10-year-update: my home pages

screenshot-2016-12-26-16-23-27Update: the new design is now live at: www.unet.fi. – My current university side home pages are from year 2006, so there is a decade of Internet and WWW evolution looming over them. Static HTML is not so bad in itself – it is actually fast and reliable, as compared to some more flaky ways of doing things. However, people access online content increasingly with mobile devices and getting a more “responsive” design (that is, web page design code that scales and adapts content into small or large screen devices differently) is clearly in order.

When one builds institutional home pages as part of the university or other organisation infrastructure, there are usually various technical limitations or other issues, so also in this case. While I have a small “personnel card” style, official contact page in our staff directory, I have wanted my personal home pages to include more content that would reflect my personal interests, publication activity, and to carry links to various resources that I find important or relevant. Our IT admin, however, has limited the WWW server technologies to a pretty minimal set, and there is not, for example “mod_rewrite” module loaded to the Apache that serves our home pages. That means that my original idea to go with a “flat file CMS” to create the new pages (e.g. Kirby: https://getkirby.com/) did not work. There was only one CMS that worked without mod_rewrite that I could find (CMSimple: https://www.cmsimple.org/), and testing that was pain (it was too clumsy and limited in terms of design templates and editing functions for my, non-coder tastes). The other main alternative was to set up a CMS that relies on an actual database (MySQL or similar), but that was forbidden from personal home pages in our university, too.

For a while I toyed with an idea that I would actually set up a development server of my own, and use it to generate static code that I would then publish on the university server. Jekyll (https://jekyllrb.com/) was most promising option in that area. I did indeed spend few hours (after kids have gone to bed) in setting up a development environment into my Surface Pro 4, building on top of the Bash/Ubuntu subsystem, adding Python, Ruby, etc., but there was some SSH public key signing bug that broke the connection to GitHub, which is pretty essential for running Jekyll. Debugging that road proved to be too much for me – the “Windows Subsystem for Linux” is still pretty much a work-in-progress thing. Then I also tried to set up an Oracle VM VirtualBox with WordPress built in, but that produced some other, interesting problems of its own. (It just also might be a good idea to use something a bit more powerful than Surface Pro for running multiple server, photo editing and other tools at the same time – but for many things, this tablet is actually surprisingly good.)

Currently, the plan is that I will develop my new home pages in WordPress, using a commercial “Premium” theme that comes with actual tutorials on how to use and adapt it for my needs (plus they promise support, when I’ll inevitably lose my way). In last couple of days, I have made decent progress using the Microsoft Webmatric package, which includes an IIS server, and pretty fully featured WordPress that runs on top of that (see: http://ivanblagojevic.com/how-to-install-wordpress-on-windows-10-localhost/). I have installed the theme of my choice, and plugins it requires, and started the selection and conversion of content for the new framework. Microsoft, however, has decided to discontinue Webmatrix, and the current setup seems bit buggy, which makes actual content production somewhat frustrating. The server can suddenly lose reading rights to some key graphics file, for example. Or a WordPress page with long and complex code starts breaking down at some point, so that it fails to render correctly. For example, when I had reached about the half way point in creating the code and design for my publications page, the new text and graphics started appearing again from the top of the page, on top of the text that was there already!

I will probably end up setting up the home pages into another server, where I can actually get a full Apache, with mod_rewrite, MySQL and other necessary functions for implementing WordPress pages. In UTA home pages there would then be a redirect code that would show the way to the new pages. This is not optimal, since the search engines will not find my publications and content any more under the UTA.fi domain, but this is perhaps the simplest solution in getting the functionalities I want to actually run as they should. Alternatively, there are some ways to turn a WordPress site into static HTML pages, which can then be uploaded to the UTA servers. But I do not hold my breath whether all WordPress plugins and other more advanced features would work that way.

Happy Geek Holidays!

Tech Tips for New Students

Working cross-platform
Going cross-platform: same text accessed via various versions of MS Word and Dropbox in Surface Pro 4, iPad Mini (with Zagg slim book keyboard case), Toshiba Chromebook 2, and iPhone 6 Plus, in the front.

There are many useful practices and tools that can be recommended for new university students; many good study practices are pretty universal, but then there are also elements that relate to what one studies, where one studies – to the institutional or disciplinary frames of academic work. A student that works on a degree in theoretical physics, electronics engineering, organic chemistry, history of the Middle Ages, Japanese language or business administration, for example, all will probably have elements in their studies that are unique to their fields. I will here focus on some simple technicalities should be useful for many students in the humanities, social sciences or digital media studies related fields, as well as for those in our own, Internet and Game Studies degree program.

There are study practices that belong to the daily organisation of work, to the tools, the services and software that one will use, for example. My focus here is on the digital tools and technology that I have found useful – even essential – for today’s university studies, but that does not mean I would downplay the importance of non-digital, informal and more traditional ways of doing things. The ways of taking notes in lectures and seminars is one thing, for example. For many people the use of pen or pencil on paper is absolutely essential, and they are most effective when using their hands in drawing and writing physically to the paper. Also, rather than just participating in online discussion fora, having really good, traditional discussions in the campus café or bar with the fellow students are important in quite many ways. But taken that, there are also some other tools and environments that are worth considering.

It used to be that computers were boxy things that were used in university’s PC classes (apart from terminals, used to access the mainframes). Today, the information and communication technology landscape has greatly changed. Most students carry in their pockets smartphones that are much more capable devices than the mainframes of the past. Also, the operating systems do not matter as much as they did only a few years ago. It used to be a major choice whether one went and joined the camp of Windows (Microsoft-empowered PC computers), that of Apple Macintosh computers, those with Linux, or some other, more obscure camp. The capabilities and software available for each environment were different. Today, it is perfectly possible to access same tools, software or services with all major operating environments. Thus, there is more freedom of choice.

The basic functions most of us in academia probably need daily include reading, writing, communicating/collaborating, research, data collecting, scheduling and other work organisation tasks and use of the related tools. It is an interesting situation that most of these tasks can be achieved already with the mobile device many of us carry with us all the time. A smartphone of iOS or Android kind can be combined with an external Bluetooth keyboard and used for taking notes in the lectures, accessing online reading materials, for using cloud services and most other necessary tasks. In addition, smartphone is of course an effective tool for communication, with its apps for instant messaging, video or voice conferencing. The cameraphone capabilities can be used for taking visual notes, or for scanning one’s physical notes with their mindmaps, drawings and handwriting into digital format. The benefit of that kind of hybrid strategy is it allows taking advantage both of the supreme tactile qualities of physical pen and paper, while also allowing the organisation of scanned materials into digital folders, possibly even in full-text searchable format.

The best tools for this basic task of note taking and organisation are Evernote and MS OneNote. OneNote is the more fully featured one – and more complex – of these two, and allows one to create multiple notebooks, each with several different sections and pages that can include text, images, lists and many other kinds of items. Taking some time to learn how to use OneNote effectively to organise multiple materials is definitely worth it. There are also OneNote plugins for most internet browsers, allowing one to capture materials quickly while surfing various sites.

MS OneNote
MS OneNote, Microsoft tutorial materials.

Evernote is more simple and straightforward tool, and this is perhaps exactly why many prefer it. Saving and searching materials in Evernote is very quick, and it has excellent integration to mobile. OneNote is particularly strong if one invests to Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (or Surface Book), which have a Surface Pen that is a great note taking tool, and allows one to quickly capture materials from a browser window, writing on top of web pages, etc. On the other hand, if one is using an Apple iPhone, iPad or Android phone or tablet, Evernote has characteristics that shine there. On Samsung Note devices with “S Pen” one can take screenshots and make handwritten notes in mostly similar manner than one can do with the MS Surface Pen in the Microsoft environment.

In addition to the note solution, a cloud service is one of the bedrocks of today’s academic world. Some years ago it was perfectly possible to have software or hardware crash and realize that (backups missing), all that important work is now gone. Cloud services have their question marks regarding privacy and security, but for most users the benefits are overwhelming. A tool like Dropbox will silently work in the background and make sure that the most recent versions of all files are always backed up. A file that is in the cloud can also be shared with other users, and some services have expanded into real-time collaboration environments where multiple people can discuss and work together on shared documents. This is especially strong in Google Drive and Google Docs, which includes simplified versions of familiar office tools: text editor, spreadsheet, and presentation programs (cf. classic versions of Microsoft Office: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint; LibreOffice has similar, free, open-source versions). Microsoft cloud service, Office 365 is currently provided for our university’s students and staff as the default environment free of charge, and it includes the OneDrive storage service as well as Outlook email system, and access to both desktop as well as cloud-hosted versions of Office applications – Word Online, Excel Online, PowerPoint Online, and OneNote Online. Apple has their own iCloud system, with Mac office tools (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) also can be operated in browser, as iCloud versions. All major productivity tools have also iOS and Android mobile app versions of their core functionalities available. It is also possible to save, for example, MS Office documents into the MS OneCloud, or into Dropbox – a seamless synchronization with multiple devices and operating systems is an excellent thing, as it makes possible to start writing on desktop computer, continue with a mobile device, and then finish things up with a laptop computer, for example.

Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X (Macintosh computers) and Linux have a longer history, but I recommend students also having a look at Google’s Chrome OS and Chromebook devices. They are generally cheaper, and provide reliable and very easy to maintain environment that can be used for perhaps 80 % or 90 % of the basic academic tasks. Chromebooks work really well with Google Drive and Google Docs, but principally any service that be accessed as a browser-based, cloud version also works in Chromebooks. It is possible, for example, to create documents in Word or PowerPoint Online, and save them into OneDrive or Dropbox so that they will sync with the other personal computers and mobile devices one might be using. There is a development project at Google to make it possible to run Android mobile applications in Chrome OS devices, which means that the next generation of Chromebooks (which will all most likely support touchscreens) will be even more attractive than today’s versions.

For planning, teamwork, task deadlines and calendar sharing, there are multiple tools available that range from MS Outlook to Google Calendar. I have found that sharing of calendars generally works easier with the Google system, while Outlook allows deeper integration into organisation’s personnel databases etc. It is really good idea to plan and break down all key course work into manageable parts and set milestones (interim deadlines) for them. This can be achieved with careful use of calendars, where one can mark down the hours that are required for personal, as well as teamwork, in addition to lectures, seminars and exercise classes your timetable might include. That way, not all crucial jobs are packed next to the end of term or period deadlines. I personally use a combination of several Google Calendars (the core one synced with the official UTA Outlook calendar) and Wunderlist to-do list app/service. There are also several dedicated project management tools (Asana, Trello, etc.), but mostly you can work the tasks with basic tools like Google Docs, Sheets (Word, Excel) and then break down the tasks and milestones into the calendar you share with your team. Communications are also essential, and apart from email, people today generally utilize Facebook (Messenger, Groups, Pages), Skype, WhatsApp, Google+/Hangouts, Twitter, Instagram and similar social media tools. One of the key skills in this area is to create multiple filter settings or more fine-grained sharing settings (possibly even different accounts and profiles) for professional and private purposes. The intermixing of personal, study related and various commercial dimensions is almost inevitable in these services, which is why some people try to avoid social media altogether. Wisely used, these services can be nevertheless immensely useful in many ways.

All those tools and services require accounts and login details that are easily rather unsafe, by e.g. our tendency to recycle same or very similar passwords. Please do not do that – there will inevitably be a hacking incident or some other issue with some of those services, and that will lead you into trouble in all the others, too. There are various rules-based ways of generating complex passwords for different services, and I recommend using two-factor authentication always when it is available. This is a system where typically a separate mobile app or text messages act as a backup security measure whenever the service is accessed from a new device or location. Life is also much easier using a password manager like LastPass or 1Password, where one only needs to remember the master password – the service will remember the other, complex and automatically generated passwords for you. In several contemporary systems, there are also face recognition (Windows 10 Hello), fingerprint authentication or iris recognition technologies that are designed to provide a further layer of protection at the hardware level. The operating systems are also getting better in protecting against computer viruses, even without a dedicated anti-virus software. There are multiple scams and social engineering hacks in the connected, online world that even the most sophisticated anti-virus tools cannot protect you against.

Finally, a reference database is an important part of any study project. While it is certainly possible to have a physical shoebox full of index cards, filled with quotes, notes and bibliographic details of journal articles, conference papers and book chapters, it is not the most efficient way of doing things. There are comprehensive reference database management services like RefWorks (supported by UTA) and EndNote that are good for this job. I personally like Zotero, which exists both as cloud/browser-based service in Zotero.org, but most importantly allows quick capture of full reference details through browser plugins, and then inserting references in all standard formats into course papers and thesis works, in simple copy-paste style. There can also be set up shared, topics based bibliographic databases, managed by teams in Zotero.org – an example is Zotero version of DigiPlay bibliography (created by Jason Rutter, and converted by Jesper Juul): https://www.zotero.org/groups/digiplay .

As a final note, regardless of the actual tools one uses, it is the systematic and innovative application of those that really sets excellent study practices apart. Even the most cutting edge tools do not automate the research and learning – this is something that needs to be done by yourself, and in your individual style. There are also other solutions, that have not been explored in this short note, that might suit your style. Scrivener, for example, is a more comprehensive “writing studio”, where one can collect snippets of research, order fragments and create structure in more flexible manner than is possible than in e.g. MS Word (even while its Outline View is too underused). The landscape of digital, physical, social and creative opportunities is all the time expanding and changing – if you have suggestions for additions to this topic, please feel free to make those below in the comments.

On university mergers, and “Tampere 3”

As UTA staff representative in the Tampere 3 steering group, I have been asked to talk next week in the UTA professors’ forum event. Much is still in the air, and open, but here are some key themes that relate to this topic:

  • The primary goals of the university merger. There has been some unclarity how various parties (state government, university administration, students, staff, etc.) see the primary aims of this merger, but often the primary driver for starting this kind of merger processes has been economic one: consolidating education, research and services into larger units will supposedly open doors for savings. The quality reasons for improvements on the other hand are commonly expressed in terms of the “big is beautiful” model: various reports and policy statements have long claimed that there are too many Finnish universities as compared to the population size of the country (the wide geographical reach is rarely commented in these) and that there is too much fragmentation – small one/two person programs or disciplines have no “critical mass” to systematically evolve and carry out high quality research, or provide strong education. (What is clear is that the effectiveness and focus provided by smaller units is insufficiently understood in these discussions.) It now seems that Tampere 3 merger is moving forward and that it has aspects that both are related to rationalizing, as well as aspects that relate to profiling: i.e. that Tampere region takes a stronger role in some areas (and is then also expected to scale down involvement in some others). There is much need for wisdom and hearing of experts while such crucial strategic decisions are being made. Professors, teachers, other staff and students all have their important contributions to make in this process.
  • Innovation potential vs. realities of work. Change is always a burden, and (if my memory serves me) in UTA for example, the number of staff has already gone down from c. 2.500 to 2.000 in a few years. As there has not been a radical drop in bureaucracy (new requirements for reporting, quality controlling, etc., rather have been introduced in this period), this has meant that numerous tasks that have previously been handled by some assisting personnel, are today handled by professors and other key staff members themselves. There is no longer someone who would quickly and efficiently take care of your travel receipts: after each trip (which there are many, if you collaborate nationally and internationally, as is expected), a professor will stay late at work to do a few extra hours to scan documents, manually input all numbers and explanations of cost items into the travel system, or otherwise fill in and check working hours or budget numbers of his team’s projects into various spreadsheets and administrative databases. This takes its toll, on top of research funding (to give another example) becoming an increasingly competitive and collaborative effort, which, in turn, also means an increase in meetings of various kinds, as well as plenty of grant and plan writing, report writing and form filling work. The university staff is already overburdened, some are seriously struggling in keeping up with the various requests coming into their overflowing inboxes and shared electronic calendars, and the atmosphere towards starting yet another radical round of restructuration is therefore not exactly optimal. In UTA, there used to be over 30 discipline-based departments and a mid-layer of faculty structures on top of that, but in 2011 this was restructured into nine larger Schools, and some aspects of that change have yet not been properly processed, and continue to create their own challenges (see: http://www.uta.fi/ajankohtaista/yliopistouutiset/1010/0510/yksikkojako.pdf). Yet, that said, there is nevertheless also genuine potential to find mutually complementing counterparts in the Tampere 3 restructuration – or at least get an opportunity to fix some of the errors that were made in the previous restructuration rounds. “Change is good” mantra might sound like a joke for a tired and overworked academic staff member, but there truly is also catalysing potential and opportunities for genuine innovation when the wide range of UTA, TUT and TAMK education, research and societal collaboration activities are brought together in sensible and clever, new ways. But this sense and cleverness requires that the best expertise in understanding complex phenomena, and the true substance of research and other academic work is used and activated as this process moves forward.
  • Resources and promises. Much of this boils down to how the extra overhead related to the merger will be resourced and managed. Many members of staff are currently cautious, due to seeing all too well the dangers of committing to overambitious objectives with insufficient resources. On the other hand, there is also pent-up energy and need for taking the next steps and building the new university: there are highly dynamic young (and older) researchers, teachers and administrators who have witnessed the societal transformations, seen the potential for innovation, who have published research or piloted new models in their individual projects, but who have not yet been provided an opportunity to apply these lessons to wider scale in their own institution. Such best experts and research-based solutions are now in crucial demand, as the excellent opportunity potential in Tampere 3 finally starts to open up in a big way. The unique profile of Tampere 3 in societal, cultural, technical and health related research areas, as well as the strong expertise in some really interesting, collaborative and experimental work that has been carried out in Tampere means that a new and interesting university can be created that can in flexible and multidisciplinary manner tackle many of the challenges related to the future societal developments. But that creation process requires a lot of work. And when work needs to be done, both energy, enthusiasm, expertise – and money – need to come together, and be channelled in a wise manner. Let’s hope that we are lucky enough to have that wisdom in Tampere, as well as in the Finnish government.

OASIS: Season Two

There are no rules (Kati Heljakka)
There are no rules (Kati Heljakka)

Today is the opening of Second Season in OASIS, our experimental play/library/living-room space in School of Information Sciences. There will be bubbly wine and heady ideas available in OASIS today, starting 2 pm – welcome! The invitation is here: http://oasis.uta.fi/season-2-opening-oasis/ Pictured: “There are no rules”, playful work of art by Katariina Heljakka.