Posts Tagged ‘technology’

metaStudio, Emacs and orgmode

February 18, 2013

metaStudio, Emacs and orgmode

We have been developing a semantic platform for collaborative construction of knowledge networks of open educational resources.  We have reached some level of stability and so would invite members of the community to visit and explore the site.  The link to the site is: beta.metastudio.org

Here I will keep publishing a series of posts featuring some special features and a link to where the feature can be seen or a screenshot of the feature. In this post we feature a simple online orgmode editor implemented for collaborative editing of text.

Online Emacs Orgmode Editor

The site uses a very simple wiki style text editor that uses orgmode style markup (actually markDown).  The typed text is processed directly by orgmode vida emacs on the server side script.  The orgmode text as well as the automatically exported html are stored in the database.   This editor is limited only by the knowledge of the user about orgmode use and the html export limitations of orgmode.  It can have images, embedded videos, embedded java applets, or just about anything that we need to publish on the web.

The main highlight is the easy of use and very low learning curve.  Students and teachers who have never been exposed to any wiki or web authoring have picked up the editing methods with least training.

metastudio orgmode editor

metastudio orgmode editor

embedding video and orgmode

metastudio embedding video using orgmode

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SELF Platform Launched on 5th September

September 17, 2007

SELF Platform

A beta version of the SELF Platform is launched worldwide on 5th September. In India it was launched on 7th September. Meena blogged the details already, so I provide the link here. The event is also covered by media, and the details are also again posted in Meena’s blog..

Free network infrastructure for free knowledge and free software in Mumbai

April 12, 2007

GNU/Linux user’s group of Mumbai made a free wireless mesh at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, TIFR. Though we are late in setting up of the wireless mesh, which was due for over an year, we finally got a working free information network. We intend to create a community network in Mumbai that will spread from place to place to create a citywide people’s network. People can use this network to publish useful content. To begin with it will serve all of wikipedia through the gnowledge.org protal and lots and lots of useful free software for enabling the community.

People anywhere in India or other places are invited to look at our community network, and replicate it to other parts of the world. We will periodically conduct workshops at the request of the community and will transfer the technology. We also request others to develop the skills and take it to every corner of the country, or rather every corner of the world.

For the time being we will discuss all issues in the GNU/Linux user’s group mailing list. Requests to conduct free wireless mesh workshops can be sent to this mailing list. We invite voluntary organizations, colleges, schools particularly in small towns to take special interest in taking full advantage of this technology.

Thanks to WSFII for motivating me to take interest in free network, particularly Saul, Fred, and Julian, who donated the routers for this initial setup, and of course more important transfered the technology. The entire freifunk team deserves a special thanks.

Thanks to all the volunteers from the GNU/Linux user’s group who helped in setting this up.

We will document the progress at http://fci.wikia.com/wiki/WirelessMesh.

Are proprietary documents criminal?

April 5, 2007

During the Free Software Convention held at Hyderabad during 3rd and 4th of March 2007 I called proprietary documents ‘criminal’. In reaction to the press reports (The Hindu, March 4th 2007) a journalist asked me: “Declaring Proprietary Encoding ‘criminal‘ is a very strong statement.What are you trying to say ?” I replied promptly, but my reply was not published. So I publish here my justification.

First, why do I call proprietary encoding “criminal“. I thank the media which took care of not deleting the quotation marks, because I said precisely that way. Without the quotation marks, it can be called unethical.

Let us first understand that there does not exist, to the best of my knowledge, any government in the world that declared proprietary encoding criminal. Therefore according to the legislation of any country, it is not a crime. But, we want this to be made illegal. Legislation at this moment is either agnostic or in some cases protecting such evil by granting the industries such rights in the form of Digital Rights Management (DRM). Let me elaborate:

A software company makes software to facilitate you and me to create data/information, manipulate it, publish it, disseminate it etc. The information digitized belongs to me and you, and should not belong to the company that makes it. I agree that the company does not claim ownership of the documents you and I created. However, the company kept the sole right to DECODE the document that we created. This is where the problem lies. If I use one particular software application a few years ago, we are forced to use only that application today. We do not have freedom to opt for other software applications. This is done deliberately by the proprietary companies. They discourage users to save files in rtf (rich rext format) format, or HTML format, by warning the users that you will loose data if you do so. In fact, if they are responsible they should educate and advice all the users to save in an open standard rather than a proprietary format. The warning would have been other way around: whenever a user saves a document in a proprietary format the application must throw a warning saying …

You are now going to save the document in a private/proprietary encoding, we do not give guarantee that you will be able to decode this document in future, and we do not ensure interoperability. Therefore we advice you save your document in a free standard such as ODF, RTF, HTML, or plain text. Also we inform you that this format is known to be vulnerable for virus infection. If you still want to save, please say OK, but we are not responsible for your action.

This kind of warning is RESPONSIBLE and ethical, not the kind of warning that we see now.

Added to this “crime”, they keep changing their proprietary document encoding every few years, so that people will never learn how to decode. This is a clear illustration of their motivations. They are not interested in you and me, they are interested in making profits, and remain a monopoly. They are not interested in encouraging us or guiding us to use best practices.

Further, most of the proprietary encodings, since they are in a binary format, are vulnerable to virus infection.

As you see, these are a series of undoubtedly unethical practices. Free Software Movement has pointed to this malpractice long ago. No government, no industry body (including our own bodies named by you) so far have in the interest of the rapidly increasing digital community made such recommendations to either the Industry or to the Govt. So, whose interests are they (Govts and Industry bodies like NASSCOM, CII, FICCI) serving, people or private companies. But, is it necessary that Industry should be against the interest of the people? NO. There are several examples of good Industries, which not only encourage and support people to use free encoding standards, but are also voiced their demands to arrive at a good ICT policy. Debian, Ubuntu, and RedHat are a few examples of such companies, and there are several other such good companies. These companies have demonstrated in practical terms that ethical business is possible.

With this background, it is clear that proprietary software companies are controlling dissemination of our digitally encoded knowledge. Are they in nexus with the Government? Yes, we know that Govt organizations in India did sign memorandums of understanding with such companies to deploy such “criminal software” in the public sphere, including educational institutes.

These companies now are asking for a policy change so that they legislate this “crime”. They are asking for a right called “Digital Rights Management” (DRM). According to this, they are seeking the right to control the dissemination of cultural resources including knowledge and science. Is this the kind of right that Govt and legislation should grant to the profit minding companies? Or should Govt and legislation protect the interests of people. We are concerned that Govt might succumb to the pressures of those mighty companies and their agencies which are in the process of seeking amendments in the law of the land, so that DRM enters into this country. That is why we call DRM, Digital Restrictions Management.

We want the right to digitally ENCODE (write) and DECODE (read and decipher) be first provided through a legislation to each and every citizen of the world, not merely India. Once such a fundamental right is granted to each citizen, this right belongs to the companies too. Therefore private companies can exercise this right as well. We want this kind of digital rights legislation, and not the kind the Industry is pushing the Governments all over the world.

We must therefore wakeup. I appeal to all the concerned citizens to join us in this appeal to protect the interests of the people. We want a legislation that protects people’s interests and not one sided interests of the private companies.

Therefore, let me reiterate, we want the right to encode (write) and decode (read, and decipher) digital code be granted to each and every citizen. Undoubtedly the time has come to declare proprietary encoding `criminal‘. In the absence of such a policy a just knowledge society is not possible.

India’s IT Policy Amendments: Some suggestions

April 4, 2007

I went through the document from the Gazette of India extraordinary, which specifies the IT Act 2000, and the amendments suggested therein. I do think that there are a few points that must be amended carefully and certain meanings of the terms clearly specified, else it may not help in good egovernance. I place them here for your discussion. Please feel free to circulate this note among colleagues, and particularly to those who have responsibility and power to consider them for amendment.

What constitutes a ‘valid’ electronic document for electronic governance should be clearly and unambiguously specified.

On page 5, Chapter III, section 4 makes an attempt. This section tells that an electronic record be recognized as a legal document provided it is: (a) rendered or made available in an electronic form, and (b) accessible so as to be usable for a subsequent reference. This is insufficient. What we mean by “usable for a subsequence reference” must be made clear. A digital document with private encoding may be accessible physically, but inaccessible for decoding over a period of time. The term ‘usability’ in the case of electronic document must be clearly defined as decodable or decipherable. Second, the term ‘subsequence reference’ must be replaced by ‘any subsequent reference’.

An official document for historical reasons and legislative reasons must be decodable or decipherable for eternity. In order to encourage technical innovations that make documents last longer, the policy must make an attempt to support only decodable or decipherable documents as legally valid electronic documents.

In non-digital documents we do have a requirement that all legal documents be either type written or legibly printed. This stipulation when extended to digital document, refers clearly to decodable or decipherable.

What makes a digital or electronic document decipherable? A document encoded in a digital format must have a fully published, archived and accessible decoding specification. In the absence of this stipulation a document cannot be used for electronic governance.

Therefore I suggest the section 4. must be made amended by choosing careful explicitly defined terminology as suggested above.

Similarly, section 7.1 (a) says: “the information contained therein remains accessible so as to be usable for a subsequent reference.” As already mentioned, for the same reasons, this clause again needs to use operationally defined terminology like ‘decodable’ rather than merely ‘usable’, and ‘subsequent’ be replaced by ‘any subsequent’.

Chapter XI, specifies what are offenses. In that the section 66. titled “Hacking with computer system” Though the term ‘Hack’ as used in this document is consistent, it must be replaced by the term “crack”. After this replacement, the document will remain consistent. This gesture will respect millions of geeks, who call themselves hackers, but does nothing of the kind of offenses mentioned in the section. Use of the term ‘hack’ referring to the crime, causes a lot of disrespect to the socially, ethically committed hackers who contribute to free software. (see more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacker). GPL as a copyright hack, GNU/Linux as hacker’s OS, Mozilla hacks, and such usages do not refer to the criminal act, but in the sense of a creative exploration of doing what is possible. Hacking as is widely used in free software community means, a kind of the art of the possible, a culture.

I therefore, suggest, the term ‘hack’ and ‘hacking’ be replaced with ‘crack’ and ‘cracking’ in the document.

Also to note is section 2 of Chapter I, which contains a list of definitions, where in a computer is also defined. Here it says, “any electronic magnetic, optical or other high-speed data processing device …” I do not see why “high-speed” is required, without even specifying how high is high-speed. The term “high-speed” be removed, for the expression “data processing device” in this context is sufficient.

Last, the document specifies a lot about the use of digital signatures of legal electronic documents etc. Digital signature is also a component of the digital document, and therefore, the process of decoding and encoding such signatures must also be published, archived and made accessible. This however does not mean, making the key pairs accessible. The scientific part of the technology employed must be explicitly specified. The document does not stipulate this for a company to become a certifying authority. Experts in this area may comment on this requirement.

a navigator applet for large documents and sites

March 26, 2007

I am not happy with the way how we write and browse electronic documents. I think that the design of the word processors are responsible for this. (I will not elaborate about this here, but will write about this issue later.) Though , I like structured documentation, like LaTeX, I do not like the way such documents are presented, particularly while reading them on the screen. Most applications kept in mind the printed page as an outcome, and hence may not have payed much attention to alternatives the new technology offers.

With this view in mind, I keep on hacking (exploring new possibilities), to see if I can come up with an alternative. The other day I came up with the following idea.

document navigator

The diagram above is a navigator of a document that has four chapters. Except the fourth chapter the other three are further divided into sections and sub-sections. Since the navigator is laid horizontally, the document’s subdivisions are first divided with a vertical separator, and then the next sub-division is made by a horizontal separator. This way the structure of the given docuement will be represented.Second, by displaying each component in a different color, we can provide visual differentiation of the document parts.

Then comes the problem of navigation. In order to navigate the complex document, we need to use only the four arrow keys: up, down, left and right. The keys, up and down will be used to change the level, say from sub-section to section or sub-section to sub-subsection, respectively. The keys, right and left will be used for moving from one section to other and will circle among the siblings only. Thus, the entire complex document can be accessed with very little effort.


This navigator also serves the purpose of a table of contents of the document. Depending on the current position, an application developer can display the current cell in a different color, with the title of the current section displayed just below the navigator, followed by the content of the section.

This way, a very small device like a mobile phone or PDA can display a very large and complex document in a convenient way.

On a normal desktop, since horizontal spread of the screen is more than the vertical, it is good to have the same navigator oriented vertically as shown below.

vertical document navigator

The motivation for this navigator came in while developing the gnowledge.org portal. For example, if you look at Cell (Biology) link at the portal, the links spread vertically displaying the hierarchy. Since each link has very little to show, the page is overwhelmed by several links, with very little text to read. Normally, most application developers use collapse and expand the tree to solve this problem. Even this will take away the space and will make the page divided into several narrow columns. In order to solve this problem, I came up with this idea. No one knows if this will be liked by people. Only usage and feedback will tell if this is a good navigation model.

If this model of a document is available to the author, at the time of creating the document, then it will force the author to use the ‘healthy’ practice of writing structured documents. This model is also useful for collaborative authoring environments. And as mentioned above, it is certainly good for handhelds, which need not download the entire document into the PDA.

As mentioned in the beginning, this model provides a non-traditional authoring and presentation model for structured documents, but based on the legacy ideas on structured documentation.

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