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.

Why I decided to get Galaxy Nexus and go back to Vanilla Android

I have been Android user since T-mobile released their first Android phone, T-mobile G1 (HTC Dream), back in 2008. Couple years after that, I’ve moved to Nexus One, then on Sensation 4G (HTC Sensation) then recently, I’ve decided to move to Galaxy Nexus with vanilla Android.

Of course, Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) was one of many reasons I’ve decided doing this, but there are more, inherently what I feel broken with manufacture/carrier customization to a device.

Yeah, I’m talking about HTC Sense, yeah, I’m also talking about other pre-installed softwares like T-mobile TV that I haven’t, and don’t use.

Why did they remove useful features?

Couple of months ago, T-mobile pushed out 4.0 updates to Sensation 4G. Which I was happy with — Google Chrome finally ran on my phone (it is only supported 4.0 and up) and the system was overall much more stable. (more to the stability later)

But one thing I haven’t understood, and I still don’t is, why did HTC remove some useful feature from vanilla 4.0. One example is the fact that you can’t uninstall application by dragging and drop from the application menu to the top of the screen. As far as I know, it was first introduced in 4.0, which could have been very useful feature. (and in fact, my 4.0 Acer tablet does it just fine.) While this is such a minor small detail, considering relatively small storage size of HTC Sensation was issue when I want to experiment with different application. Being able to uninstall application by moving icons around certainly beats inconveniences of navigating through Applications menu. (and try doing it for 10 different applications you are trying to uninstall!)

Another thing was small, but visual styling on the operating system. I thought it’d be that cool 4.0 look, right? Nope, it’s same old “round button” style. Couldn’t they give at least an option to change visual style?

To me, these seem like clear indication that designers at HTC are more on the ball of trying to push their own mobile experience than bringing the best and current experience on the Android platform.

Address book: Polluted

One of the big issue I had with HTC Sense was its address book. When I see number of contact, I see something like following inserted to my memo section of Google contacts.

Notes: xxxxxxxid:xxxxxxxxxx/friendof:xxxxxxxxxx

It looks like this is meta data for their account linking. Why?

It appears like it decided to pollute 200 of my contacts this way, and to get rid of them, I have to go one by one. (or perhaps I can write a program that talks with Google Contacts API and do that…)

It is came to my attention when I used dialer/address book feature is much nicer than I recalled when I was back in vanilla 2.3 on Nexus One. Even though I already had Android 4.0 on HTC Sensation, I did not see those changes because of HTC Sense.

2.3 launcher instability

Stability of the HTC Sense launcher was joke back in 2.3. It apparently got garbage collected way too many times, which if you try to do anything useful on your phone, and go back to launcher, then you will be greeted with green HTC logo on white screen for 20 seconds, which you can’t do anything. If you need to make a quick call after browsing a web for while? Nope, you’ll have to wait 20 seconds. It was annoying. Fortunately, they fixed most of these problem on 4.0.

Bloat and delays

Complaining about bloatwares (or “pre-installed softwares” to put it nicer way) maybe have nothing to do with device, rather choice of retail channel, Those pre-installed software have been bit of nuisance to the platform. The mere fact if they are on the device, will take up your storage should you choose to update it, and if you don’t, Play market will nag you to update, and renders “update to all” function unusable as pressing that button will also update the application you don’t want update. (at least they have fixed this issue starting 4.0 update by making it possible to disable applications you don’t use — which makes them disappear from the launcher, and stops update detection.)

Also looking how some “application such as wi-fi calling” contributed delay in ICS update, it is now clear that those pre-installed softwares are now affecting release timeline of update, not just because of manufactures, but because of carriers they are involved with.

I’m not against carriers developing a software for their customers, I’m just against those being pre-installed. All of the problem can be prevented by just distributing those Google Play.

In summary

I’m not necessary bashing HTC Sense here. HTC Sense might have played much more relevant role introducing relatively friendlier interface compared to vanilla Android in the past. Perhaps back in the day of Android 1.6, it was still augmenting vanilla Android quite a bit (I’ve briefly used HTC Sense running on Android 1.6 on my colleague’s phone), but in my opinion, they stopped innovating there. Did Android 2.3 with HTC Sense any different from one that was running on Android 1.6? No. Was it different on Android 4.0? Nope!

Probably HTC Sense cater more to those prefers no changes; actually, let me rephrase it, refusing changes. I can imagine a lot of support calls for such change distracting a lot of users, but still, insulating improvement on this major operating system was most disturbing fact that I realized once I moved to vanilla Android 4.1. I guess it is side effect of Android platform is so prolific that now is becoming commodity. When the platform is spread to many class of people, their common denominator is set to those who just seek for more consistent, but in turn, boring (to those seeking active improvements) experience. It’s just like early days of smartphones. Was Windows Mobile 6 so different from Windows Mobile 5? What about versions of Blackberry? The gap is that Android is still evolving platform and that what makes the platform great. It is such a shame that 90% of device out there seems to be intentionally left in vacuum just because customers wants it? (or manufactures/carriers think so?)

Clearly Google doesn’t want manufacture from “reskinning” the phone (not that they can stop it, considering the open nature of Android platform.) Now Android has caught up to the point it doesn’t need custom interface to accomplish anything you can with those custom interfaces.

I think I know what my future phones will be from now on.

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.

Google Chrome for Mac and Linux, and Why That Matters

It has been a little more than a week since stable version of Google Chrome for Mac and Linux was made available by Google. I haven’t tried Mac version, but I’ve tried Linux version.

Linux version supports extensions as much as its Windows counterpart does, and it seems to be they are pretty much compatible out of the box. (which isn’t surprising as they are written mainly in JavaScript.)

Google Chrome is perhaps not adding too much of competition on Linux, as there aren’t so much notion of standard browser, although probably most of distributions are including Firefox as default browser, therefore, I can see it will be start eating some portion of pies from Firefox…

Google Chrome on Mac is more interesting as there is Apple’s own Safari browser. (much like the case of IE on Windows.) It’d be interesting to see how their new version 5, which was released earlier today will compete with it. (word on the street is that Safari now supports extensions.) Though when I used to use Mac, I was on Firefox rather than Safari. I simply didn’t like Safari for some reason.

Google Chrome’s introduction to those additional platform is quite meaningful, because people who are using multiple computers, and often different operating system (for example, Windows at work, Mac/Linux at home) will find Google Chrome’s multi-platform very useful. I can find this availability issue between platforms could defer some users from it. You can use same extensions (which actually somewhat better than Firefox — believe or not, there are Firefox extensions that only supports certain platforms…), same browser sync feature.

Google Chrome won’t be grabbing big chunk of market share overnight, but I can see it slowly approaching to solid two digits sh

Useful Google Chrome Options for Privacy Protections

Google Chrome offers several different parameters you can pass in when you launch the application. Use them, you can disable components of Google Chrome.

  • -disable-extensions disables extension
  • -disable-images inhibit Google Chrome from loading images
  • -disable-java disables Java
  • -disable-javascript disables JavaScript
  • -disable-plugins disables plugin
  • -disable-sync inhibits bookmark sync feature
  • -incognito opens browser in incognito mode

Those parameters need to be passed in the command line. (or if you are using Windows, you can also add those to your shortcut, too.)

For instance, the following would disable both plugins and extensions. (thus no Flash, etc.)

chrome -disable-plugins -disable-extensions

Also there is -proxy-server, which you can also make Google Chrome access through proxy server. (Useful if you are creating SSH tunnel, for example.)

chrome -proxy-server=socks5://localhost:1234

One caution is that in order to use this, you will have to make sure that all instances of Google Chrome are closed, or this will not work.

Fun with Master Documents on OpenOffice.org

Master Documents, such an underutilized part of OpenOffice.org is actually very useful tool when you have to write documents more than few pages.

Master Document is basically special version of OpenOffice.org Writer window that let you combine multiple documents to make one document. It is very nice as you could be editing chunk of each file, then combine them into one large document.

This approach is especially useful when you create documents containing a lot of graphics. Having a lot of graphic can consume quite a bit of memory, and you may find it slow to edit the file. This wouldn’t be too much of problem if you are just editing few pages, but it is when you edit hundreds of pages.

Other benefit of this is that you don’t have to worry about formatting when you are writing. You can apply formatting globally after you have done writing. This way, you can focus on contents, and then you can have consistent formatting of the document when you are ready to create a final document.