So excited by LaTeX

At the start of this month I wrote about trying LaTeX or LyX to see if it suits my requirements better than OpenOffice. Quickly I decided to dump LyX, because it seemed like another abstraction layer which added complexity and that prevented me from being in control, so I started to use LaTeX directly. I think LaTeX is awesome. I was able to learn the basics easily by reading this LaTeX book on Wikibooks. It’s great how presentation and content is separated in LaTeX. While the basics may be easy, it gets more complicated when you want to to customise the layout. So far I didn’t need to do that, because there are different packages (add-ons for LaTeX) with a lot of options to fine tune the layout. To give some examples to illustrate the power of LaTeX, you can divide the document’s text in two columns or make it suitable for double-sided printing by merely adding an option to the document class command in the document preamble. Try doing that in OpenOffice or Microsoft Word. LaTeX can automatically hyphenate the text – also in the Dutch language if the right package is installed – which works great, OpenOffice can’t do that either.

I do have a problem though. BibTeX offers the possibility to automatically generate the bibliography and the literary references. In principle it works great, but at my History department a rare, uncommon style for literary references and bibliographies is used. An example can be seen here. As you can see footnotes are used for literary references, and if a second reference is made it is displayed in a shorter format than the first reference. For this style of referencing literature, I haven’t been able to find a BibTeX style which resembles it exactly. The most similar one I have been able to find is the Chicago Manual of Style BibTeX style, which I found here. You can create your own BibTeX style, but that seems like rocket science to me. I think I’ll have to do the literary references manually. That would suck, but I had to do the same in OpenOffice.

I use the gedit text editor which is included with GNOME to edit LaTeX files, in combination with the LaTeX plugin. In the upcoming Ubuntu 9.04 release a.k.a. Jaunty Jackalope, it has also been packaged under the name gedit-latex-plugin, which makes it easier to install. The plugin gives error messages if you try to compile a PDF document, so I’m using the terminal to issue a pdflatex <name of my document> command to build a PDF document of my LaTeX file. On KDE you could use Kile, and there are BibTeX editors for KDE as well, KBibTeX and Kbib. Unfortunately, none of these three has been ported to KDE 4 yet.

Films seen in April 2009

This week I didn’t have much to do, so I went to the DVD rental shop and found seven DVD’s worth watching. If you rent seven, you pay the cheapest fee per DVD, but it was a bit difficult to watch all seven within one week, the period you are allowed to rent them. I also watched a film on TV, and one movie was rented a few weeks ago. This is probably all for now, because I won’t have time during the rest of April.

All were good, but There Will Be Blood was my favorite. After that come Babel and Das Leben der Anderen. I really couldn’t stand seeing Nicolas Cage with an ugly mustache in the film World Trade Center.

I appreciate The Lives of Others so much because it shows it shows how the protagonist, who is convinced that he is doing the right thing to defend the greatness of the DDR, changes his beliefs. One of my favorite scenes of this film happens at the start of the film when he is lecturing some students about the behavior of the enemies of the state. When one student dares to question what he says, he immediatly places a mark near the student’s name on a list. Later in the film my second favorite scene occurs when he’s standing in an elevator together with a child. The child asks him in it’s innocence if he works for the Stasi and tells him that his father told him the Stasi are bad people who lock others up. The protagonist is tempted to ask for the name of his father, but in the middle in his sentence he doubts, and asks for the name of the child’s ball instead. The child is confused and tells him balls have no names. Thoughout the film the protagonist loses his tunnel vision when he witnesses how the DDR damages the lives of it’s citizens. It shows the protagonist capacity for self-criticism, his ability to change his convictions. In that aspect I could see similarity between myself and the protagonist, and identify myself with him.

Global warming and measures to reduce energy consumption

In the past I had my doubts about global warming, but since I’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth I’m convinced that the danger is real. It is true that the documentary contains some errors, but those who deny climate change sometimes use these errors as a pretext to denounce An Inconvenient Truth in it’s entirety. Often they point at the other documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle, to prove that global warming is not caused by human activity. The Wikipedia article describing The Great Global Warming Swindle convinces me that it is pseudoscience, the evidence linking global warming to human causes is far more convincing to me.

Even if you are a skeptic, it never hurts to consume less energy for savings on the electricity bill or petrol costs. Recently I’ve been considering to replace the remaining incandescent light bulbs in my house with LED lamps. My parents prefer incandescent light bulbs because it’s possible to use them in combination with a dimmer, unfortunately fluorescent lamps are not compatible with the same dimmers as incandescent light bulbs. Certain LED lamps are compatible with dimmers used for incandescent light bulbs. However, LED lamps still have disadvantages. Recent research (in the Dutch language) conducted on a selection of LED lamps revealed that they do not meet their specified levels of luminous intensity (and as a consequence, neither their claimed efficiency) and that their life expectancy has not been proven. Here in the Netherlands they aren’t easy to find in stores, but there are quite some Internet stores which sell them. Unfortunately they are still very expensive, so I think it’s best to wait until improved designs are available for a lower price. I’ll make sure to replace every incandescent light bulb which does not need to be dimmed with a fluorescent lamp though.

Another important measure is using a bike or public transport instead of a car. Some of my family members still insist on using a car for short distances which can be covered with a bike. It’s hard to convince them to change, but I reduce my car usage as much as possible. My PC consumes quite a lot, an average of 180 Watt when I play a game. Saving energy is a bit more difficult here, but in the near future I want to buy an ultraportable laptop which consumes far less energy. I could also use it as an alternative for my PC in certain cases when I don’t need much processing power for gaming. When it comes to water consumption, I think I should spend less time on taking a shower, usually I take quite a long time for that.

Would you prefer a hunter-gatherer society over our society?

A lot of us probably think life in our modern society is marred because of the demands our society places on us, like stress for example. To be honestly I’m not content with my life. At the moment I experience my life as a constant war being waged with exams in order to get a bachelor’s degree. I feel too much pressure from our society to perform.

Recently I was reading the Wikipedia article on Jared Diamond. He wrote an interesting article, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, in which he argues that our ancestors who lived in hunter-gatherer societies led much better lives than their successors who lived in agricultural societies. Not only were they more healthy, they had much more time available for leisure and lived in a more egalitairian society. Occasionally while I’m watching television I see fragments of the 2005 documentary series Tribe, which features a presenter originating from the United Kingdom spending some time living with remote tribes. The way of life of these tribes as depicted in Tribe seems good. Apparently the ideology which is in favor of returning to a primitive life style is called anarcho-primitivism.

Living a simple life without the worries we experience in our modern society, initially it might seem like a utopia to some. But I think I’m more skeptical. I saw an episode of Tribe which had the Kombai people in Papua New Guinea as it’s subject, if I’m correct. In this episode a Kombai man told the presenter, without any remorse, that he killed a man because he perceived him to be a Suangi, a witch. Endemic warfare or cannibalism might not be uncommon among remote tribes either. I think I’d rather live in our modern society with all it’s troubles instead of a hunter-gatherer society.

Aside of the Neolithic Revolution being the worst mistake in the history of mankind, I nominate the exodus of our ancestors from Africa as a serious mistake. Maybe our ancestors had good reasons to leave Africa, but most tribes living in Africa or other places with a year-round warm climate can afford to wear little or no clothing at all. In Europe we have to suffer from the cold climate and spend a lot of energy on heating buildings in the winter.

Addings tags to my posts

So far I have only used categories on this weblog, but today I’ve created tags for all posts on this weblog. I’ve also placed such a cool tag cloud widget in the sidebar. The difference between categories and tags might not be evident, I didn’t understand it either until I read this document on the WordPress.com website. In a nutshell, they are supposed to be used to describe posts in a more specific way than categories, and tags are supposed to be many and ad-hoc while categories are fewer and planned. Even though there are no advantages for search engines, I think tags could be useful for organising posts.

However, I’m not sure how far I should take them. Initially, I created tags for every place I visited in Rome for my two posts covering Rome. Some places have a name which is quite long for a tag, and the list of tags became quite long this way. I also thought the tags were too specific, and I got rid of them. How do others handle tags?

Ditching OpenOffice in favor of LyX or LaTeX?

Recently I have been trying to figure out how OpenOffice’s bibliographic reference management works, so I would no longer need to manage references manually. Especially if documents become large with a lot of references, doing it manually can become quite a burden. However, OpenOffice disappoints me again because it’s bibliographic management feature is severely lacks in usability. After I fired up Google to find solutions to a few problems I encountered with the feature, I found this and this forum topic. The conclusion seems to be that OpenOffice’s bibliography features are worthless, and that you’re better off if you use an external application for bibliography management. But I don’t think that makes things more convenient, and I have more gripes with OpenOffice besides bibliography management, so I was thinking of possible alternatives to OpenOffice. This is important to me now, because in the next quarter of my academic year I will be required to conduct research.

Then I found information about LyX, which basically is a graphical user interface which uses LaTeX under the hood. LyX seems to offer an easier way to harness it’s power than using LaTeX directly. I’ve read about LaTeX before, but I thought it was meant for the mathematicians who need to use formulas in their documents, because that is it’s greatest advantage. But apparently it should also be well suited for those who study the humanities as well, because of the appraisal of it’s bibliography management features (achieved by using BibTex) – which is exactly what I’m looking for. Documents produced with LaTeX also look a lot better to the eye than those produced with OpenOffice or Microsoft Word, because of the superior quality of typesetting provided by TeX through LaTeX. On the LyX wiki a lot of information is provided, like document classes (some sort of templates?) for those in the humanities and example theses. I’m going to give LyX a try, and I’ll report my findings here.

Struggling with the distraction of web feeds

I use the Feed Sidebar extension for Mozilla Firefox, which makes it easy to follow all the web feeds you’re subscribed to. It uses the built-in Live Bookmarks feature of Mozilla Firefox, but presents it better by displaying all feeds in a sidebar, so you can quickly see all new content in the blink of an eye. I like this extension because it saves me so much time, no longer do I need to visit every website individually to read news, but I can simply view the sidebar.

However, this convenience also has it’s shadow side. I find myself spending way too much time on reading web feeds. I’m subscribed to the following websites, in the Dutch language as well as in English:

All those websites produce quite a of lot new content each day, but to satisfy my curiosity I read most of it. Sometimes I can spend many hours a day just reading web feeds, especially if I want to catch up because I didn’t read my feeds the day before.

I want to spend my time more productively, procrastinate less and prioritize the tasks I should execute better. Reading less web feeds immediately crossed my mind. I think I should take certain measures to reach this goal.

  • Check web feeds only once a day, not multiple times.
  • Stop being too curious, only decide to read content if it’s really interesting.
  • Consider to cancel some subscriptions, there seems to be quite some overlap between the three hardware news websites and the two generic technical news websites I’m subscribed to.

I was wondering if others recognize this behavior? Do you think you waste too much time on web feeds as well?

What’s holding me back from switching from GNOME to KDE in the near future

Recently I’ve been testing the beta version of the coming 9.04 release of Kubuntu, to see how KDE is progressing. I agree with the position taken in this article, that KDE (KDE 4) has the evolutionary advantage over it’s colleague (or competitor depending on the point of view) GNOME. KDE has a vision, and GNOME isn’t making much progress at the moment. The innovations in KDE 4 are considerable, and I intend to switch in the near future. However, I want to wait a little bit longer before switching because some problems are holding me back.

Possibly the most serious problem in KDE 4 is the Konqueror web browser. Konqueror uses the KHTML engine, which unfortunately gives compatibility problems with certain websites. As a consequence, many KDE users use the Mozilla Firefox web browser, which is a necessary evil because it doesn’t integrate as well in KDE 4 as Konqueror. Many think that a web browser using the WebKit engine should be created for KDE to give a better web browsing experience. I agree with this, and because efforts seem underway to solve this in the near future, I will wait with switching until this problem is solved.

Currently OpenOffice, just like Firefox, doesn’t integrate well in KDE 4 while it does better in GNOME. OpenOffice is the single office suite in the free software world which is usable, while I think it’s quality disappoints there is no alternative. I’m looking forward to KDE’s competitor for OpenOffice, KOffice, but unfortunately there is no stable KOffice 2.0 release yet. At this moment sticking with OpenOffice in combination with GNOME seems a better option.

Banshee is a music player which I’m using in combination with GNOME, and which I appreciate highly. I especially like it’s no nonsense user interface, which is efficient and simple. If I’d use KDE I’d want to use a music player which would integrate better in KDE. Amarok is the most popular and the subject of much praise, but the interface is a world of difference with Banshee. Amarok is completely bloated and the user interface looks like a mess, far from the clean looks of Banshee. JuK would looks like a better candidate to replace Banshee as a simple music player, but I fear it can’t compete with Banshee either. I haven’t given either Amarok or JuK a serious try yet, so I can’t make a definite judgement.

I’m not up to date with the state of Kopete, but as far as I know development is still being done on overhauling Kopete to use the Telepathy framework. In this respect it seems to lag behind GNOME’s instant messenger, Empathy.

A less important issue is that Konversation, KDE’s IRC client, has not been ported to KDE 4 yet. Apparently Kubuntu will use Quassel as it’s IRC client to bridge the gap. Quassel seems inferior to Konversation, certainly when it comes to integrating in KDE. I don’t use IRC much, but it’s another reason to hold off switching.

The uselessness and hype of micro-blogging

Micro-blogging and specifically the service Twitter are quite a hype these days, which is not justified in my opinion. Let’s describe what Twitter allows you to do in one sentence. With Twitter you can write posts of no more than 140 characters in length which are displayed on the user’s profile page and sent to other Twitter users who wish to receive them or only the user’s friends.

So in fact it’s nothing more than ordinary blogging with a restriction that you can’t use more than 140 characters. There isn’t much difference with ordinary blogging, is it? I can start writing posts on my weblog which don’t exceed 140 characters, and everyone who wishes to read my posts can use the RSS feeds or visit my weblog. The only noticeable difference would be that posts on Twitter don’t allow comments, replies to other users’ posts constitute a post on their own. Twitter allows restricting posts to friends, but so does WordPress allow password protecting posts. Maybe the single advantage of Twitter is the feature to send and read posts via SMS messages, but for me personally this advantage is void because I never send SMS messages. I don’t want to spend money on sending SMS messages. I don’t know if SMS is a serious advantage for others?

So it’s nothing special, isn’t it? If you disagree, then at least read about Twitter’s policy regarding privacy, which could concern you. And Twitter is not an open system, it doesn’t work together with other micro-blogging services, Twitter locks their users in. So why not migrate to identi.ca or another open micro-blogging service?

The dangers of content protection

I already read about two campaigns of the Free Software Foundation in the past, BadVista and Defective by Design. I agreed with the ideas behind these campaigns, but it is only since I’ve read the document “A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection” that I realize the grave consequences of content protection.

Quite alarming that Microsoft and the music and film industry can pull this off. Again this is more proof that Microsoft’s monopoly is dangerous.