Friday, 15 November 2019

Documenting artefacts - using a camera instead of a phone

The methodology I wrote up a couple of years ago has proven pretty robust - even coping with with me spilling coffee on my laptop - but the time has come to introduce a change.

Previously I've been using my Samsung Galaxy 5 to take images of artefacts. That phone is now about four and a half years old, and definitely due for replacement. What I havn't decided what I'm going to replace it with, some experiments with my iPad and general frustration at easily getting images out of Apple's walled garden has led me to suspect that if my next phone was an iPhone it wouldn't fit quite so well into the methodology.

However I have a Nikon CoolPix AW100 that was bought second hand on eBay for another project entirely that is as good as the Samsung's camera. Reasonable lens, reasonable zoom, and the added advantage of being designed for use in challenging environments it can be used comfortably while wearing nitrile gloves.

Getting images out of it is as easy as taking the SD card out and plugging the card into an external SD Card reader - external because my work laptop doesn't have an SD card slot, but does have a spare USB port - actually I use a little portable Belkin hub - and copying the files across and reviewing them.

The procedure works fine - the only downside is that the Nikon, like most cameras, uses a sequential naming system for images of the format DSCNnnnn rather than the Samsung's yyyymmddhhmmss format which has the advantage of making the date and order the image was taken immediately obvious.

The Nikon does record the date and time in the EXIF data (as well as the GPS information), but not using the date in the filename does mean recording the image name really has to be done at the time, or more accurately, during the review process, before the individual artefacts are entered into the documentation spreadsheet.

Otherwise, procedurally, the process is exactly the same and works well ...

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

The ipad as a research tool

It probably seems really strange, given it's 2019 and almost Hallowe'en to be writing about using the ipad as a research tool. but last week was the first time I'd used the second hand iPad I bought at the start of the year as an impromptu research tool.

I'd been down in Chiltern working on the documentation project, when I was chased out of the back room due to the unexpected arrival of a large tour group.

Now I'd been researching Karna Vita desiccated ox liver pills - it may not be your thing, but between the first and second world wars pills containing desiccated liver were very much a thing.

They were held to be really good for perking people up, getting extra iron into your system if you were a bit anaemic, and some doctors advised women to take them during pregnancy if they were feeling tired and worn out.

So, having been chased out I went down the road to the local library, which was (a) open and (b) had reasonable free wifi - in fact zippier wifi than last time to do my research.

But rather than drag my work laptop in, I simply took my iPad mini into the library.

Now I'm not a virgin as far as tablet and keyboard combo's for work are concerned - I've been through two seven inch android tablet and keyboard combos in the last seven years, most recently a cheap Alcatel tablet bought from Telstra's remainder shop.

It's around the same vintage as my iPad, and certainly feels as capable, even if the apple slickness is not there - you have to work at integration, but basically it does everything you would want to do:


  • search for stuff of the web
  • capture url's and web pages
  • write notes about stuff
  • export stuff to somewhere useful
absolutely no surprises there and equally so using the iPad - chrome basically is just chrome, and you can save stuff to evernote or one note as easily as anywhere else and apple's notes app certainly frees you from dependence on weird editors, of course it has restrictions - no markdown for example, and it only wants to talk to applications it knows about - and that revealed a little gotcha.

Now you might think, as I did, that if you save something from notes to Onenote, say, via Airdrop, it would save it to the cloud and then sync it back to local copies.

But no, what it actually seems to do is transfer data to the local instance of the application and then leave it to the application to do any synchronisation required.

Now you can see immediately why Apple implemented it this way - make it a universal on device service with a documented interface, and leave it up to the application implementers to work with the service and do any synchronisation required.

Fortunately it integrates with OneNote and with apple's email service meaning that content can be saved easily, or if you don't have the software installed use email to post content, as with Evernote.

Unfortunately, the email integration puts the content in the body of the message, rather than creating an attachment, which means that attachment based services such as sendtodropbox or Epsonconnect, are of little use to you.

And that's the rub. With the iPad, everything is slicker and easier than it is with the Android environment - but that's only providing your'e happy playing inside of Apple's walled garden ...

Thursday, 5 September 2019

X-rays and data access

Data sharing in the real world isn't always all it's supposed to be.

This is a slightly complicated story, but bear with it.

J had some surgery eight or nine years ago to fix a sports injury caused by years of cross country ski-ing. She had it checked by a local specialist in Albury - our nearest big town - just after we moved from Canberra three years ago to make sure it was holding up.

At the time everything was fine, but recently she's been having a bit of pain, so back we went to the Albury sports injuries guy.

Turned out he was moving overseas, like at the end of next week.

So very sensibly he said that even if we got the requisite scans done before he left - diagnostic imaging is outsourced to specialist companies in Australia - he wouldn't have time to do anything about it.

So, what he did was to refer J back to the original Canberra surgeon for him to take a look at it.

Which seem a big deal, but it's only five hours up the freeway, and anyway we're going there next month for a family thing, so it was simple to extend our stay and book in to see the surgeon.

That was when the fun started.

The Canberra guy still had his original notes, and the sports injuries guy was going to send him his notes, but he didn't have copies of the scans.

Medical imaging has gone all electronic and copies of the scans are usually archived by the medical imaging company. If a doctor needs to see them again, he requests an archive retrieval. There's none of the business of carrying X-ray films about any more.

I'm guessing that they're held in some nearline or offline storage.

Now, remember what I said about medical imaging being outsourced.

It turns out that the company in Albury uses a different system to the Canberra imaging companies, and there was no way that the doctor in Canberra could access the archive.

Logically you would think that the Albury guy could pull the file and send it to Canberra, but he's not set up - dropbox for doctors isn't a thing apparently.

Now at the time J had her earlier scan the Albury imaging company had sent us a link so we could download a copy of the image file. Being lazy, we hadn't, after all J's doctor could always request a copy.

So we called the imaging company, who understood the problem and were super helpful.

Their solution was to burn the image to a dvd for us to take to Canberra 😖. (Remember this is late 2019, not 2012)

I'm hoping that the hospital in Canberra still has computers with DVD drives, but just in case, when we get the disk from the imaging company, I'm going to use J's old 2012 vintage laptop which fortunately still has a working dvd-rw drive to copy the image files to a USB stick, as well as saving them to the cloud...


Monday, 29 July 2019

capturing a tweet thread ...

Every day I run a set of automated google alert searches on topics that I'm interested in - Greek and Roman Archaeology, medieval history. Egyptology and a couple of others.

A few years ago these would regularly pick up something interesting on someone's research blog, and I would start following their RSS feed, and I'd also quite often clip and store interesting material into one of my pack rat notebooks on Evernote or OneNote.

Well, it's 2019, and people don't write blogs anything like as much, but interesting things are still happening out there, but quite often what's happening that's cool is published as a twitter thread, and not as a blog post:

For example I've just read a fascinating thread on bringing Ancient Egyptian yeast back to life, which pushed my buttons in so many ways.

But it's a thread and that's a problem - how do you capture the thread to save to an online notebook, or indeed print offline to read on the train ?

Well I've found and used two solutions

Spooler - https://tinysubversions.com/spooler/

and

Threadreaderapp = https://threadreaderapp.com/

Both work more or less the same, and both produce threads that can be saved to OneNote with the OneNote web clipper, or printed to a pdf.

One little gotcha is that if you have an image heavy thread you need to check that all the images are loaded before either saving to OneNote/Evernote or printing to pdf, otherwise you end up with a pile of blank rectangles where the pictures should be. OneNote's preview function is useful here for checking that your clip contains what you really want.

The major difference between the two is that threadreader doesn't force you to login with your twitter account to use the application while spooler does.

Spooler wants the url of the last tweet in the thread, Threadreader wants the first - all in all Threadreader feels a little better supported and a little more sophisticated, but that's about it - it does offer some options to save and download your threads if you login, but you don't need to.

Both do the job so it's really a coin toss as to which to use ...




Sunday, 7 July 2019

I nearly bought a windows phone ...

which seems to be a very silly thing to do, given that they've gone end of life.

But I thought I had a reason - overseas travel.

For the last four or so years we've used an old Nokia Asha 302, and while it's done excellently as a travel phone, long battery life, good for texting hotels and taxis, it's clearly reached the end of its life.

Increasingly one needs to have something that runs apps for Uber, Grab, some local service you've not heard of yet etc etc.

And that's the rub.

With the windows phone going end of life, you can guarantee that increasingly there won't be a windows phone version of that crucial travel app.

Which is a shame, because (a) you can get a pretty well specified phone for under a hundred bucks, and (b) you don't need to tie it to your Google or Apple account.

But as I said, the need for access to a mainstream software platform kills that dead, so I guess it's a cheap no name android phone and a dummy google account ...

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Digitising magnetic tapes - in house or outsource

Earlier today I posted the following on twitter as part of a conversation as to whether it was better to out source the digitisation of several hundred cassette tapes:


The answer is more complicated than twitter allows, so I though I'd expand it.

Cassette tapes were phenomenally popular during the roughly thirty year life of the tape cassette as a mainstream format. Not only were they used for student party tapes but were extensively used to record court transactions, music, including performances by non mainstream performers, and spoken language. So not surprisingly they form a huge resource for linguists, anthropologists and the rest.

Not only were cassette recorders cheap, the media was also cheap and universally available, be it in rural Turkey or Morocco or in high street discount stores.

The tapes did fail and jam in players, which is why no roadside was complete without a sprinkling of dead cassettes and flickering strands of cassette tape. The fact this is no longer the case is because they're not used anymore - most informal and non professional recordings are on USB sticks these days.

When we visited Sri Lanka six years ago all the drivers we had were already using USB sticks to play pirated Indian and Korean pop music.

This leads to a problem - no one much makes cassette decks anymore, and equally no one makes cassettes in volume, and more importantly these handy little kits you got to unjam, rewind and generally repair broken cassettes.

Searching on ebay for 'blank cassette tapes' does bring up a range of choices, but they're expensive, and certainly not the cheap universal medium they once were. Likewise, it's still possible to buy cassette players, the more expensive professional equipment can be difficult to track down.

So, the the first question is do you have the kit to record the data.

Tape cassettes are of course analogue, but you  can copy a cassette's content to digital media by connecting a cassette player's output socket to the microphone input socket on a pc and using some suitable software to capture the input and perform the analogue to digital conversion. You can buy devices that claim to do the conversion for you, but I've no experience of how well, or badly they perform.

However, doing a simple direct conversion  is probably fine for a few tapes, At a little over an hour for a C60 or and hour and a half for a C90 tape, it will be tedious, but possible. At least you'll have plenty of time to transcribe the label and any other information that comes with the tape.

The problem or course is that your tape player will most probably be at least ten years old, and the tapes will be equally old, and you need to have a plan B, or at least a spare tape player in case of equipment failure - remember the more tapes you have the more likely your old tape player will fail.

Equally, the more tapes you have the more likely tape failure becomes, and you need to have a plan to repair cassettes which break and jam, and you need people with the skills to repair damaged cassettes.

There used to be such things as high speed tape duplication machines which basically ran the cassette through eight or sixteen times as fast, and while you could conceivably use one of these to speed up the digitisation process, but remember that old tapes are more likely to fail and break due to being stressed by being played at high speed.

And this of course means that you really do need to have access to someone who works with the media and can repair both the devices and the tapes.

One place I worked, we had a project to recover and preserve culturally significant tape recordings and we had a couple of people whose job was basically to scour ebay for spares, maintain old tape recorders, and if necessary repair old broken decayed tapes.

That expertise is hard to find - you basically need to find and employ some old school sound engineers who have worked with a range of equipment and still have all their old skills.

That project was now over ten years ago, so it's important to remember as time goes on these skills are harder and harder to find as increasingly all the old school sound engineers and tape technicians are out of the workforce enjoying a well earned retirement.

So, it can be done in house, and if you are already set up to digitise analogue tapes it is a fairly straightforward, if tedious, exercise. Likewise if it's only a few tapes, and they're not critically important you could probably track down a decent quality cassette deck in working order and do it yourself - it's simply a decision as to whether outsourcing is cheaper than doing it in house.

If you've a lot, and the contents are valuable, I'd certainly seriously consider employing a specialist external company to do the work ...


Thursday, 20 June 2019

University news pages

As any fule kno I probably spend more time than I ought to retweeting links to interesting stories - principally though not exclusively ones based on classical and early medieval history.

I actually started doing this years ago purely for my own benefit - in the days before pocket - as a way of saving the url's of articles I wanted to read later. Oddly, some people found what I was tweeting interesting, and started following me, so even though pocket is now a feature of the information landscape I've kept on tweeting.

But sometimes I find an article that is sketchy and unsatisfactory in some way and I try and track down a better version, again really for my own benefit, but if someone finds it useful, well why not ?

If the article refers to a specific researcher at a university I usually try searching that university's news pages as that is where I kind of expect the original press release to be.

Except sometimes it's not.

Sometimes a university's news site is more about how well the rugby team did, or what the vice chancellor had for lunch than the actual outcomes of research, and even more worrying, sometimes all the news is hidden behind scads of marketing information aimed at attracting students (and bring their fee money of course) at a particular university.

And while research ratings are important, they're only one part of the university ranking game, and some university marketing/press departments  seem to be more interested in marketing than communicating.

I promise not to rant on about the actual irrelevance of  university rankings to student outcomes, but given that much university research, especially in the humanities, is funded with public money, I would have thought that communicating the results of the publicly funded research was an important part of the function of university press offices, rather than inviting people. the public, who paid for the work, to have to play a game of guess the url to find the university's research news site ...

(... and of course this has to be done manually, surprisingly a lot of institutions no longer provide an RSS feed)