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.

Economy of scale, high tech and corporatocracy

Fiat‘s CEO, Sergio Marchionne, predicted a few months ago that six large car companies would survive by the end of 2010. In this article that prediction is analyzed, and while an expert thinks it might be a little bit exaggerated, it is also mentioned that it is a fact that the car industry is increasingly collaborating on technological development.

There also is another example in a different market. Almost all of the microprocessors used in desktops and laptops are manufactured by either Intel Corporation or Advanced Micro Devices. In this market it’s nothing new, because both companies have formed a duopoly in this market for years already. Nevertheless, AMD has always a small market share compared to Intel. According to the most recent data of 2008, Intel had a 80,3% market share and AMD had 19,2%. In recent years AMD didn’t manage to turn a profit and encountered difficulty in competing with Intel. Last October AMD decided to transfer it’s production facilities (also called fabs) to a joint venture called The Foundry Company as part of their reorganization plan. With the joint venture, AMD can share production facilities with other companies and cut production costs. As the press release mentions “the cost and complexity increases and capital and research and development costs have become too high”. Soon Intel will be the only company left which can afford it’s own manufacturing facilities, and can spend a lot more money on research and development than AMD. This article from the beginning of 2007 predicted this development, stating that the production and design costs of integrated circuits keep increasing because of technological innovation, and that only the big players can afford their own fabs. AMD apparently isn’t the only one affected by this problem.

The relationship between these examples is the role of economy of scale. There seem to be too much players in both the car market and on the integrated circuits market some companies are too small. To keep earning profits, they have to join forces. In AMD’s case the reason is clear, production and design costs are too high, and as a high tech company they need to spend a lot of money on research and development because they have to keep innovating to be able to compete. This is supported by the fact that their R&D intensity is high, according to data of the top 100 companies with largest R&D spending in 2006. AMD’s R&D intensity was 21,3% and Intel’s was 16,6%. However, in absolute spending that is $1.205 million for AMD and $5.873 million for Intel. This establishes that R&D is quite costly, and that Intel has a serious advantage over AMD because they can spend five times as much money on R&D.

When it comes to the car market however, the reasons are not clear to me. According to the Wikipedia article on high tech, the car industry is medium tech and not high tech, because R&D intensity isn’t so high there. Toyota is on the first spot in the R&D top 100 of 2006, with $7.648 million on R&D spending, but only 3,7% R&D intensity. Many car manufacturers follow closely, with similar relatively low R&D intensity numbers. I theorize that their R&D intensity is low because they can’t afford to spend more money on R&D for some reason. Yet R&D is becoming more important in the car industry, so that’s why they have to increase their efforts to collaborate on R&D, because joining forces for R&D reduces R&D cost. But do they really collaborate on R&D because it is too expensive, or because of other advantages? As the expert in the article on the car market already said, I tend to believe that such a huge decrease in the amount of car manufacturers seems indeed rather exaggerated.

I think there is a rule of thumb for high tech and car manufacturing: because of the knowledge required to operate in the market, economies of scale and large companies are key requirements. I wonder, what would be the consequences in the hypothetical situation only six car manufacturers survive, or AMD wouldn’t survive? In the case of the car market, those six manufacturers would become more powerful, and there would be less diversity. In the case of the microprocessor market Intel would have a monopoly, quite possibly a natural monopoly because it would be difficult for a new competitor to enter the market and compete with Intel. Intel wouldn’t be motivated to keep innovating at it’s current pace if they would have a monopoly. Such a monopoly would certainly be very dangerous, because it would make one company far too powerful. It reminds me of the megacorporation often seen in science fiction literature. In our time megacorporations do not exist, but maybe they could become a reality in the future, when technology will be even more advanced and more important to the society? Possibly we would need a different economic system in the future, different from capitalism, to solve the problem?

My first large contribution to Wikipedia

Until know I had only contributed a few small changes to Wikipedia articles, but today I finally created a large addition to Wikipedia. The article which I modified is A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. During the last quarter of the academic year I followed a course about 18th Century British literature, which required reading three novels: Gulliver’s Travels, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, and either Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded or The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. I looked up all four of them on Wikipedia, and noticed that the article on A Sentimental Journey was by far the least developed article. Because it didn’t give me enough information, and because I gained enough knowledge of the subject after I read the book, I decided to improve the article. The subject doesn’t genuinely interest me, however.

My contribution consists mostly of the plot summary. Compare the revision of 17 December 2008 with revision of 30 January 2009 to see my changes. I also added some comments on the article’s discussion page. I think the plot summary I added is adequate, even though it probably leaves something to be desired. What annoys me slightly on Wikipedia is that there are no uniform guidelines for citation. When I searched for the footnotes policy and the citation policy, I read that Wikipedia does not require adherence to a single citation style. The way I see it, this only contributes to chaos. Fortunately Wikipedia does have the citation templated page, which listed the “cite book” template. It’s quite convenient because it allows you to give the citation data without worrying about the format, so I used that in my contribution.

Maybe I should also ask an expert to take a look at the article and judge what can be improved. Hopefully I will be able to contribute to other articles as well in the future, most of the time I’m reluctant to contribute because I don’t think I have quality knowledge. I’m slightly perfectionist after all.

Filtering on IMAP accounts broken in Evolution 2.24.2, fixed in 2.24.3

Since I’ve been using the latest Ubuntu 8.10 release and modified the e-mail filters in Evolution I noticed that the e-mail filtering didn’t work anymore. Filtering is quite useful to me, I use it to separate automated messages of bug tracking systems where I file bug reports from the other e-mails I receive. I visited the IRC channel of Evolution to ask if there was a solution, and I was told I was affected by bug #562708. The bug is fixed in version 2.24.3 of Evolution, which can be found in the intrepid-proposed repository. As far as I know it will take some more time before the new version will land in the intrepid-updates repository. If you don’t want to wait like me, you can get it from the intrepid-proposed repository by enabling that repository for use. Do so by choosing System → Administration → Software Sources. Then choose “Updates” and enable the repository.

Fixing a minor OpenOffice annoyance

I’ve been experiencing a minor, but rather annoying problem since I used OpenOffice.org Writer to create a complex document a few years ago. It was difficult to figure out how the problem could be fixed, but after spending a lot time on Google to refine a precise search term, I finally found a solution to this problem.

Let me explain the problem. Apply a paragraph style which places spacing above the paragraph (like the “Heading 1” style for example) to the first line of text on the page. Even though it is the first line of text on the page, OO.org Writer still applies the spacing above the paragraph. This adds unnecessary space to the already existing page margings, which will look strange. It will also look inconsistent because the spacing won’t present on the next page if a paragraph continues there on the first line, for example. Your only option is to remove the spacing above the paragraph from the style, but that means you will have to use the Enter key which is supposed to start a new paragraph to create spacing manually. This is not good, so I searched for an explanation as to why it’s not OO.org’s default behaviour to ignore the spacing above the paragraph if the style using it is applied to the first line of the page.

I found this topic on the OpenOffice.org forum. Apparently this illogical behavior of OO.org can be disabled by disabling the option “Add paragraph and table spacing at tops of pages (in current document)”. You can navigate to this option through the menu options “Tools” → “Options…” → “OpenOffice.org Writer” → “Compatibility”. According to this page on the OpenOffice.org Wiki this option is enabled (by default I assume, at least it was in my case) specifically to ensure compatibility with Microsoft Word.

While it is a good thing that OO.org tries to be compatible, it’s not good if I’m only using OO.org without importing Word documents. In that case this option is quite obviously working against me. On top of that, it was very difficult to figure out how to disable this behavior. The question is, can’t the option be disabled by default, and temporarily enabled on-the-fly when a MS Word document is opened? I wonder what the OO.org developers think. I filed a bug report, issue #97951.

Cheaper portable notebooks

Over half a year ago I wrote a post with my reflections on buying a new notebook. At this moment I still haven’t bought a new notebook, and in hindsight I think it was a good decision to keep waiting.

Since I wrote that post, the category of expensive portable notebooks like the Sony VAIO TZ, Dell XPS M1330, Dell Latitude E4200, Dell Latitude E4300, Lenovo ThinkPad X300 and Lenovo ThinkPad X200 has remained expensive. All cost more than € 1000. A few are far more expensive, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X301 and the Sony VAIO TT. Some exceptions are less expensive than € 1000, like the Lenovo ThinkPad SL300, but still too expensive to my liking. Of course there are a lot of other notebooks with 12″ or 13,3″ diagonals (Acer for example offers a lot), but they can’t compare to the quality of the notebooks I just mentioned, and often provide low battery life less than 3 hours. That doesn’t make  I don’t consider them.

Even though that has remained the same, a lot has changed. The market is crowded now with netbooks, which feature significantly less performance than the traditional portable notebooks, are even smaller with maximum screen sizes of 10″ and occupy a price range of € 200 – € 400. A while ago I considered buying the Samsung NC10, which distinguishes itself with a battery life of more than 6 hours and costs approximately € 400. But new developments made me change my mind.

So far Intel’s dominance over the netbook market with it’s Atom CPU and accompanying platform was uncontested. Recently however, AMD has released it’s competing platform for ultrathin notebooks, and the HP Pavilion dv2 will be the first notebook to use the platform. AMD is aiming for notebooks with larger screen sizes than 9″or 10″ which is common for netbooks. During Intel’s virtual monopoly of the netbook market, it restricted the screen size of netbooks using the Atom N270 to 10″ to prevent cannibalization of it’s more expensive CPU’s.

With more competition around the corner, this will probably change. I don’t think a screen size of 10″ is adequate, 12″ or 13,3″ at the maximum is the best compromise between portability and comfortable screen size. Also note that currently, the cheapest 15,4″ notebooks can be found under the price of € 400, the maximum price of the average netbook. Even at that lower price point, the 15,4″ notebooks outperform the netbooks. Netbooks are still relatively expensive, which will probably change as more competition arrives at the market.

Fortunately, there is even more competition coming for Intel and AMD. VIA will also enter the market with it’s VIA Nano. It will be used in the Samsung NC20 and FreeStyle 1300n notebooks, both featuring screen sizes larger than the common 10″ size for netbooks as well. MSI intends to introduce the X-Slim X320 and Asus the S121, which both come with an Atom CPU and a 13,4″ and 12,1″ screen respectively.

What is possibly more interesting is that ARM prepares to enter this market as well. The ARM CPU’s use the ARM architecture instead of the CPU’s produced by Intel, AMD and VIA, which use the x86 architecture. At this moment Microsoft Windows doesn’t support the ARM architecture, so ARM has made a deal with Canonical to make the Ubuntu Linux distribution available for their hardware. Qualcomm and Freescale will produce ARM CPU’s for the netbook market. These products would be very attractive to me if they are supplied with Ubuntu, I’d rather not pay for Windows if I’m not going to use it anyway. This could be a great for mainstream Linux adoption.