Linux Tidbits

Small bits of Linux wisdom I’ve learned this weekend:

  • If you are burning a LiveCD ISO, you better choose “Disc at Once” instead of “Track at Once”, lest at boot time you’ll get this annoying error:
    end_request: I/O error, dev sr0 sector XXX
    Buffer I/O error on drive sr0, logical block XXX
    ;
  • It’s actually possible to run Microsoft Office 2007 in Linux outside a virtual machine, using a compatibility layer called Wine. It takes a few tricks to make it work, and the experience is not completely smooth, but it’s feasible.
    In my tests, Word worked perfectly, Excel crashed its EUROTOOL.XLAM complement (but then automatically disabled it and run okay the second time), but Powerpoint was barely usable (the screen goes black when you try to draw or position a drawing element). In addition, Excel could not open a password-protected file. Still, it worked better than I had expected;
  • You are not supposed to share Wine software installation between Linux users. I’ve tried hard playing with shared paths and symbolic links, and all I’ve got was error messages and Office no longer working;
  • Also, apparently you can’t share a Mozilla (Firefox or Thunderbird) profile between Linux users. I’ve also tried playing with links and paths and only got burnt.

What I’ve learned ? That Linux software tends to be more customizable than Windows software, and much more customizable than MacOS software. That does not mean, however that the desired customization will be straightforward and easy (try, for example, understanding Gnome’s menu customization scheme !), neither that it will be always possible to bend the system to work as you’d like. On the other hand, it makes a weekend pass quickly !

What is worthy and what is puffy ?

The only other scientist in the family is my cousin Laila, and as I try to navigate my way around this “web two dot oh of science”, I can hear in my mind her thoughtful advice: “before you dive into something, you should check how deep the water is”. Wise words: after all, people experience many times the metaphorical broken neck after investing energy into “the next big thing”, which later reveals to be a shallow pond.

Of course, it’s often impossible to know precisely the depth of the waters, especially in the cases that much will depend on the contributions of the user community. What I ask myself is when can we start to foresee the tendency of success or failure of a new technology, for a given purpose?

Take Google’s Orkut, for example. When I’ve first heard about it, my colleagues were talking about a professional network, something like what LinkedIn is today, but quickly it became clear that it would not work for this purpose, and at least from this point of view, it failed. But as a social “for fun” network (like MySpace) it became a major success in Brazil.

For the last few months I’ve been trying a lot of stuff (web 2.0, web 1.0 or not web at all) which I think could be useful for my research team:

Google Tools

I’ve recently consolidated all my mailboxes into a single Gmail account and I am finding the service incredibly convenient. The Calendar is also fantastic, though I can’t believe they’ve left out such an essential item as the Task List. As for Google Docs, I find that they are much too rudimentary, even for lowbrow daily use.

Microsoft Groove

I liked the concept of Groove very much (and the little video demo is really really seductive), but I quickly bumped into the harsh reality that in the academic world, few people like to use Microsoft Office. What’s the use of using a communication platform and then having no one to communicate to?

I’ve considered starting a major evangelising campaign (helped by the fact that MS Office is very cheap for students nowadays) but when I realised that Groove wasn’t available for Mac (trying to evangelise someone into MS Office is hard but possible, but trying to evangelising someone out of a Mac is just a waste of time) and after two or three “sorry, the service is experiencing some problems”, I’ve given up. When evangelising people into a new product, it’s crucial that it works perfectly.

ThinkFree

I’ve been really captivated by ThinkFree. Feature-wise, it is much behind Office 2007 (or LaTeX, for that matter). But it’s way beyond Google Docs, and, since it offers a decent (but by no means perfect) conversion to and from MS Office, and very good web integration, it really deserves a second look. The fact that it is available for three major platforms (Windows, Mac and Linux), helping to avoid religious wars in the lab, is also a major selling point. I’ll be trying it for the next weeks and keep you updated.

CiteULike

I had great expectations for CiteULike, and I still find it is a neat idea: putting your citation database online, sharing it with other researchers, and even creating groups of interest to share and discuss about the papers. However, it seems that most users just use it as a online reference manager, and it there is not much “two dot oh” synergy (discussion, active sharing, blogging, feedback…) happening on the groups I’ve visited so far. But I’ll keep my eye on it.

Zotero

My (silly) prejudice against applications implemented in the form of Firefox extensions has been greatly dismissed by Zotero, a fantastic reference manager. Migrating the medium sized database (about 160 entries) I’ve created in Endnote for my thesis was somewhat tricky, because of my extensive use of custom fields, but after half an hour of adapting Endnote’s Export Output Styles, everything went well. Now, I want to see how well Zotero will work in cooperation with word processors like MS Word, LyX and ThinkFree Write. I also want to see if Zotero + CiteULike can work along well.

LinkedIn

This one seems to be all the rage in the States. After creating my profile on LinkedIn, I was surprised to see that all my past classmates at UFMG, Brazil were already there. But I am still a little sceptical about the usefulness of the concept. I recognise the importance of “networking” but I am more doubtful about putting it online. I suppose that networking is a zero-sum game. If everyone is connected to everyone, the global effect is levelling the game.

The “get introduced to” feature seems interesting, but do people use it?

Academia.edu

Like its own advertisement says this one is “a Facebook for academics”. The idea is not bad, but the current implementation is dreadful: the Flash interface is slow, everything is organised in a rigid hierarchical way (what happens to labs shared by two Universities?) and an information model which favours painstaking “tree-like” browsing instead of direct search. After some hassle I was able to put my profile in Academia.edu, and the site seems to be gaining momentum. Maybe we can hope for a major UI improvement?