H2O Rotisserie Ring

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Berkman Affiliate Molly Krause has been doing fantastic work leading our Rotisserie Ring project. She is recruiting U.S. and international secondary schools to partiicpate in an academic and cultural exchange using H2O starting at the beginning of March. If you might be interested in participating, let me know.

H2O for Political Discourse

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Jim Moore and I have been talking to the Dean campaign about using our H2O software to facilitate policy discussions among its members. Jim’s observation of the Dean blog commenting system is that it is more akin to chat than to substantive discussions — the overwhelming feeling one gets from reading the posts is that people are mostly jazzed about being in the presence of like minded people rather than about participating in thought provoking discussion. Perhaps more importantly, free-for-all discussion of the type practiced in blog comments and most other online discussion systems simply can’t scale past a few thousand people (and arguable not up to that). It simply becomes impossible for each participant to track anything but a small fraction of the conversation when that many people are involved.

We think that H2O Rotisserie discussions could sovle both of these problems. First, the timing structure that the Rotisserie adds to discussions slows them down enough to give people time to write thoughtfully and concentrate on the substance of the response rather than on simpy posting something quickly to be a part of the crowd. Second, the way that the Rotisserie structures the flow of the discussions — who responds to whom — facilitates the exposure of a much wider vareity of voices and allows unlimited number of people of participate in a single discussion by breaking the discussion up into lots of smaller discussions between individuals, while still allowing conversation within the group as a whole.

We have interested some folks at the Dean campaign enough in our software to get them to pose a question to our existing H2O participants (click here to participate). Hopefully this collaboration will lead to more interesting uses of H2O within the campaign.

We are of course interested in getting H2O as widely used as possible. We are focusing on the Dean campaign becuase 1) we happen to have contacts there, 2) they are the most technically adventurous and therefore the most likely to experiment with new software, and 3) where Dean goes on the Internet, the other campaigns follow. We’d love to see all campaigns using H2O to facilitate thoughtful discussions among their supporters (or detractors!).

Office HTML Cleansing Revisited

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Another file full of villainous Word-generated HTML crossed the geekroom desk today. It had footnotes, which worked fine in Firebird but not at all in Internet Explorer. In that browser, the first footnote number looked like:

[1]

That’s ugly!

Following John’s suggestion from last time this issue came up, I installed Mirosoft’s Office HTML Filter to remove all that weird Office-specific markup, and ran it on the file. The results were very agreeable, and the file now renders correctly in IE as well as Firebird.

Everyone Loves Firebird

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I helped a student yesterday whose Windows ME computer was utterly infested with some horrible spyware. She got these things installed, as usual, through careless use of Internet Explorer. She said, “I just click OK when I see things!”

I installed Mozilla Firebird for her, which is a little less trigger-happy about auto-installing software than IE is, and spent five minutes showing her the popup blocking and a few other tricks for minimizing ads in one’s life. She loved it!

Most people I show Firebird to like it, and some are totally effusive. It’s a good program. The only drawbacks I can think of are that it’s still not at version 1, and changes might confuse people (though in practice they seem not to be a problem), and that (in Windows) you have to install it from a zip file, which confuses people these days. But if you’re up for that extremely simple but slightly unusual installation method, or can con someone else into doing it for you, my experience suggests you may find it very likable.

Editing Docbook

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We’re putting together a services provided document for the operational and IT staff here at the Berkman Center. I’ve always kind of wanted a reason to use docbook, and this seems like an excellent excuse to do so. I often find with these sorts of projects that the task of just figuring how to format and organize such a document is the hurdle that stops from me ever getting around to putting it together. Docbook provides a simple (as long as you ignore most of the elements!), straightforward way to organize any informational document, removing that barrier. Moreover, the structure is built into the document, so it’s easier for multiple people to work on the same document — everyone has to use the same organizational structure because it is dictated by the language.

The difficult part of figuring out to make this work was finding a good gui editor that hides most of complexity from the other, non-techy folks who will be working on the document. I’ve settled on XMLMind. I played around with a bunch of options, including Word, OpenOffice, and a bunch of xml editors. Docbook support in Word and OpenOffice is not a good enough fit — I could make it work, but it wasn’t really any easier to learn than writing the xml manually, so they wouldn’t help my non-techy compatriots. Most of the XML editors I tried were functional but hopelessly technical. They all seem intended to make it easier for folks who know XML to create documents, but I want something that will allow non-techy people to edit documents with only a very basic understanding of XML. XMLMind is the only (free beer) editor that was easier enough for non-techies to navigate that I feel comfortable using it for the project. It allows WYSI(almost)WYG editing of the docbook document, handles the conversion to html and pdf automagically (though the free version doesn’t support PDF creation), and has few enough UI glitches to be usable.

Of course, I haven’t turned it lose on my non-techy compatriots yet. I’ll followup once I have and have gotten their responses.

openoffice.org and pdfcreator

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OpenOffice.org recently released its 1.1 version. In the past, ooo has been funcitonal but clunky, so even though I’ve wanted to like it, I’ve usually ended up using Word on MS or Abiword on linux. The latest ooo release has won me over. The interface is slicker, the start time is drastically reduced, and it just feels a lot smoother. In short, it’s not clunky any more. The MS filters also seem to be much improved, and they were pretty good in the previous version. I feel very comfortable recommending that non-geek folks use this release as an MS Office replacement.

I’m even optimistic that the product will take significant market share away from MS, and if it doesn’t, it will be plain proof that MS’s dominance in the office apps world is a result of its monopoly. Free or $79 for the supported version vs. ~$500 for MS’s product is just too big of a difference to be justified by the very small difference in functionality.

Ooo also has a nifty export to pdf feature, which is quite handy for us, since we have had to buy acrobat for a lot of folks who like to create pdf versions of their word files. However, I’ve recently found another free (speech and beer) program called PDF Creator that provides the same print-to-pdf functionality that we’ve been buying Acrobat for. Even though it’s long been possible to create pdfs for free by printing to postscript and then using the free ghostscript tools to convert the postscript files to pdf, this process is way too burdensome to expect non-geek users to navigate it. PDF Creator uses ghostscript to provide the same ease of use of Acrobat without the difficult process.

emacs vs. vi

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Do this with vi.

Muahaha!

Installing Windows – Now Less Fun Than Ever!

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Of the past four or so machines on which I’ve installed Windows 2000, two have gotten infected by Welchia. My very first step after installing any Windows machine is obviously always to go to http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com and install all the critical patches, as is Absolutely Necessary for anyone who installs a new Windows machine these days. But it takes a few minutes to download and install them, and in the meantime the machines get infected. That’s frustrating.

I just got us a new win2k install disk which has Service Pack 3, which should help considerably. When you’re installing win2k without any service packs, you have to jump all the way to SP4, which takes a considerable amount of time to install, especially on slower machines. And you need at least SP2 to be able to install the Blaster patch. But now I can install the SP3 version and go straight to windowsupdate for blaster and welchia patches before dealing with SP4 or IE or whatever.

Now I just need a good mnemonic for figuring out which patches are relevant from Windowsupdate, which is not exactly famous for providing detailed information on what the updates it suggests actually do. Typically it says something like “There is a security problem. People might be able to do stuff to your machine. This thing might possibly help. You might have to reboot after installing.” without ever mentioning any useful keywords like “Blaster” or “Welchia”. Arggh.

BloggerCon Webcast Troubles

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We had trouble getting a good audio feed for the webcast of the day 1 morning session of BloggerCon. I’m working on fixing the audio as well as it can be fixed, but some of it may be a loss. If anyone else recorded any of the day 1 morning sessions, please send in whatever audio you have. We might end up having to cobble together the best bits that various folks have collected.

In the meantime, if anyone wants to give a go at fixing the audio on the files we have, feel free:

Digital Rights Expression Language (DREL)

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This morning I revisited the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC) working group page, and found a request for comments on a standardized Digital Rights Expression Language:

“We invite you to submit comments and (especially) specific areas and scenarios that you feel a standardized DREL should support. Please submit your information in email form to juadams@scholastic.com or LTSC-DREL-COMMENTS@ieee.org

To read more about the LTSC DREL working group follow this link.

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