Sakura-Con 2013 Japanese Guest Relations Software Overview

Last year, I have written an article about how Org-mode played a role planning for Japanese Guest Relations sub-department at Sakura-Con 2012. This year, for Sakura-Con 2013, while continuing using the same toolset, I expanded it to include more tools available. While use of Emacs and Org-mode was still similar to what it was in the previous year, this year, I have introduced LaTeX and MobileOrg as part of toolset to this process.

LaTeX Documents

LaTeX was used to produce internal documents from something as small as meeting minutes to bigger documents, such as a master schedule book. In the process I have consciously avoided editing LaTeX source itself, unless it was in conjunction with creating a style template. Instead they are generated mostly from Org-mode exporting facility. The first reason is to prevent separation of contents between contents written in Org-mode and resulting documentations compiled with LaTeX. Also I found that Org-mode markup is much more pleasing to read than Org-mode. I did not want to create a situation where my colleagues left with LaTeX source. In case someone needs to edit these files, between Org-mode and LaTeX files, Org-mode files are far easier to comprehend. While admittedly, learning curve of learning how to use Emacs and Org-mode exists, perhaps it will be lesser of a pain than learning how to use LaTeX from grounds up. Org-mode also provides a facility to export to the OpenDocument format, which in fact I used time to time in case when collaborative editing of the document is necessary. Another factor that use of LaTeX worked very well was making a letters needed in the process. I created a set of shell script that inserts the name and other relevant information to letters, making personalization and update across every one of them very trivial. (This is done by passing a custom variable through the command line to generate separate jobs.) While letters are previously prepared by someone other than myself in the past, anticipating last minute changes, I have had a member of the team hand this task over to me. Especially because those letters are important to be aesthetically pleasing, she still performed design aspect of the letter. As the “design in the box” she could send over these design elements in a PDF file, and I could simply insert them in my LaTeX copy. Such letters were completed in both English and (by help of platex) Japanese. Those were based on letter class (jletter for Japanese) with many custom variables defined for the needs by the department. As LaTeX including very rich formatting (proper hyphenation scheme among others) it created professional looking letters and documents.

MobileOrg

While I wanted to integrate MobileOrg into my process for some time, this year, I have decided to make this year a trial run for MobileOrg. The big problem of MobileOrg as currently is, that the MobileOrg (at least for Android) is still somewhat confusing to use. Therefore, this year, it was limited to some set of to-do entries during the event. It was synced through Ubuntu One service. This can be configured to self-hosted fairly easily, and more extensive use of it is certainly on the horizon. (And for that matter, I have started using it privately, as well.)

OSS Use at Sakura-Con and Beyond

As I stated earlier, this report pertains to the Japanese Guest Relations team at Sakura-Con, and is my grassroots approach. It is not something implemented by the convention as whole. I’m a believer of the OSS, especially in a non-profit environment such as Sakura-Con. We cannot take it granted that everyone participating in the team has a copy of Microsoft Office, for example. LaTeX, while being somewhat harder to use than office softwares such as Microsoft Office, or LibreOffice, generates very predictable outputs across varying platforms. Also, there is a benefit of Org-mode/LaTeX files being very easy to be version controlled, too. The my goal next is to develop a systematic method of handling whole Lifecycle, though by procedure and automation!

Why I Love LaTeX

My History with LaTeX

I have been using LaTeX and its variant (mostly pLaTeX variant, for doing Japanese documents) for about 10 years now. Back when I was in school, I have used to take a note in real time. (Back around that time, Org-mode was still about to be released. If I’d do anything differently today, I’d take a note in Org-mode, and perhaps export it to LaTeX or other formats.) I even negotiated, for some class, that I can submit assignments in PDF output from \LaTeX, which I did get favorable responses from all I asked. As a premise, most others submitted non-coding assignments on paper — some submitted electronically, presumably with Microsoft Word format. (How they can live with formula editor on Microsoft Word, is outside of my comprehension…)

Why You Should Use LaTeX?

To me, LaTeX is a superior document creation tool compared to other forms of document creation.

Flexibility in Toolchain

Essentially, working on a document using an office suite is pretty much take-all-or-nothing. If you are completely sold to an application software you are using, that’s great, but if not, you either have to continue working in an environment you are not satisfied with, or should you choose to integrate process using another method, such as alternative softwares — that’s when things get very awkward. While most of office suite applications provide some support for interfacing with other applications, which could be through set of APIs, or scripting, but because of the complexity of the software, customizing those environments could well be a full time job of its own.

LaTeX file is essentially a plain text format with markup. Any text editors can handle LaTeX files. If the editing LaTeX file, learning LaTeX commands are not your cup of tea, then there are many “IDE for LaTeX” systems you can use instead. One such application I’ve used in the past is called TeXnicCenter which provided menus and toolbar access to many of commonly (and some obscure) commands available in LaTeX. If you are being intimidated by the markup nature of LaTeX, you may want to try it, or many other editors around.

Because of a text based workflow, it integrates very well among other tools. For instance, I use Org-mode to create a document. Org-mode is a very versatile tool that can be used for many forms of data management and authoring. Perhaps because Carsten Dominik, the original author of Org-mode is an astronomy professor, Org-mode is designed so it works very well with LaTeX system.

This provides multiple export path as well. While I prepare a document as a document, the same document also can be used to output as an HTML page. (It is also worthwhile to mention that the HTML output from Org-mode is clean enough that it validates as XHTML strict.)

Clear Separation of Style and Contents

You may have come across the documents that are horribly formatted. I have seen a document that the heading was merely done by change of font size, spacing between paragraph being adjusted by an empty line of different font size; the list goes on and on. This comes from overemphasis of so called WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) concept, where what you see on the screen is what you get as a result. For instance, when you print out the document, the result will be what you see on the screen. (While some may disagree with this notion, but it was premise as marketed back then.)

Even after sociological emphasis is shifted from circulation of document as a paper, and electronic transmission, collaboration, and management, mindset of users were never shifted, and as a result, poorly formatted documents are being produced, perhaps in a degree of hundreds of Terabytes per seconds world wide.

Bad formatting was, perhaps, acceptable when paper trails were the center of focus; after all, noone really cared how data that resulting print was originated from, as long as it is legible.

LaTeX in nature, often enforces document markups, which makes it much harder to do it wrong way. It is still possible to format document in LaTeX wrong way, but either makes getting what you want done more challenging, or will cause errors.

Better Version Control

LaTeX document is a text file, so the document can be version controlled as easily as computer program codes. Difference between version can be inspected easily. This is fundamentally different from how many of Office Suite applications record changes; essentially they are keylogger system where user actions are recorded into the document. If this feature is not enabled when the document is being written, or information is lost for some reason, recovering difference information between two document often provide inaccurate information. Moreover, merging difference from multiple sources are often very difficult because of the nature that style information often interleaved within the document.

Want Try It Out?

Installing LaTeX to your computer is easier than ever, as there’s installation package called TeX Live which includes most of programs you will need to get started. Depending on your preference, you may want also install aforementioned editing software, but your favorite text editors should do a trick.

Whitepaper: Org-mode at Sakura-Con

This article explains use of Org-mode in a context of convention management.

Who am I?

I am Japanese Guest Manager appointed by relations department of Sakura-Con 2012. My duty at Sakura-Con involves management of Japanese guests of honor for Sakura-Con 2012; everything related to Japanese guests, from schedule managements, human resources, to the field management of the team consisting of a little less than 30 managing 17 guests of honor and their associates — about 60 in total. The team consists of Japanese guest liaisons assigned to each guest as well as 3 of event interpreters assigned to events such as panels.

The team managed more than 80 hours of programming spanning three days as well as times outside of convention hours.

Objective

Managing Japanese guest relations at Sakura-Con involved multiple considerations. Here are some aspects of such managements:

Sakura-Con used its own scheduling system, which is mainly used to schedule events on the global calendar, thus making it possible to coordinate scheduling between multiple departments. You can imagine this as a big conference room scheduling system. Unfortunately, the way the schedule is presented and solely chronological and was very hard to glance. (It was better designed to see what time tables are open but not designed to follow what each resource are assigned for.) Japanese guest relations required customized solution as we had to need of further digesting this information.

Japanese guest relations issues schedule sheet which consists of formatted schedule for each guest of honor as well as staff. This process was assigned to one of my staff, however this had to be handled somewhat concurrently while schedules were being finalized.

Aside from liaisons, Japanese guest interpreters had their own assignment. It is because they were assigned to events rather than guests. This presents interpreters different set of requirements in their scheduling. As the schedule called for many events concurrently occurring but greatest number of such concurrency were constrained by available resources. This also had to be updated on the fly when pertinent changes occur in the scheduling process.

Sakura-Con 2012 particularly hired many new staff due to its number of guests. Each of member had to be accounted for their availability for as well as number of “checklist” for signing them up.

Each staff is assigned to guest to manage. Assignments are done taking their ability in account as well as their preferences.

Management Using Org-mode

During the preparation of Sakura-Con 2012, there were so many type of information to process. Because Org-mode allows variety of output from its org file, it helped to produce output necessary for consumption by our staff.

Schedules had to be constructed so it is easy to glance as well as to have detailed information within. To carry out this, under heading for each guest, information contained table of events, which contained name of the event as well as time (with inactive timestamps) and venue. I can then sort this table based on the time, which generates chronological time table to each guest.

Furthermore, the list required some more information, therefore, it would contain subheading which lists each event by its type, but alphabetically for easy lookup.
This heading had active timestamp. This allowed each of those entry to be exported as iCal calendar file; this file can then be used by interpreters to schedule their assignment.

The following is the sample segment from the real schedule: (Due to confidentiality issues, some of information from the example are eradicated and does not show real schedule of the convention.)

Org-mode sample used at Sakura-Con

Yes, this is probably redundant having two representation of same event, but given calendar output from table seems to be not possible, this was a middle ground I had to reach.
Also having these sectional event subheading means they could be marked with various TODO field. I used this feature to label status of each event to signifying events still requiring changes.

From this file, I could derive HTML output for printed schedule as well as calendar file for interpreter schedules.

Other than some errors originating from input mistakes, the process supported the preparation effort very well.

When the convention added a guest, it involved multitude of process, such as guest invitations. These were managed using mainly by checkbox on Org-mode, among with relevant information linked to. Again, all those information could be converted to HTML and other format for sharing.

Staffs are managed same way as guests, except they had different type of checklist. Their contact information as well as interview processes were logged and amended as the process continued. Staff directory was also published utilizing same data compiled in this process.

The Team Website

Utilizing same data set above, the team website containing guest schedules, staff information as well other miscellaneous information could be produced and maintained very rapidly. Utilizing smartphones browser, everything from guest schedule to assignment information could be referenced everywhere there are coverages. While being static site, onsite update to the contents were very simple. Backend featured Git and new revision could be pushed to update the site from local machine. This was mainly done by a laptop with Clear hotspot. I have also designed emergency USB thumbdrive which contains all the necessary tools (including complete version of Emacs, SSH, Git, etc.) which could be used to continue updating the site in the event that laptop would be out of order. Fortunately, I did not have to resort to use it.

The team website was not only utilized by the team itself, but its reference was expanded to entire department as well as relevant personnel outside of the department, logging more than 3500 requests on the convention week alone, which would have been additional inquiry to the department otherwise.

Future Considerations

Org-mode was an integral part of Japanese Guest Relations at Sakura-Con 2012. While model based on static webpage has worked very well for the purpose, perhaps I can perhaps develop or utilize frameworks that can parse org file input to generate format better fit for many of use cases.

Also mobile integration utilizing tools such as MobileOrg was not within the scope of the project, this is certainly something I will want to explore in the future.

Org-mode and Why You Should Consider Using It

Org-mode is certainly best one of many things I’ve discovered in first 2 months in 2012. Now I use it for anything from note taking, convention management, and even writing full report.

This was great discovery to me, that recently, I have been started a lot of things on the web as well as on more specialized platforms such as Chromebook rather than on traditional PC. Sure I will have to use some type of computer to convert document prepared in Org-mode, more about it later.

Binary Blobs Suck

I have been complaining about various binary blobs in the past. I expressed my hate anything from proprietary format, as well as winmail.dat attached to E-mails. (I’m still seeing that, albeit less often. Hey Microsoft, if you are seeing it push some Windows Update to everyone and get rid of that thing altogether.)

Classic examples are documents generated by any office softwares traditionally had this problem. It started to improve when standardization efforts such as OpenDocument and some sense Office Open XML are introduced in the market. This may have changed significantly in standardized to approach to otherwise proprietary formats that was (and still is) dominating the market, was was very important movement.

However, what these standardization efforts did not solve was accessibility problem. No matter how open those formats are, they would still require use of some extra piece of software, that requires degree of complexity than what you could attain using plain text. TeX (and LaTeX) has been around for years allowing plain text edit, but it was far harder to use than, although, I consider TeX/LaTeX being 100 times better way of creating documents than on Microsoft Word.

Org-mode being plain text, I can be editing the document everywhere: I can do it on PC, I can do it on Mac, I can do it on Chromebook (considering ChromeOS does not have any software packages it is bit cranky to do it with) and I can do it on my phone. Eventually, I will be relying on actual PC to convert, but being able to write documents is very useful aspect of Org-mode and mark up languages in general.

Structured Documents Made Easy

One thing I like about Org-mode (and also TeX/LaTeX) is that it enforces structured documents. I often across many documents E-mail to me that are horribly created document – heading being mere font size change, table of contents written as text, rather than auto generated based on heading information, because it lacks document structure information because of the above.

Sure some people are apparently smart enough to do this properly even when they are using Microsoft Word, but the point is that Org-mode enforces this with positive motivation. By making sure the document has proper format on Org-mode, it makes Org-mode much more useful, as it is outline processor, you will be able to organize contents more efficiently when it is structured.

Project Management Made Easy

Most of things I do at my work is project management. I used to use Microsoft Project, which after I’ve used it for while, I found it wasn’t necessary solution to the problem. Yes, it is perhaps good at making graph that wows management in some companies, but constraints it assume is not always in-line with real life situation. Unless you are working for perfect company, schedule slips, requirements change, which causes heck of changes to the beautiful chart you’ve made using those project management softwares.

Past few days, I have been working on adjusting events which involves around 80 hours of sessions – Org-mode helped this process such a breeze, because getting the big picture of dependencies was very easy with Org-mode.

And what best, is that reports can be generated to number of format for others to review, which is my next point:

Document Creation Made Easy

Once authoring of the document is completed on Org-mode, it is very easy to generate reports for others to consume. Be it HTML, OpenDocument, LaTeX, etc., all it involve is to export as those format.

It is even possible to create table contains dynamically generated field, much like you can do in Microsoft Excel. It’s like text based spreadsheet.

This creates seamless pipeline of information management to document creation based on it.

Shortcomings?

It is fair to say there are some shortcoming to Org-mode. For example, it is harder to embed diagrams on the document. (It’s not impossible, but the diagrams need to be created externally.) Documents involving heavy use of diagram and drawing are much better done in applications like Microsoft Powerpoint, Microsoft Visio, or LibreOffice Draw. (And please don’t do it on Microsoft Excel!) Other than that, Org-mode is very good all-round information management and document authoring tool.