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.


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