Category Archives: Software

The standard OLPC XO mechanical keyboard (above) versus the OLPC Australia Literacy keyboard (below)

A Complete Literacy Experience For Young Children

From the “I should have pos­ted this months ago” vault…

When I led tech­no­logy devel­op­ment at One Laptop per Child Aus­tralia, I main­tained two golden rules:

  1. everything that we release must ‘just work’ from the per­spect­ive of the user (usu­ally a child or teacher), and
  2. no spe­cial tech­nical expert­ise should ever be required to set-​​up, use or main­tain the technology.

In large part, I believe that we were successful.

Once the more obvi­ous chal­lenges have been iden­ti­fied and cleared, some more fun­da­mental prob­lems become evid­ent. Our goal was to improve edu­ca­tional oppor­tun­it­ies for chil­dren as young as pos­sible, but pro­fi­ciently using com­puters to input inform­a­tion can require a degree of literacy.

Sugar Labs have done stel­lar work in ques­tion­ing the rel­ev­ance of the desktop meta­phor for edu­ca­tion, and in com­ing up with a more suit­able altern­at­ive. This proved to be a remark­able plat­form for devel­op­ing a touch-​​screen laptop, in the form of the XO-​​4 Touch: the icons-​​based user inter­face meant that we could add touch cap­ab­il­it­ies with rel­at­ively few user-​​visible tweaks. The screen can be swiv­elled and closed over the key­board as with pre­vi­ous mod­els, mean­ing that this new ver­sion can be eas­ily con­ver­ted into a pure tab­let at will.

Revis­it­ing Our Assumptions

Still, a fun­da­mental assump­tion has long gone unchal­lenged on all com­puters: the default typeface and key­board. It doesn’t at all rep­res­ent how young chil­dren learn the Eng­lish alpha­bet or lit­er­acy. Moreover, at OLPC Aus­tralia we were often deal­ing with chil­dren who were behind on learn­ing out­comes, and who were attend­ing school with almost no expos­ure to Eng­lish (since they speak other lan­guages at home). How are they sup­posed to learn the cur­riculum when they can barely com­mu­nic­ate in the classroom?

Look­ing at a stand­ard PC key­board, you’ll see that the keys are prin­ted with upper-​​case let­ters. And yet, that is not how let­ters are taught in Aus­tralian schools. Ima­gine that you’re a child who still hasn’t grasped his/​her ABCs. You see a key­board full of unfa­mil­iar sym­bols. You press one, and on the screen pops up a com­pletely dif­fer­ent look­ing let­ter! The key­board may be in upper-​​case, but by default you’ll get the lower-​​case vari­ants on the screen.

A standard PC keyboard
A stand­ard PC keyboard

Unfor­tu­nately, the most pre­val­ent touch-​​screen key­board on the marke isn’t any bet­ter. Given the large edu­ca­tion mar­ket for its par­ent com­pany, I’m astoun­ded that this has not been a priority.

The Apple iOS keyboard
The Apple iOS keyboard

Bet­ter altern­at­ives exist on other plat­forms, but I still was not satisfied.

A Re-​​Think

The solu­tion required an exam­in­a­tion of how chil­dren learn, and the chal­lenges that they often face when doing so. The end res­ult is simple, yet effective.

The standard OLPC XO mechanical keyboard (above) versus the OLPC Australia Literacy keyboard (below)
The stand­ard OLPC XO mech­an­ical key­board (above) versus the OLPC Aus­tralia Lit­er­acy key­board (below)

This image con­trasts the stand­ard OLPC mech­an­ical key­board with the OLPC Aus­tralia Lit­er­acy key­board that we developed. Get­ting there required sev­eral considerations:

  1. a new typeface, optim­ised for literacy
  2. a cleaner design, omit­ting char­ac­ters that are not com­mon in Eng­lish (they can still be entered with the AltGr key)
  3. an emphasis on lower-​​case
  4. upper-​​case let­ters prin­ted on the same keys, with the Shift arrow angled to indic­ate the relationship
  5. bet­ter use of sym­bols to aid instruction

One inter­est­ing user story with the old key­board that I came across was in a remote Aus­tralian school, where Abori­ginal chil­dren were try­ing to play the Maze activ­ity by press­ing the oppos­ite arrows that they were sup­posed to. Appar­ently they thought that the arrows rep­res­en­ted birds’ feet! You’ll see that we changed the arrow heads on the lit­er­acy key­board as a result.

We expli­citly chose not to change the QWERTY lay­out. That’s a dif­fer­ent debate for another time.

The Typeface

The abc123 typeface is largely the res­ult of work I did with John Great­orex. It is freely down­load­able (in TrueType and Font­Forge formats) and open source.

After much research and dis­cus­sions with edu­cat­ors, I was unim­pressed with the other literacy-​​oriented fonts avail­able online. Char­ac­ters like ‘a’ and ‘9’ (just to men­tion a couple) are not rendered in the way that chil­dren are taught to write them. Young chil­dren are also sus­cept­ible to con­fu­sion over let­ters that look sim­ilar, includ­ing mirror-​​images of let­ters. We worked to dif­fer­en­ti­ate, for instance, the lower-​​case L from the upper-​​case i, and the lower-​​case p from the lower-​​case q.

Typo­graphy is a won­der­fully com­plex inter­sec­tion of art and sci­ence, and it would have been fool­hardy for us to have star­ted from scratch. We used as our base the high-​​quality DejaVu Sans typeface. This gave us a found­a­tion that worked well on screen and in print. Import­antly for us, it main­tained legib­il­ity at small point sizes on the 200dpi XO display.

On the Screen

abc123 is a suit­able sub­sti­tute for DejaVu Sans. I have been using it as the default user inter­face font in Ubuntu for over a year.

It looks great in Sugar as well. The let­ters are crisp and easy to dif­fer­en­ti­ate, even at small point sizes. We made abc123 the default font for both the user inter­face and in activ­it­ies (applications).

The abc123 font in Sugar's Write activity, on an XO laptop screen
The abc123 font in Sugar’s Write activ­ity, on an XO laptop screen

Like­wise, the touch-​​screen key­board is clear and simple to use.

The abc123 font on the XO touch-screen keyboard, on an XO laptop screen
The abc123 font on the XO touch-​​screen key­board, on an XO laptop screen

The end res­ult is a more con­sist­ent lit­er­acy exper­i­ence across the whole device. What you press on the hard­ware or touch-​​screen key­board will be repro­duced exactly on the screen. What you see on the user inter­face is also what you see on the keyboards.

ACCELN interview

Interview with Australian Council for Computers in Education Learning Network

Adam Holt and I were inter­viewed last night by the Aus­tralian Coun­cil for Com­puters in Edu­ca­tion Learn­ing Net­work about our not-​​for-​​profit work to improve edu­ca­tional oppor­tun­it­ies for chil­dren in the devel­op­ing world.

We talked about One Laptop per Child, OLPC Aus­tralia and Sugar Labs. We dis­cussed the chal­lenges of provid­ing edu­ca­tion in the devel­op­ing world, and how that com­pares with the developed world.

Aus­tralia poses some of its own chal­lenges. As a coun­try that is 90% urb­an­ised, the remain­ing 10% are scattered across vast dis­tances. The cir­cum­stances of these com­munit­ies often share both developed and devel­op­ing world char­ac­ter­ist­ics. We developed the One Edu­ca­tion pro­gramme to accom­mod­ate this.

These les­sons have been developed fur­ther into Unleash Kids, an ini­ti­at­ive that we are cur­rently work­ing on to sup­port the com­munity of volun­teers world­wide and take to the move­ment to the next level.

Free and Open matters

Why ‘Free and Open’ matters

Adobe is drop­ping Linux sup­port for their Adobe AIR devel­op­ment plat­form. To be hon­est, I don’t really care. Why? Because I’ve been care­ful enough to not tie my efforts to a pro­pri­et­ary platform.

I’ve had sev­eral groups offer to write applications/​activities for OLPC Aus­tralia using pro­pri­et­ary tools like AIR. I’ve dis­cour­aged them every time. Had we gone with the ‘con­veni­ent’ route and acqui­esced, we would have been in quite a spot of bother right now. My pre­cious resources would have to be spent on port­ing or rewrit­ing all of that work, or just leav­ing it to bit-​​rot.

A beauty of Sugar and Linux is that they are not depend­ent on a single entity. We can develop with the con­fid­ence of know­ing that our code will con­tinue to work, or at least can be made to con­tinue to work in the face of under­ly­ing plat­form changes. This embod­ies our Core Prin­ciple #5, Free and Open.

Free and Open means that chil­dren can be con­tent cre­at­ors. The tele­vi­sion age releg­ated chil­dren (and every­one, for that mat­ter) to just being con­sumers of con­tent. I have very fond child­hood memor­ies of attempts to counter that, but those efforts pale in com­par­ison to the pos­sib­il­it­ies afforded to us today by mod­ern digital tech­no­lo­gies. We now have the oppor­tun­ity to prop­erly enable chil­dren to be in charge of their learn­ing. Edu­ca­tion becomes act­ive, not pass­ive. There’s a reason why we refer to Sugar applic­a­tions as activ­it­ies.

Grow­ing up in the 80s, my recol­lec­tions are of a dynamic com­put­ing mar­ket. Machines like the ZX Spec­trum and the early Com­modore mod­els inspired a gen­er­a­tion of kids into learn­ing about how com­puters work. By exten­sion, that sparked interest in the sci­ences: math­em­at­ics, phys­ics, engin­eer­ing, etc.. Those machines were afford­able and quite open to the tinkerer. My first com­puter (which from vague recol­lec­tion was a Dick Smith VZ200) had only a BASIC inter­preter and 4k of memory. We didn’t pur­chase the optional tape drive, so I had to type my pro­grams in manu­ally from the sup­plied book. Along the way, I taught myself how to make my own cus­tom­isa­tions to the code. I didn’t need to learn that skill, but I choose to take the oppor­tun­ity presen­ted to me.

Like­wise, I remem­ber (and still have in my pos­ses­sion, sadly without the machine) the detailed tech­nical bind­ers sup­plied with my IBM PC. I think I recog­nised early on that I was more inter­ested in soft­ware, because I didn’t spend as much time on the sup­plied hard­ware schem­at­ics and doc­u­ment­a­tion. How­ever, the option was there, and I could have made the choice to get more into hardware.

Those exper­i­ences were very defin­ing parts of my life, help­ing to shape me into the Free Soft­ware, open stand­ards lov­ing per­son I am. Being able to get involved in tech­nical devel­op­ment, at whatever level of my choos­ing, is some­thing I was able to exper­i­ence from a very early age. I was able to be act­ive, not just con­sume. As I have writ­ten about before, even the king of pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware and vendor lock-​​in him­self, Bill Gates, has acknow­ledged a sim­ilar exper­i­ence as a tip­ping point in his life.

With this in mind, I worry about the super­fi­cial solu­tions being pro­moted in the edu­ca­tion space. A recent art­icle on the BBC’s Click laments that chil­dren are becom­ing “digit­ally illit­er­ate”. Most of the solu­tions pro­posed in the art­icle (and attached video) are highly pro­pri­et­ary, being based on plat­forms such as Microsoft’s Win­dows and Xbox. The lone standout appears to be the wonderful-​​looking Rasp­berry Pi device, which is based on Linux and Free Software.

It is dis­ap­point­ing that the same organ­isa­tion that had the foresight to give us the BBC Com­puter Lit­er­acy Pro­ject (with the BBC Micro as its centrepiece) now appears to have dis­reg­arded a key bene­fit of that pro­gramme. By provid­ing the most advanced BASIC inter­preter of the time, the BBC Micro was well suited to edu­ca­tion. Soph­ist­ic­ated applic­a­tions could be writ­ten in an inter­preted lan­guage that could be inspec­ted and mod­i­fied by anyone.

Code is like any other form of work, whether it be a doc­u­ment, art­work, music or some­thing else. From a per­sonal per­spect­ive, I want to be able to access (read and modify) my work at any time. From an eth­ical per­spect­ive, we owe it to our chil­dren to ensure that they con­tinue to have this right. From a soci­etal per­spect­ive, we need to ensure that our cul­ture can per­severe through the ages. I have pre­vi­ously demon­strated how digital pre­ser­va­tion can dra­mat­ic­ally reduce the longev­ity of inform­a­tion, com­par­ing a still-​​legible thousand-​​year-​​old book against its ‘mod­ern’ laser­disc coun­ter­part that became vir­tu­ally unde­cipher­able after only six­teen years. I have also explained how this prob­lem presents a real and present danger to the freedoms (at least in demo­cratic coun­tries) that we take for granted.

Back in the world of code, at least, things are look­ing up. The Inter­net is head­ing towards HTML5/​JavaScript, and even Microsoft and Adobe are fol­low­ing suit. This raises some inter­est­ing con­sid­er­a­tions for Sugar. Maybe we need to be think­ing of writ­ing edu­ca­tional activ­it­ies in HTML5, like those at tinygames? Going even fur­ther, per­haps we should be think­ing about integ­rat­ing HTML5 more closely into the Sugar framework?

I’ll fin­ish with a snip­pet from a speech given by US Pres­id­ent Obama in March (thanks to Greg DeKoenigs­berg for bring­ing it to the atten­tion of the community):

We’re work­ing to make sure every school has a 21st-​​century cur­riculum like you do. And in the same way that we inves­ted in the sci­ence and research that led to the break­throughs like the Inter­net, I’m call­ing for invest­ments in edu­ca­tional tech­no­logy that will help cre­ate digital tutors that are as effect­ive as per­sonal tutors, and edu­ca­tional soft­ware that’s as com­pel­ling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teach­ing you some­thing other than just blow­ing some­thing up.

Linux” support

Carla Sch­roder from Linux Today repeats a ques­tion that I’ve heard asked many times:

Here we go with another round of Linux Today reader com­ments. Let’s start off with an issue that has been on my mind: Vendors who boast of the their Linux-​​based devices, but they only sup­port Win­dows and Mac cli­ents. It’s a step in the right dir­ec­tion, but would sup­port­ing Linux cli­ents be so difficult?”

There are two major mis­takes that are often made in con­sid­er­ing this question:

  • that all “Linux” sys­tems are the same
  • that by using Linux in one place, it only makes sense that you sup­port other “Linux” systems

We need to remem­ber that the only thing most of these devices share with a desktop “Linux” sys­tem (or even with each other) is the ker­nel (i.e. the pre­cise defin­i­tion of “Linux”). The user­land is dif­fer­ent, and there’s a lot of their own pro­pri­et­ary stuff on it too. Even the hard­ware (such as CPU archi­tec­ture) is often wildly dif­fer­ent. I think people have grown to think it’s all the same since we call it all “Linux”, but it’s not.

Because of this prac­tical conun­drum (as totally dis­tinct from any philo­soph­ical or other argu­ments), I have some sym­pathy for those who prefer to call the sys­tem we use on our desktop and server sys­tems “GNU/​Linux”.

Argue all you want about its accur­acy, but the fact is that it is far more accur­ate than merely using the ker­nel name as nomen­clature for the entire OS. It spe­cifies a user­land that with the ker­nel com­prises a work­able oper­at­ing sys­tem. Come up with a bet­ter name if that makes you feel more comfortable.

This opens up a whole can of worms. If I’m an applic­a­tions or device developer and I announce “Linux sup­port”, what do I mean? Will it work on my mobile phone? On my tele­vi­sion? Prob­ably not. Chances are it refers to par­tic­u­lar ver­sions of par­tic­u­lar dis­tri­bu­tions for a par­tic­u­lar architecture.

If I pro­duce a device that is based on “Linux”, what rela­tion does that have to other “Linux” sys­tems? None. It’s not just devices: another major cul­prit is Web ser­vices. Linux runs most of the Inter­net, but many online ser­vices are not com­pat­ible with desktop Linux systems.

The reas­ons for this are simple:

  • cor­rel­a­tion does not imply causation
  • the small mar­ket size of desktop Linux users

The first point relates to what I said earlier, that there’s no con­nec­tion between the use of Linux on serv­ers and devices versus its use on desktop com­puters. The use­ful­ness of Linux on serv­ers and devices is firmly recog­nised in many sectors.

The same can­not be said for desktop sys­tems, des­pite what we may wish. If it costs a developer more to sup­port a tiny mar­ket, they are prob­ably not going to do it. That’s just busi­ness. Com­pan­ies that choose to sup­port desktop Linux often do so for other reas­ons, such as to foster a developer/​fan base or tap into a very spe­cific set of users.

So every­one, I share your frus­tra­tions that many so-​​called “Linux”-based devices/​services don’t inter­face with my com­puters, but I keep in mind the points made above.

LotD: NSW Police: Don’t use Win­dows for inter­net bank­ing (iTnews)

Install 64-​​bit Java plug-​​in

The Open­JDK plug-​​in that comes with mod­ern dis­tros is usu­ally very good at hand­ling Java in Web pages, but some applets are just stub­born. Thank­fully, Sun have finally (after over six years!) released a plug-​​in for x86_​64 Web browsers.

I man­aged to get the JDK ver­sion work­ing on Fedora 11 and Cen­tOS 5.3. Here’s the process.

  1. Firstly, down­load the JRE or JDK from Sun. You’ll need to get ver­sion 1.6 Update 12 or above. I got the RPM version.
  2. Run the install script to extract the bundle. On the RPM ver­sion, this auto­mat­ic­ally installs it to your sys­tem if you run the script as root.
  3. Execute this in a terminal:
    # ln -s /usr/java/default/jre/lib/amd64/libnpjp2.so /usr/lib64/mozilla/plugins

    This part took me a while to work out, as I was look­ing for a file called libjavaplugin_oji.so, the name of the x86_​32 version.

  4. Restart Fire­fox and type about:plugins in the loc­a­tion bar to check if the new plug-​​in has been accepted.
  5. Enable the plug-​​in: Edit ? Pref­er­ences ? Con­tent tab ? tick Enable Java
  6. You can test your plug-​​in at java​.com and java​tester​.org

FOSS Pack exists! (well, kinda)

Last month I pro­posed that the FOSS com­munity cre­ate an integ­rated soft­ware installer for Win­dows and Mac OS that only included FOSS applic­a­tions. If Google can make Google Pack, I opined, why can’t we make a FOSS Pack?

As I had expec­ted, my idea was already real­ised, at least in part. Win­Libre and Mac­Libre provide a menu of free/​libre soft­ware pack­ages for the user to choose from, and can auto­mat­ic­ally install them for you.

That’s a big step in the right dir­ec­tion, albeit not the beauty we have on GNU/​Linux through tools like Add/​Remove Applic­a­tions and apt-​​url. It haven’t tried them (I rarely use Win­dows and I don’t have a Mac), but here’s what I think they need to truly shine (based on my last post on the sub­ject):

  • an updates man­age­ment ser­vice, that auto­mat­ic­ally checks for avail­able updates and installs them for you
  • an abil­ity to cleanly remove the soft­ware just as eas­ily as it was installed
  • a file sys­tem scan­ner that recom­mends FOSS soft­ware to install, based on the soft­ware and file types it finds on the hard drive

Packing FOSS

Just for a second, put your­self in the shoes of an aver­age PC user. You use the soft­ware that came with your com­puter, plus per­haps some oth­ers that you down­loaded, bought in a box or ‘bor­rowed’ from a friend. You’ve heard some good things about some­thing called “open source”, but you haven’t the fog­gi­est clue of where to get it or what applic­a­tions to try. You aren’t a tech­nical per­son, have lim­ited time and even less patience. Ulti­mately, you’re look­ing for some­thing that ‘just works’ and is either free (of cost) or clearly bet­ter than what you’re using now. Why make the effort oth­er­wise? Hon­estly, you’d rather be down at the pub watch­ing the cricket with your mates.

How would free soft­ware advoc­ates best woo such a per­son into their camp? They aren’t going to imme­di­ately repar­ti­tion their hard drive and use GNU/​Linux exclus­ively. They would more likely be will­ing to try some free soft­ware on their exist­ing OS, provided that the bar­rier was suf­fi­ciently low. If you’re lucky, that toe-​​dip will lead to deeper immer­sion in the world of FOSS, and hope­fully also into some appre­ci­ation of the philo­sophy bey­ond the practical.

If this per­son has a know­ledge­able friend or pays atten­tion to cer­tain inform­a­tion sources, they might get some ideas on what soft­ware to use. Applic­a­tions like Fire­fox and Open​Of​fice​.org are fairly pop­u­lar choices these days, but what about less pub­li­cised treas­ures like the GIMP or Clam­Win? Sure, there are Web sites that let you search for FOSS equi­val­ents to pro­pri­et­ary applic­a­tions, but these still require some effort:

  1. Search for the applic­a­tion you want.
  2. Go to the Web site for that application.
  3. Find the down­load page and pull it down.
  4. Run the installer.
  5. To unin­stall, use Win­dows’ Add/​Remove Pro­grams.

These steps need to be per­formed for each applic­a­tion you wish to install, so can become tire­some very quickly.

How could we sim­plify this pro­cess? What I pro­pose is a soft­ware man­age­ment applic­a­tion. Let’s for the sake of brev­ity call it FOSS Pack, named after the closest ana­logue I can think of, Google Pack. The pro­cess is inten­ded to be as simple as pos­sible for the end user:

  1. The user down­loads a single applic­a­tion (FOSS Pack) and installs it.
  2. When they launch FOSS Pack, they can select from a menu of cat­egor­ised FOSS applic­a­tions to install, sim­ilar to how a GUI pack­age man­ager front-​​end works on (GNU/)Linux.
  3. The user selects the applic­a­tions they want, and then they are down­loaded and installed in batch.
  4. Unin­stall­a­tion should be as simple as install­a­tion, all within FOSS Pack.

Here’s the killer fea­ture: FOSS Pack should be able to scan the user’s sys­tem for pro­pri­et­ary applic­a­tions. These are iden­ti­fied based on an internal list, which also con­tains inform­a­tion on FOSS altern­at­ives to those applic­a­tions. Those altern­at­ives are presen­ted for easy down­load and install.

FOSS Pack con­tains descrip­tions of each applic­a­tion, so the user doesn’t have to visit another Web site to under­stand what they do (although a hyper­link should be provided as well). The option should exist to be able to select only from applic­a­tions that have Linux ver­sions, as a means of facil­it­at­ing an OS trans­ition. FOSS pack should also be able to auto­mat­ic­ally check for updates at reg­u­lar inter­vals, and offer to install them when available.

I’m not expect­ing any of this to be as clean as a real pack­age man­age­ment sys­tem. FOSS Pack will likely have to execute the external installers. Per­haps in the future the applic­a­tions authors could co-​​operate with FOSS Pack main­tain­ers to deliver a more seam­less experience.

It looks to me that a lot of the pieces to cre­ate FOSS Pack are already there, and as is often the case in the FOSS world all that’s required is to tie them together in an appro­pri­ate way.

LotD: 30 Things That Are the Same In Microsoft Word and in Open​Of​fice​.org Writer

Education Expo report

Two weeks ago, we had the Edu­ca­tion Expo.

Here’s my report, as co-​​ordinator of the Linux Aus­tralia stand:

Edu­ca­tion Expo
Sat 14 to Sun 15 June
Rose­hill Race­course, Sydney

The Edu­ca­tion Expo is an annual trades show tar­geted towards the K-​​12 edu­ca­tional space. Vis­it­ors con­sist of fam­il­ies and edu­cat­ors. Linux Aus­tralia once again had a stand, with volun­teers spread­ing the word about free and open source software.

As always, we were very suc­cess­ful. With each passing year, the level of aware­ness of FOSS notice­ably improves. Whereas at pre­vi­ous shows we would spend much energy expound­ing the basic con­cepts of FOSS/​Linux, this year most people had either heard of it or were already using FOSS products such as Fire­fox and Open​Of​fice​.org.

One thing we did dif­fer­ently this year was place more focus on FOSS run­ning on Win­dows. Our past efforts have been meet with some res­ist­ance, as installing a dif­fer­ent oper­at­ing sys­tem posed a bar­rier to entry that many would not sur­mount. We had plenty of cop­ies of the OpenE­duca­tionDisc to dis­trib­ute, in addi­tion to Fedora, Ubuntu, Edubuntu and Mandriva.

The fact that the NSW Dept of Edu­ca­tion is migrat­ing over 40,000 PCs across the state to Open​Of​fice​.org was a use­ful selling point as well.

Our mar­ket­ing efforts have been improv­ing with each event. Our mes­sage is becom­ing more refined, and our leaf­lets are becom­ing more rel­ev­ant. On the tech­nical side, FOSS is becom­ing easier and more access­ible, with pro­jects such the afore­men­tioned OpenE­duca­tionDisc and Wubi lead­ing the way.

Our Web pres­ence is improv­ing, too. It’s far easier to point a new­bie to just one easy-​​to-​​remember URL instead of con­fus­ing them with a list. In addi­tion, I built an edu­ca­tion portal for Linux Aus­tralia just in time for the expo.

There were at least two other stands that were FOSS-​​friendly. In fact, one of the largest stands were demon­strat­ing their Web-​​based soft­ware product on about ten com­puters, all of which were run­ning Ubuntu. Other stands expressed real interest when approached.

Other high­lights of our pres­ence included:

  • OLPC XO laptops (from OLPC Aus­tralia)
  • Intel Class­mate PCs (from Man­driva Australia)
  • ASUS Eee PCs
  • laptops show­ing Edubuntu

Rodger Dean has some pho­tos of the event.

A big thanks to every­one who helped at the stand:

  • Ash­ley Lynn
  • Ash­ley Maher
  • Brendan Puck­eridge
  • David Andresen
  • Gloria Arnold
  • Har­rison Conlin
  • John Arnold
  • Megha Kanth
  • Pia Waugh
  • Rodger Dean
  • Vicki Burke

A spe­cial thank you goes to Melissa Draper, who was instru­mental in ensur­ing the suc­cess of the stand in more ways than one.

LotD: Insur­ance com­pany bets health on open source — I’m quite heav­ily involved in this pro­ject, so need­less to say I’m proud of what we’ve achieved :)

IRC on the run

Those who remem­ber my ancient quest for the per­fect IRC solu­tion might be inter­ested in these posts by Aaron Toponce explain­ing how to couple a remote irssi ses­sion with GUI noti­fic­a­tion. I’m still quite happy with my cur­rent Bip + Xchat com­bin­a­tion, but I’ve always lus­ted after the 1337ness of irssi. Ice­cap looks intriguing, but my first instinct tells me that their solu­tion is over-​​engineered.

Note: If you see duplic­ated words in the above post, I am aware of them. Word­Press is doing some­thing funny and I can’t fig­ure out what it is. When I get the time I’ll upgrade to 2.5.

LotD: Ubuntu theme for Sym­bian S60v3 (works on my Nokia N95)

Mass music tagging: Picard

Simon and Lind­say: EasyTAG is indeed a use­ful tool for tag­ging many music files at once. While EasyTAG does auto­mate a lot of the work, it is still quite a labor­i­ous pro­cess. This really grinds when you’re try­ing to man­age a large music col­lec­tion. What if your tag­ger worked more like your ears and brain — it just listened to the music and worked out what song was playing?

Enter Picard, stage left.

Picard ‘listens’ to your music and ascer­tains an audio fin­ger­print of each track. Using this inform­a­tion, along with more tra­di­tional data such as exist­ing file­names and tags, it con­sults vari­ous online sources to deduce the details of the track and pop­u­late the metadata fields. I’ve found the res­ults to be amaz­ingly accur­ate. Some­times it finds mul­tiple matches, and it can occa­sion­ally get con­fused if the same track is avail­able on dif­fer­ent albums (e.g. a single, an ori­ginal album and a ‘best-​​of’ com­pil­a­tion). If you have some idea of what the track is, you can lend Picard a hand by manu­ally adding a more use­ful file­name or some tags. This is where EasyTAG works well with Picard, since Picard isn’t geared towards manual tag edit­ing. Still, it’s bloody impress­ive nonetheless.

As an album-​​based tag­ger, Picard behaves some­what dif­fer­ently from file-​​based tag­gers like EasyTAG. It can take some get­ting used to, and it might be less accur­ate for people who prefer to col­lect single songs and not entire albums. If you’re like me and do com­pile full albums, it can do clever things like ascer­tain that you have the ‘White Album’ (or part of it) if it sees ‘While My Gui­tar Gently Weeps’ as well as ‘Revolu­tion 9′. The developers have recog­nised that the UI does need some love, but once you’re used to it it isn’t too bad.

Picard is a mass-​​tagger, so drag a whole stack of music files onto it and watch it do its work. It’ll try and group your music into albums. To cor­rect alloc­a­tions, drag their entries to arrange them in the way you please (or drag them away if noth­ing is suit­able). Depend­ing on how eso­teric your music tastes are, you should find that most tracks are handled fairly accur­ately. If you sign up for a MusicBrainz account, you can sub­mit your changes for oth­ers to benefit.

Addendum: If you’re using Ubuntu, don’t for­get to install libtunepimp5-​​mp3 for MP3 support.

LotD: Excel­lent speech by Nich­olas Negro­ponte on One Laptop Per Child. I would espe­cially recom­mend that the naysay­ers listen to it.