Monday, 20 November 2017

In praise of Linux (again)

A few days ago there was an article in the Irish Times praising linux on the desktop for its utility and ability to extend the life of old and otherwise perfectly usable hardware.

I am in fact writing this on my five nearly six year old Linux netbook.

Why?

Windows updates. Ever since I had the Windows 10 creators update installed I've had a storm of minor fixes and updates, all off which seem to leave my machine in an odd state requiring not only a reboot but a fifteen minute session of placatory messages while Windows plays with itself.

That said I actually quite like Windows 10 as an environment and am quite happy with the fact that when I eventually replace my elderly Dell Inspiron it'll be with a Windows machine.

However, I can't help but contrast the paind I'm going through with Windows at the moment with the ease at which I ran my latest set of Linux of updates it was a fairly painless exercise.

What's more I even installed a suite of optical character recognition software. Think about it - running OCR software on a six year old Intel Atom powered machine.

That said my first attempt, with OCRfeeder, which I'd successfully used with Debian to OCR a collection Vietnam war era newspaper cuttings from North Vietnam didn't quite work - basically OCRfeeder and Xfce seem to have an incompatibility. Changing to Yagf which uses the same underlying recognition engines, tesseract and cuneiform - seemed to work.

Preliminary, and fairly basic tests, seem to show that it works, if a little slowly, but good enough for some of J's family history stuff where we have some good jpegs of documents.

And that of course is the other great virtue of Linux - there's always more than one way of solving a problem or carrying out a particular task.

Now I'm not going to tell you that Linux is a panacea. It's not. Sometimes it's flexibility is a curse more than a blessing - for example I have never ever been able to get bluetooth to work with Xfce despite having it work successfully with other Linux front ends.

I am not going to tell you to throw out your Macs and your windows machines. My MacBook Air for example remains one of the best machines I have ever owned for travelling and note taking in the field - the only machine that ever came close was the Linux EeePc 701SD. But what I will say that if you need a low cost and effective solution try Linux.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Zpad six and a bit years on

Six and a bit years ago I bought myself a zPad, a no name Chinese android 2.2 tablet skinned to look like an iPad.

It was bought as an experiment at a time when iPads seemed to be taking over the world to see if cheap whitebox Android devices could mount a challenge, and provide an alternative tablet based solution.

Ipads are of course still dominant but Samsung, Lenovo and the others have turned Android into a viable alternative platform for tablet computing. What hasn't happened is that cheap whitebox devices have taken over the world - most Android tablet sales are for brand name devices, most of which are both cheap and offer reasonable performance.

Enough history - back to the zPad.

Amazingly I'm still using it (occasionally) six and a bit years on.

The operating system is hopelessly out of date, upgrades just don't happen anymore but gMail and twitter still work, as does a weather app, and for that reason it continues to live on a shelf in my shed so that I can check the weather and my email with I'm covered in dirt after a serious gardening session.

Surprised (a) that I still use it, and that (b) it's still proving useful ...

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Technology and travel

Usually when we've had a trip overseas I do a little blog post on how our technology worked.

This time I have almost nothing to report. I took my MacBook Air and J took her trusty samsung tablet and both worked well, and we had no connectivity problems, basically everywhere we went or stayed there was free fast wifi.

Our only problem was that we didn't have data roaming on our phones, but then there was enough free wifi around to not really need it. Next time we'll probably take an old unlocked smartphone and buy a local sim just for the convenience but it's by no means essential.

We did take the old Nokia phone with a travel sim that we'd used in 2015 and that again performed excellently as far as calls and texts went, and having a UK number people were happy to call it given that roaming charges in Europe are now a thing of the past.

As always I took an Australian powerboard and a pair of adaptors - a UK pattern one for the UK and Singapore, and a European one for Portugal.

Hardly anywhere has these so called universal sockets, and while UK and European plugs fit fine I've yet to find one where an Australian plug fits well - either too tight or too loose, never right.

I'd bought myself an SD Card reader for my MacBook for the princely sum of $3, and that worked well, meaning we had no problem backing up our cameras.

As in 2015, I took a GPS with me but this time both hire cars we had came with an inbuilt GPS and there were no silly extra charges to use them - I'd guess they'll be standard on hire cars next time we travel to Europe.

It's actually getting easier ...

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

4G routers

I've previously written about our adventures with 3g routers, first to provide backup for our (then) flaky home ADSL connection, and also to provide us with a portable network solution when we go bush.

Well, the need for a backup connection for our home network link is long gone, but we still use our little portable 3g network box quite extensively when we go travelling in Australia.

While some country motels offer decent quality wifi some don't, or if they do still charge silly money, and quite a few holiday cottages, unlike in Europe, come without a wifi connection.

Latterly, we've been buying 10GB of data with 365days expiry as the best offer around.

When we're away we average around 300MB a day, but we perhaps use this for 10 or 15 days year, ie while we've 10GB to play with we roughly use half.

As our use of the service is bursty, ie we might use it for three or four days in a row and then not at all for a month or so, having a long 'use it or lose it' period allowed us plenty of headroom without excess data charges.

Well, long story short, I went to renew our data service for the 3G unit, and, well, our provider no longer offered year long data packs, it was all by the month (actually 28 days to be exact) and the cheapest offer was for 1.5GB/28days for $15, ie a 5 day trip away with our average usage would just fit inside our allowance (excess data charges are still a thing), and yet we'd be paying twice as much as before for dead data.

So, first thought was to change providers. Unfortunately no one really does this any more - no one offers a long expiry prepaid broadband service, or if they do, it's not long for this world, and no one offers anything reasonable say 2.5GB/28days at an economic price.

Now just by chance, we'd just changed our phones from Virgin to Telstra, and Telstra had not only given us a silly monthly data allowance (15GB each) they'd put us in a family pool so we were sharing 30GB.

This meant that the cheapest option was to buy the cheapest data service (1GB/month) that Telstra allows you to add to a family pool, and that way we would end up with more than enough headroom.

Which is what we did.

Now as our portable 3G box is unlocked I could have simply replaced the SIM and left it at that, but given that 4G is widely available I decided to get us a 4G router so we could have faster network speeds where possible (Telstra really does have the fastest and most pervasive rural network).

Simplest solution was to go hunting on ebay and buy an unlocked Telstra MF910V 4G router made by ZTE - this being the previous model of the unit Telstra now sell.

I went for the older unit as it was a bit cheaper, and having an unlocked unit means we can always put a different SIM in it, like if we were overseas. Being about the size and weight of an iPhone 4 the unit's highly portable, and with an internal battery it can be used (for a limited time at least) somewhere without power - camping, or on the wifi-less V/line train from Wangaratta to the city.

I did some rough tests yesterday when the unit arrived and performance looks good - how well it performs in remote areas will have to wait until our next trip away ...

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Hans Christian Andersen and eresearch

I've been throwing stones:


for a long time I've felt that after all the excitement of being able to do new things with big data sets basically all that was happening was not sufficiently different to justify being called digital humanities or eresearch.

Basically computation based research is happening in climatology, in genomics, in astronomy, and no one thinks it remarkable. The same should be the case for the humanities and the other traditionally less numerate subjects, because, as we begin to collect data, and storage and computing becomes cheaper, we can try new things.

Like the linguist who did a frequency count on a whole load of prolog (remember prolog?) scripts to work out the key manipulations that should be covered in Prolog101, having access to cheap compute allows new things and also allows us to do the old things more quickly, more easily.

It doesn't add understanding or insight, or radically change things, it just means that some things that weren't possible now are, and unsurprisingly we end up with some unexpected results ...

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Tightening the folksonomy

Well, after a couple of months on the documentation project I can say

(a) the methodology is working
(b) bench marking the data captured against the publicly available data on Museums Victoria shows we seem to be capturing the right sort of information
(c) I'm getting really good at recognising nineteenth century pharmacists bottles

which is kind of where I'd hope to be.

Having bench marked the data I spent the morning reviewing the first tranche of entries - as I would of expected - the earlier records basically have all the information but are not structured as tightly as the later ones, so as part of the review process I went back and restructured the data, and filled in any missing data.

Besides documenting the remaining three and a bit thousand objects, I guess the next stage is to write some perl (or python) to transform the records in to a true csv file rather than one with sections separated by commas and subsections by colons, which would potentially allow me to spit the file out in any other format (bibtex for artefacts anyone?)

The other fun idea is to build a little online exhibit using Omeka of the more interesting bottles, and again there's enough data to generate object descriptions ....

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Repurposing an old Eee netbook for research

A long time ago, when I upgraded my EEE pc to crunchbang (which is no longer maintained), one of my ideas was to use it as a distraction free writing machine.

Having fiddled about with cherrytree as a note manager, I’ve come to the conclusion that using machine as a distraction free research machine works:

It has an excellent, if slightly cramped keyboard, will run for a couple of hours without being plugged in to the wall, and with focuswriter for writing, and cherrytree for notes management, as well as something like retext or gedit for markdown work, and kate (or gedit) for general text file editing, the whole bundle works well, especially with opera as browser (for some reason it works better than Firefox or Chromium, coping with the EEE’s non standard screen size), and sylpheed as a mail client - not my favourite, but sufficiently lightweight to run quickly.

As before, no dropbox or other external storage - things are kept as minimal as possible.

The result?

A distraction free research machine with just enough connectivity to check items, but without all the booming buzzing confusion that a more fully specified machine would lead you into. That and its small form factor makes it highly portable

Sunday, 6 August 2017

CherryTree ....

Having suggested that you could use something like cherry tree as an alternative to OneNote or Evernote in a barebones documentation solution running on linux, I thought I’d better try it out on my Xubuntu netbook.

And it’s not bad.

It’s essentially a node based note taker where one starts from the beginning and build a set of tree structured notes, which is fine for me, as it’s how I tend to work, and it’s fairly easy to move nodes and restructure things.

As a practical exercise I built myself a set of notes about the murder of Mary Dobie, which occurred in November 1880 in Taranaki in New Zealand against a backdrop of settler/indigenous conflict. (If you are interested in reading further, there's an excellent book available from the University of Auckland press)

Basically, I did what I always do, build myself a root node, add some subnodes containing the results of querypic search to confirm that there was a spike of interest and a couple of relevant newspaper articles from the period, garnered from Trove or PapersPast.

This was a little more fiddly than you might think - nodes can be richtext, plaintext or markdown (yay!), but you can only attach object to rich text nodes.

Display of the objects is dependent on external viewers, which is a little clumsy, but it does work, and it of course means that you need to put some descriptive text in the node otherwise you end up wondering quite what verylongname.png really is.

Cherry tree doesn’t really do document sharing, but you can share an individual database between members of a research group (or multiple machines)  say, via dropbox, or any other filesharing platform, and that’s probably good enough for most purposes.

The application comes with an impressive set of options to import from other note managers, but unfortunately none of the mainstream ones, and exporting again avoids the mainstream but it does allow pdf and html export, which again covers most options, including creating either a set of html pages or a single unified document.

So, not perfect, but perfectly usable for a lightweight alternative to one of big boys ...

[update 07 August 2017]

Just for fun I added cherrytree to my old Eee PC701 linux netbook and imported my test database, and everything worked well, the only downside being that the slightly newer version I installed no longer supports markdown ...

Friday, 4 August 2017

Documenting artefacts - the methodology

Yesterday, while working at the documentation project that I’ve volunteered for I had a couple of interesting conversations, one with a lady from a local history society in New Zealand, and the other with a post graduate history researcher about what I was doing and what I’d found so far.

The New Zealand lady was particularly interested in the how, and thinking about it, while the final destination of the information is an InMagic artefact catalogue, you could use the methodology for just about anything  - I have for example thought about extracting the more interesting items and building a little exhibition with Omeka.

The data is entered into an excel spreadsheet in a semi structured manner so an entry will look something like this:

clear glass bottle ~200mm: glass stopper: printed label wintergreen: contents (liquid) present, 20170803_105032.jpg, label 20170803_105131.jpg

so the structure is basically

description, image, comments

with the three components separated by commas. Inside each section sub components are delimited by colons to make it easy to split up the text. The description section always follows the same structure, and uses a tacit controlled vocabulary (a folksonomy) of standard terms, so the label can be no label, handwritten, printed, typewritten, to make parsing easy. The description is always followed by the name of a jpeg file, which also give you the date of the description - purely accidental, I’m using my Samsung Galaxy to photograph the objects as I go - the camera being good enough for documentation purposes, and that’s just how it does it, a useful accident.

The comments section is basically a ragbag, extra images, text embossed on a bottle, and so on, but where possible standard terms are used and everything is always colon delimited.

Rather than go for a complex entry form I though it better to go for a simple bare bones approach and structure it so that the information could be post processed and fixed up later with a bit of perl and regex.

Much the same applies to using a folksonomy - as at the start I didn’t know what terms to use, it struck me a simpler to make one up and let it evolve, most times the terms are standard but if a new one is needed so be it.

Of course this all needs to be documented, so in parallel to the spreadsheet I have a markdown file which records progress and any changes. I chose markdown as it lends itself to structured documentation and can be easily converted to other formats.

In addition, working notes, background information on various suppliers and the like is stored in OneNote, for the simple reason that I’m using a windows machine that came with OneNote, and I’m not supposed to install additional software, otherwise Evernote would be an obvious alternative.

Data is backed up to a USB stick and then to a OneDrive account. While I do have access to the internet on the project, the connection has quite limited bandwidth - enough for email and web searches, but not enough for backup. Even a OneDrive sync can be tedious.

In the ideal world, I would have access to some secondary local filestore, but I don’t have that, so I back up the data at home, where I have a reasonably fast connection, to my personal OneDrive store, purely because I have storage to burn at the moment as our ISP gave us a fairly generous chunk of online storage as part of our package, and it’s stupid not to backup the data.

However, while it’s not ideal, it shows that the methodology is adaptable, and while it would be preferable to have an internet connection, it can be used for documentation work offline, something possibly important for onsite documentation in remote locations

The same goes for the software used. I’m using a windows machine with office, onenote and the windows markdown editor. I could equally well use libre calc, evernote, or typora on  either windows or a mac. I could even use an old repurposed machine with ubuntu installed. The only crucial parts of the methodology is bluetooth to transfer pictures from my phone and support for some sort of external storage device. Otherwise, it’s a spreadsheet, a text editor and some sort of note taking tool such as Laverna, Simplenote or Cherrytree.

Due to the lack of dependence on paid for software, the access cost is fairly minimal. It’s possible to pick up a refurbished thinkpad, admittedly with Windows 8, but with a decent warranty, for around three hundred dollars, and if Windows 8 isn’t your thing, Ubuntu is a simple and pretty automatic install.

As I said, now that smartphone cameras are as good as point and shoot there’s no need to invest in a separate camera, but if required, small end of range point and shoot cameras from manufacturers you’ve heard of are fairly easy to find at an affordable price.

So, the methodology is straightforward and has few prerequisites. how do I use it?

Well the artefacts are documented one by one, initially by longhand in a notebook, which has turned out easier when transcribing faded labels and embossed inscriptions using the Leiden conventions than directly typing them in, then photographing them.

The images are then transferred to the laptop via bluetooth and the image names recorded in the notebook. And then the record is added to the spreadsheet. Every half hour or so I save copies of the spreadsheet, markdown documentation file and the images to the usb stick for later transfer and backup to OneDrive using my home laptop.

Anything interesting, such as an unfamiliar manufacturers name is googled and a note added to OneNote. Bottles are highly collectable, so besides standard resources such as Collections Victoria, collectors personal sites can be a useful resource as can ebay as often collectors have greater detailed knowledge of particular bottles than museum curators.

So, in essence, keep it simple, use formats that can be easily read and document everything ....

Friday, 14 July 2017

The mystery of the Terry's bottle

Well, I now think I've got a plausible scenario as how a bottle of powdered rhubarb extract from Terry's of York ended up in a pharmacy in country Victoria.

Having lived off Bishopthorpe Road in York in the early nineties I'd associated Terry's with chocolate and especially the smell of chocolate orange on winter's morning in the run up to Christmas, and I was tending to assume that the bottle had been reused and had possibly held cocoa powder or something similar originally.

But overnight I had a series of incredibly useful tweets from the York Cocoa House.

I've combined the tweets into a single Google Doc to make everything more readable but the story goes like this:

The company that eventually became Terry's started out as an apothecary's business and began making herbal lozenges and a vast range of herbalist's supplies:


image courtesy York Cocoa House (@YorkCocoaHouse)

and what's more Terry's were entering trade competitions and winning prizes, including both Melbourne and Adelaide. The herbal lozenges allowed them to move into confectionery, but they only really became serious chocolate makers after 1908, meaning that before then Terry's were confectioners and herbalists.

My guess, and it is only a guess, is that RockeTompsitt, the wholesale druggist who supplied the pharmacy took on Terry's as a supplier, and either didn't repackage the Terry's products, or else carried them as a separate line, and the person doing the ordering for the pharmacy decided to try this English product that had been winning prizes, perhaps because they were not happy with the normal RockeTompsitt product ...

Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Terry's top...

Well twitter is a wonderful thing.

You may remember that  I was puzzled by a Joseph Terry bottle top I came across while documenting artefacts:


Initially I thought it was late Victorian or Edwardian, but how it came to be on a bottle of pwdewred rhubarb extract was a mystery. Terry's were chocolate makers, not rhubarb purveyors.

Wikipedia gave me a likely start date of 1895, being the year the company incorporated under the name, but the end date was a bit of a mystery, so I tweeted the picture to see if anyone had any ideas.

Well, a former colleague picked this up and forwarded the tweet to the Borthwick Institute at York.
The Borthwick didn't hold the Terry's archive, but they passed it on to the York Castle Museum, who confirmed the 1895 start date and the York Cocoa House, who added that Terry's didn't become serious chocolate makers until 1908.

But powdered rhubarb extract?

well this is the bottle.

Since I found the Terry's top I've found evidence that bottles were reused and relabelled, so I'm guessing the bottle that either the bottle originally held something else, or else the top was reused to replace a missing top on a jar.

Quite how a Terry's bottle top ended up in country Victoria, 20,000 km from its origin remains a mystery though

Friday, 7 July 2017

Two weeks in and what have I learned?



Well I've been working on the documentation project for a couple of  weeks now, so I thought I'd take stock of what I've learned so far


  • Quite a lot of the supplied were bought from Rocke Tompsitt & co, who were a large wholesale druggist in Melbourne. Not surprising in itself, they probably supplied most of the country pharmacies in Victoria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries 
  • There's also some outliers - a bottle from Merck when it was still E Mercke of Darmstadt, a bottle of rhubarb extract from Joseph Terry in York 
which is probably newer than 1895 as Terry's didn't legally incorporate under that name until then, but stylistically I suspect that the top doesn't date to much later than 1895. The rhubarb extract may not have been its original contents - there's some evidence of bottles, especially the older ones, of being reused and relabelled.
  • There's also a little bit of social history, with a few bottles from Burgoyne, Burbidges and co, who were once a chemical supplier in the east end of London, but who are now a major Indian chemical supplier headquartered in Mumbai. Interestingly, the old London factory is still there if you want to take a look.
  • and of course there's what I consider to be the best find so far
    a little octagonal cobalt blue glass bottle embossed with 
    Jacob Hulle
    Not to be taken
    Strychnine
    Bottles like this turn out to be quite rare.
    There's an example in the Powerhouse museum in Sydney, which has its original label.
    Doing an image search in google for Jacob Hulle turns up examples for sale to collectors in Australia, New Zealand and the UK.
    The name Jacob Hulle is a bit of a gift, eminently searchable for.
    Hulle was associated with a company that later became Whiffen and co. Given that Hulle retired in 1868 I suspect that the bottle probably dates from the 1860's, as while it's a geometric shape and has a warning embossed on the bottle, it lacks the vertical ridges that were commonly embossed on poison bottles later in Victorian times to make them easier to identify in candlelight.
So, all in all a productive two weeks, and one that convinces me that using bottles to track early trade patterns in the South Pacific was not completely mad ...

Thursday, 6 July 2017

file transfer, it's all about file transfer

Quietly amazed as to how much of my life has been about file transfer, about getting data from device A to device B.

First of all it was kermit (and its z, x, and ymodem bretheren). Then it was VMS's non interactive file transfer, then good old unix ftp with a bit of uucp on the side, followed by rcp and rsync, plus the joys of http upload.

Now it's full circle and shipping data over bluetooth using asynchronous protocols ...

Sunday, 2 July 2017

When is free wifi not exactly free?

Last week I had the pleasure of spending a freezing morning in Albury to get my car serviced. The Library and their zippy wifi doesn't open until 10, and I had to drop the car off at 8.30, so I had some time to kill, and after I'd been to OfficeWorks and JBHiFi to look at computers I either couldn't afford or justify, it was time for a coffee so I headed off to the Myer Centre, a small shopping mall with some decent coffee shops, for a coffee and to thaw out before heading over to the library.

Now, the Myer Centre has its own free wifi provided by the eponymous store of that name rather   than Albury City's free wifi. And it used to be that when you logged on to check your email, you did the standard thing of clicking in a browser window to promise to be a good boy, and that was about it.

Not this time. The wifi solution had been outsourced to Lokket, who wanted you to login with either a Google or a Facebook id to get onto the wifi.

Well I decided I'd rather not, and not having a suitable dummy account to hand I closed my laptop, drank my coffee and went elsewhere.

Now, Myer's have a perfect right to do what they want with their free wifi service and if they think that they can get extra sales by targeting their customer base like this that's their business.

Personally it makes me just that little bit less likely to visit the store, and I'm certainly not happy about them having access to my account data ...

Monday, 12 June 2017

The user experience of online research in public libraries ...

The Madeleine Smith case has got under my skin, not so much as a 'did she do it?' type of event but as a vehicle for investigating how some things happened, such as how the news travelled around the world/

Currently I'm using the digitised news reports in Trove and PapersPastNZ to look at how the news of the case got from Britain to Australia (interestingly it seems also to have been big news in America, and that's something else I need to follow up on).

There's also the interesting question as to whether Wilkie Collins, the well known nineteenth century author of detective stories ever met Madeleine Smith.

It's not completely improbable - after acquittal Madeleine Smith move to London and later met and married George Wardle, who was William Morris's business manager, and given the literary and artistic circles both moved in it's possible, but it's equally possible that if they did meet, Wilkie Collins did not realise that Madeleine Wardle was the one and only Madeleine Hamilton Smith, though as a lawyer he was well aware of the case, with echoes being found in Lydia Gwilt's account of the poisoning of her husband in 'Armadale' and also in 'The Law and the Lady'.

However, this is not really what this blog post is about. It's about working in public libraries.

Most, but not all of my background work has been carried out in Albury public library - J goes to a life drawing workshop at Albury art gallery on a Sunday afternoon, and because she takes portfolios, paper and other drawing materials with her, all of which are fairly bulky, I usually drive her and drop her off outside the gallery and then go park the car.

Now Albury, while a fine town, is not the most scintillating place on a Sunday afternoon, so I've taken to taking copies of the digitised newspaper articles and my notes to Albury Library and working on them there for a couple of hours.

I usually take a computing device of some kind as well as good old pen and paper - I keep my notes in Evernote as well as copies of the digitised articles, and of course having a browser means being able to check things. Albury library provides free wi-fi that's reasonably zippy, nice big tables to work on and spread out, so it's a nice sunny place to work - the only downside is that they don't provide power sockets.

So, for the first few weeks I took the Alcatel Pixi tablet and keyboard combo that I used to use for work, that had more than adequate battery life, and that was pretty good - evernote client, firefox as a browser, the wikipedia app on the desktop and Markdrop to write notes and same them to Dropbox.

All good, and perfectly usable.

But yesterday I took my old macbook air with me. It's six years old, and apart from a single stuck pixel on the screen, works fine. Battery life is not its strong point - it never was, but I reckoned that fully charged I could get a couple of hours out of it.

On this occasion I took it because I wanted to write up a lot of my scribbled notes and annotations and the keyboard is simply a lot nicer to type on than the Pixi's bluetooth add on - I was using TextWrangler to write up my notes in Markdown, so nothing exotic - just straight forward characters and markup.

And the experience was a revelation - not because of the keyboard but because how well the Apple environment coped with the library's wifi hotspot and managed the sign in process - recognising it as a hot spot, opening a nice sign in window in reponse - simple and seamless, unlike android's sometimes painful sign in via browser - let's guess which tab to use.

Otherwise the experience was fine, but it was the apple slickness that made it a seemingly simple operation.

Now probably next time I go I should take a different machine, the obvious one being my Xubuntu netbook which also has a nice editor (or being linux, several nice editors, but these days I prefer gedit to kate). After all everything I'm doing simply involves an editor and a browser (and admittedly google print on one occasion), but it would be interesting to try and compare the user experience.

And it's the user experience that's key here, not that you can't do the same thing on a different platform, but just how pleasurable the experience is and how high a bar it is to getting work done

In the ideal world, I ought to compare a windows machine as well as just linux, which is kind of a minority sport.

However, while I've been thinking of getting myself a small Lenovo Yoga (or its Dell equivalent) to sort of replace the Air and its poor battery life, the tax refund fairy hasn't come calling yet, and I don't have highly portable small format machine to compare.

J's HP laptop might be a possibility, but it's a bit of clunker to carry round and it's currently stuck on Windows 7, so I'm afraid that the only comparison at the moment will be with linux...

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Documenting artefacts

I gave up on the work thing about eighteen months ago, but I've recently volunteered for a project documenting a large number of nineteenth century artefacts in an old pharmacist's shop where (a) the owners never threw anything away and (b) sometime in the mid sixties the old man gave up and, unable to sell the business, the family just locked the door and left it.

The actual job itself is quite simple. The people I'm working for use Inmagic for collection management, and what I'll be doing is working through the shelves of the pharmacy documenting/describing each object using a controlled vocabulary (ok, possibly more a folksonomy than a standard controlled vocabulary), and attaching an image.

All done as an excel spreadsheet and imported into Inmagic in as a csv file.

The downside is that as a volunteer, I don't get to play with Inmagic or do the data ingest, but the upside is I'm a volunteer - I just do my thing a couple of days a week, and get to go home when I want.

The actual model of doing it this way is really quite robust and provides a really good methodology for fieldwork and documenting artefacts in the field - all that's needed is a laptop - any laptop running an OS that supports something that can create csv files. No need to worry about 3G connections or anything else.

Such a method is not unique to Inmagic of course. When I was involved in the ANU DataCommons we sought to build a generic solution that was agnostic as to the sort of data we uploaded, purely as the Data Commons was designed as a content agnostic repository.

Change the rules slightly, parse the data on upload according to some set of rules and it could have been turned into a collection management solution.

And this got me thinking about what we've been doing with the whole digital object management thing.

In universities at least the focus has been on building collections of documents - mostly research papers and preprints, but the thing is, because these are textual documents they are self describing - we can extract titles and abstracts, build metadata records and do something a bit like good old fashioned library cataloging.

At  the same time archival services  use much the same technology to index and publish electronic representations of historic documents, in the main because the archivists already knew what the content was and this allowed them to build large collections as well as using specialist tools such as Omeka to build collection specific sites.

Enter data.

Data is inscrutable. It consists of arbitrarily structured information and without a decent description you are sunk, purely because the structure is arbitrary - it has meaning, but you need to know the structure to understand and interpret (and indeed reuse) the data, which is why in these days of computational analysis all the code and tools used needs to be documented and saved with the object.

If that's true of data, it's even more true for documenting artefacts.

One glass bottle looks much like another, but actually documenting their size and characteristics tells us things.

To explain, think about 330ml beer bottles.


  • some are brown, some are green
  • some have long necks, some short
  • some are squat stubby shaped and some are more classic bottle shaped
  • some are generic, some have a brewery name moulded in
  • some have a manufacturers product code on the base, some don't
in other words, not all beer bottles are the same. And because different bottles can be tied to different breweries, you can start to make statements based on frequency and distribution about people's beer preferences.

This of course works better for nineteenth century bottle dumps, when beer wasn't routinely shipped halfway round the planet,  than your neighbourhood bottlebank, but even so you could probably discover some interesting things. 

(In fact this might be a really interesting project to do on somewhere like Fiji or Samoa to trace changing trade patterns, much as people have used grecoroman amphora types to trace trade patterns in the early Mediterranean.)

However, the point is that when we document things we implicitly classify them, and it's the classification that turns a list of artefacts into something interesting, which of course means we need to capture the classidication model as well ....

Monday, 22 May 2017

Ah, windows updates and human factors

After the WannaCry debacle I thought I'd best check that J's old HP laptop that used to be used for work was fully patched.

It's been used infrequently over the last year or so, so I thought it might be missing some important updates.

I wasn't seriously worried about WannaCry as it had never run SMB services and was turned off during the rampage, but it's stupid not to patch machines after an incident like that.

Well when I checked it I discovered human factors had been at work here - it was set to check for updates at 0300, but J always left her laptop switched off overnight, so consequently it had never, ever checked for updates. Definitely an Edvard Munch moment!

On top of that windows update was knackered such that it just flailed and looped when I ran it manually.

Reading the KnowledgeBase articles it could either be that the update servers had moved, or that the download directory was corrupt. Either ways, running the trouble shooting tool and swearing under my breath seemed to fix that.

So, three quarters of a gigabyte later we're patched.

The only major irritant is that as windows update was knackered we've also missed out on the free upgrade to Windows 10 despite creating a reservation ...

Monday, 17 April 2017

Facebook ...

Facebook and I have never got on.

While I've had an account for years I've only really used it for authentication services. I've never seen the point of Facebook, preferring twitter, blogger and wordpress, plus reading my news via rss.

Since moving to the country that's been changing. Turns out a lot of cafes and small restaurants use Facebook to announce menus, and specials like a Friday night pizza and beer evening with a band, not to mention small specialist backyard operations like small scale plant nurseries, or the man who makes traditional ie strong farm and garden tools as a hobby and sells them on the side.

So, reluctantly, I'm less of a refusenik, but I still don't really see the point ...

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Faxes ...

For long after everyone else has stopped using faxes I've maintained an online fax account.

Not any more, it's gone. You would think it should have died years ago, but every time I've gone to delete it it's suddenly proved stupidly useful.

Builders use faxes to send orders and sketches, lawyers still use faxes due to their end to endness - ie you can get a receipt and a record it's been received at the other end (yes we know about read receipts and email but these are not universally implemented) and doctors offices still use them to send confidential documents for much the same reason.

And of course, if you need to test something, or indeed sign off on an order to a builder, or get a copy of your medical file from overseas, you need a fax machine, or in my case, something that emulates a fax machine. And suddenly it's clear why many multifunction printers still have fax options, and why office supplies superstores still carry fax machines -  they're still in use out there on the outernet ...

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Instant on

Following on from my last about the instant on of Chromebooks compared to almost anything else, I was playing with J's HP Beats Audio laptop (purchased late 2012 at the start of the Windows 8 debacle when it was the only Win7 device left in the store) trying to get an old Wacom tablet to work.

The laptop is still on Windows 7 so I thought we might be in with a chance - we weren't. But when I gave up and shut it down I noticed a second power on button next to the 'proper' power button.

So I pressed it.

And it booted up into a customised copy of firefox running in a little linux kiosk environment. I'm guessing there's some jiggery pokery on the circuit board that boots from the main disk if the big power button is pressed, or from linux, either from a separate partition or a little  bit of SD ram if the second button is pressed.

The nice thing about it is that it is instant on - not quite as fast as a Chromebook, but not far off it, and with a recent browser, good enough for gmail, outlook, evernote, zoho docs or almost anything else you can think of.

And it's instant off as well, making it idea for checking mail, writing a quick note or whatever.

Nice one HP !

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Chromebooks vs tablets

Despite the fact that I'm writing this using gedit on a Linux laptop, I'm increasingly finding that I'm using my chromebook in place of either of my two Android tablets.

Don't get me wrong, tablets are good lightweight devices, and when I'm away from home I find the small form factor of the 7" device, as well as good battery life makes it an invaluable companion device.

At home, however, I surf the web, interact with websites and write things and also edit spreadsheets. And it's a hell of a lot easier to work with spreadsheets and text on device with a keyboard.

It so happens that beacuse I use gmail to read mail, and inoreader to read my rss feeds I can use browser based applications as straight alternatives to locally downloaded apps, and with a reasonable network connection offloading a lot of the processing is feasible.

A chromebook isn't the only possibility. I could use my MacBook Air - the form factor's about the same and web based applications run just as well on it, and of course I could use something like TextWrangler or FocusWriter as a lightweight writing tool for offline work, and certainly the Air would be  (and is) the goto device for anytime I'm offline.

But compared to the Air, the Chromebook offers instant on and instant off - checking a link, or something on wikipedia means that you can work the way I work with a tablet when I'm reading or researching something, as an electronic scribblepad cum library search device, and instant on means I don't need to have it powered up, or indeed be constantly in search of a power socket. (Don't get me started about my windows laptop, despite the improvements with Windows 10, the boot process is elephantine to say the least).

And this means I can work from the sofa, the back deck, basically anywhere I can get a decent signal.

And using a linux laptop? Well sometimes one needs a general purpose computer with a little bit of grunt to run a bit of perl or python ...

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Auspost self service terminals - a cautionary tale of receipts

A couple of weeks ago I found myself back in Canberra for two or three days, and I had a parcel to post.

Yes, I could have posted it at home where you line up and they weigh your parcel, tell you how much it is, and give you your receipt, but I'd forgotten to go to the post office and it wouldn't wait till I got back.

So I went round to the Woden post shop in Canberra. Last time, about twelve months ago, it had been a fairly conventional Australia Post outlet where you could post parcels, buy stationery, printer ink and SIM cards. However, I found it had moved round the corner and was a larger outlet. What was still the same was the queue of people wanting to lodge parcels and collect registered mail.

And then I spied a self service terminal, the first I'd seen.

So I used it. It was fairly conventional, basically a cross between a supermarket self service checkout and a library self service machine. Basically you weigh your parcel, type in the postcode it's going to, it works out the cost, asks you if you want tracking, and you wave your credit card at it.

It also gives you the option of entering an email address to have a copy of the receipt mailed to you.

All pretty normal.

The receipt never turned up in my mailbox, but we had the paper slip from the machine, and even though we keep them religiously we've never had to use them as we've never have had a problem with parcels going astray.

Of course this time the parcel went astray (actually it hadn't, it had just take an an eccentric route through the Australia Post delivery network - Woden to Sydney via Hobart), and of course when we realised it might have gone AWOL we couldn't find the paper receipt - I suspect we'd accidentally thrown it in the bin along with some parking and restaurant receipts.

So I went looking for the electronic copy. It wasn't in spam, or junk, or even automatically deleted because Thunderbird has taken a dislike to it, and as I've two email addresses, one which is harvested into the other I checked both services via their web clients.

Definitely not there.

And because I buy a lot of books (and other stuff online) I checked my MyPost account in case it was there in my Australia Post Digital mailbox.

Definitely, definitely not there. J, by this time had called Australia Post's helpline, found someone helpful (!) who had traced the transaction from the terminal logs and confirmed that it had got where it was going this morning, albeit with a short sojourn on the Apple Isle.

Remember I said I had two email addresses (actually I've more, but that's another story)  I use.

In the midst of our panic I remembered that sometime ago when I was still working I'd used the other one to set up a second MyPost account  to keep work stuff separate and simplify claiming expenses.

So I logged into my other account for the first time in eighteen months, and yes there was the receipt, sitting in my digital mailbox.

I'm guessing that the self service terminals have a rule that if the email address is associated with a MyPost account they save the docket to the account's digital mailbox rather than emailing it to you.

I can't remember if it terminal asked me to scan my MyPost card or not - I didn't have it with me - before asking for an email address.

The obvious experiment would be to try sending something with a non-MyPost associated account, and see if it emailed you the receipt ...

Friday, 17 February 2017

Using an older Android phone

What I was looking for when I found my old Handspring Visor, was my old Samsung Galaxy Sii, which was my day to day phone until a couple of years ago when I upgraded to an S5.

The reason I went looking for my old Sii was quite complex. If you're a regular reader of this blog you'll recall that we bought a pay as you go SIM from Telstra, the dominant mobile phone provider in our area, to complement our contract based regular phones as Virgin doesn't play quite so well (or at all in our case) in rural Victoria.

Originally we had the Telstra SIM in an old Nokia phone because of the Nokia's superb battery life, but I switched it across to my old Samsung due to the spate of power outages we've been having recently - none very dramatic, an hour at most, but given the serious outages they've been having in South Australia, it's been a worry.

Now our local powerline operator is a company called AusNet and they have a really helpful outages page on which you can check the cause and the estimated time to fix, but for this you need an internet connected device.

Well, if our Virgin phones had been reliable we'd just have used them, or created an ad hoc temporary hotspot to get online, but as they're not reliable we needed to press my old Android phone into service, especially as Telstra have quite a fast bit of private network into the town.

So what's it like winding back a couple of generations?

Physically the main difference is the phone's smaller, with a smaller screen making onscreen typing more of the old fashioned hunt and peck (in fact remarkably like using my old Visor) than the smoother experience on a newer phone.

The camera is not as sharp - no  surprises there, but strangely, that's about it. Battery life's about the same, Applications, while they're older versions are more or less the same in use, and while one is Android 6.x and the other 4.x, there's very little difference in the user experience, suggesting we've more or less reached a plateau in UX as far as Android is concerned.

Basically, both make calls, connect to wifi and the internet, and both need a daily recharge - they are effectively indistinguishable in use ...

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Linux Handspring integration with jPilot

Yesterday was ferociously hot, so hot that we put the cooling on before lunch. Too hot to do anything outside, so, given that I'd found not only my original handspring visor, but its sync cradle, I thought I'd install jpilot on my old EEEpc that now runs crunchbang and incidentally makes a very nice lightweight writing machine - more than a chromebook, less than a MacBook Air.

Anyway, I read the instructions, installed pilot-link first (ok I didn't read all the instructions and had to back track on that one) then jpilot.

It, of course, didn't work, and I set off on a wild goose chase involving usb ports and just about convinced myself that the sync cradle was dead.

Well, I had a second cradle, so I tried that. Same result. Zilch.

So this afternoon I thought I'd retrace my steps using my Xubuntu machine, given that it's a slightly more mainstream distro. Again zilch.

And then I tried to run jpilot as root. And it worked - well almost, I had to make a palm user id first, and then it worked.

As proof to myself I created a calendar entry with jpilot on my xubuntu machine, transferred it to the handspring visor, swapped the cradle over to the EEE, again ran jpilot as root, and downloaded the dummy entry into the jpilot datebook.

All pretty neat. Guess what I need to do now is (a) work out why I need to run jpilot as root, and now I've cracked the conundrum, (b) work out if this has any value at all other than as a way to pass the time on a 40C day ...

[update 12/02/2017]

There's several packages out there that can read Palm datebook  and addressbook files and convert them to something useful, so I thought, naively, that there must be some code to take an ics format file and write it out in palm format, the idea then being to modify my orage import script and then overwrite the jpilot datebook file.

Unfortunately, while there are several utilities to go from palm to ics written to help people migrate off of Palm devices there isn't anything to go the other way - the best solution would seem to be to export one's ics calendar file using Thunderbird's Outlook csv export option and then use jpilot's import option (or indeed the same trick using evolution) ...

Friday, 10 February 2017

Handspring visor redux


Well, I eventually found what I was looking for when I stumbled across my old handspring visor neo, but along the way I found my original old black visor, so for the fun of it, I popped in a couple of AAA  batteries, and guess what, it powered up as well. Quietly amazing, pity I don't really have a use case for it...

Friday, 3 February 2017

It's alive !


While looking for something else entirely, I found my old handspring visor neo (not my first, I had an older black one before it) and external keyboard.

So I put a couple of new AAA batteries in it, restored the environment from the sdram backup module, and there it was, old emails, notes, and all. Keyboard still worked as well.

Singularly useless nowadays when the phone does it all but nice to see old technology still working.

[update 04/02/2017]

Well a bit of digging suggests that the only real integration software option would be jpilot and installing it on my xubuntu netbook. Even then I wouldn't get offline email creation, something I used to think was a killer application, and given the lack of wifi on our local V/line service.

The other weird thing is that there is a market for second hand and refurbished visors and pilots, either among people who won't use a smartphone, or indeed who value the long battery life for a number of reasons, including those who live off grid ...