Turning Off Comments

I wish I didn’t have to do this, but the fact is that virtually every comment that is submitted on my site is spam. Until now I have manually screened every comment, but it is taking up more time as the volume in increases. And I get so few legitimate comments that it does not seem worth the effort. So if you are a real person, you can probably figure out how to contact me. But I am now working to disable comments everywhere on my site.

Background to the LibreOffice series

Ken Fallon of Hacker Public Radio (where my audio series airs) asked me to do a show on the background and workflow of my LibreOffice series, and that seems like a fun idea, so here goes.

My Background

For me, the prime motivation is figuring out how things work and then explaining them to others. I started fairly young as a voracious reader (still am), and I devoured books by Isaac Asimov. These included his science fiction novels (I still re-read them every few years), but also his many more numerous non-fiction books. He tells how he responded to the Sputnik launch by deciding to do everything he could to improve science education. What I really liked was his ability to take any topic and explain it in a way that made sense, and I rather hope that some of then rubbed off on me. I leave it to you to decide how well I manage that, though.

In any case I think it set me on a certain path. I recall working in Finance early in my career and having people say I really should be as teacher. And in due course that is what I set out to do. I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan, and then became an Assistant Professor of Economics at Concordia University. I mostly enjoyed teaching, though the paperwork is something I am glad to rid of. And it did seem like I had a certain talent for it. But while I was pursuing my career as an Economics professor the Internet and the computing revolution were happening, and I got involved in it at my school. My initial focus was on how I could use this technology to improve my teaching (and more importantly, to improve my students’ learning), but I have to say the technology itself kind of sucked me in. I’m sure any geek will understand.

One of the great benefits of my career in teaching is learning how to learn. And a key lesson is that the only way to really learn a subject is to prepare to teach it to someone else. I can even recall being given a class to teach in a subject I did not in the least understand beforehand, but I worked hard and it became a regular part of my load. There is a certain art to learning how to teach something, where you need to break it down and anticipate where the student will have problems. And no matter how detailed you think you have been in giving instructions or explanations, students will still find a way to misunderstand.

I was successful in using computer technology to improve what I did. I taught an Applied Statistics class in the Business Program where I moved the entire class to the computer lab and did everything on computers, for instance. I also developed Web Sites for all of my classes, and saw one of them get picked up by the World Classroom (Economic Geography). And I got ahead of all of my colleagues in doing this, so one day the Academic Dean asked me to take on the role of Faculty Development Officer to focus on helping my colleagues use computer technology. And this eventually lead to me moving into the IT Department and taking on all of the training, including staff.

I still taught classes, though, and I was asked to develop a 6 week seminar in computer technology for our degree completion program. This was aimed at adults with about half of the bachelors degree completed who had stopped to deal with job, family, or other issues, and who now needed to finish their degrees. We required them to demonstrate computer proficiency, and some did by taking a test. But my seminar was the alternative. If they took it and passed, that satisfied the requirement. And the heart of my seminar was Microsoft Office 97 (at the time, this was state-of-the-art <g>), and Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access each got a 3-hour session, with required projects to be handed in using them. This is where I began to formally put together just how you should use each program. I got very good reactions from the students that showed that for most of them this was valuable information they could put to good use. Many of them had put off taking the seminar as long as they could, but after taking it, they complained that they hadn’t had this information earlier to help them with their schoolwork.

Later I got asked to do training for other groups, using different software, like WordPerfect office, and that is when I discovered that all of these programs worked about the same way. If someone wanted me to do training I wold just ask them to give me the software, and in a day or two I could adapt my training materials to the particular software they used. It really meant looking to find which menu hid the feature that I already knew would have to be there. And then I got a request from a teacher in a Lutheran parochial school which did not have much money. She wanted to know about alternatives because Microsoft Office was beyond their budget. And I had just purchased a copy of Star Office to check it out, and while this was a commercial product at the time, it was 1) developed specifically to support schools; and 2) very generously licensed. As I recall for about $500 we could site-license it for the entire school, students, staff, and faculty, and everyone could also install it on their home computer for no additional charge.

Of course, Star Office was later purchased by Sun Microsystems and turned into the open source program OpenOffice.org, and then when Sun was bought by Oracle, it forked and became LibreOffice. And while I use Microsoft Office at work, I use LibreOffice at home, and as a supported of free software I promote it, including doing tutorials on Hacker Public Radio.

BTW, I have since moved on from teaching. No money in it.<g>

Workflow and Process

The starting point for me is research. Of course the LibreOffice Documentation Site is important (there are very detailed guides for each of the components), as is the Document Foundation Wiki. There is the Ask LibreOffice site.  There is also an excellent mailing list called Users. And I also look for articles on the Web. One person I pay close attention to is Bruce Byfield, who is really an expert on LibreOffice, and who is working on a book right now that will focus on Styles and Templates. He writes for a number of publications, so the best way to find his stuff is to follow him on Google+, or do a search on “Bruce Byfield LibreOffice” to get plenty of articles. I will of course be buying his book as soon as it comes out. When I find something that catches my eye, I usually save it in Evernote, which I happen to like enough to get a Pro account. And I want to mention a very detailed and excellent series of articles in Full Circle Magazine written by Elmer Perry. Full Circle is a free electronic magazine you can download. I have written for them before, and was initially considering doing something on LibreOffice, but Elmer’s series is pretty darned good and I don’t know that I could add enough to make it worthwhile.

One of the things I learned from teaching is the importance of being systematic and logical, in particular by writing down the things I need to cover. If I were to just “wing it” everything would be disorganized and out-of-order, even if I know my stuff. By writing everything down first, I can easily fix those “Wait, I forgot a step back there” items that would otherwise mess up my presentation. So step one for me is to always write out, with screen shots, each tutorial, which is then posted to this Web site. This can take me anywhere from a few hours to most of the day. In doing this I am trying to make sure I get everything exactly correct. Frequently I experiment with options to understand exactly what they do. While I rely on the documentation a good deal, in some ways it falls short of what I want to do in explaining things, and that means a lot of experimentation. Only when I have the written version in final form do I move on to recording the audio.

My recording is fairly straightforward. I know Ken always says that audio quality is not the first concern for Hacker Public Radio, but I did invest in a Blue Snowball USB microphone which I know cost me less than US$100. Other than that, I use Audacity on my Kubuntu box to do the recording, and that works fine for me. I will generally boost the volume slightly after I record, but I don’t do any other processing, and so far the audio quality seems to be fine. I export to FLAC at the highest quality setting so that I can give HPR the best starting point. Then I add the tags, work on the Show notes, and FTP the files to the HPR server.

I hope this is of some interest to Ken and the others who seem to be following my series.

LibreOffice at Ohio LinuxFest 2013

I am very excited about an opportunity to teach LibreOffice at Ohio LinuxFest in September. OLF has done something really great, and that is to create a track aimed specifically to new users of Linux, called the Meet the Penguin track, and I have been selected to be a part of it. The idea is to demonstrate to new users just what free software can do. As you know if you have used LibreOffice or have followed my series of posts (and/or the Hacker Public Radio podcasts), LibreOffice is a full-featured office productivity solution that matches in general what Microsoft Office can do. I think if more people were aware of the capabilities this suite has, they would be happy to use it and get off the treadmill of expensive upgrades (now turning into expensive annual subscriptions) that Microsoft Office demands of its users.

If you would like to be a part of the fun, just register for Ohio LinuxFest at http://www.ohiolinux.org/registration. Enthusiast registration is free if you pre-register ($5 at the door for walk-ins), so it is quite affordable. I hope to see many of you there!

LyX – The Document Processor

This is a program I have not yet used, but it looks interesting. I had heard of it before but not looked into it, then a correspondent brought it up today. LyX is a free, program licensed under the GPL V2, and is available on all major platforms. Based on a quick look, it seems particularly suited to writing academic papers, and preparing them to be printed.

My correspondent, Morten Juhl-Johansen Zőlde-Fejér has produced a primer on this which you can read at http://writtenandread.net/lyx/. It looks interesting, check it out.

Don’t Teach Programs!

One of the things that gets me upset is something that happens in schools every day (it happens in other places as well). It is a type of education malpractice, and you’ll know it when you hear someone say that they teach “Microsoft Office”. And I say that not because there is anything wrong with Microsoft Office. Truth be told, it is a fine suite of office productivity software which I use frequently. But I use a lot of programs, including LibreOffice, OpenOffice.org, Corel WordPerfect Office, and at various times I have used ABI word, Quattro, and probably a half-dozen programs I can’t bring to mind right now. And the truth that most people never hear is:

They all do pretty much the same things.

I have taught people to use a lot of these programs, and I teach them the same things regardless of the program used. I never have a problem because I don’t worry about learning the program, I will instead learn the concepts. For example, if you put me in front of a computer that has a new word processing package on it that I have never used, the first thing I will do is figure out where the Templates are and how to set up my Styles. I know those two concepts are key to using a word processing program. And if I don’t find those two are in the program, I know it is not really a word processing program, it is a text editor. There is nothing wrong with being a text editor, it is a tool for a different purpose. But if you don’t understand what it means to do Word Processing, you might not understand what the difference is other than the lack of font choices.

If you teach specific programs you make people dependent on having a specific program. If you teach the underlying concepts, however, you empower people. That said,people who are properly trained will have to understand that how a given program implements a feature may be different. They may use different terminology. I recently heard a complaint that LibreOffice Writer was no good because this person could not do text boxes. And the problem here is that LibreOffice calls them frames, and in fact they are far more powerful than a mere text box. Different terminology was most of the problem here, but the feature was there.

Now, it is true that in some marginal cases there may be differences, but most of the time any feature most people use in any one program will be in all of the others as well. You just need to be flexible.

But stop teaching specific programs. Education ought to be about empowering people, not tying them down.