Elangco’s Birthday

Today is Elangco’s official birthday. October 4th 2010 is the day Elangco was registered at the Chamber of Commerce. Time to look back. And time to look ahead.

Of course I wrote a business plan before I started the company. In a business plan you write about predictions of the growth of your business. But how can you predict that? I do know Elangco’s growth will be mainly by word of mouth: A happy customer may refer new customers to me. Such a process can be modeled using the Fibonacci series: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…. It starts off slowly, but it will grow faster and faster over time. We just don’t know the time scale: Will it be days? Not very likely! Will it be years? I don’t hope so! It has to be somewhere in between. So in my plans, I have estimated this time scale to be “a few months”. And that seems to be true.

But in reality the pattern of growth is very irregular: One moment there is little to do, then suddenly all projects seem to peak at the same time.

One thing is for sure: Running my own business is a lot more fun than working for a boss. Never before did I work so hard, but it feels like a vacation: I enjoy my freedom every day!

 

ATutor 2.0.3 released

ATutor 2.0.3 has been released. In this release two add-on modules have been integrated, several security enhancements have been added, and lots or little bug fixes and refinements have been made.

Existing users should upgrade as soon as possible to take advantage of new security features. Elangco has of course created a Dutch Language pack for this version again, so that our customers can immediately do this.

For a detailed list of changes, visit the ATutor: Change Log. View the demo to try the new features, and download ATutor to install or upgrade.

New in this ATutor release:

  • The External Tools Module, previously available as an add-on to provide support for IMS BasicLTI, has now been integrated as a standard module. BasicLTI allows administrators and instructors to extend ATutor with external applications by simply entering the URL of a BasicLTI tool, and entering its login information. External tools can be added to content pages as learning activities. See ATutor BasicLTI Certification
  • The Assignment Dropbox module, also previously available as an add-on, has now been integrated as a standard module. This module greatly simplifies assignment submission by reducing it to a single step.
  • IMS Common Cartridge support has been updated, replacing the validation scripts with the latest versions from IMS. This corrects a variety of incompatibilities in content, improving interoperability with other systems that support the standard. Slow cartridge validation has been corrected. Cartridges now import in seconds. See ATutor Common Cartridge Certification
  • The Infusion Javascript Libraries have been upgrade to version 1.4. These libraries add accessible, highly interactive components to ATutor, such as the inline editors, the tool reorders, and the multifile uploader. This upgrade corrects a number of bugs in the multifile uploader, making it usable across a wider range of Web browsers. See fluidproject.org for more about Infusion.
  • New Modules from this year’s Google Summer of Code: Projects included modules for integrating video conferencing (BigBlueButton), a Calendar module, a new iPad theme and updates to the smartphone themes, google apps and smartphone apps for ATutor Social, and a Google app for AChecker, among others. These will be refined further and included with future ATutor releases.
  • The Search OpenLearn module is being officially released along with ATutor 2.0.3. This module allows students and instructors to search through more than 600 free courses available at the OpenLearn site, the open content repository of the Open University in the UK. Content can be viewed online, or exported in a variety of formats. Instructors can import content directly into their ATutor courses where it can be modified or repurposed.

 

Disable monitor detection for Windows 7

Many people know the problem you get when you use multiple monitors in combination with one or more KVM-switches on a Windows 7 system: As is so often the case with Microsoft stuff, Windows tries to be “smart” and it reacts to your switching the monitor by moving application windows from one screen to another.

If you search for this problem on the Internet, you find many solutions, including disabling some system services or changing a registry key DMMEnableDDCPolling to 0.

All lines connected 1:1 except pin 11I have taken a different approach to solve this: The monitor detection works via a dialogue between the computer and the monitor through one or two seperate lines in the VGA cable. So all we need to do is to take away that connection!

I have built a simple adapter plug with a 15-pin VGA connector on each side (one male, one female). 14 lines are simply connected right through, only the connection on pin 11 is left out. This is one of the data lines in the VGA connection.

The result is the PC is now blind to my switching the monitors. This makes switching between the monitors so much more convenient! Only disadvantage is the PC cannot autodetect the best screen resolution and refresh rate when starting up. You may need to select the appropriate screen resolution manually when you power up the PC (maybe once every day?) After that you can switch as often as you like (100x a day?) All your windows and icons stay right where you put them!

How to wipe your harddisk

In the past few weeks my new Windows 7 PC started to produce more and more warnings about disk errors. A dialog box would pop up, asking me to make a back-up NOW and replace the disk. The first time it happened, it started me a lot, and I did make that back-up. But of course NOW was never a convenient time to replace it. So the problem kept on coming back more and more frequently.

I had to do something, so I decided to try to fix it with my trustworthy SpinRite CD. If you don’t know SpinRite, you should really check it out, it has saved irreplaceable data for many people who had neglected to make proper back-ups. In this case however, it seemed not to be the best solution. When I booted up the PC from my SpinRite CD, it needed only a very brief look at the disk to tell me, that the situation was very bad. Trying to revive this disk might only result in losing everything that was on there.

A different approach was needed. But hey! This PC is not even one year old. It is still under guarantee! So I contacted the vendor (Paradigit) for advice. “Of course“, they said: “Just bring us the PC and we will replace your hard disk.” Yeah, right, but what about my data? What about the old disk? “That will be returned to the manufacturer and recycled.

Well, OK, my data is of course my own responsibility. And I do have a back-up. But still this got me worried: We hear more and more scary stories about “recycled” PCs and hard disks that turn up in unexpected places, with all the data of the previous owner still on it. Even though I am not into international espionage, except when watching “Totally Spies“, I would feel a lot more relaxed, if I knew my data would not leave the house.

Enter “Darik’s Boot and Nuke“. This is a program to completely wipe all the data off your hard disk. It comes as an ISO-image, you can burn onto a CD-ROM. Then you boot the PC from that CD-ROM, select the drive(s) to wipe and let it run.

So far, so good. I baked my CD-ROM, booted the PC and saw it recognized my hard disk. It also saw the USB card readers (listing them as “[????] unrecognized“), but as there was no card in them, this seemed to be harmless. I was not going to select these [????]-devices anyway. But the software would not run. It immediately ended with a “non-fatal” error.

Non fatal? It was fatal enough to prevent me from wiping the disk! I found out, that I had to disable all USB-devices, so that the card reader would not be seen. Easy enough, there was an option for that in my BIOS-settings. I disabled USB, rebooted the PC… And found out, that I had locked myself out! The keyboard was a USB-device too! So now I could no longer control the PC. 🙁

Fortunately, I hate to throw stuff away, so I have some old PC keyboards in the attic, which I had been refusing to throw away for years, even though I was never able to state a clear purpose for them when interrogated about the usefulness of “all that junk” I like to keep… I plugged in one of those, rebooted again, and now I could use the software. The [????]-devices had gone, and only my hard disk was listed. I started it up, and it started to work.

This was three days ago! And it is still spinning. It wants to do three passes over the disk surface, to make totally sure all traces of the data are gone. If I had known it would take this long in advance, I might have chosen a lighter algorithm for wiping. But it has completed one pass over the surface by now. I think this is enough. Tomorrow I will take it to the shop and swap it for a new one.

Language in Europe

Today I was invited to visit the European Parliament in Brussels. One thing that immediately meets the eye when you visit these buildings: Language is a very important subject in European democracy.

As the European Community is growing, so is the number of languages used. One might think: “Let them simply all communicate in English.” But it is not that simple: Every EU-citizen has to be able to take part in the democratic process. Knowledge of a foreign language should not be required to be able to do that.

And choosing a common language comes with another important problem: Which language should be used? You may think using English is obvious, but it is not. From a historical point of view, French would have been a likely choice as well. But no matter which language you choose; it is not fair! The other countries will be at a disadvantage, because people are simply more fluent in their native language, than in any other.

An alternative might be Esperanto. Esperanto is not only neutral, because it is not the language of any of the member states, but it would also take us back to a 120 year old ideal: One language for all the people in the World. (The artificial language Esperanto was first published by L. L. Zamenhof in 1887.) Unfortunately, nobody is even thinking of this possibility.

European Parliament assembly hallSo the only option is, to do a lot of translation! All documents and all spoken texts have to be translated into all the languages of all the member states. This brings about an awful lot of work: the number of translations increases quadratically with the number of languages to be translated! (With two languages, there are two directions of translation. With three languages, there are six directions. With four languages, there are twenty four… But we are talking about 19 languages here! In that case there are 19x18x2 = 684 directions of translation!) Soon we will need more interpreters and translators, than there are members in the parliament!

As a consequence of this, the EU has finally been forced to start using “relay translations” now. That means, that for instance a Hungarian translator first translates Hungarian texts into French, German or English, and after that other translators use that text to translate it into their native language. This greatly reduces the number of translators needed (at the cost of an increased likelihood of mistakes), but still you see in every meeting room there are always lots of areas reserved for the interpreters. (The translators are not so visible in Brussels, most of them are stationed in Luxemburg, because the EU also has a legal obligation to have a large number of employees working in that country.)

In short: As a translator I was feeling very much at home in Brussels.

WPML

Those in the know spotted it a long time ago: I’m making use of the WPML (WordPress Multilingual Plug-in) for this website. WPML provides a excellent example of how Language and Technology can be combined, which is precisely where Elangco’s area of interest lies. The makers of WPML have come up with a real winner here. To start with, WPML is free: Everybody who’s running a WordPress website can use it.

Language and technology are simply the ways and means used to communicate a message. The use of language and technology should go relatively unnoticed: One simple button on each page to select a language preference, that’s all we want to see. And, users only want to have to click the button once, after that everything should happen automatically.

The owner also has a preference for a highly user-friendly website. There is however, more than first meets the eye when managing a multilingual website: The language buttons on each page must link the user to exactly the right page in the other language. And, the structure of the whole website must be consistent… in both languages. (So far I’ve only been talking about two languages; when there are three or more, it only makes the situation more complex, it also demands a great degree of discipline in order to maintain consistency throughout the website.)

For years I maintained my website ‘by hand’, so I know what I’m talking about. WPML is a real breath of fresh air: It offers a complete structure, and helps to get (and keep!) everything in the right place.

But wait! There’s more: How do the makers of WPML make money, if they’re giving it away for free? They do it by offering a translation service; one which is seamlessly integrated into the website! Website administrators can send pages of text from their dashboard to the professional translators at ICanLocalize. (You’re not obliged to use the service, you could simply do the translation yourself, the choice is yours.)

Even though I could quite easily translate this page into English myself, I’ve chosen to send it to my trusty translator, with one click of a button. When the translation is ready it will appear automatically, exactly in the right place; on the English language section of my website. That’s exactly what I mean when I’m talking about the perfect combination of Language and Technology!

Website optimization

The Chamber of Commerce in Eindhoven is organizing a seminar called: “How to sell yourself, and your company”. And even though I have more than enough assignments at the moment, it’s never a mistake to prepare for the future: “Will I still have enough customers next month?”

Reason enough to click through to the next page. There were various interesting speakers on the agenda, but I’d like to talk about one workshop in particular: “How can I optimize my website?”

It surprised many people that I was interested in attending this workshop: “Don’t you already know everything there is to know about it?” My response: “I don’t think so, I’m open to learning new things”. It’s difficult to learn ‘everything’ there is to know about a given subject, and if you did learn everything, the things you learned would become outdated very quickly; especially when it has to do with the Internet!

I did indeed hear many things that I already knew, but also learned many new things. I know how search engines look at websites, and I know that avoiding ‘clever’ tricks is important: it usually has a negative effect instead of a positive one. What does work? You need to think carefully about the search terms you want to include in your website, and optimize your website to that those terms lead people to your site, even when it means sacrificing your use of language, and having less elegant text on your website.

I would like the Elangco website to be found using the search terms ‘language’ and ‘technology’. The best way to achieve this is to use these terms repetitively in the website text. I did a search using the terms language and technique and found… The site belonging to the workshop speaker! And that’s not even his specialty. Evidently his method works.

Naturally, I was very curious what he had to say about language and technology, but I was disappointed to find only the introduction of an article about tips on using the right language and technology in your website… The article itself was missing! Was it a mistake? Or was I being mislead intentionally by false promises?

One thing is certain: It was an interesting and inspiring workshop, which stimulated me to rethink my own website.

ATutor LMS now in Dutch

One of my clients is running a website based on ATutor. ATutor is an Open Source Web-based Learning Management System (LMS) used to develop and deliver online courses.

ATutor can be installed quite easily. It features possibilities to develop custom themes to give it a new look, and easily extend its functionality. Educators can quickly assemble, package, and redistribute Web-based instructional content, import prepackaged content, and conduct their courses online. Students learn in an accessible, adaptive, social learning environment.

One of the things I love about ATutor as a translator, is that it has built-in facilities for translating the user interface into any language. It has had these for many years already, I guess when these features for internationalization were built in, it was ahead of its time.

I noticed there had not been any work done on the Dutch language pack for years. It was running behind on the development by many versions and on top of that the most recent Dutch language pack had some serious problems relating to the character encoding used, which was updated from Windows-1252 to UTF-8 years ago (not to mention lots of spelling mistakes).

This platform looks very promising, it not only contains the functionality of a Learning Management System, but it has a social networking module as well… It is almost looks like you could use it to build your own LinkedIn-like (or Orkut-like, or Hyves-like) network from it.

I have created a Dutch language pack for them for versions 2.0.0 and 2.0.1, so hopefully we will soon see a growing user base for this interesting product in Holland.