Category: Uncategorized

FSF Free Software Awards 2012: Jonathan Nadeau

Posted by – November 15, 2012

The FSF announced they were receiving nominations for the Free Software Awards 2012.
I have sent the following nomination of Jonathan Nadeau:

 

I nominate Jonathan Nadeau for the 15th Annual Free Software Awards.
Jonathan has put great effort into promoting and advancing the efforts towards accessibility on GNU/Linux systems. The FSF will know him for this effort as part of his internship - http://www.fsf.org/about/interns/2011/jonathan-nadeau.

Jonathan has repeatedly stressed the importance of this effort as part of the Free Software ecosystem in particular and technological infrastructure in general. As a natural consequence of his focus on Free Software, he has worked with Trisquel GNU/Linux on this.

He has been the driving force behind establishing the Accessible Computing foundation – http://accessiblecomputingfoundation.org/ – for the purpose of promotion, fundraising and to serve as a rallying point for debating the implications of the issue.

Talks like his very powerful presentation at Ohio Linux Fest – http://frostbitemedia.org/node/156 – show his dedication, his humor and an always positive approach to this challenge, mixed with a firm belief that these efforts could change the lives of people all over the world as an example of how free software can help people overcome their challenges and help them provide for themselves.

The nomination of Jonathan Nadeau for this award is also a nomination of the ACM – and of Free Software as a driving force for freedom.

Sincerely,
Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér

WordPress – Content management system

Posted by – October 20, 2010

It seems reasonable when going over the toolchain I use that I should mention the foundation.

Now, this can be defined at one level or the other. This is a webbased service, so I will talk foundations with the Content Management System. We could go into server specifics, but for now, all I will say is that the server is an Apache web server based on Debian Linux. This is also Free Software, and anyone is free to get it and use it. The reason not to go into it here is that server hosting – often Debian-based – is available at an affordable rate, and it is only under certain conditions requiring more control that self-hosting will make sense financially.

So, Content Management System – CMS. WordPress.

The WordPress is one of the most used systems for weblogs – which is the original intention – but over time, it has come to support a lot of other functions through plugins, and essentially, a content management system generally allows you to store data for many purposes, you have but to style the design in such a way that it fits into your workflow.

The point of a Content Management System is to make the route between author and website shorter. While it is not as difficult to make a website – not much more complicated than writing a document in a text processor – for a long time, it required you to either write the code in an editor application and open the file in a web browser to see how it worked; to write the text, you would have to code your formatting – italics, bold, links, line breaks and the like – into the text as you wrote it. Afterwards, to publish, you had to upload it to a site on the internet. This does not exactly make for intuitive fast-overview text writing, and the barrier to entry was still quite high. What a content management system does is to keep track of the layout of the website, in order to let you concentrate on the content itself – text, images et cetera – and the CMS will bother about link colors, font sizes and such settings.
Note that the modular nature of WordPress also makes it possible to embed external materials like a Youtube or Vimeo video.

WordPress has been set up in a modular fashion, so when you download a WordPress package, unpack it and upload it to your own site for installation – like I have uploaded the WP files to eicet.org – it is only the most basic setup you get. It does work as a website, you can log into it, write pages and blogpost, and people can add comments to what you have written. The user interface you use to enter text will be tucked away, and people will only see your site.

The WordPress administration interface allows for a lot of additional setup. This installation has been modified to create human-readable links – so it isn’t a timestamp or a random textstring or article publication number being used. In this case, WordPress will see that the article title is “WordPress” and will attempt to generate a link with a similar name. In this case, it succeeds one-to-one, so the address is www.writtenandread.net/wordpress. It is also possible to modify who will be allowed to post responses to entries.

The interface also allows the user to install plugins. In some cases, it is a minor extension – like allowing you to hide some posts from the index, if they are only intended for certain members or using Akismet to check the responses to your posts for spam. Yes, the spammers have found WordPress as well, and odds are they will find your site, too. The plugin can also be more extensive, like posting a contact form, an activity calendar, a poll or image gallery on the site, or even turning your site into a social network with BuddyPress. Until recently, you had to download and install these plugins separately, but now they can be installed directly throught the interface of your installation. A command centre indeed.

The above goes for plugins changing functionality, but the truth is that it can also be cosmetic – by choosing a theme. Themes will change the visual appearance of the page. For this site, a fairly simple theme was chosen to keep the focus on the text, but the artistic potential is immense. Compare, for instance, with the WordPress-based New York Times Blogs or Miller Rosenfalck.

As you see, a Content Management System allows a person who is less technical to run an advanced website, and even the more technically inclined will often find a CMS easier to use on a day-to-day basis.
So, WordPress is the face of our institute and works as the platform for our publications.
Now that this is covered, we will be moving on to other, more specialised features.

Abiword – the undemanding heavyweight

Posted by – June 17, 2010

This article, like so many other things we do in life, started out as something else; and like so many other technological features, it started with frustration.

I have used the word processor Abiword for quite a few years. Not a love-hate relationship, but it could perhaps be described as a love-frustration relationship. You probably know how it is – you have a lot of good features, but there is one thing you really need which you know from somewhere else, and which you don’t have or which doesn’t work with this particular program.

But frustration points – later. First, I will tell you why I appreciate Abiword so much. I am actually writing this in Abiword – like I was using LyX for that review. It is nice to have things visible in the interface you are using as you go along.

Abiword is a truly lightweight application. A wordprocessing application in a very small package. It is available on GNU/Linux, the BSD family and Windows – the latter with the option of getting the portable version, which you can install on a USB stick and take with you. It is licensed under the GNU GPL v2 and available on the Abiword download page.
The interface is what you would expect from such a program – a top roll-down menu, and two menus with standard formatting features – open, save, print, cut, paste and the like on one and styles, font type, size, alignment, indentation et cetera on the lower one. By default, Abiword gives you a horisontal and a vertical ruler, and I usually turn it off, but I leave it on here just for you! The rulers allow for setting indentation, tabs and margins visually.

This application may be small, but it has some of the features associated with heavier applications and larger projects. All of the features I used in my university papers would have been available, had I used Abiword (I used OpenOffice instead, which is also worth a recommendation, but – another time): Footnotes, endnotes, references, autogenerated table of contents and so forth.

At the same time it should be said that I have recommended Abiword to a lot of people I would expect to find Word and OpenOffice Writer overwhelming, and most people – including me, most of the time – don’t need the additional applications in an office suite like spreadsheets, presentation software, database management et cetera. I think that Abiword, while adding good features and stability along the way, still manages to have some very clear and intuitive dialogs, making it easy to work with – as you can see from these two examples. The Preferences window is equally straightforward.

Abiword has a file type of it’s own – .abw files and .awt for templates; it works as it is supposed to, but additional document filters are available; without adding any filters, it will save to Microsoft Word .doc format, (X)HTML, RTF and PDF – but with the added filters, Abiword can be a strong tool for opening files from old applications; sometimes you are stuck with an old Works or Wordperfect file – or OpenOffice.org, for that matter. There is also a very good OpenDocument-import-export filter, and it handles .docx files quite well – not 1:1, but certainly rendering them readable.
Abiword is available in quite a few languages; I have done the Danish translation.

Also – some elegant solutions.
One of the things I quite like is the way to modify styles. Now, this may require an introduction of you are not familiar with the concept. Styling a document is a way of making a uniform overall design for a document. I believe it is inspired by/borrowed/stolen from LaTeX, which is entirely based on the concept that you shouldn’t be setting font types and sizes, you should just be able to indicate what is a heading, what is regular text, what is a quotation et cetera. If you are acquainted with the stylesheets associated with webpages, you are familiar with the principle: If something of this type turns up, this is how it should look.

The example here is Block Text, which is an increased-margin style for emphasis – what you would use to quote an author, for instance. There is a preview of how the font looks, and how the text will look in a page. In the preview pane, the larger margins are apparent. It is also apparent that this style inherits the traits of the Normal style, which means that it is exactly like Normal, except for the areas where it has been changed, which is just the margins here. A style can pretty much contain the text fetures you want – though it should be mentioned that the modified styles are limited to the document you are working on, and if you want the styles to remain, you should modify them to the extent you wish and save that document as the default template.
I find that it is useful when working on a larger text to define these things from the start. If you have particular wishes for font types and sizes, it is quickly done, since the styles are based on each other, so a font change cascades into the styles based on it.
Styling as a concept also extends to places one might not expect it; it is possible to style things like foot- and endnotes, the table of contents and lists. Abiword does have sensible defaults, though.
Considering the complexity of styles as a concept, this interface is about as easy to use as it gets.

Another example of a good interface for a potentially difficult concept is the selection of tools to use with the tables. Inserting the table is straightforward, but I particularly find that the intuitiveness of the tools to merge and split cells are good; I have simply never seen it done so clearly before.



Going back to setting up the table of contents, this function is a list autogenerated by headlines, which again are essentially lines of text defined with the style Heading, indented as appropriate with Heading 1, Heading 2 et cetera for the various levels, as the text is divided into parts, chapters, sections, subsections and so on. You can select whether you want the heading to be numbered in the text or not – in an academic paper it is nice to have it appearing numbered with sections and subsections, but in a book text, it looks off.
As shown here, the TOC has a setup menu available in the Format menu or by right-clicking the table. It allows for defining what styles should be used – and the numbering scheme as well, which is a nice detail.

Recently, it has become possible to add comments to the text, which in Abiword is called annotations. They are not as clearly seen as in other word processing applications, they are either underscored or shown with a different color, but this also means that they do not interfere with reading the text. It is certainly nice to have as a feature. Also, it is useful when several people are working on a document that it can be clear who made the note.

A somewhat curiously implemented function is the ability to insert a data field. This a way to have some metainformation available without putting it all into the interface, but it is not always completely intuitive. The fields shown here are fairly straightforward, and you may want to put metadata like the author in a template for, say, a business letter. Some people like to have a field in the header or footer with “Page X of XX pages”, which I suppose is useful if you have a list or something where it is not immediately apparent from context if a page is missing.

It is also possible to use this to create merged mailing. If you have a letter template and a CSV data file with client addresses, Abiword will merge the two and create a printable Abiword file with the letters you want, and it can be used with envelopes – I suppose that you could use a table to create shipping labels, too.

Okay, so these were features I would like to present. A lot of good and useful stuff. Unfortunately, there are also a few things I have to mention that subtract a bit from the final score. I think of them as challenges.

Templates. Okay, not actually templates, because as you see, opening a new document based on a template is fairly straightforward, but template management is a challenge. If you look into the documentation you find out that the document you have can be saved as a template by saving it as an .awt in the user’s template folder. Now, I personally think this is a bit clunky – since the folder is constant and can be determined, there is no reason there should be any confusion here – a “Save as template” dialog where one could enter a name and brief description should be sufficient.

Secondly, Text breaks between sections are clever for things like having varying headers or footers between chapters. There is, however, no visual cue in the Abiword interface as to where there is a section break; and the sections are not numbered in the status bar like the pages are. So it is anybody’s guess where a section break is in the text, and if you insert one by accident, you may have a bit of a problem. I filed a bug report/request for enhancement about this on the Abiword Bugzilla.

Third, I mentioned the function to insert data fields. And some of the names are intuitive enough – “page number” and “author name” I can manage. But a field like “Military time”? “Document coverage”? “Page reference”? I mean, I recognise the words, but a small description would be handy.

Fourth, the help function is a bit random. When you access the help file, it opens an HTML file. This is not necessarily in the default browser, so if you have an editor set as the default HTML association, it will open there instead. This is a minor gripe – what is more important is that the structure and contenct of the Abiword help file is less than intuitive,  and the content is quite mixed. The screenshots in the help files are not exactly fresh and appealing.

A final note which is mostly just something to wonder about – Abiword indicates using Times New Roman by default. But I never understood how this actually works – I do not have that font on my system! I usually change it in the template to Liberation or DejaVu – two nice fonts with good Unicode support; but this Times New Roman thing always puzzles me.

Which brings me to my original comment. I have been writing up points in an attempt to overhaul the Abiword Help function – to add some instructions and put them in usable categories. And as it was coming together, I thought it was a good opportunity to write a general introduction to Abiword.

To be fair, my old gripes with Abiword are mostly things of the past. The application was quite unstable for some time – one of my Abiword breaks – and that seems to be over. It used to be tied into some dependencies which made it quite cumbersome to install on Slackware, and that is no longer relevant.

And as for the Help files, well – maybe that really should be a community task, shouldn’t it? The programmers are able and ready, and the mailing lists are very responsive. There is no doubt that there is an active and appreciate community, which I am pleased and proud to be a part of. And so, I try to reset the Help interface – not building on the existing one if I can help it, but simply redoing it and trying to facelift it a bit.