posts from the life professional


December 2008

Publishing books on Blurb

I’ve just given Blurb a try.  This was something I promised myself I’d do during the end of year holiday between Christmas Day 2008 and New Year’s Day 2009. Blurb is a service for self-publishing – it enables authors to sell books that they create using Blurb software, on the Blurb online bookshop.  Buyers can purchase any uploaded books made public on the Blurb online bookshop – but only physical copies in softcover and hardcover are for sale – there is no purchase option for downloadable PDFs.  

My new book, a series of digitally edited photos taken during a trip to Cambodia (Siem Reap specifically) in november 2003, was put together using Blurb’s free software.  Currently in version 1.9.9, it’s called Blurb BookSmart, and is available in Windows and Mac versions.  I tried both, and found them to be a much easier application to use than Microsoft Publisher 2007.  (In the “old” days, we used PageMaker and Ventura).

To give it a fair test, I relied completely on BookSmart’s built-in themes and page layouts.  The final book size came to about 42Mb (the right size for a 40 page book), and was a relatively painless upload (about 15 minutes) to the Blurb website.  Once the upload completes, Blurb’s webpage launches automatically, and after logging in, one is able to order a copy (which I did – a hardcover edition printed on premium paper, with a dustjacket), make the book public on the bookstore website (meaning browsers of the site can see the title, preview the first 15 pages and purchase online), set your price and promote it.

The book preview feature is surprisingly good.  It’s a flash application that renders the book image from the upload – here’s the example of the cover in the preview:

Flash Preview of Book on Blurb
Flash Preview of Book on Blurb

Promotion is available via a “tell a friend” link, a “make a badge” widget that generates html to paste into a website or blog page (see the badge at the end of this post), and “post to the web” – which provides links to, digg, facebook and the like.

 Marketing Options for Books uploaded to Blurb

I won’t be able to comment on the print quality until the book arrives in several week’s time – though feedback I’ve read in forums suggests I’ll be in for a pleasant surprise.  All my images were created as 300dpi pictures in Photoshop Elements, and I was careful to set them to the right physical dimensions before importing them into BookSmart, so I really should not worry too much.

digitally edited t…
By Philip Lee

School of Thought – Linux for young children

It’s been a week since Laura (my 13 year old daughter), a good friend (Henry, a fellow veteran of the IT education line) and I returned from Kampong Sook, a small town about 45 minutes from the town of Keningau (which means Cinnamon), which in turn is about a 2 hour bus ride across the Crocker Range from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah.

We travelled with two laptops that we left with a group of 4 wonderful Good Shepherd Sisters, for use in educating the children who lived in the ramshackled and uncomfortable grounds of nearby plywood factories.  These were children of migrant workers, who came from as far as the Philippines, Sandakan and Flores in search of work and the opportunity to feed their families.  These workers did not have work permits – and being of an awkward migrant status, were not able to send their children to government schools.  A typical camp would have about 40 families, each with an average of 4 children between the ages of 5 and 12 – doing the math, that’s about 160 children per camp who should be receiving Primary School level education, but instead spend their time looking after younger siblings, playing or working amongst the logs and planks and sawdust.Plywood Factory Residents

The laptops were of somewhat ….. mature vintage.  One, a 5 year old Compaq 800 sported a large 15″ LCD, and had 512M of RAM and a bad display panel.  The other, a 3+ year old Compaq Tablet PC with 512M, was in pretty good shape, but had an OS that was moderately unusable (thanks to some very persistent malware).  We had lively discussions on what OS we should put on these PCs, after they were fixed up and had memory upgraded to 768M.  The best part about Windows is that this is what the children would most likelyencounter when grown up and seeking work – and there are enough good Win32 FOSS apps suitable for education available for download so that software costs could be kept manageable.  There were two issues that kept us from using Windows, though – the recovery CDs we needed to restore the factory default operating systems were lost long ago, and Windows does tend to have a pretty large fanclub of viruses and malware written for it (the occupational hazard of being a dominant desktop OS).  IT support was something that was going to be in very short supply out there in remote Kampong Sook.  At the Sister’s house, even electricity was not a given.  There was a generator in the garden that ran on diesel, and provided a slightly unsteady electrical supply that had the UPS beeping every so often when it went undervoltage or the frequency went out of range.

So Linux it was.  Ubuntu 8.1 was not out for very long, and we had the joy of Edubuntu, with it’s suite of applications and educational games.  Ubuntu/Edubuntu ran very well on the ancient (by my standards) hardware, and together with OpenOffice 3.0, gave us practically all we needed for teaching kids computer skills, math, english and productivity applications.  We had DVDs with the 2008 Wikipedia Selection for UK schools, put together by SOS Children’s villages.  Having an encyclopedia on DVD mattered a lot to us because internet access is via a very slow dial up, and generally not practical for anything but basic text based email.  Laura had created a manual to describe the educational applications available in Edubuntu, and provide advice on what learning opportunities were provided, and what type of student would benefit most from it. An old HP digital camera was well received, and provided a happy reason to master the art of mounting and dismounting flash memory devices.

We had about two days in which we delivered training on the use of the laptops and the software.  This is just a start.  Once a proper electricity supply is in place, it will be practical to have desktop PCs (which have the advantages over laptops of ease of repair and lower cost of repair/upgrades) and the plan is to build a proper computer lab for the children.  By then, the Sisters will have had about 6 months of experience with Linux, and we’ll make a decision then on what OS to equip the desktop PCs with.

There’ll be nothing religious about the decision – it’ll be a practical reckoning, considering cost, security, applicability to work/business environments and ease of maintenance.

An interesting thing about this trip is that we took more care with transporting a large number of color pencils and crayons kindly donated by office colleagues and well wishers.  These were packed nicely into metal tins, which in turn went into boxes which went into another box .  On the other hand, the laptops that we spent weeks building up the HDD images for were simply dumped into our carry on luggage.   Which brought to mind a part of the wonderful conversations between Celine and Jesse in the movie “Before Sunset”.  Celine talks of an aid organisation working in Mexico, who had these big, grand humanitarian goals – yet what they sweat about was how to transport pencils to remote mexican villages without breaking them. I’ve got this bit of the dialog in this post on GunongLaut.  I recommend you check out the film and it’s predecessor, Before Sunrise.

It’s all about the little things……

The children absolutely loved the color pencils and colorful erasers and ballpens that were generously donated for our trip.  When they get to use the laptops, it’ll be the small things, the little touches in the painting, counting and spelling games that capture their interest.  The worlds of Multi-Core, Multi-Threaded, 64 bit, Virtualization and Cloud Computing that we adults in the IT line fuss over will mean nothing to these kids.

What will mean something?  It’ll be the photos of their friends on the LCD panels.  It’ll be listening to recordings of their voices played back at different pitches and speeds that will have them laughing.  It’ll be the ability to change wallpaper and see their names typed in a presentation slide.  These little things will draw them deeper into learning IT far more effectively than a thousand earnest lectures.

It’s the little things.  For the little ones.

This is just the start of the project.  Stay tuned for more developments and detailed writeups!

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