth, I use Suse Linux on most of my machines and I like this distribution a lot.

By following some of the suggestions made in this post, one has the opportunity of freeing ones computer from the tyranny of proprietary software and formats and saving a bunch of money in the process. I recommend experimenting with some of these open source programs. They will help set your computer free.

The CP

Sunday, April 16, 2006

'Academic' Blogs

N.B. Regular readers should have figured by now that this is a weekly blog, and new posting generally go up on a Sunday.

The topic of this week's posting is Blogging itself. The particular topic of interest, is the extent to which academics are also bloggers. There have been attempts to collect data about academic blogging. An interesting example can be found here. There is also an interesting study which suggests that doctoral students who are working on their dissertations are amongst the most consistent bloggers. Regrettably, I can no longer locate the link to this study.

Scholarly blogs can also be found using specialized tools. One such can be found at However, one of the better methods of finding blogs by Professors and other academics is by references from other academic type sites and blogs. A particularly extensive list can be found at the TabithaTeaches blog. [N.B. Since this posting was originally put up Tabitha has moved and her blog has disappeared -- a damn shame.]

Almost any list of academic blogs, or discussion of the topic will always reference the BitchPhD blog. In terms of notoriety, this blog is quite simply an 800 pound gorilla. Yet, this blog contains relatively little of academic value. Bitch Ph.D. is for the most part interested in feminist topics and discussing her own, rather florid (at least, so she claims), sex life. One weakness of the site is the quality of the commentators. Another pernicious flaw is that the content of the site is focused on a very mid-America perspective of the World. This has had the effect of drawing nominally politically correct commentators of a similar ilk, in addition to a few sad folks who seem titilated by tales of husbands, lovers and chatroom sex. Although the site is well-known and popular with a certain stripe of persons, it is not too informative about life as an academic. It has more in common with a soap opera.

Another frequently listed blog by a professor is professors and her 'Playing School' blog (for god's sake, it is a job!). Although this blog is much more closely focused on the life and work of a professor, it is also of limited value, due to the relatively callow nature of the author. To make matters worse, Profgrrrl offers advice to other untenured assistant professors, which is frankly ridiculous (at least, to a more seasoned, tenured faculty member). Again, her commentators are bad. They seem to believe that her transparently silly advice is wonderful. It seems that the quality of commentators is a good predictor of the overall quality of the blog.

So, if the frequently cited sites are not up to much, where should one get interesting insight into academic matters? Although quite a few of the sites in the list at the Tabatha Teaches blog are reasonably interesting, they too are frequently written by untenured faculty members. These sites often have interesting insights into the travails of teaching undergraduates, but are short on the kinds of information that would be useful to those who are freshly tenured, or about to be tenured. There are some other sites, which whilst less well-known, are still highly informative.

One site that is worth looking at is the 'Gentleman's C' site from The Angry Professor. This site discusses real aspects of the academic life, in addition to the other issues that arise in the lives of academics. In addition, the comments that The Angry Professor receives are considerably more informative, and less directed to affirming a certain view point, than in the previously discussed sites.

Another blog that is worth reading is The G Bitch. Although The G Bitch appears to be untenured, she nonetheless posts in a much more informative and mature manner. In particular, her list of common student English language errors is excellent. As The G Bitch is based in New Orleans, her discussion of events there is also of broader interest.

One blog that I used to be fond of is Professor Zero. This blog has now moved to here. The blogger managed to damage their blogger template and could not figure out how to fix it (despite numerous hints), this led to the move. Pretentious is the best way to describe this blog. The Zero likes the pose as a professor, but many of the posts show a shallow understanding of the profession. Where once were interesting literary comments, the blog now serves up comments on book reviews and frequently plagiarised material. This is a blog that may fool some, but should not fool real academics.

One conclusion that is interesting to note from this 'dime tour' of academic blogs is the number of blogs that are created by women, rather than men. I am uncertain of the explanation for this fact. However, there are also male bloggers of note. One of the most popular is the Pharyngula blog from P. Z. Myers. This blog is highly informative on scientific matters, especially those connected with the biological sciences. It is also interesting that Myers is the only blogger discussed here so far who makes no attempt to conceal his real identity.

So, it appears that the world of academic blogs is just the same as the world of people. Some blogs are informative and fascinating, while others are trite. Of course, this is not supposed to be an exhaustive list of academic blogs. Please feel free to add recommendations and so on in the comments, as you see fit.

The CP

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Academic 'Freedom'

When I ran across a web site proclaiming that it advocated academic freedom for students, my first thought was 'Oh God...' accompanied by a sinking feeling. Sure enough, the folks behind this web site (sorry no link to it -- they are too retarded) have no idea about academic freedom, nor the history of the doctrine (the AAUP do have some useful information on the background to this notion). The so-called 'students for academic freedom' (SfAF) web site appears to just be dedicated to furthering the agenda of various flavors of Right wing nut jobs. Amusingly, the site banner has the subtitle "You cannot get a good education if they're only telling you half the story." Apart from the objectionable contraction in this slogan, it also appears they have not noticed that it is also hard to get a good education if classes are disrupted by moronic frat boys who worship at the House of Dick Cheney (i.e. who these people appear to be).

The premise behind this web site is that apparently all us professor types are pinko lefties who brainwash our students with our Marxist/Anarcho/Terrorist rhetoric. This, of course, is a complete load of bollocks, but why should this inconvenient fact stop their Psycho-Republican fun? Needless to say, one of the figures behind (or at least, one of the gurus of) these room temperature IQs (N.B. this ad hominem is intentional) is oxygen-thief David Horowitz. Horowitz has already attracted attention in the Blogosphere. According to his wikipedia entry, Horowitz has a mere Masters degree and has no recent connections with academia. Yet Horowitz has somehow managed to come up with a list of the '101 most dangerous professors', with an accompanying silly blog. I am, of course, deeply insulted at not being included on this list. All this activity by Horowitz is probably best explained by his being unable to gain a place in a Ph.D. program (this is a pure conjecture).

The problem with Horowitz and SfAF is that they seem to be actually convincing some of the feebler minds amongst politicians. To provide a concrete illustration of how utterly silly the so-called 'ideas' of SfAF are, I will quote, and then comment upon, some of the provisions of HLS 05RS-683, that was filed in the Louisiana legislature last year. Remember, this is not a test. Some people actually think that these proposal should be put into law!

(1) All faculty members shall be hired, fired, promoted, and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise and, in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives.

This provision is naturally totally unworkable, as there is no provision for promoting the good ol' boys'. However, it does suggest that there should be also be some new lines for advocates of Satanism, Voodoo and Necromancy in the College of Liberal Arts.

(2)No faculty member shall be hired, fired, promoted, or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of the faculty member's political, ideological, or religious beliefs.

Does this mean that a faculty member who argues in favor of terrorism, in support of pedophile rights, as a religious doctrine, would be in the clear?

(3)No faculty member shall be excluded from tenure, search, and hiring committees on the basis of the faculty member's political, ideological, or religious beliefs.

This provision seems to suggest that it would be fine to have Nazis on search and tenure committees.

(4)Students shall be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines and not on the basis of their political, ideological, or religious beliefs.

This is pretty funny. Few people have any formal training in 'reasoning' (other than philosophers). Does this mean that only philosophers would be allowed to grade work? Also, there are technical problems. For instance, ANYTHING logically follows (validly) from contradictory premises. So, if a student argued,

1) The Moon is made of green cheese,
2) It is not the case that the Moon is made of green cheese,
3) The President is a space alien

would we have to give them an A?

(5)Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences shall respect all human knowledge in these areas and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints

This sounds like great news for scholars of really obscure fields. For instance, the well known nut job P. D. Ouspensky wrote at length [incoherently] on the work of Kant. Does this mean that he has to be on the syllabus for Modern philosophy too? Do we have to include the work of Crowley in any course that mention Rabblais [Crowley pinched a lot of Rabblais work].

(6) Teachers shall be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views but shall consider and make their students aware of other viewpoints.

So, does this provision imply that in Physics class we will hear professors making remarks like "whilst I accept General Relativity, the guy who collects my garbage doesn't believe in physics and claims that relativity is a plot by the Freemasons"?

(7)Academic disciplines shall welcome a diversity of approaches, and institutions shall recognize that exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses is a primary responsibility of faculty members.

Huh? The phrase 'significant scholarly viewpoint' is of interest here. One of the key motivations behind these proposed rules is to make Creationism and (un)Intelligent Design legitimate topics in college courses. However, it is very far from clear that either position amounts to a 'significant scholarly viewpoint'. Thus, it would appear that this wording, would not actually achieve the desired goal, as stated.

(8)Faculty members shall not use their courses or their positions for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination.

Doesn't this outlaw both political science and theology, strictly interpreted?

(9)The freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, and conscience of students and student organizations shall not be infringed upon instructors, institutional administrators, student government organizations, or by institutional policies,
rules, or procedures.

So, if the frat boys want to run around the quad naked, nobody should do anything (freedom of expression)? Also, wouldn't this mean that running beggars off campus would be prohibited, as their 'freedom of expression' to request 'spare change' would be protected?

(10) Selection of speakers, allocation of funds for speakers' programs, and other student activities shall observe the principles of academic freedom and promote intellectual pluralism.

So, does this provision entail that for every business speaker, we need to balance with an Anarchist? Does this mean that religious groups on campus must also sponsor talks by atheists?

I could continue, but you get the point. Let us do all we can to stop this utter silliness. For all their high-minded sounding prose, SfAF are really just offering utterly insane and fundamentally flawed and unworkable proposals, that will do nothing other than lead to ideologically driven chaos.

The CP

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Louisiana, Levees and Liberty

So, the news has come down, that fixing the levees is going to cost more than they thought. Suddenly, Louisiana is faced with a shortfall of around $2.9 billion. Without this money, the levees around New Orleans cannot be fixed before the next hurricane season. The only good news about this is that it is more bad news for Bush. It is also yet more trouble for the long suffering people Louisiana. These problems, it appears, are caused by the fact that the Corps of Engineers cannot do their sums.

This brings to mind the words of a wise man, Mike West. Mike's Album Home has a song on it about the Corps. The chorus of the song goes:

folks round here got the fear of god
everybody say lawdy lawd
there's only one thing we fear more
that's the corps of engineers

It seems that this fear of the Corps is well founded. Now, if this bad news about the levees was not bad enough, it seems that there is still the rather thorny issue of the money that the State allegedly owes the FEMA fools. It turns out, to add insult to injury, the State of Louisiana is expected to help pay for the wastefulness and incompetence that FEMA has inflicted upon this area. Various numbers have been bandied around about how big the bill will be, but a recent story in the Baton Rouge Advocate suggests that the State will have to pay FEMA around $1 billion. Given that the entire budget for the State next year is projected to be around $20 billion, this is quite a major bill (to put it mildly!).

People often forget that Louisiana (or at least parts of Louisiana), unlike most other States, has a very distinct culture. This arises due to the heritage of the Acadian and Creole peoples of the State. Although so-called 'Cajun' food has now become another commodity that is parodied in restaurants and strip malls around the world, there are several distinct and wonderful cuisines, in Louisiana. Analogously, music from the State of Louisiana has also become more widely known. What people fail to recall is that these are just manifestations of the vibrant Francophone culture that belongs to this State. The circumstance is again astutely described by Mike West in his song Americans (I recommend reading the words to this song). In this song, it is sagely observed that,

my grandfather he explained
about us and them
how there are them you can trust
they are like us
they are not American

In the face of the federally caused fiscal horrors described above, perhaps it is time that this distinct and unique society attempt to assert itself. I believe that Louisiana should seriously consider leaving the United States!

Whenever I mention this idea, people recoil in horror. They often mutter things about 'last time' (i.e. the civil war). With a little careful reflection though, the idea may not be as silly as it appears.

Louisiana sends $5 billion a year to the Federal government in oil royalties. The Federal government returns just $39 million a year (details can be found here). Other States get a much higher rate of return. If Louisiana were independent, all that money would be available to help rebuild the levees. Oil and gas is not the only area in which Louisiana would stand to gain. Most of the coffee in the U.S. is imported through the Port of New Orleans. In addition, grain from the Mid-West has to be exported down the Mississippi river, as there is not sufficient railway capacity. Both of these commodities could be taxed by Louisiana. Of course, there are also numerous other ways that the U.S, depends upon Louisiana. These could all be sources of revenue for the independent State, or used as bargaining chips in negotiations to ensure that the State got a better deal.

There would be other advantages to this proposal too. Not least, Louisiana could bring home its troops from Bush's ridiculous and illegal war in Iraq. Louisiana would also be in a position to negotiate allegiances with other countries. Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, the Canadian Provinces of Quebec and Nova Scotia and perhaps even the European Union would be natural and powerful allies.

Governor Blanco has already showed a willingness to play hardball with the feds. She is currently threatening to prevent the sale of Oil and gas leases. It is unclear how much success this move will have. However, if Louisiana were to seriously explore the option of leaving the U.S., the Federal government would be forced top pay attention. Even the moronic Bush would realize that losing and entire State would not look good as a legacy in the long view of history. So, "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternity pour La Louisiane" shall be my song for today.

The CP
Listed on 
BlogShares web stats Site Meter