Fairphone 2 now available

The Fairphone 2 was released on 21 December 2015. I love how this phone is designed to be durable, easily repairable and open source. In my personal correspondence with their support I was also assured they don’t pay Microsoft for a licensing deal, which is good. Of course there is much more which makes this phone laudable, such as the conflict-free minerals used for its construction and the transparent supply chain, but those three advantages are my highlights.

Since Mozilla pronounced Firefox OS for smartphones dead, I’ve been looking for an alternative smartphone. Right now I’m using a Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo with Android from my employer, which I’m also allowed to use privately. I’m very uncomfortable with it, because Google loves to spy on me. So ordinary phones with Android are out of the question. The Fairphone 2 ships with stock Android by default, but fortunately Fairphone provides the Fairphone Open Source OS as an alternative. This ships without Google Mobile Services (GMS). GMS is Google’s proprietary software running on top of the open source part of Android. However, this raises questions about what life is like without GMS.

I’d have to find open source replacements for several Google apps such as Chrome, Gmail, and Maps. I guess Firefox, some alternative e-mail app and Maps.ME would be good replacements. But you will also need to find another app store, because Google Play is also a proprietary Google app. Where am I going to find the Spotify and Netflix apps then? Amazon’s Android app store maybe? But how privacy friendly are they? Are those shady websites which offer APK downloads (Android app downloads independent from an app store) safe? How will my apps update automatically?

Using Android without Google’s proprietary software will be challenging. So challenging, that I might consider an iPhone as an alternative. Like stock Android, iOS contains both open source and proprietary software, but at least Apple has more respect for their user’s privacy as far as I know.

There are also other factors I consider before deciding whether to buy the Fairphone 2 or not. A price of € 530 is a lot of money for a phone, especially if the the hardware isn’t at the top of its class. An iPhone or a Galaxy, if new from an older generation or second hand, cost less. I’ve grown quite fond of the AMOLED display in the Galaxy S5 Neo, but the Fairphone 2 is equipped with an LCD display which is inferior to both Samsung’s AMOLED displays and Apple’s LCD displays. In principle I might be able to live with the price and inferior display, because I value the ethical and social goals of the Fairphone 2. But I don’t want to spend so much money on a smartphone right now.

Before I make a choice, I need to investigate which data Google (through both the proprietary and open source Android versions) and Apple exactly collect from me, the degree to which I’m being spied upon. I need to know how user friendly it is to use Android without Google’s proprietary software. When I’ve figured that out, documented it here on this blog and have determined how to deal with the Galaxy S5 Neo provided by my employer, I will make a decision.

Firefox OS is dead

On 8 December 2015 Mozilla announced that Firefox OS was dead. A day later they posted an official statement on their blog, in an attempt to mask their failure with positive spin. My last hope for a truly free smartphone OS was extinguished. Over  200 spent on two Firefox OS phones was wasted.

I had held off buying a smartphone until I purchased a Geeksphone Peak with Firefox OS in December 2013. I didn’t like and still don’t like phones with Android and iOS. I believed in Mozilla’s mission to use the web as the universal platform for smartphones, to make interoperability between different operating systems possible. The idea was good, but the execution was bad.

The Geeksphone Peak never gave me working GPS because the phone suffered from a bug, which Geeksphone could apparently not fix with a software update. They suggested their users to modify something in a config file, but even then I had no luck. I ended up buying the ZTE Open C, which did have working GPS. However, ZTE never bothered to ship updated stable versions of Firefox OS. Maybe Geeksphone did supply one stable version shortly after the release of the phone, but that was it. This way, bugs I noticed in Firefox OS weren’t fixed.

Mozilla itself is also to blame for this. On their website and wiki it was never clear what they were working on and what their release schedule for Firefox OS was. Bugs reports I (and others?) filed on Mozilla’s bug tracker weren’t processed. If they were, no or not enough work was done to fix them.

I was very disappointed in Mozilla. It seems like they got in over their heads. They misjudged how difficult and time-consuming it would be to dislodge Android. When they did figure it out they threw in the towel within two years time. They made some big mistakes which could have been avoided.

Mozilla should have taken ownership of the update process themselves, so that users were not dependent on the whims of indifferent smartphone manufacturers to provide updates. Good communications and building a strong community around Firefox OS would have helped much to gain momentum. Mozilla should have done more to get app developers on board to make their apps available for Firefox OS, before they started releasing phones with Firefox OS. Apps like WhatsApp, Netflix and Spotify for example should have been available from the start.

From a strategic perspective, Mozilla’s assumption that they could serve the bottom end of the market in developing countries without (much?) competition from Android fell through. They should have known this wouldn’t have been a viable strategy. I would have loved to see a different strategy: build a completely open source smartphone OS for all market segments, which respects user privacy and is not dominated by a single company. I hope I might see such a smartphone OS in the future.

Thesis finally published in a scientific peer-reviewed journal

I thought the day would never come, but on 26 March 2015 my modified master thesis was finally published in Government Information Quarterly, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Two and half years after I submitted it for my graduation as MSc in Public Administration in August 2012.

After graduating I used several months to rewrite the thesis as a publishable article together with my thesis supervisor dr. Dimiter Toshkov, who is also the co-author. We then submitted to the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory. This is a very prestigious journal so we were not surprised it was rejected for publication, but we benefited from the feedback of the reviewers. We then resubmitted to Government Information Quarterly.

The wheels of academic publishing are known to turn very slowly, but the period of the time we had to wait for a verdict was exceptional: more than half a year if I remember correctly. After asking for information it turned out that our paper had gotten lost in the process. Fortunately, it was eventually accepted for publication after some minor modifications. I wish the process had been faster so I could have taken advantage from mentioning a scientific publication on my CV more soon.

Reflecting on it all, I’m very proud we managed to get this published. There aren’t many graduate students who get to do so. I learned R and the required statistical knowledge relatively easily, even though I used to have an aversion of statistics in the past.

The perfectionist inside my head is still slightly dissatisfied, telling me that I could have given even more thought to the subject and method of my research. That it would have been even better with more survey responses. The layout could have better. But the bottom line is that a temperate sense of satisfaction triumphs over my hot-headed perfectionism. Ten years ago, when I was an academic failure with serious procrastination issues, this achievement would have been but a dream.

It’s a pity the article is not Open Access, but behind the publisher’s paywall. Fortunately, you can find my own pre-print on my website. The source files for LaTeX and R are attached to the document for those who a curious about how the statistical analysis was performed with R and how the paper’s layout was done with LaTeX.

Regarding LaTeX, I’d like to point out two issues. Documents with two or more columns are too difficult. You need some specific commands to make sure that lines on both columns match vertically. Placement of figures becomes more complicated too, even though I’ve mostly managed with workarounds. If I would write my article again, I would take a serious look at Scribus, a free software desktop publishing application. Unlike LaTeX it follows the “what you see is what you get” principle. It seems to make several things much easier to do than LaTeX.

Testing the Fedora 20 Alpha release

Today I installed the Fedora 20 Alpha release with GNOME on my laptop to test it. Regarding the changes in GNOME 3.10, I love the move to merge title bars and toolbars into header bars. It’s good to save vertical space. The new applications like GNOME Photos, Music and especially Software are also nice, but I’m not sure about the integrated system status menu. It simply takes a lot more clicks to connect to a WiFi network now. As always, I’ve filed some bug reports and commented on some old ones:

Fedora:

  • Bug #904052 – Eye of GNOME should be the default application for viewing images
  • Bug #981963 – no touchpad edge scrolling in Fedora 20 with GNOME
  • Bug #1028734 – LibreOffice banner shown during installation of F20 alpha is outdated
  • Bug #1028758 – no easy way to change computer name before or during installation

GNOME:

  • Bug #329652 – add OpenSearch support to GNOME Web
  • Bug #664915 – GNOME Web uses wrong fonts on nos.nl
  • Bug #711774 – GNOME Software doesn’t display progress for downloads

I think the first and fourth Fedora bugs are evidence that the Fedora developers don’t spend as much time on usability as they should. The second one is a very nasty bug, but knowing Fedora’s development I doubt it will be fixed in time for the final Fedora 20 release. Fedora releases should be more polished.

The first two GNOME bugs are still preventing me to switch to GNOME Web from Firefox. They’re very old and there is no indication that they’re going to be fixed any time soon, I wish I could do it myself.

My review of the Geeksphone Peak with Firefox OS

I wrote in September that I had pre-ordered the Geeksphone Peak+ with Firefox OS and why I did so. Unfortunately the Peak+ was delayed and in October it turned out the delay would be longer than expected. At that point Geeksphone offered those who had pre-ordered the Peak+ to send them the original Peak instead, which had become available again.

Because I didn’t want to wait much longer, I accepted this offer. I received my Peak the next day on 22 October, after it was shipped from Spain to my address in the Netherlands in less than 24 hours. I also got a refund because the Peak had a lower price. Initially I was disappointed in Geeksphone’s communication of the delay. I learned about the delay through the order status on their website rather than an e-mail which they could have sent, but the way the handled this restored my trust in them.

The Peak smartphone

I think the hardware is very adequate for a phone which is sold for € 150. I haven’t compared it with the Android phones at the same price point, but if I look at the Samsung Galaxy S4 of my brother or my dad’s iPhone 4 I don’t get the feeling my phone is deficient. Sure, the Galaxy and the iPhone cost over three times as much and have better hardware, but I’m satisfied with it.

But there are a few things which I would have liked to see differently. The iPhone 4 for example measures 115,2 by 58,6 by 9,3 mm and has a 3,5 inch screen with a resolution of 640 by 960 pixels. The Peak measures 133,6 by 66 by 8,9 mm and has 4,3 inch screen with a resolution of 540 by 960 pixels. I like how the iPhone 4 fits in my pant’s pocket, but the slightly larger Peak is a bit more noticeable. I would have preferred the iPhone 4’s slightly more compact dimensions and higher amount of pixels per inch.

When I took off the Peak’s back cover to place the battery and SIM card I feared I would break it, but it’s sturdy enough. The quality of the enclosure won’t win awards either, but it’s good enough for me. What worries me more is that the Peak only gets half of the full reception quality in my home, while my former dumb phone would always get full reception quality. However, in practice I’ve never experienced problems with the reception during phone calls.

The Firefox OS software

Version 1.1 of Firefox OS does the basics right and I haven’t seen it crash. However, being an operating system in its infancy, it doesn’t have much good apps. For example, Here Maps which is included by default doesn’t have turn-by-turn navigation. EverNav does, but if you want to use it you to have log in, which is something I don’t want. I’m surprised no one has built a good map app based on OpenStreetMap yet. It would have been useful if a flashlight app and an app for taking notes were included by default, but they aren’t available yet either.

I often use the 9292 website, which is popular for planning trips with the Dutch public transport. Because Firefox OS hasn’t been introduced in the Netherlands yet it’s unsurprising they don’t have an app for Firefox OS. This isn’t an issue as a Firefox app doesn’t need to be much more than a simple manifest file which redirects to a mobile website. Unfortunately 9292 doesn’t detect the Firefox OS user agent and redirect you to their mobile website like it does for Android smartphones. You can visit the mobile website manually and than add it as a favorite to your home screen, but it doesn’t display 100% correctly in Firefox. And the favicon used for the home screen uses a very low resolution, so it’s not a pretty sight. I’ve already sent them a message to inform them of these problems.

I intend to build my use of the phone around ownCloud, which would allow me store my calendar and contact data with my own web host. This way, I don’t need to use services like Google Calendar and the big companies can’t poke their noses into my personal data. GNOME also supports synchronization with ownCloud, which allow me to work easily with the same data on my PC, laptop and smartphone.

It’s already possible to synchronize the calendar with ownCloud if you follow these instructions (in French). However, synchronizing the contacts with ownCloud using CardDAV is not yet possible though, all Firefox OS offers at time is synchronization with Facebook.

This and other issues I’ve noticed have been filed at Mozilla’s bug tracker, of which the first two were filed by others and the last four by me:

  • Bug 859306 – Sync contacts with carddav
  • Bug 901218 – [Peak] Back camera does not take photos in full resolution : 1.2M instead of 8M pixels
  • Bug 934092 – can’t set locale separately from language
  • Bug 934094 – “order by last name” setting doesn’t take surname prefix into account
  • Bug 934097 – alarm doesn’t trigger when the Peak smartphone is turned off
  • Bug 934099 – Firefox OS doesn’t use delta updates
  • Bug 934115 – m.9292.nl website displays two arrows in a drop down menu

The first bug is most important to me. If it’s also important to you, you might want to vote for the bug report.

Pre-ordered the Geeksphone Peak+ with Firefox OS

A few weeks ago I pre-ordered the Geeksphone Peak+ with Firefox OS. This will be my first smartphone, I waited for so long because I think all other smartphone operating systems are inadequate. Why, you might ask? Because Firefox OS is the only smartphone operating system which respects my freedom and privacy.

Freedom versus vendor lock-in

If you buy an iPhone or iPad, you can only download apps from Apple’s App Store. Apple decides which apps get approved, but their policy is enforced inconsistently at best. I don’t care about their hypocritical policy however, but about principles. I despise Apple for it’s paternalistic behavior, I demand to have the freedom to decide which apps I want and where I get them.

Microsoft, the third player on the smartphone market after Apple and Google, doesn’t allow competing app stores either. Regular readers of this blog know that I hate Microsoft for it’s unethical business practices anyway and that I’d never buy anything from them.

The issues with Google’s Android

Google’s Android on the other hand does allow competing app stores. Android is also open source, so third parties other than Google can produce derivatives such as CyanogenMod. So far so good, but there are also two crucial issues for me.

Would I trust Google with my privacy? Certainly not, even though I don’t think Apple or Microsoft are any better. Yes, you can still use an Android phone without a Google account, but it’s not as convenient. My smartphone shouldn’t spy on me by default. And yes, I do use Google’s search engine and I’m not so naive to think that my privacy is still immaculate. But that’s not a reason to further the breakdown of my privacy with an Android smartphone.

What’s a more serious issue for me is that Microsoft is extorting producers of Android smartphones. It coerces them to pay royalties for its patents at the threat of lawsuits. This practice has been more profitable for Microsoft than its own Windows Phone OS, with HTC and Samsung paying $10 or more to Microsoft for every Android device they sell. Microsoft defends itself as follows:

Much of the current litigation in the so called “smartphone patent wars” could be avoided if companies were willing to recognize the value of others’ creations in a way that is fair. At Microsoft, experience has taught us that respect for intellectual property rights is a two-way street, and we have always been prepared to respect the rights of others just as we seek respect for our rights. This is why we have paid others more than $4 billion over the last decade to secure intellectual property rights for the products we provide our customers.

They seem reasonable, but in reality Microsoft’s intellectual property amounts to trivial patents. Microsoft is nothing more than a patent troll (see here for the long version of the story). Because I don’t want Microsoft to profit when I buy a smartphone, buying a smartphone with Android is out of the question for me. The situation might change for me when Google grows a spine and sues Microsoft to hell.

The joys of Firefox OS

Firefox OS doesn’t suffer from these disadvantages. I trust its developer, Mozilla, doesn’t spy on me. At least I don’t need an account of some kind to make optimal use of my phone. As far as I know Geeksphone hasn’t signed a patent license agreement with Microsoft and doesn’t pay royalties. It’s not mandatory to use Mozilla’s app store. And Firefox OS has an important innovation: all the apps are web apps.

So there is no need for “native code” anymore which is only suited to a specific smartphone OS, like Android or Apple’s iOS. This makes life much easier for developers, who can easily make their web apps available for Firefox OS or any other platform which is built on web technology. Finally, this attempt to breaki the Android/iOS duopoly is good thing. Especially Google is getting too powerful for my taste.

The Peak+ will ship in late September, hopefully it will arrive before I depart on holiday. More about that later.

Bugs in Evolution 3.6.2

I mentioned in the previous post that I have encountered quite a few bugs in the Evolution personal information manager, which I use daily for reading my e-mail. I think Evolution works nicely for me, but there is a lot to fix and improve before I’ll consider it the ultimate Microsoft Outlook killer.

I don’t expect the improvements I’m hoping for will arrive soon because Evolutions suffers from a shortage of developers. But at least I’ve filed bug reports for everything which bothers me now. You can’t criticize free software without bug reports.

I haven’t reported all bugs I have experienced: bug #687360 for example has already been fixed for 3.6.3 apparently, but that version hasn’t landed in Fedora 18’s updates yet. I noticed some nasty bugs with editing contacts in address books too. In some cases the name in the “File As” entry would change without my input upon saving a contact when using the older Evolution version in Fedora 16. But I haven’t been able to reproduce this in Fedora 18.

  • Bug #692531: dialog appearing for invalid SSL certificates isn’t pretty
  • Bug #692533: Edit Rule dialog has drop down menus with a lot of blank space
  • Bug #692535: option to have filters active on an account should be enabled by default
  • Bug #692541: tab widget in Preferences dialog looks wrong
  • Bug #692542: never loading images in HTML e-mails is a bad default setting
  • Bug #692555: “Personal” address book does not appear in birthdays calendar by default
  • Bug #692557: sorting by date descending disrupts thread view of messages
  • Bug #692558: language detection for spelling checker
  • Bug #692572: “Messages” column should use space more efficiently
  • Bug #692573: use vertical view as default instead of classic view
  • Bug #692574: remove status bar
  • Bug #692576: use list view as default instead of address cards
  • Bug #692577: list view shouldn’t have columns for faxes by default
  • Bug #692578: display “File As” column by default in list view
  • Bug #692579: make view settings apply to all address books
  • Bug #692636: doesn’t delete certain contacts
  • Bug #692713: calendar widget arrows don’t look correct
  • Bug #692716: all calendar items of an icalendar file disappeared
  • Bug #692743: e-mail shows preformatted lines which do not word wrap if replying

Post-installation guide and experiences with Fedora 18 and GNOME 3.6

Until yesterday my computer still used Fedora 16, today it uses Fedora 18. Just like I did with 16, I’m going to give a guide on steps to take after the installation and which bugs I’ve encountered. So far I really like 18: finally LibreOffice is included by default, it starts up a lot faster (16 became really slow for me after all the updates) and you don’t loose the graphical splash screen at start up as soon as you install the proprietary AMD (no idea if this also applies to NVIDIA) display drivers.

Fedora 18 hasn’t been received well by some. A review of the KDE spin of Fedora 18 has been quite negative and the same reviewer is also very critical of GNOME 3.6, I didn’t try the KDE spin but I’m quite positive about the GNOME spin. I did a fresh installation, not do an upgrade.

Installation

This release was postponed multiple times because the redesign of the Anaconda installer wasn’t ready yet. It is still problematic in the final release: as soon the live desktop had started up and I chose to install to the hard drive to start Anaconda, it crashed. I suspect this happened because a connection to my router was established just while Anaconda was starting up. I had already witnessed a similar crash when trying the alpha versions on my laptop.

It wouldn’t start again so I had to reboot, after which I waited for the network connection to come up before starting Anaconda. This time everything went fine. Maybe I’ll try to reproduce this later so I can file a bug report. I agree with those who think Anaconda still needs a lot of work. But I also think the new design is a step in the right direction, it’s a diamond which still needs polishing.

Post-installation guide

First of all let Fedora download the latest updates and then add the RPM Fusion repositories. I wanted to get the proprietary AMD drivers first, there are instructions for that here. Take notice of what I wrote there in the comments. You need to follow the instructions here and add another repository because RPM Fusion apparently doesn’t have the package for the Flash plugin anymore. However, only install flash-plugin, the rest is not necessary and nspluginwrapper – while necessary if you want Flash working with GNOME Web – drives SELinux crazy. Also read these instructions to get the FreeType patches so you get better font rendering, this involves adding one more repository.

After all this I use one more command to download all the remaining stuff. This command downloads the GStreamer packages you need for proprietary audio and video formats, the GNOME Tweak Tool, the GNOME Web web browser, the GIMP and the Google Droid fonts (with GNOME Tweak Tool I change my default, document and monospace fonts from the default Cantarell, Sans and Monospace to Droid Sans and Droid Sans Mono, I also the font size of all fonts from 11 to 10):

yum install gstreamer-plugins-bad gstreamer-plugins-bad-nonfree gstreamer-plugins-ugly gnome-tweak-tool epiphany epiphany-extensions gimp google-droid-sans-fonts google-droid-sans-mono-fonts google-droid-serif-fonts

To download the XeLaTeX packages I need (which include support for the Dutch language, the APA style and the Linux Libertine font) I give the following command:

yum install texlive-xetex texlive-collection-langdutch texlive-memoir texlive-biblatex-apa texlive-libertine

Bugs

Here’s a list of bugs in either the Red Hat or GNOME bugzilla, for which I found an existing report or filed a new one:

  • Bug #893218: Anaconda crashes when it starts
  • Bug #854201: Ask users for Country / Language / City to determine the correct locale settings
  • Bug #690750: System Settings doesn’t change locale completely
  • Bug #904000: free ati driver not enabled with HD7850 after installation, uses LLVMpipe instead
  • Bug #692518: processes can use more than 100% CPU according to System Monitor
  • Bug #904014: Anaconda doesn’t ask for host name
  • Bug #878433: Removing default English keyboard layout doesn’t have effect in the installed system
  • Bug #904052: Shotwell should not be the default application for viewing images
  • Bug #904055: only root can mount an external hard disk connected through eSATA
  • Bug #692519: hidden drop down menus for keyboard shortcuts difficult to discover
  • Bug #692520: graphical corruption if taking screenshot of single window
  • Bug #905103: Firefox occasionally freezes unpredictably and takes out X with it
  • Bug #692923: no unlock button for hostname in “Details” (System Settings)
  • Bug #693057: implement options to change font and font size
  • Bug #693058: option to suspend a desktop computer should be visible without Alt key

There are more bug reports I have to file for Evolution, but that would make this post too long.

Windows 8 sucks

We have a shared desktop PC in our house, to be used by us all. Because I, my brother and my sister all have our own PC’s or notebook, it’s primarily used by our parents. Recently my parents decided to replace it with a new notebook. Not because the old desktop was no longer up to the task, but because it is more aesthetically pleasing and saves much space and wires. And of course a notebook is more mobile. I decided a 17 inch notebook would be a good idea as they primarily needed a desktop replacement which isn’t moved often.

The new laptop

My choice fell on the Dell Inspiron 17R. It has a monitor with a resolution of 1600 by 900 pixels, which is a huge benefit. Unfortunately many 17 inch notebooks still ship with lower resolutions. Another advantage was that it had the latest hardware, the Intel Core i3-3110M CPU of the Ivy Bridge generation. Its very reasonable price of € 530 sealed the deal, as the budget was important.

Having used it for a while now, I like the looks, but it’s not very sturdy as is to be expected for this price. Maybe more on the notebook itself later, because the reason I’m writing this is that it ships with Windows 8.

Bad usability and a push for the Microsoft account in Windows 8

Windows 8 is an absolute disaster, worse than Windows ME. Windows 7 was good for a Microsoft product, but its successor is the opposite. A more extensive argument against Windows 8 has already been written by a usability expert, so I’ll be brief here. I think they tried to design an OS for both tablets and desktop use, which proved to be detrimental to desktop use. Jack of all trades, master of none as they say. Tasks which were done quickly in Windows 7 are much more tedious now.

After starting up and getting rid of all the bloatware shipped by Dell such as trials of McAfee and Microsoft Word, I noticed that you need a Microsoft account for the Mail app and many others! Had this been optional this would have been okay, but all I want to do is to retrieve e-mails from the IMAP server of our Internet service provider. Requiring users to use a Microsoft account for that is ridiculous! Microsoft doesn’t care about privacy, it’s either their way or the highway. I immediately downloaded Thunderbird along with Firefox and LibreOffice.

Bugs in Windows 8

Even worse is the fact that Windows 8 is affected by some serious bugs. The connection with the WiFi router would often go down for no reason. I’m sure it’s either the laptop or Windows 8, because my own laptop with Fedora Linux and my sister’s laptop with Windows 7 don’t have this issue.

Dell technical support advised me to use an UTP cable, which was no problem and gave a reliable connection. They advised to check if the problem also occurred on other wireless networks, but without opportunity and willingness to test that I guess we’ll stick with the cable.

Another issue is that even if the printer connected to the Windows 8 laptop has been set to be shared on the network, the printer still can’t be found on the Windows 7 laptop of my sister! Previously on the old desktop with Windows 7 this hadn’t been a problem. Right now my sister is forced to copy documents over to a USB flash drive and take those to the Windows 8 laptop to print them there.

the comparison with Linux

The Windows 8 designers were fools and I hope the discontent of the their users will bite Microsoft in the ass. I hope this will lead more people to try Linux, but I’m not optimistic here. The reason Windows 8 is installed on this laptop is because my mother asked for it, after using Fedora with GNOME 3 for a year or so.

This was decided because other family members complained that they can’t help my mother if she encounters problems because they are not familiar with Linux. They are very reluctant to try something new, which is why their addiction to Windows is difficult to break.

While my mother was reasonably capable of using GNOME 3, she had some problems with using the Evolution e-mail client and especially the Shotwell photo management software. The Evolution issues are relatively minor and should pose no difficulty for family members not familiar with it, but Shotwell has a greater need for improvement.

Shotwell versus the Windows 8 Pictures app

My mother often receives photos over the e-mail and doesn’t keep track of where she saves them so that they get lost. Arguably this is more a matter of adapting to the right workflow as a user, but it’s also an issue which might be fixed by improving usability.

The issue has two aspects: First, Evolution doesn’t have a clear option to import photos with the default photo management application, you can only open attached photos with the Shotwell Viewer. Second, Shotwell has an option to import photos and by default stores them in the Pictures directory in the year/month/day subdirectory format.

This is not useful as subdirectories with names of months and days are not descriptive enough for me, so I’ve enabled the option to watch the Pictures directory for new photos copied there manually, without Shotwell’s importer. This way I can copy the directory Sicily to Pictures/2012 and have Shotwell detect those new photos automatically. I tried teaching this workflow to my mother, but it didn’t stick. Shotwell should help the user to adopt this second workflow by default.

I regret that I’ve never systematically noted down the issues encountered by my mother so that I could file bug reports for them, but I doubt Windows 8 will do better. Thunderbird is a little bit more user friendly than Evolution, but this has nothing to do with Microsoft.

The Pictures app used for browsing photo’s on Windows 8 simply presents directories in the My Pictures directory with huge thumbnails containing a slide show of photos, so in effect that’s similar to the second workflow for Shotwell I described, even if the Windows 8 app is grossly inefficient compared to Shotwell. I simply copied over the directories of the years from Shotwell’s Pictures directory to My Pictures on Windows 8. This seems to work for now, but I wonder what will happen if my mother needs to add new photos to the My Pictures directory.

And you can say about GNOME 3 what you want, but it is a fact that getting familiar with Windows 8 was a lot more confusing for my mother, myself and my other family members who only used the previous versions of Windows.

Master thesis done with R and tikzDevice

My master thesis is finished now and can be downloaded, along with the LaTeX source for it. I will elaborate on the content of my thesis on my Dutch blog and will discuss the technical aspect of producing the document with LaTeX here. Do note that the master thesis is entirely in English because the Public Administration master program at Leiden University is an English language program, so if you want to know more about the content of the thesis just read it.

This is the first time I’ve ever done quantitative research and used statistics. I thought the statistics part was going to be challenging. While I did read a lot on the subject to understand it and learned a lot in the process, I did not need to make calculations or complex formulas myself at all. All that is done with software. Leiden University uses the proprietary SPSS, but I preferred using a free software solution which I could use on my own PC. That’s one reason how I got to use R, with the second reason being that I had chosen a very good thesis supervisor who had knowledge of it. He taught me just what I needed to get started with it in a very short amount of time. While there are GUI’s available for R, I use it from the command line just like LaTeX.

R can be used not only to do statistical analysis of data, it can also draw visual representations of the data, such as the histogram, scatter plots and correlation matrix in my thesis document. R can write graphics output to many formats, but for PDF documents vector graphics which scale nicely should have your preference. PGF/TiKZ is often used to produce vector graphics for LaTeX and I learned that R can use the tikzDevice package to create TiKZ figures. It took some time to figure out how to get everything done properly and to get some problems fixed, but I’m very satisfied with the result right now. The combination of R with tikzDevice rocks! The only thing I could have possibly improved is using the ggplot2 package. It can handle the overplotting in some of my scatter plots better than the standard scatter plots.

When I started working with tikzDevice I missed a basic tutorial explaining how to specify width and height for TiKZ images drawn by R, among other issues. Especially getting the histogram right was very annoying to figure out, because R’s default way to draw one didn’t make sense. For one scatter plot I had to find a fix to avoid the scientific notation appearing with large numbers. Others who begin using it should find that my R scripts which are attached to the PDF document of my thesis are very good examples to get started with. According to the statistics of my weblog I get a lot of visitors who come for info on LaTeX, so I assume this will be very helpful to many people who find this post through search engines.

Regarding LaTeX itself, all the important stuff is noted in comments in the source document for the PDF. I’m satisfied that I have the surname prefixes done right in the bibliography now. The biblatex package shouldn’t need an obscure fix to get it right however, it should work like that out of the box. On the other hand the URL line and page breaks in the bibliography are still awful, and I don’t know how to fix it. I’m not so content with the section names which appear in the header on right pages either. In some cases they work because sections are long, but in most cases they are useless because a new section starts on almost every page. But after all, I think that I would score high marks for layout if that were scored separately for theses.

Edit 21/08/2012: I’ve uploaded the latest revision of my master thesis. It has data on several more respondents but this did not lead to notable changes in the conclusions. More importantly, in this version the ggplot2 package was used to do the histogram and scatter plots, they look a lot better now. The scatter plots no longer suffer from overplotting. I also had the thesis defense today, my thesis was graded with a 9 and my supervisor complimented me for the layout of the thesis. But I’m a perfectionist: the legends of three scatter plots contain numbers with decimals even though the data has only rounded numbers. I’ve asked for help on solving this already and will upload another version when I have fixed that.

Edit 04/09/2012: Now the final revision is uploaded with 64 respondents and fixed scatter plots.