Archive for the ‘free software’ Category

Crunch! Bang! Linux again!


It’s been a while since I’ve done any cheerleading here for Linux. I think I’m due. There’s a bit of nerdly enthusing in this post. Well, rather a lot really. But do read on and let me know what you think.

People who know me well know that, whenever possible, I stick to Linux and stay away from Windows and Mac. Partly this is an economic choice: Linux is cheaper (free, in most of its incarnations), and the programs I use on Linux are also free: the LibreOffice productivity suite, Firefox or Chrome browsers, VLC media player, some research tools (RStudio, Praat), and others.

Partly, it is a philosophical/value choice. Linux and the free-as-in-speech free software movement are all about competent people producing quality tools and sharing them, collaboratively improving them, for the benefit of the community. This is very parallel with the values of academic science and research – a career I have chosen as well-suited to my values and personality. In fact, the scientific imperative to make your experiments reproducible is, I think, most naturally met in a software ecology based on freely-available open-source systems and programs.

Partly, it is an aesthetic choice. I grew up on a farm, and my father was forever tinkering with machinery to keep it working, to improve it, or to adapt it for a new task. I’m not much of a mechanic, but the hands-on attitude of many Linux systems suits my moderate computer skills. There are thousands of permutations of Linux out there, in case you didn’t know. I would guess, off the top of my head, that well over 90% of the different operating systems you could put on an electronic device – desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, etc – are variations on Linux. Just choosing which one empowers you to express yourself in many ways. There are visually elaborate and plain systems. There are build-it-from-scratch systems, and run-everything-out-of-the-box systems. For a moderate fee, you can even get dedicated user support from experts. There are systems geared toward multimedia, systems aimed at programmers, systems aimed at old hardware, small memory resources. There are even systems specifically designed to wean users off Windows and Mac operating systems. So if you want to express yourself in your operating system (beyond setting a colour scheme and a desktop image), Linux is the way to go.

I find that it suits my self-identity as a slightly eccentric, moderately computer-savvy, pragmatic get-it-done kind of person.

Anyway, Linux has been my main operating system for several years. Recently it was Linux Mint Debian Edition. Mint is a small set of Linux distributions aimed at ease of use, and the Debian Edition is specifically designed to avoid “bloat” – the excessive accumulation of bells and whistles that can bog a computer down. This very decent system was becoming a bit much for my small and aging netbook, so I went shopping. In this case, that meant downloading disk images, which I could then put on USB sticks. I would reboot the machine using the USB stick, get to give the system a try while running it off the USB stick – it’s slower, but it leaves my existing system intact in case I change my mind – and then reboot and pop in another one.

It turned out that one of the distributions I had seen but dismissed in the past was particularly good – either because it has gotten better or my perceptions have changed (probably both). And so now I am running Crunchbang Linux (also written #! (because the “#!” sequence is a frequent opening to script files that do useful stuff in Linux, and that character sequence is called the “crunch-bang”).

I could go on into the finer details of what makes Crunchbang my current Linux-of-choice, but I think I’ll spare you that deep dive into nerdopolis.

Instead I’ll leave you with a final, and ultimately decisive, reason that I like Linux (and Crunchbang in particular). That’s the community.

I know, I mentioned it above already, but consider this. I have had a couple of minor support issues since I started with Crunchbang a few weeks ago (both due to esoteric teaching- and research-related software I installed). For each one, I posted a short query to the user forum (a group, remember, of unpaid volunteers – people who only hang around because they love the system and the community), and had my problem solved within an hour or two. Just by installing Crunchbang, I have become a member of a supportive, competent community of people who share at least one key interest with me.

Linux really is a human-friendly operating system. Try it out. Or ask around and get a friend to give you a tour.

Apps on belief


Okay, here’s another quick one – though I’m hoping you’ll give some input into this one too.

A few months ago, I acquired my first smart-phone. I had resisted it in much the way I once resisted getting a mobile phone at all. And, like the mobile phone, I think I’d now feel quite bereft without it.

Anyway, for this post, I thought I’d ask you three about apps. That is, if you have a smartphone – an iPhone, Android phone, a Blackberry, or (shudder) a Windows phone – what apps have you installed that relate to belief, unbelief, ethics, skepticism, or any of the other themes that this blog addresses?

Here’s my list.

Well, lists. I’ve grouped them by general categories. You may notice that I, a natural Scot by heritage, lean toward free apps. So it won’t cost you any money to try these out if you haven’t already.


  • xkcd Browser – Because you’ve got to have some fun.
  • Overdrive Media Console – The public library here has an awesome collection of electronic books and downloadable audio books, many of them targeted toward this app.
  • Freading – Another library/book-reading app, less used but interesting in its own right.


  • Algeo Calculator, Addi – These are two mathy apps, different takes on beefed-up scientific calculators for Android.
  • Talk Origins – An app for surfing offline through all the responses to creationist arguments from the excellent Talk Origins website.
  • Skeptical Science – A comparable app addressing the claims of climate change denialists.
  • Galaxy Zoo – A citizen-science app where you get to help classify galaxies in a pseudo-game-like environment. From the folks at Galaxy Zoo.
  • Google Sky – An adaptation of Google Sky for Android. This nice little app helps me identify celestial landmarks. It uses the phone’s internal gyros and compass to show exactly what stars and planets should be visible in whatever direction you point the phone.


  • Cadre Bible – Good old KJV. It was very useful recently when I was leafing through some literature a nice Jehovah’s Witness left me. (I’m still waiting for them to return so I can go over it with them. I made lots of notes!)
  • Quran Android – A visually pleasant rendition of the Quran, with English translation. I confess that I still haven’t made it past the first surah, but at least it’s there waiting.

So … any others that you’ve found? Do you use any of these on a different platform? If so, please share links and your thoughts.


Exploring language


Thanks to Steve Novella of the Neurologica blog, I have discovered a new toy to play with: the Google Ngram Viewer. I’d like to share it with you, and encourage you to play as well.

You may have heard of all the books that Google has been digitizing for their Google Books project. (It caused some stir among publishers and writers – it seems to have been sorted out now.) Well, the Ngram Viewer is a very Google-esque* way of looking at word count statistics from that huge collection of books.

Let’s say you’re curious about the relative popularity of two words – say, “humanist” and “atheist“. Well, you enter them as search terms, and voila:

humanist/atheist unigram graph, 1800 to 2000

Relative frequencies of "humanist" and "atheist" in the Google Books corpus, from 1800 to 2000.

We can watch the relative frequencies of these words over time. Unexpectedly (to me at least), we see “humanist” (blue) overtake “atheist” (red) during the first half of the twentieth century, following a couple of decades (20s and 30s) tracking together.  I’ll leave it up to readers to try to infer the reason for this inversion.

The term “n-gram” (yes, pronounced the same as “engram”, but there’s no connection to neuropsychology or Scientology) is used in corpus-based linguistics to denote sequences of words. A unigram is a sequence of 1 word; in the graph above, we compare the frequencies of two unigrams (relative to the total number of unigrams in the corpus). A bigram is a sequence of 2 words. Trigram: 3 words. From there on, it is common just to use the number: 4-gram, 5-gram, etc.

One more unigram comparison that I thought was interesting: function words. Check out this graph comparing “the”, “and”, “of”, “for”, “a”:

Unigram frequencies for selected function words, 1800 to 2000.

Unigram frequencies of "the", "of", "and", "a", "for", from 1800 to 2000.

What is interesting here is that the relative (and even the absolute) frequencies show very little change over two centuries. Think about all of the change in the language that those two centuries represent – from shortly after the founding of America to around the time of the latest millennial fever. And these five words have shown such amazing constancy. Sure, there is some change, but compare those to the changes in other graphs, and the difference is clear.

So, let’s check out a bigram comparison. Here’s a chart of “national debt” and “social security”:

Bigram frequencies for "national debt" and "social security"

Bigram frequencies for "national debt" and "social security" from 1800 to 2000.

I’m no political scientist, but it looks like interest in social security leaped onto the scene in the late 30s, and has been slowly climbing ever since, while talk about national debt (in the English-speaking world) has steadily declined basically since the earliest samples in this corpus.

I could go on all day about this, but I’d rather leave it to you now. Before you take off to do your own informal surveys of this delicious data repository, let me offer a couple of caveats.

First, the numbers are only as reliable as the sources. What are the sources? Google gives some information on this. They note some sources of error; they also acknowledge some inherent biases. For example, there are more computer books in recent years than in the 1800s. Whether this is a problem or not depends on the sort of question you’re asking, and how you are interpreting it.

Second, there are different numbers of books in different time periods. They actually go back as far as 1500, but you get problems when, say, a particular year only has one book published. (Check out the results for that nice constant graph of function words, if you go back to 1500.)

Third, always always keep in mind what it is that you’re measuring. These graphs do not measure belief (search “bigfoot, ufo, unicorn“). They do not measure popularity or approval (search “murder, charity“, or the “national debt, social security” illustration above). They simply measure how often people mention the words (or bigrams, trigrams, etc) in published books. (Periodicals are excluded.)

Having said that, it is still a delightful way to while away a day. If you’re stuck for ideas, here are a couple of classic sources of interesting patterns:**

  • What are the relative frequencies of different number words? Is there anything systematic here? Any surprises?
  • What are the relative frequencies of gender-marked pronouns (“he, she”, for example)? How about gender-marked nouns (“man, woman”)?***

Have fun, my merry scientists!


* Google-esque: powerful, easy to use, with the potential to distract me from real work with its endless possibilities to explore.

** Before doing any search, see if you can guess what the results will be. Form a hypothesis, give a reason for your expectation. If the results agree with your expectation, congratulations! If not, see if you can explain why. Does this new explanation generate predictions about some other word frequency pattern that you could now test?

*** There is at least one pair of gender-marked nouns that seems to reverse the general trend. Can you find them? Why would they be different?

How R you at statistics?


[Disclaimer] This post is little more than an exclamation of science-geek joy at some media attention for the stats program I use. Non-geeks are free to stop reading now, lest you be contaminated. Also, I must apologize that it is a little dated now, the original news item that sparked it having come out 3 weeks ago.

Research in science invariably includes running statistical tests. The more complicated the experiment, the more complicated the test to determine whether my results are significant. I am delighted that the research community has a tool like R, which in addition to being fully-featured, extensible, and producing pretty figures, is free software (as in free beer, but also as in free speech). There are other tools out there that have comparable features (so I hear, anyway), but as a student I could not have afforded to put them on my personal computer.

So I’m a big fan of R, and am delighted to report that it is gaining headway in my local linguistics department against the old commercial packages.

Imagine my glee, then, to learn that the New York Times published an article earlier this week on the merits of R for data analysis!

Of course, the R discussion lists are all abuzz with the news. People are pleased that it’s getting some wider attention, but also (of course) noting the apparent inaccuracies of the piece. None of them are catastrophic, and the writer of the article addresses some of them in his blog follow-up. Which has itself been responded to.

More on R and other free software projects in future posts – for now I’m just enjoying the glow of almost-fame for my little corner of geekdom. Ahhh.

Software Freedom Day


I just learned about Software Freedom Day: today, 20 September!

Software Freedom Day (SFD) is a worldwide celebration of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Our goal in this celebration is to educate the worldwide public about of the benefits of using high quality FOSS in education, in government, at home, and in business — in short, everywhere!

I don’t have much time to research and write the article I would like to write in support of this. I am a big supporter of free software (“free as in speech, not free as in beer”), and hope to include a line of articles on it in this blog when I have more time (whenever that might be).

For the moment, let me just give a little anecdote:

My dad is a farmer in Alberta. He uses a computer for accounting, word processing, e-mail. It is important, because one of his main operations is a mail-order seed-potato business, Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes with a website for people to browse and order from. (He grows several very interesting and exotic varieties of potatoes for gardeners across Canada.) My brother farms with him, growing u-pick flowers and a very popular sunmaze.*

They recently got attacked by an e-mail virus that just about did them out of internet access – a serious problem for an internet-dependent business.

We were visiting Canada at the time, and I suggested trying Linux (specifically Ubuntu, one of the most human-friendly varieties of Linux). They put Linux on the infected machine, got the e-mail client running within the day (it’s at least as easy as it is on Windows), and are now 99% virus-proof.

While we were at it, we put Xubuntu, a low-spec variety of Ubuntu, on a laptop that could no longer handle the demands of Windows, and suddenly they had one more usable computer than they had before.

A very short learning curve (about the same as you’d get moving from one version of Windows to the next) and they were all up and running.

Moral: if you don’t want to spend money on virus-prone operating systems or on the latest and greatest computer, but just need something that works easily, reliably, and safely, Linux is the way to go. (Free Software is marketed as “free as in speech, not free as in beer”, but it’s usually both.)

And even if you don’t want to go so far as trying Linux (even though it’s very easy), there is a lot of useful free software out there that you can use in Windows or on the Mac. Try, which has a word processer, a spreadsheet, and most of the applications and features that Microsoft Office has. Try the Gimp, an image processing program akin to Photoshop. And for the love of all things digital, make sure you’re using Mozilla Firefox rather than Explorer!

That’s all for now. Enjoy Sofware Freedom Day!

*Note: Yes, I am shamelessly promoting my family’s businesses here. Go, visit them, try the maze, grow some potatoes.

(Thanks to TeXblog for alerting me to Software Freedom Day.)

Ubuntu gets saved


I’ve long been a fan of the Linux operating system. Of the many, many varieties of Linux out there, my favorite so far has been Ubuntu – easy to install, easy to use, lots of community support, and it’s pretty.

I was looking at their website the other day, curious about the latest version (currently 7.10, nicknamed Gusty Gibbon), and had a look around the different flavours of Ubuntu.

There’s “regular” Ubuntu, which comes with the popular Gnome desktop environment

Then there’s Kubuntu, which has the same software but with KDE instead of Gnome
Edubuntu comes with educational software, and is designed to be easy for non-techie teachers to set up a classroom network

Part of the virtue of Ubuntu is that it comes with easy-to-install packages for media playing and other tasks that have historically been difficult to do in Linux. Unfortunately, some of the software for these tasks is not technically “free” – they cost nothing to use, but they are not distributed under the GNU General Public License.

So for those with a particular attachment to that license and the ethical stance it promotes, there is Gobuntu

And finally there is Xubuntu, for those with older systems (slower, less disk space) or those who want to squeeze the most speed and power out of what they have. It uses the bare-bones Xfce desktop environment.

I had come across all of these before. I went with the default Ubuntu flavour, because I like Gnome and it was easy. But the popularity of the Ubuntu family of distributions has led others to take Ubuntu as a base for developing other varieties. I hadn’t heard of most of these before. They include distributions tuned to particular requirements such as for security, for compactness, for different languages.

But two jumped off the screen at me (so to speak):


That’s right. Ubuntu CE (Christian edition), with a Jesus fish incorporated into the basic Ubuntu logo, and Ubuntu ME (Muslim edition), with an Arabic word inside the Ubuntu logo. (Anyone know Arabic? What does it say?) [Edit 12 November: I'm now pretty sure it's "Allah", the Arabic word for "God".] [Edit 2010 November 30:  Ubuntu ME is now called "Sabily", and can be found here.]

The main differences between these and the standard Ubuntu varieties seem to be that CE and ME include special software – primarily for browsing the holy text and filtering web content. I gather that some customization of the graphic theme has also been made. The Christian version includes a What Would Jesus Download toolbar for the Firefox web browser. The Muslim edition includes an Islamic calendar and even a reminder application for the five daily prayers.

But more than any of this, I suspect that the main motivation behind each of these variants is to build an online community of like-minded people.

So I thought, what other religious-themed Linux variants are out there?

I came across Mythbuntu, but that’s not religious – “Myth” refers to MythTV, a multimedia application.

And then there’s Devil Linux (not based on Ubuntu), but again the religious implication is unconnected to the purpose of the distribution. It’s a dedicated server distribution, which I know almost nothing about.

So then I wondered if there’s a humanist-themed Linux. Shouldn’t there be? Maybe I could slap together Ubuntu HE.

Then I remembered something I read back when I first discovered Ubuntu:

Ubuntu is an African word meaning ‘Humanity to others’, or ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’. The Ubuntu distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world.

So there you have it. Ubuntu, plain old normal Ubuntu, is already a humanist distribution. (I would even say that Linux, and free software in general, reflects humanist values. But that’s a theme for another post.)

The days when you had to be a hardcore computer hacker to get anything to work on Linux are behind us. I find Ubuntu as easy to work in as Windows – easier in some ways.

If you haven’t tried Linux recently, give it a go. Get Ubuntu (free CD by mail or download) and run it risk-free from the CD to get a feel for it.*

And give me feedback. Do you think (like me) that humanist values lend themselves well to the free software philosophy of Linux (and Ubuntu in particular)? What about other operating systems – how do they (and the companies that produce them) strike you from the standpoint of humanist ethics?

* This post was written and submitted on a computer running Edubuntu from the live CD, with Windows XP installed and untouched underneath.

High-tech philanthropy: how you can be the next Bill Gates!


I have just come across a really cool initiative for educating children in developing countries: One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).

I know, I know. Just from the name, it sounds like the sort of pie-in-the-sky idealism cooked up by affluent do-gooders in their summer home who have never had to live on what people earn in developing countries.

But check it out. Really. Each unit costs only $200 US (less than £100).

As the founder and president of OLPC, Nicholas Negroponte, says, “It’s an education project, not a laptop project.” The design and distribution strategy reflect that. They have held to a number of simple design features in creating this laptop, the XO, which should make it ideal for use in the most under-developed areas:

… the laptop could not be big, heavy, fragile, ugly, dangerous, or dull. Another imperative was visual distinction. … [T]he machine’s distinctive appearance is also meant to discourage gray-market traffic. There is no mistaking what it is and for whom it is intended.

XO is about the size of a textbook and lighter than a lunchbox. Thanks to its flexible design and “transformer” hinge, the laptop easily assumes any of several configurations: standard laptop use, e-book reading, and gaming.

… The integrated handle is kid-sized, as is the sealed, rubber-membrane keyboard. The novel, dual-mode, extra-wide touchpad supports pointing, as well as drawing and writing.

… It contains no hazardous materials. …

In addition, —for use at home and where power is not available—the XO can be hand powered. It will come with at least two of three options: a crank, a pedal, or a pull-cord. …

Experience shows that laptop components most likely to fail are the hard drive and internal connectors. Therefore, XO has no hard drive to crash and only two internal cables. For added robustness, the machine’s plastic walls are 2mm thick, as opposed to the standard 1.3mm. Its mesh network antennas, which far outperform the typical laptop, double as external covers for the USB ports, which are protected internally as well. The display is also cushioned by internal “bumpers.”

The estimated product lifetime is at least five years. To help ensure such durability, the machines are being subjected to factory testing to destruction, as well as in situ field testing by children.

(from the features page)

And, more importantly, they are inexpensive. They are built as simply as possible, and run with only free software (their conditions for software inclusion are analogous but not identical to those found in the excellent GNU General Public License).

You can participate in various ways – by volunteering, by donating to OLPC. But my favorite is the “Give 1 Get 1″ campaign. You pay for two of them; one goes to a child in the developing world, and the other comes to you for your child to use. Let’s face it – it’s a great little device, especially for the price tag.

So from 12 November, for a fraction of the cost of a normal laptop ($399 US, or £191.93 at today’s exchange rate) you can buy your child a sturdy, versatile educational tool while contributing to an innovative and promising effort to lift poor children out of poverty through education.

As a long-time fan of laptops, of open-source software (particularly Linux), and of education, I find this plan very exciting. I would love for Kaia’s first computer to be an XO. (I kinda think it’d be nice to have one myself, too.)

Of course, I’ll also have to keep my eyes on other projects with similar goals (see here, here, and here). They all seem to be interested in the charitable goals of helping kids in developing nations, so I don’t think competition and rivalry will become too much of a problem.

Let me know what you think. I am currently in the first flush of excitement over this idea – I haven’t turned my critical-thinking fully on this idea. Would you contribute to this project? Would you buy one of these for your own child as well as for a needy child?


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