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Publishing Ebooks: Pointers and Problems

I feel like starting this by saying “Once upon a time” because it turned into a saga for me, a quest, and a struggle with dragons. Unfortunately, unlike the better class of fairy tales, the dragons are winning. So far.

The first step is the content. It took me two years to write this particular book (Re-imagining Democracy). That was the easy part. Then I tried to find out how to turn it into an ebook. I keep seeing offhand comments on the web from authors who posted their opus in a matter of hours. It sounded like a minor matter.

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Net neutrality, Google, and Verizon

You’ve all heard by now that Google and Verizon will take care of it. They will come to an agreement between them that will ensure the best use of bandwidth for everyone.

And what we’re arguing about is whether their agreement preserves enough net neutrality.

Green horrified face. By Jeremy Brooks.

Net neutrality is a question of rights. Who determines the content of the public airwaves? Who determines the extent of your right to see or hear what you choose? Who determines what you can choose to see and hear?

Since when do businesses decide questions of rights? That is a function of government.

Does the government fit into such a tiny tub by now that we no longer have any idea what it’s for?

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Improving (?) Accessibility

[Update: Sep 4. Turns out I can’t get the php switcher to work at all on the actual site. Great. And aarrgh. Some stupid path problem, no doubt. Wish me luck.]

A housekeeping note here. I got a bee in my bonnet about making this site and the one on government more readable on handhelds. I’m firmly convinced that in the future we’ll all be using wristpads capable of projecting readable displays, and I thought I’d start adapting now.

The usual fractal complexity of questions arose when I followed what started as simple search paths. Before I knew it, I’d realized that the two sites also left a lot to be desired for color blind people and for those who might need large type or high contrast.

Thus started the adventure whose buggy result you see before you today. The selection box at the very top of the screen should allow you to choose between the graphics-two-columns version, a low graphics-one-column version suitable for handhelds, and a high contrast version that also allows background and text colors to be selected, as well as text sizes and a few fonts. Font & color selection in the high contrast version require javascript.

The main problem is that the cookie clearing process doesn’t seem to work very well, so you may have to manually select the format you want and change text sizes in your browser to return to a previously selected format. This is annoying. I can’t even say I’m working on it because getting this far has taken two weeks longer than I had and at this point I have to give it a rest. I’ll try to get back to it Real Soon Now.

The complexities involved in doing this stuff are mindboggling, at least to me, who’s never contended with this before.

For instance, it turns out that handhelds make up their own minds about whether to use a handheld version of a web site. Fighting with that is way too complex for an amateur like me, so I decided the simplest solution was to have user-switchable styles. After much searching I found something that sort-of seems to work, but, as I say, it doesn’t return to default at all well.

That struggle, however, paled in comparison to the one for accessibility. Despite days of searching, I have yet to find a site that can render a web page as it would be seen by people with different kinds of color blindness or different kinds of vision problems. (Hint, hint! to some bright programmer out there!) Also very nice would be a “cross-compiler” as it were: something that could take your style sheet and generate others that preserved aesthetic appeal while improving readability.

That “compiler” also needs an option that helps in designing for the blind. I’d hadn’t given thought to the obvious point that organization is critical when using a site with a screenreader. But then when I did try to think about it, I’m completely ignorant of the habits of mind one needs to apply. Something that could streamline the process beyond the basic “jump to navigation” would really help.

The thing is, if there were — in a totally ideal world — easy, one-click ways of making web sites accessible, a lot more people would do it and we could reverse the slide into opacity that the internet browser revolution has wrought.

Anyway, all this is a roundabout way of saying I hope the changes are useful to somebody.

accessibility, web site design, handheld, low vision, impaired vision, color blindness, blind

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What’s with my car dealer?

I go to the lot and flag down the last salesman they haven’t fired yet. He’s got nothing to do and races right over. I show him the picture.

“I want this,” I say.

super-thin, green, alien-spaceship-looking wheeled vehicle with a sail, which looks like it doubles as a rudder, at the back

“It runs on wind,” I point out, “which is about what I can afford right now. But it still looks cool. So, how much?”

He tries to sell me a Chevy Tahoe.

greenbird, wind racer, cars

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Bill Gates: Better Without Windows

You know what’s scary? I’m starting to like Bill Gates. Like everyone else, he seems to be doing a lot better since he shed Microsoft.

First there was this. I didn’t even know the man had a sense of humor, let alone a good one. Suddenly, I was half as annoyed at Windows as I usually am. Illogical, but there it is.

And now, via Slashdot, there’s this:

Bill Gates Unleashes Swarm of Mosquitoes

“Microsoft founder turned philanthropist Bill Gates released a glass full of mosquitoes at an elite Technology, Entertainment, Design Conference to make a point about the deadly sting of malaria. “Malaria is spread by mosquitoes,” Gates said while opening a jar on stage at a gathering known to attract technology kings, politicians, and Hollywood stars. “I brought some. Here I’ll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected.”

I’m that close to becoming a fan.

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More funny fantastic flying cars

This is a few days old, but I just made my site scalable (should even be legible on a phone??), and I feel like celebrating. So talking about the news won’t do. Flying cars, on the other hand, will.

What’s special about this one, besides the fact that it looks completely goofy, is that it’s here. Right now. This week, says the BBC, the bankrolling “adventurer” and the wild-eyed inventor, Gilo Cardozo, will start the drive, hop, and float across Europe, North Africa, and the Sahara to reach Timbuktu.

drawing of a paraglider ultralight with four wheels, street legal no less, flying over Saharan dunes

Doesn’t that look like fun?

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Working on site . . .

Jan 2.: Please pardon the mess. When it’s all done, the site should look right at any size and in any browser.

Should. Hmph.

Update: Jan 5: I think the regular screen version is pretty much done. (I can’t get rid of the line under the active tab yet. It’s always something.) Let me know if you see problems on your system, and, if so, what the problem is, which operating system you use, and which browser & version you’re running. It’s been tested on Firefox 3b.1 and Internet Explorer 7.

Onward and upward. Next: formatting for small screens / handhelds. Then maybe printers, just for the hell of it.

Update: Jan 9: Gaaa. Just got my hands on IE6 and now see that the site looks like a complete mess. Apologies to all IE6 users out there! I’m working on the needed tweaks. Meantime, get Firefox๐Ÿ™‚     (or, if you must, IE7…).

Update: Jan 10: Well, the worst of the problems have been kludged away, as far as I can tell. Let me know if I’m wrong!

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Replacing a Sharp MP30 laptop hard drive

My original hard drive developed Issues. It was necessary to Take Steps. However, for a Sharp MP30 that’s the equivalent of needing to replace a fuel filter on a Ford Explorer. You shouldn’t have to take the whole machine apart to get at it, but you do.

motherboard, lcd screen, and keyboard section disassembled
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There is hope

Or fear, according to taste. Via Slashdot, I see that we now have a more sophisticated estimate of the number of alien civilizations out there. Read more »

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Geeks’ Picnic

I went to LinuxWorld in San Francisco last month. A few highlights:

Welcomed our new robotic overlords

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Upgrading WordPress

Update, June 30: One blogger I know who uses a number of widgets ran into difficulties with this upgrade method. Be careful, out there! Back up first! Always back up first!
First the good part: my blog runs on WordPress, the software works, it’s easy to install, and easy to use. It has loads of advanced features as well as plugins that can expand those features further, nearly to the point of tap dancing and darning your socks. And the good people who developed it have made it open source and freely available. In short, a brilliant piece of work.

/*cue creeping sinister music*/

But WordPress does have a dark side. It’s called “when things go wrong.” I have had zero success using their forums to find answers to simple or complicated questions, or anything in between. I must admit, I haven’t even tried in a year or so, because it was so uniformly useless. Maybe they’ve turned over a new leaf. When I did try it, the organization of the forums was hopeless, so other passing users weren’t likely to see or answer questions. The knowledgeable types, on the other hand, had nothing to say but RTFM. My questions made it rather plain that I’d done my best to read the effing manual, but the people who knew the answers couldn’t seem to be bothered to read the actual questions. Severely aggravating. The manual, called the Codex in WordPress-talk, is indeed very complete, but again, organized so weirdly that finding anything was pretty much a matter of chance. Also aggravating, although it was easier not to take that personally.

This is all a long introduction to explain why I’d never upgraded my original, two year-old version of WordPress. Not upgrading software, especially interactive stuff like blogging software, creates security holes and can cause all sorts of problems. But my blog was working, and I wasn’t about to to risk disturbing any part of that interlocking set of 75 megabytes worth of programs. Plus, WordPress’s concept of upgrade methods was like their concept of user support. Totally dense. You were supposed to download, extract, ftp, back up, decompress MySQL databases, and god-knows-what-all. My eyes glazed over after about the fifteenth step. Forget it.

And then, at the end of March, WordPress joined the 21st century and provided an automated upgrade. After the first whoop of joy, I turned cautious. Like the elderly oysters in The Walrus and The Carpenter, I’ve developed a suspicious mind. I googled to find out how things had worked for people. Had they, god forbid, had problems and needed help? The good old non-existent help of WordPressdom?

There were some reports of mysterious glitches. The WordPress site didn’t even talk about versions as old as mine. If I tried it, my fate would be in the Ceiling Cat’s paws, and I didn’t like that. But google really is your friend (so far, at least). In the course of searching, I found a site that said how to use an alternate upgrade script for WordPress. Both sites sounded coherent and intelligent, and in the comments — oh, joy! — somebody mentioned having successfully gone straight from the paleolithic version I was using to the current one.

Time to make the leap.

So I did.

And everything worked.

I was boggled.

There was one heartstopping issue. The instructions said it would take a few minutes, but it took over an hour. I was drop dead sure that everything was stuffed. However, after an hour, suddenly the dear old blog went live again, stronger, faster, and better than before. I’d like my medical upgrades to work as well, please.

Technorati Tags: WordPress, blog, blogging, upgrade, 2.5

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WisCon 2008

WisCon is billed as “the world’s leading feminist science fiction convention.” “That’s easy,” you might be saying. “It’s the world’s only feminist sf con.” But you’d be wrong. There are others and this one is the biggest. I have to admit, I went to it for the first time with some trepidation. You never know, when there’s an angle, whether you aren’t going to be dropped down in the middle of a bunch of serious people looking at it from all sides. I mean, sf cons are about running around shouting in Klingon, not, um, well, discussing whether the correct term is womanist or feminist.

It turned out I had nothing to fear but fear itself. Except for the 2002 WorldCon in San Jose, which had unforgettable happenings like Terry Pratchett making up stories on the fly, WisCon was just about the best convention I’ve ever been to.

We learned useful things. For instance, Kate Schaefer helped us fold towels.

two towels, a smaller hand towel for the head, and a batch towel for the body, rolled to make a rather realistic elephant.  Although mine was a bit knock-kneed.  It takes practice.)

There was also a table where you could learn how to concoct your own Sri Lankan curry powder from roasted spices. Mary Ann Mohanraj had done several hours of work, roasting cumin, fenugreek, chili, cloves, and about ten other ingredients. We measured out the amounts she indicated, with variations based on what individual people said they liked, and she ground them up in a little Krups coffee grinder so we could take our own special curry powder home with us. I was too busy sniffing the out-of-this-world aromas to remember to take a picture.

While organic beings did their organic thing, the machine intelligences congregated in a room of their own and talked to each other.

three OLPC XO laptops

(Actually, we had a lot of trouble getting the mesh networks to do the work part!)

Sunday, May 25th, during the con, was also when the Phoenix Mars Lander was due to touch down. Does it get better than a spacecraft landing on another planet in the middle of a science fiction convention? No, it does not. The geekier set clustered around a laptop tuned to NASA TV and watched a bunch of ecstatic scientists jump up and down with each bit of news about how well things were going. You could hear us yelling, too, from as far away as the hotel’s elevators. (Vulcan seemed more appropriate for the occasion than Klingon. Nobody shouted in Klingon.)

It wasn’t all fun and games. A visitor dropped in, asking to be taken to our leader. Unfortunately, there was a rather sticky diplomatic moment — note the expression of suppressed annoyance and incredulousness with the eyes bugging out — when we said we couldn’t. We currently don’t have one.

small, purple-turquoise alien with big blue eyes and two antennae sitting on a turquoise space ship that winds up and goes in circles. (It's either not aligned, or that's what you need to navigate hyperspace.)

But the strangest, the most memorable, the most not-of-this-world thing that happened was meeting some of the other human beings there. Not so much the women who, though memorable, weren’t strange. I’ve been lucky in having met plenty of women who know their own minds and how to enjoy life. But WisCon is the only large gathering I’ve ever seen that had a large number of men in it, and they were just . . . I’m not even sure how to describe it . . . . Normal. Not one-upping, not worrying about bits falling off, not assuming that they’re the center of the universe. And not bothered by it. That really did feel like the future. Sign me up.

Technorati Tags: science fiction, WisCon, feminism

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Get Firefox. Set a record.

Mark your calendars. Tuesday’s the day. People all over the world will be downloading Firefox 3.

Why? I’m glad you asked.

1) Firefox is an awesome browser, now with version 3 goodness. (It really is good. I’ve been using pre-release versions for a couple of months now, and it is Good.)

2) By downloading it Tuesday, you’ll be helping to set a world record for software downloads. Since this is free and open source software that’ll help lots of people hear about something with no ad budget. (It’s free. Who’s going to pay for ads?)

As for what’s so good about open source software: –Its focus is what the users want. (No stockholders to worry about.) –Because it’s open source, you have tens of thousands of geek eyes making sure it’s not carrying crapware, whether corporate or criminal. –Firefox, specifically, has hundreds of extensions that let you fill any specialized need you might have. (But a word of caution about extensions if you already use Firefox. See end of post.)

Speaking about specialized needs, one of mine is the absolute, can’t-live-without-it, do-or-die need for ad blocking. An extension called, amazingly enough, AdBlock, makes the web usable, and makes pages appear much faster because you’re not loading a bunch of useless junk. Another one is NoScript that selectively blocks javascript, flash ads, and any singing, dancing, blinking, annoying doodads you don’t need. (You can turn any of them back on if you want them.) That also means that an infected web page can’t load malware on your system.

With all the talk of Firefox 3, Opera fans (Opera is another open source free browser) have been pointing out loudly how much better their software is. So I went and had another look at it. (I gave up on it years ago when it put ads in a huge banner to try to force you to pay for a usable version.) Opera has no equivalent to AdBlock. (Yes, I know you can block ads with a whole lot of gymnastics, but it’s not easy.) So, as far as I’m concerned, forget it.

A word of caution. If you’re already using Firefox, 3 will install over 2. Since not all extensions are compatible with 3 at this point, you could suddenly lose some critical ones. This is not good. You can check the current status of add-on compatibility at alex.polvi’s site (via lifehacker).

Obviously, there ought to be an easy option to install 3 next to 2. For some braindead reason, Mozilla doesn’t take that route. (Probably a misguided desire to make sure everyone has the latest software. Point is, it should be a matter of user choice.) The workaround is to make a new profile in 2, install 3, but not start it until you’ve specified the option for it to use the new profile. Detailed instructions are here. It’s not difficult, but it is a bit tedious. Big demerit to the Firefox developers!

But, devs aside, Firefox itself is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, or for as long as you’re on the internets. Do your bit to let everyone know and download on Tuesday!

Technorati Tags: Firefox, Firefox 3

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Drivable Airplane

Continuing my vehicular series . . .

the flying car from the MIT-grown geniuses at Terrafugia . . .
a light aircraft that looks like an enclosed motorcycle with wings, and the wings can fold near the middle of the span so that they're held vertically near the back half of the car body

Maybe the deeper meaning here is that I want to get away from it all?

Technorati Tags: flying car, drivable airplane, Terrafugia

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Baby you can drive my car

What’s not to love?

tiny Smart car modded with huge pickup truck wheels that are bigger than it is


(Well, to be absolutely honest, I’d still rather have an Aptera….

tear-drop shaped, 3-wheel, 100mpg equivalent electric car of the future, originally on Popular Mechanics


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The Green Machine aka XO laptop from OLPC

You’ve probably been wondering where I’ve been. (If you haven’t missed me, I don’t want to know.)

I’ve been ensorceled by the Green Machine. It arrived December 21st, and since then I’ve done nothing but play with it. My late batch of Christmas messages never went out, my laundry didn’t get done, and I ate a lot of pizza.

XO laptop with ballpoint pen for scale

I’m talking about the little laptop designed at MIT for use in schools with minimal resources. The XO of One Laptop Per Child fame. It has a revolutionary screen, many-hours-long battery life, an unusual sealed small keyboard, an even more unusual novel operating system, and a truly revolutionary price. For a while, OLPC gave geeks in North America (why not the world, nobody has ever understood) the opportunity to buy two for $400. One of the two is then donated to a school where it’s actually needed.

Within weeks of the announcement, Asus suddenly found it in them to sell a small serviceable laptop for $400. Now I hear word that Everex will have something called a Cloudbook for sale for a few hundred dollars this summer. It has a truly impressive list of specs. The days of having to pay nearly three thousand for a laptop that won’t squash your lap are over, thanks to the XO.

Judging by early reports, the green machine works well for its intended use. There’s the usual crop of naysayers. In the modern, socially conscious version of “Let them eat cake,” they keep insisting that we should make them eat bread. The Third World doesn’t need no high falutin computin while they have starving people to feed. (For one articulate rebuttal, see Bill Thompson.) I can just imagine somebody, say China, applying the same argument to the US. “No. You really don’t need MP3 players until you’ve taken care of all the people dying without medical insurance.” We’d probably get rather bent out of shape.

I, however, did not buy this thing to get educated (although I have plenty to learn). I bought it because it’s the first thing I’ve seen that’s capable of being thrown in a backpack, taken on a hike, and then used for writing when I reach the perfect spot where the muses nest. It’s ++rugged, ++has a 3-5 hour battery life (in the real world!) and a spare battery only costs $10, ++has a sunlight-readable screen (again, in the real world), ++weighs less than two pounds, and ++was affordable. I say “was” because unfortunately the Give One Get One program isn’t being continued for now. It’s another thing nobody can understand. They may be geniuses at MIT, but they’re not distribution geniuses.

It works extraordinarily well for what I want. I’m able to get used to the keyboard (some people aren’t). The mouse needs lots of work, but I’m willing to put up with it because I’m in love. And, as a Linux geek, I can deal with the sudden need to go all command line on the little critter every once in a while.

And then there’s the simple fact that it’s the cutest thing with ears.

laptop with its two wireless antennae back in racing mode the antennae down like floppy ears
ready to go aw-w-w
the antennae straight up

My only real problem was the operating system. I needed to be able to work the way I’m used to, and that involved installing an alternate operating system. I may be a kinda sorta Linux geek, but figuring out how to implement an alternate OS was way beyond me. The only ready-made solution early on was Debian as an upgrade. (The OLPC wiki is a mine of information on everything about the machine.) I was determined to put it on an SD card, messed around for a week, got nowhere, blew up the SD card, and wound up installing it on the XO’s limited memory after all. The alternate OS took up most of the memory and I was Not Happy.

Luckily, figuring out how to put an OS on an SD card is not beyond others who have XOs. Within two weeks, a method of doing what I wanted, installing Ubuntu on an SD card on the XO, was posted in cyberspace. That, by the way, is one of many examples why open source systems, software or hardware, have a huge advantage over proprietary ones. There are tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people out there solving problems. What that lacks in organization it makes up for in people power. You have to experience it to get it.

the not-so-friendly xubuntu boot screen but it runs the dear old programs and browser I’m used to


Now, here I am with everything just the way I want it, happy as a clam. How often can a mere thing do that for you?


Technorati tags: OLPC, XO, laptop, One Laptop Per Child, ubuntu

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