April 2012 African language Wikipedia update

It’s been about five months since I last looked in detail at the South African language Wikipedias, and there’s been significant progress in three of the languages.

South African Language Wikipedias

Language 1/10/2007 30/5/2010 19/11/2011 13/4/2012
Afrikaans 8374 15260 20042 22115
Northern Sotho** 0 540* 557 566
Tswana 40 103 240 490
Zulu 107 195 256 483
Swati 56 173 359 361
Tsonga 10 174 192 193
Venda 43 162 193 190
Sotho 43 69 132 145
Xhosa 66 115 125 136

Afrikaans remains by far the largest official South African language Wikipedia and continues to develop. It’s a healthy, thriving project with many good articles. Northern Sotho has been fairly stagnant since becoming an official project, but the good news comes in the next two on the list. Tswana has more than doubled in size to pass both Swati and Zulu, the primary reason being the Google Setswana challenge. Google offered prizes for participants, including a trip to attend the Wikimedia Foundation’s annual conference in Washington DC, USA, as well as netbooks, android phones and so on. It’s encouraging that although the contest is now over, there is still fairly heavy development going on, and hopefully this will be sustained.

Zulu has also seen good progress, adding 227 articles since the last update. There’s no Google to thank this time – the progress has mostly been due to a single highly active editor, a native English speaker and Zulu, French and Afrikaans translator, testament to the difference just one dedicated contributor can make.

The other languages have seen almost no progress. Particularly disappointing has been Xhosa. I know of at least three Xhosa Wikipedia workshops that have taken place, at the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape and with the provincial government, and yet it still remains as the smallest of the official South African language Wikipedias.

Moving on to Africa in general, which I haven’t looked at in detail for about a year, there’s been much positive progress.

African Language Wikipedias

Language 1/1/2007 30/5/2010 11/2/2011 13/4/2012
Malagasy   2450 3806 36767
Yoruba 517 8858 12174 29894
Swahili 2980 17998 21244 23481
Afrikaans 6149 15259 17002 22115
Amharic 742 3810 6738 11572
Egyptian Arabic       8433
Somali     1639 2354
Lingala 292 1255 1394 1816
Kinyarwanda     1501 1807
Wolof   1068 1096 1116

Swahili, which has been the largest African language Wikipedia for so long, has been dramatically surpassed in size by both Malagasy and Yoruba.

The Malagasy Wikipedia, with its unique characteristics, is beloved by linguists and I believe many of the contributors are non-native speakers. Most of the contributors work in Malagasy or French, and I haven’t been able to understand the reasons for its particularly rapid rise.

Yoruba too has seen a dramatic increase. but surprisingly Swahili, which seemed to be in good shape a few months ago, has slowed noticeably, and even Afrikaans is starting to catch up in size.

I’d previously overlooked the Egyptian Arabic Wikipedia, and have added it to the comparison. It was launched in 2008 (being announced at the Alexandra Wikimania conference), so taking into account its late start, as well as some initial opposition to its existence as a separate project to standard Arabic, it’s growing well, at the third fastest rate behind Malagasy and Yoruba.

Progress in the other languages is steady, and it’s great to see the development of these projects towards an actual usable resource.

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Lessons from a server upgrade

Recently, the server hosting the Ethical Co-op website died, and needed to be replaced. It launched in 2005, running on a standard LAMP system.

Since it was written in the days of PHP4, and was working well, I’d never upgraded it to PHP5. Everything was running smoothly on PHP4, but this had reached end of life, and running PHP4 on the server was proving more and more of an obstacle when trying to install other, newer code.

So, when the server died late on Saturday night, and with the weekend usually being a very quiet time, I decided to use the opportunity to finally move to PHP5.

The server has needed to be replaced or reinstalled perhaps three times since 2005. I’m not a natural system administrator – I have a programming and database background, and have never done system administration professionally, so the first few times were a bit shaky. However, I’ve improved as I’ve gone along, and the installation went very smoothly this time.

I have everything carefully documented. There are a lot of tweaks to the vanilla system, various extra PEAR libraries installed, and all are carefully documented, so setting up from scratch is a breeze.

I upgraded the code from PHP4 to PHP5 which (considering my coding style carefully honed from its roots in ZX-81 BASIC) was trivial. Everything was back in good time by the end of the weekend, my tests reported no problems, and I went to bed.

Monday the problem reports started.

It didn’t take long to identify the problem. POST variables were being chopped off. Consistently nothing more than around product 200 was being returned. I’d never encountered a problem like this before, but after Googling I identified a culprit. Suhosin, the Hardened PHP project, has a post.max_vars setting which defaults to 200. A quick look at my config and I see This server is protected with the Suhosin Patch.

A perfect fit. This must be the cause of the problem!

Cursing the paranoid security, I spent much of the day investigating Suhosin. A Twitter search returned “Fuck Suhosin!” as the first result, making me more sure I’d identified the culprit.

None of the Suhosin settings were appearing in my phpinfo() output, which apparently is normal behaviour for the defaults, and explicitly setting them in php.ini, which seemed to solve the problem for most people out there, had no effect.

The server by default had the Suhosin patch installed, and in my attempts to get come control over the configuration I installed the Extension, which finally gave me control.

At this point I realised my first mistake. There may have been 200 products, but each product has five variables, so the cutoff was actually happening at 1000, not at 200.

And so I made my second mistake. If suhosin.post.max_vars is by default set to 200, it couldn’t be the cause of the problem. Still, there was no way to know that the setting was 200 on my system, and in the default configuration file that appeared after I installed the extension, this line appeared

;suhosin.post.max_vars = 1000

Commented out, but indicative that the default was 1000, not 200 as the documentation indicated. By now I really was convinced that Suhosin was the spawn of all evil.

However, no matter what changes I made to these and other possible Suhosin settings, nothing made a difference.

Eventually I had to accept it wasn’t Suhosin, and I had wasted most of the day. It had been unclear to me from Suhosin’s documentation exactly the difference between the patch and extension was, and I had also been misled by some posts claiming that the patch was responsible for the POST var limit, when it appears after all it isn’t, and this is only implemented if the extension is installed.

By that stage there was such a mess from the day’s errors and the downtime that I was ready to cancel the week’s deliveries (the Ethical Co-op delivers once a week, with most of the orders arriving on Monday and Tuesday).

Bernhard of Meglakor had been helping me, and was much quicker than me to realise Suhosin was not the cause. I was convinced it was the cause; after all, it had seemed a perfect match, and it was the only thing I could find that limited POST variables.

But it wasn’t.

Earlier this year, PHP 5.3.9 was released. One of the minor changes made during that release was the following:

Added max_input_vars directive to prevent attacks based on hash collisions.

There it was! PHP now limits any input variables to 1000 by default! After all my worrying about upgrading the code, it was a minor configuration change in a minor version that caused all the problems.

A classic case of being led astray by mis-identifying the problem, and then being less open to alternatives because of the investment in the identification!

A simple change, and everything was working again.

Thanks Bernhard for clearing Suhosin’s name, and then identifying max_input_vars.

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SOPA and moving from GoDaddy

Late last year I moved most of my domains that I was hosting with GoDaddy to a new registrar, and the rest will follow closer to expiry.

For those who don’t know, in October, Lamar Smith, a US congressman, introduced a bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The bill is a hideous monstrosity allowing the US government to, in essence, break the internet. While the bill only has jurisdiction in the US, and its consequences will be severe there, so much of the internet as we know it is based in the US, and this puts things at risk worldwide. I’m not going to discuss more about SOPA now, but here are some SOPA resources if you want to read more.

SOPA Resources:

So SOPA’s a bad idea, and almost everyone in the online world has come out strongly against it. However, the world’s largest domain registrar, GoDaddy, initially released a statement strongly supportive of the bill. GoDaddy have been in the news before. In early 2011 their CEO, Bob Parsons, videod himself shooting an elephant in Zimbabwe, leading to a boycott led by PETA.

But with their support of SOPA, they very quickly ran into much more widespread opposition. It began with a thread on popular news site reddit (which could not host in the US if SOPA was passed), and was given further publicity when Jimmy Wales announced that Wikipedia would be moving its domains.

There are many companies that support SOPA, but the main reason GoDaddy have been successfully targeted is that it is so easy to move domains. After a domain is registered, you normally forget about it, and it simply generates ongoing income for the registrar each year. However, moving is painless, a once-off process, you can again forget about it, safe in the knowledge that your money won’t be supporting GoDaddy each year.

Since I started moving, late last year, GoDaddy backtracked, and SOPA has faced increasing opposition and almost certainly won’t be passed in its current form, as even Barack Obama has come out against it.

Who did I choose as an alternative? There are a large number of top-level registrars accredited by ICANN, the non-profit group that effectively administers the internet (and which took over from the US government in 1998). As far as I know, the only South African company accredited (for .biz, .com, .net and .org only) is Internet Solutions – everyone else will be a reseller.

Moving gave me an opportunity to decide who I wished to support, and I eventually settled on Gandi.net. They’re a well-respected registrar based in France, and in 2010 they were the 27th largest worldwide. They will also donate $1 from every transfer to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and besides opportunistically taking advantage of the publicity, they consistently provide real support to a number of other worthy institutions, such as Creative Commons, Debian, the WWF and Spamhaus.

Investigating prices, their annual fee of $15 was $3 more than GoDaddy, but after deciding to move I was surprised to see they were only charging $8. I had the option to pay in Euros, but when I chose this, the rate went up to 9 Euro, or about $11.65. I went back to pay in dollars!

I wrote most of this post last year, and it appears since that the boycott and widespread opposition have been successful. Even the US president has now come out against SOPA in its current form. Still, removing some of the more insidious clauses doesn’t make for a good bill, but the spotlight is clearly shining, it’ll be difficult to sneak anything through, and companies will be resistant to publicly supporting something like this after the GoDaddy debacle.

Although there are always some that are immune to any criticism

Northern Sotho Wikipedia now an official project, Afrikaans reaches 20 000 articles

Northern Sotho now has it’s own Wikipedia, becoming the 10th official South African language to do so.

The project has been sitting for many years in the Incubator, where projects that aren’t yet ready are hosted and developed. It was a bit of an anomaly, as even though it was more active than many other South African languages, an official project was never initiated, and the rules later changed, tightening up the qualification criteria. This may have been to its advantage, as with the modest goal of getting the project out of the incubator, there has been more activity, and it already has far more articles than any other official language besides English and Afrikaans.

Northern Sotho is South Africa’s fourth largest language by number of home language speakers, but trails only Afrikaans and of course English, far outperforming the much more widely spoken Zulu and Xhosa.

Congratulations to the small but dedicated team of editors who’ve helped bring the project to life.

The Afrikaans Wikipedia continues to power ahead, and recently reached a significant milestone with the creation of its 20 000th article. Here’s an updated table of the South African language Wikipedias by number of articles.

South African Language Wikipedias

Language 1/10/2007 30/5/2010 11/2/2011 19/11/2011
Afrikaans 8374 15260 17002 20042
Northern Sotho** 0 540* 597* 557
Swati 56 173 308 359
Zulu 107 195 209 256
Tswana 40 103 105 240
Venda 43 162 192 193
Tsonga 10 174 185 192
Sotho 43 69 117 132
Xhosa 66 115 116 125

*Northen Sotho was not yet an official project at this point, and was still in the Incubator.

Remember, number of articles is a rough metric – it’s quite easy to create large numbers of low quality articles, but it’s one of the easiest ways of measuring the progress of a project. An example of this is the progress of Tswana. Although there has been some activity, many of the new additions have been translated with Google Translate, and are full of formatting errors.

Ndebele is now the only official South African language without a Wikipedia, and being the least widely-spoken, this isn’t surprising. However, besides Afrikaans, and the minor activity in Swati and Tswana, the projects are quiet.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, is the most well-known of the Wikimedia Foundation projects, but there are others, including Wiktionary, the free dictionary that aims to define every word, in every language. Here’s how the local Wiktionaries are progressing:

South African Language Wiktionaries

Language 9/12/2007 30/5/2010 15/5/2011 19/11/2011
Afrikaans 9312 14669 14731 14969
Sotho 1381 1389 1398 1405
Zulu 102 131 510 574
Swati 31 371 377 377
Tsonga 166 359 363 363
Tswana 0 23 33 34
Xhosa 11 Closed Closed (38)* Closed (38)*

*The Xhosa Wiktionary was closed and moved to the Incubator, where it’s gained a few entries but is nowhere near making a return as an active project.

Afrikaans is closing in on its fifteen thousandth definition, and there’s been some activity in Zulu, but otherwise the local Wiktionaries are fairly inactive.

So although activity in the local language projects has been disappointing, the continued development of Afrikaans, and the reaching of the Northern Sotho milestone, are encouraging.

With bandwidth prices dropping steadily, and devices such as the Ubuntu-powered Webbook from Vodacom, internet penetration is slowly rising, and hopefully this can help spread awareness of the projects, and increase the number of contributors.

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Becoming a morning person, take 2

I may live at the southern tip of Africa, but I’ve been on Hawaii time for a long time. For years my circadian rhythms have seen me going to sleep in the very early hours of the morning and waking up similarly late. Two months ago I recorded it and the average time I went to sleep was 4.30am.

My son’s teacher once asked me about my “just showered” look when I picked him up, having assumed I go to the gym during my lunch break. No, I really had just leapt out of bed and raced into the shower before fetching him at 12.30am.

I’ve been working on changing my hours for a few reasons. They severely impact my dream practise, and I have only ever lucid dreamt when I’ve gone to bed before 11pm. Since I do this once a month, usually in a bad state having crashed from too many forced early mornings, I’m not giving myself much chance to explore.

I love early morning energy (the few times I’ve experienced it!) – it’s peaceful, and energised. I am much more easily able to do tai chi and meditate in the early hours than in the late, regardless of energy levels. Late at night I quite often find myself too flat to do any real work, or anything productive or even fun, but unwilling or unable to sleep, I just mindlessly browse online.

Finally, it’s not very sociable. I am working long hours at the moment, and there are not that many people to play with at 1am when I decide I’ve had enough, having been working and unavailable since midday. If I do something social in the evening, my working day is cut short and I can feel resentful, or simply that I still have more to do, and then try make it up afterwards, working till 6am.

So, how have I been going about rediscovering the mornings? A few years ago I wrote about a technique that worked relatively well. In short, go to sleep when you’re tired, and set your alarm to wake up at the same time every day. And when it goes off, get up straight away!

It worked to a degree, but I found it wasn’t sustainable. The main reason seems to be that my circadian rhythms have become completely reset. Going to sleep early and waking up early, even after sufficient sleep, leaves me feeling severely jet-lagged. They’ve got this way for a number of reasons, but now mainly by looking at a computer screen late at night. Computer screens emit blue light, which keeps us alert. Blue light suppresses melatonin production, the hormone released in darkness, and which is a cause of drowsiness. Effectively, our body think it’s daytime and our circadian rhythms adjust.

There are two key elements to getting our circadian rhythms in tune with the day. Avoiding blue light at night, and getting sufficient blue light in the morning.

I was doing neither, staring at the screen at 4am and sleeping in a dark shuttered room at 11am.

To help with the former, I recently started using an application called f.lux. It runs on Linux, Windows and Mac and suppresses blue light at night. I wasn’t sure it was working the first night, and paused it, only to be blinded by a shockingly harsh blast of bright light when my monitor restored its “normal” settings. It seems to be working well, and I feel myself getting surprisingly drowsy while working late.

I wasn’t aware of the importance of blue light in the morning until yesterday, so last night I experimented by going to sleep with my shutters wide open – and woke up (without an alarm) at 5.45am this morning. That may have had more to do with something that needed doing by 6.30am, but I’m going to give the spring light some credit. With my shutters open curious passer-bys may be able to see what I get up to in bed, but if I can rejoin the daytime it’ll be worth it!

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Ianstraight with Egoscue

For the past few weeks I’ve been practising Egoscue exercises. Do I want six-pack abs and a tight bun?

No… Well at least not enough to do anything about it. Egoscue is something else entirely.

Since I can remember I’ve been noticeably skew, bent and twisted. Focusing on the physical for now, I’ve never bothered much about it, and always assumed it was just the way I was.

I can probably trace it back to early school days, wearing a rucksack with heavy books and refusing to wear it over both shoulders as that wasn’t the cool thing to do.. I used to wear it over my right shoulder. Unsurprisingly, my left shoulder has been much higher than my right shoulder for as long as I can remember.

It turns out that, physically at least, it doesn’t have to be that way!

Besides two tui-na sessions, I’ve never done anything specific to correct my slant, and I didn’t give tui-na much time to have any effect, assuming it wasn’t really effective in this situation.

I first heard about Egoscue when someone who used to give me shiatsu suggested it to me. I never followed up at the time.

I then heard about it again from two other sources – first was The Four Hour Body. It’s always more convincing when someone at least appears to have been sceptical, and author Tim Ferriss claims that he’d heard about egoscue from a number of sources, but had always seen it as rather cult-like, and avoided it. After attending a single class with a friend by chance, he noticed his back pain had disappeared, and he started investigating further.

According to his research, it’s more effective for relieving injuries than alternatives such as tai chi, yoga etc.

Suddenly I was interested, and when a chi-kung teacher I met shortly after also recommended it highly, at the same time pointing out how my one foot extruded slightly when standing at rest (which I was quite shocked to never have noticed), and online research found little but rave reviews, I decided to give it a go.

Egoscue involves fairly simple, and not particularly strenous exercises, to correct posture, mostly through stretching and moving very specific muscle groups. The exercises involve simple movements, or just lying in a particular position for a length of time.

I haven’t taken before and after pictures, but my criteria for success is simple. The exercises will be successful if what before was a very noticeable skewness becomes not noticeable.

So is it working?

I can’t be sure yet. I think so, although it’s hard to know if when I look in the mirror after each routine the improvement is actual, or due to me willing my shoulder down to derive some perceived benefit from the previous half hour’s exertions.

I’m following the exercises from a book, and not getting any expert or personalised attention, so it’s always possible I’m missing something fundamental. It’s also likely that I’m doing exercises that aren’t really necessary for my particular situation, but I’m following a complete set routine that’s prescribed for the imbalance closest to mine, and I don’t to leave any possible excuses if it doesn’t work.

Some of the exercises are surprisingly difficult.

Stand up straight, arms out wide. Clench your fists as if gently holding a golf club, and then turn your arms palm up, and around the other way palm up again, close to 360 degrees movement. It uses muscles that are almost non-existant in my case, and works the shoulder sockets well.

Others, when done by someone of optimum health, involve a particular twist with the hand, forearm and shoulder all on the ground. My shoulder is far from the ground, and I feel the stretch intensely.

Other exercises in the routine are easy, and I feel little effect.

I’m going to give it two months, and by the end of that there needs to be obvious visible improvement. No visual placebos!

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Orgasmic Meditation

This week Nicole Daedone gave a talk at TEDx San Francisco on orgasmic meditation (embedded below). Orgasmic Meditation existed on the fringes of San Francisco society until 2009, when an article in the New York Times shone the spotlight on her retreat centre.

It received further widespread attention through Tim Ferris’s book, The 4-Hour Body. Tim Ferris, formerly (but probably no longer) best-known for The 4-Hour Work Week, published his most recent book this year. Featuring sections on weight loss, adding muscle, perfecting sleep and reversing injuries, I suspect the most-widely read chapter is the one entitled Improving Sex, which begins with a description of the 15-minute female orgasm as taught by Nicole Daedone at her OneTaste retreat centres.

Orgasm is a word that comes with so much negative baggage, but Nicole describes it simply as rooting the fundamental capacity for connection. Her first experience of the particular practice began as do most sexual experiences – in her head. How did she look, was her stomach was too fat, was she doing it right?

Until, all of sudden, as she describes it, the traffic jam that was my mind broke open and she moved from thought to feeling. Meditation through orgasm, where instead of using breath or sound as a meditative focus, she’d used sensation, and had broken through.

I enjoyed her talk – I’d only read Tim Ferris’s account, very much from (and for) a male perspective, as have been all the related readings on Taoist sexuality I’ve come across, so it was interesting to hear her perspective.

I’ve tried the practice once without much happening besides a sore wrist for me and bored indifference from the partner.

Like all meditation, the danger of talking about experience is that it creates expectation when the process itself is goalless. With expectation, each time we meditate, if instead of experiencing the blissful ecstasy of a world beyond thought, we experience nothing more than a stiff back, we’ll view it as a failure when it’s anything but that.

Tim was lucky enough to hone his technique with some personal clitoral training at the OneTaste retreat centre. I’ll just have to make do with more practice.

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Inside Job, ideology and regulatory contradictions

I’ve just finished watching Inside Job, the award-winning documentary showing at the Encounters Film Festival.

It’s a good documentary, part-comedy as well the way some of the interviews with the bank executives and consultants have been edited. It got a round of applause at the end, and is worth seeing.

I want to note two things that struck me.

First, the phrase “trapped by ideology”. At one point, a commentator was discussing one of the deregulation proponents – I forget which one. He mentioned how, eventually, this person became convinced of the impending crisis, of the scale of the catastrophe, but could still not accept the need for more regulation. He was trapped by his ideology – the holy cow of deregulation that had been blindly followed by the US government since the Reagan revolution in 1980, and that’s had such a disastrous effect on everything from the financial system to the food industry.

It made me think of a column by Ivo Vegter, a Daily Maverick columnist I almost never agree with, but enjoy reading. In the column, Vegter makes the claim that quite often larger companies practise higher standards than small companies, while complaining that his ideological opposites, the “eco-minded progressive classes” of “the left” are constantly and unfairly targeting bigger companies, logos. Shell as opposed to Bundu gas, in his example (of the opposition to fracking in the Karoo).

He’s right. Quite often larger companies do have higher standards. If I was going to eat a hamburger, there are countless corner stores that can provide me with older grease, more dodgy ingredients and that treat their staff worse than favourite corporate baddie McDonalds. There are also many that live up to higher standards, providing healthier food and with better working conditions.

Being large or being small has little to do with behaviour. His point that it’s usually larger corporations that are targetted is correct, and quite understandable. The impact of one large corporate is huge, and they are more visible and easier to monitor. It’s easier to raise opposition to misbehaviour from a large brand that most people know about than against a small one that most people aren’t familiar with.

But as the column goes further, it descends into his usual ideology, with attacks on greenies, leftists and cherry-picked examples of corporate responsibility and government incompetence.

The other thing that struck me was the apparent contradiction between my seeing it as self-evident that certain things should be better-regulated, and my belief that less regulation often works better, as in something like Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a prime deregulation success story. Instead of having teams of fact-checkers approve every change before it’s committed (as was tried with the failed Nupedia and again with Citizendium), Wikipedia opened the doors, putting no barriers in the way. And people responded by rapidly writing a massive, high-quality encyclopedia in multiple languages.

So what’s the difference between Wikipedia and Wall Street?

Motivation and alignment of interests.

The motivation for contributing to Wikipedia is mostly a sense of scholarship, of contributing to the global body of knowledge and having fun while doing so. Learning and sharing knowledge is enjoyable. With that as the primary motivation, putting obstacles in the way makes little sense. That’s changing to some degree now, as Wikipedia, in English at least, is much more complete and much more influential, the motivation for pharmaceutical companies, politicians etc. to subvert it becomes greater, at the same time as the kind of contribution that people can make becomes less. It’s not so easy to add much to an article when it’s already pages long, pretty complete, well-sourced and broken down into further detailed sub-articles. The Wikimedia Foundation is doing extensive research into why contributions are (relatively) falling in the English Wikipedia, and I’d suspect that it’s mainly because it’s no longer a pioneering project. Now contributions involve much more fending off commercial and vested interests rather than adding a quick fact to a revolutionary body of knowledge.

What’s the motivation for getting a job on Wall Street? Almost always, greed. Very few consider any kind of social consequence to their actions – it’s about making as much money as possible. And making as much money is personal – there’s no loyalty to a company. If someone working at Lehmann Brothers was offered a more lucrative position at …, they’d almost certainly take it.

And, the structure of their job facilitates this.

So, the crisis was in part caused by people deciding to sell more profitable product X rather than less profitable product Y. It wasn’t their job to look into the systemic issues caused by the packaging of subprime mortgage loans, and even for those who did see, acting on the observation was difficult. Action would impact on the revenue of your friends and colleagues, and in a case like that it’s easy to find justifications, to disbelieve the evidence, to use the excuse that everyone else was doing it.

Why does a soldier, by all accounts a pleasant person at home, become a torturer? In part because the system has created a role for them where it’s very difficult to do otherwise. When all your colleagues are participating in torture, when placed in a strict hierarchical system designed to stamp out any questioning of orders from a “superior”, it’s rare to find someone brave enough to stand up, someone like a Bradley Manning, someone who sees the atrocities and does something about it, knowing he’s putting his or her personal situation in jeopardy.

Claiming that “regulation is always bad” or “regulation is always good” is simply naive extremism, a case of being trapped by one’s ideology. It’s a case of the right kind of regulation, aligning with the motivations. Political leaders are at risk of being corrupted by corporate interests, so strict regulation is needed. We need to make sure politicians are transparent about their funding. Similarly, in a system where banks can loan money and have no concern about whether it’ll be paid back or not, as they’re passing on the risk to another entity, there’s a need for intervention and simply “leaving it to the market” is naive in the extreme.

Reality is a lot more nuanced than ideology!

Lubuntu, Kubuntu, Ubuntu and Mint

I run Ubuntu 10.10 on my primary machine, a now-aged Lenovo Y510. I used to upgrade the minute I could get my hands on a newer release, but the novelty has worn off, and I can’t spare the time these days to get my system back to how it should be, customising and/or fixing things, after an upgrade. After the last few upgrades, I’ve kept my system for quite a while, and waiting more than six months also makes the upgrade more worthwhile!

My first Linux distro that I used on my primary machine was Mandriva, in 2005, but I switched to the Ubuntu family in 2006, starting with Kubuntu 6.06 and then Kubuntu 6.10.

I like KDE (the ‘K’ in Kubuntu) but switched in around May 2007 to Ubuntu 7.04 around May 2007, which runs Gnome instead of KDE as a window manager, after realising that Kubuntu was substantially lagging Ubuntu, and ended up sticking with Ubuntu while KDE came unstuck with some troublesome KDE4 teething problems, upgrading to Ubuntu 7.10 and 8.04. I then stuck with Ubuntu 8.04 all the way until January 2010 after Ubuntu 8.10 proved a little too intrepid for me. Ubuntu 8.04 was a long-term support release, and was stable and worked well for me. I still use it on some of the Ethical Co-op office machines.

In January 2010 I tried Linux Mint 8, which I was very happy with and which became, after a long time of installing Ubuntu for new Linux users (even while I was using Kubuntu), my new default install for others.

Linux Mint has a clear and simple focus – usability and ease of use, and it performs it well.

In October 2010 I got itchy feet and upgraded to Ubuntu 10.10, which proved a stable and polished release, and which I’ve been using ever since, albeit while still installing Linux Mint for new users.

Recently though, with all the excitement of Ubuntu’s switch to Unity from Gnome, and the new Kubuntu receiving rave reviews, as well as Lubuntu moving closer to official status, I decided to take a look at the latest releases.

This overview is based on a short and superficial look at the Live CD’s. In a frenzy of burning I burnt Lubuntu 11.04, Kubuntu 11.04, Ubuntu 11.04 and Linux Mint 11.

Kubuntu 11.04
I loved KDE in the early days, only moving over to Gnome and Ubuntu when realising Kubuntu was not nearly as polished as Ubuntu, and when KDE had some serious wobbles with the move to KDE4.

Kubuntu 11.04 struck me with it’s visual effects – pure eye candy, pretty, and immensely customisable. I spent the most time on the Kubuntu Live CD, simply because there was so much to try. Various window effects and settings allow one to fine-tune the user experience. KDE, unlike Gnome and Unity, appears complex because of the variety of options available, something that has a certain appeal.

However, on my old Lenovo Y510, Kubuntu on the Live CD was sluggish. The browser didn’t scroll properly, and, eventually trying to activate a particular desktop setting, the system crashed. Not great when I had only one application open.

I like KDE, and if I had some new hardware I would seriously look at Kubuntu again for personal use, but I wouldn’t suggest it for new Linux users, and until I upgrade my hardware and see whether that would make a difference to stability, I’ll stick to my current setup.

Ubuntu 11.04
Unity is a fairly radical desktop change, and I think it’s going the right way. With modern resolutions, vertical screen space is at a premium, so the Unity interface on the left of screen allows for maximum vertical space. The icons are big, almost cartoony, and I can see myself happily using and recommending Unity. Unity is a polar opposite from KDE – there’s very little customisation available, so it may seem strange I like both the customisation of KDE and the lack in Unity. It’s probably the novelty of both that appeals, but I can see myself approving of the lazy way, and really enjoying Unity. However, it still felt a little unpolished. There was some strange behaviour while trying to customise what I could. Trying to minimise and maximise windows as well as call up available options I found that, for no apparent reason, the window moved to another workspace. Also, each time I resized a window, it would resize inconsistently, each time further to the right with less visible. Strange behaviour which I can’t see the thinking behind, and potentially annoying for new users used to old behaviour.

The notorious new scrollbars were also annoying. I can see the thinking behind them – a further attempt to make the best use of the visible space. However, this comes at the cost of usability. I repeatedly found myself having to make finicky mouse moves to get the scrollbar to work, or accidentally clicking something next to the scrollbar causing some unexpected and unwanted behaviour.

I like the thinking behind Unity, and will certainly look again at the next release, but until it’s slightly more polished I will stick with what I have.

Linux Mint 11
Mint, which early on was a pretty version of Ubuntu aiming for greater usability, still runs Gnome 2, so there’s little new there. Strangely, after the attractiveness of both Kubuntu and Ubuntu, Mint’s default setup appeared the least attractive, with the default wallpaper most to blame. It’s a change from Mint’s usual green colour them and with slanting text that looked very date, and I would certainly change it if I was installing for someone else – there are the usual green-themed attractive alternatives available to do so.

Mint’s major improvement from when I last looked has been the Software Manager. It’s now quicker, more attractive and usable, and contains reviews. At a glance I couldn’t see what the score vs star rating was, or how one app with 1 review and 3 stars can get a score of 0, while another with seemingly equivalent reviews and star ratings has a higher score – it isn’t obvious at first glance what the score is measuring. Nevertheless, the feature makes the software manager a lot more friendly, and one knows whether one is installing a popular recommendation, or something untried and bleeding-edge.

However, Mint has inherited the scrollbars from Ubuntu, something I think they should have disabled by default. Mint is based on Ubuntu, and when the next version of Ubuntu drops support for Gnome 2 entirely, Mint will have a decision to make – whether to move to Unity (or Gnome 3), or continue to support Gnome 2. Already there are alternative Mint flavours, and the ones based on Debian rather than Ubuntu are receiving increasing prominence.

Otherwise, Mint 11 was its usual polished and solid self.

Lubuntu 11.04
I first looked at Lubuntu 10.10 when I installed it on an archaic machine that I couldn’t get anything else to work with – it performed well, but was hardly appealing, appearing unpolished and with the default lightweight apps lagging far behind the Ubuntu and Kubuntu equivalents, so after hearing of Lubuntu’s progress towards official status, and some substantial improvements, I was looking forward to 11.04. However, I couldn’t get the Lubuntu 11.04 Live CD to work. The disk verified, but wouldn’t boot into X on my system, and there appeared to be nothing I could do from the Live CD environment to get it to work. A pity, as I was looking forward to exploring.

Overall, nothing is compelling me to upgrade from Ubuntu 10.10, but Linux Mint 11 will be my recommended install for anyone new to Linux, and, if I’m doing the installing, with the new scrollbars disabled and a different (anything!) wallpaper.

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African language Wiktionary Update

Wikipedia never ceases to amaze me. I remember meeting a teenage Alaskan editing on the Malagasy Wikipedia. Thanks perhaps to those long wintery nights, he was learning languages like some collect stamps, and Malagasy, being an interesting language, had attracted his attention.

Updating sports results as quickly as possible seems to be as popular as writing “fitrs psot” in most forums (and a lot more useful). I visited the FA Cup article immediately after watching the FA Cup final, and already the page had been updated with the results, as well as updated total wins and other statistics.

Perhaps its understandable that a hugely popular global sports event would be popular. But what about, say, an obscure Afrikaans poet? The English Wikipedia covers South African literature very poorly, and it’s probably the area I’m most interested in improving on the English Wikipedia, and one of the few remaining areas that it’s still easy to create new articles and make a notable contribution.

In my recent wanderings I created an article on A.G. Visser, the early 20th century Afrikaans poet, translating it from the Afrikaans. It sat for a week, not attracting any further edits until today I saw a language link. Someone has created an article for A.G. Visser in Belorusian!

How wonderful to think of someone translating away into Belorusian, creating an article on something that seems so obscure, just a week after the English article appeared – it appears to be a translation from the English, judging by the formatting. Why? Is A.G.Visser big in Belorussia? Is he studied in all the schools? Are the opening lines of Wit en Swart (Black and White) used to reduce school truancy?:

Die klein kinder-engeltjies
Moet almal skool-toe gaan

which translates as

The little angel-children
All have to go to school

Or is it just someone, like me last week, having fun one evening? Wikipedia is truly the long-tail of interests.

I recently took a look at African-language Wikipedias, but didn’t have time to look at Wiktionaries. So how are the African-language Wiktionaries doing?

African Language Wiktionaries

Language 3/8/2009 30/5/2010 15/5/2011
Malagasy 142 4253 1 193 977
Afrikaans 14128 14669 14731
Swahili 12956 13000 13027
Wolof 2675 2689 2693
Sotho 1387 1389 1398
Zulu 127 131 510
Swati 31 371 377
Amharic 311 319 377
Tsonga 358 359 363
Rwandi 306 306 306
Oromo 186 218 264

Right, some action on the Malagasy Wiktionary then. Having gone from four thousand to over a million (what’s a hundred thousand here or there) it’s clear the Malagasy have been extremely excited by the arrival of the EASSy submarine cable and have been typing away furiously.

Or maybe not.

A closer look indicates that of the 1.1 million articles, all of 3196 are Malagasy words. Remember that Wiktionary aims to be a dictionary of every word in every language, in that particular language. So the English Wiktionary aims to have every English word defined, as an ordinary dictionary, but also an English translation and defintion of every other word in every other language.

You would expect a Wiktionary to be best represented in its own language, but what’s happened in the Malagasy Wiktionary is that some intrepid followers of Volapük, the constructed language, have used bots to create hundreds of thousands of entries on Volapük words. Over 800 000 actually, which is more than any single language even in the English Wiktionary.

A raw count is a poor metric of measuring quality, and I can’t comment on whether these hundreds of thousands of entries have any value although, with Wiktionary, it’s easier for a bot to actually add value and create valid and useful entries. So, in the constant battle for bragging rights between the constructed languages, Volapük takes pride of place, and then some, in this instance.

So, with first place well and truly sewn up, what about the rest? While the Swahili Wikipedia has soared past Afrikaans, there’s been almost no activity on the Swahili Wiktionary in the last two years, and it remains behind Afrikaans, which has shown an equivalent lack of activity recently.

There’s almost no activity in any of the other languages, with the exception of Zulu.

And the South African languages specifically?

Language 9/12/2007 3/8/2009 30/5/2010 15/5/2011
Afrikaans 9312 14128 14669 14731
Sotho 1381 1387 1389 1398
Zulu 102 127 131 510
Swati 31 46 371 377
Tsonga 166 358 359 363
Tswana 0 22 23 33
Xhosa 11 Closed Closed Closed (38)*

*The Xhosa Wiktionary was closed and moved to the Incubator, where it’s gained a few entries but is nowhere near making a return as an active project.

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