Thursday, 18 October 2018

4G routers and family data pools

A year ago I wrote about how we'd been able to get a cheap 4G data connection for our portable routed by using Telstra's family data pool feature.

Well, the bad news is that Big T doesn't do family data pool contracts any more, and as our initial special offer 12 month contracts were about to expire we had to change contracts - or else carry on as we were but pay silly money (the first one's free but come back to me...).

So we changed.

This of course left our 4G router on a minimal 1GB contract, so that needed a new contract as well.

Naively, I imagined we could just upgrade to a new bring your own device plan, but no you can't do that unless you're a business (or more accurately have a business registration number).

Now, I used to have one of these, as it was the only way I could get paid for some external work that I did, but I closed it down as there's an administrative overhead in keeping it live - basically you have to keep records, file business activity statements and do a business tax return.

None of it is really difficult, you can do most of it yourself, but it's a hassle. So, while I thought about reregistering for thirty seconds, I decided no.

So the bottom line is that Telstra no longer sell sim only data plans. Optus and Vodafone still do but there's the problem of their poorer coverage outside of Metro areas. There's also the question of how much data you need.

We basically use it for email, twitter, and web. We don't stream video while we're away, but we do sometimes backup camera SD cards, so waving your hands you could say we use an average of a little under 1GB a day, and our average trip inside Australia is around 10days, or more accurately we have a maximum of 10 days usage - decent free wifi is becoming more common, even in bush cottages.

So basically 10GB a month should do us. Optus and Vodafone charge $30 a month for a 12 month sim only 10GB plan.

Insanely, Telstra charge $29 a  month for a 24 month plan that includes a new 4G router - basically just a newer version of our existing unit - battery backup is a little better, it's got a nicer control and display panel, but it's essentially the same device.

It's almost as if they have a pile in a warehouse they're trying to get rid of.

So we're getting a new portable 4G router ...

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

ipods in 2018

A long time ago - 2007 - to be exact - I bought myself a 4GB ipod from the Apple store in Cupertino.

And it was a truly excellent device, and one that I used mainly for listening to podcasts.

Light, portable, would fit in a shirt or jacket pocket.

But it was not to last - around about 2012 the rotary switch thingie on the front died, and I stupidly didn't do anything about getting it fixed, and instead variously tried a cheap no name MP3 players, which worked fine for one off recordings of webinars and lectures, but they were all universally a pain to use for podcasts as they had no itunes or other podcast app integration. I also tried  an old tablet with gpodder (too unreliable, too bulky), using my phone (wrong religion, I've always preferred Samsung to Apple), and in the end I decided life was too short, and anyway Apple no longer made ipods (not strictly true - the ipod touch is still hanging on in there and Apple will sell you a nice reconditioned one for a price) -  and yes I could have got myself a cheap refurbished ipad, but I've already got way too many computers.

In the end, I found myself downloading podcasts to a USB stick and playing them back via the soundsystem in the loungeroom.

That wasn't exactly optimal and I still needed something that I could listen to podcasts on over lunch at the project. (Or potting on seedlings.)

So I bought myself a reconditioned ipod off of ebay. That was about eighteen months ago. I never got round to setting up itunes on windows properly, clearing out junk from god knows how long ago, etc, etc., so it languished in a drawer for that long.

Finally however, I've dug it out and configured everything the way I want. And it was worth it.

It may no longer be supported in hardware terms, but the itunes ecology still supports it, it syncs and deletes files sensibly, and basically does everything I want, not too mention the excellent sound quality ...

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Orage and google calendar

A long time ago, eleven and a bit years ago, I wrote a fairly noddy script to import a google calendar file into orage.

It wasn't syncing, but wrapped up in a cron job it could mean that you got your calendar updated once a day, a week, or whatever.

The script was an adaption of one I wrote to see when content on a remote website changed - basically it grabbed a copy of the webpage once a week, diff'd it against the previous week's, and if it was a different size emailed me.

Anyway, for a long time the orage/google calendar script worked for some people. I know this as people would sometimes email me requesting enhancements or fixes.

Well, no more. Andi Harlan posted a comment to let me know of a better, more sophisticated solution.

Which is kind of cool ...

Plastic decay and the documentation project

I recently tweeted a couple of links, one from the Telegraph, the other from the New York Times about the problems of the long term conservation of plastic objects.

Basically plastic decays.

Plastics manufacturers try to choose formulations that will last for a reasonable time, but eventually plastic goes hard, cracks, breaks, or worse, turns into vinegary goo.

It's a problem manufacturers have been aware of for a long time, but understandably they have expectations as to the reasonable life of the product - it's no use designing a container that will last a hundred years when the contents will last five at most.

Plastic items, especially containers, were designed in the expectation that they would be thrown away once the contents were used up.

And it's not a new problem. Once, many years ago while out walking on the Lizard in Cornwall I happened across a steel board in a wire cage with a whole lot of different types of network cable attached - my guess is that some cabling company was carrying out a long term test on the resilience of various sorts of cable for outside use.

And plastic decay just happens - for example my old Subaru has a cracked aerial mount due to exposure to sun as well as sun damaged paint.

So, given all this, it would be natural to expect that some of the artifacts in Dow's would show signs of decay.

Well, so far none of the plastic items do. Obviously they've been handled gently, but none of them show signs of decay or leakage - unlike some of the flexible metal tubes from the same time, the mid fifties to the mid sixties.

I attribute this to most of the plastic items documented so far being stored in semi darkness and in reasonably dry and cool conditions, and not subject to much more than the normal diurnal changes.

However I'm still working on the dispensary at the back of the shop.

We've got a number of as yet undocumented items in the front of the shop, including some fairly funky 1950's plastic sunglasses. I've had a cursory look and they look ok, but they probably need a more detailed examination ...

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Another internet radio ...

A long time ago, I bought myself an internet radio.

For most of its life it was a toy, a curiosity, but since we moved to the rural north east of Victoria, it became a rather more serious device.

Being rural, there is of course no DAB, Radio National is on crackly AM, and ABC Newsradio is nowhere to be found, So the Internet radio came into its own to give us access to a wider range of stations that the local FM stations.

And then a couple of weeks ago it died. Gently. I noticed that the standby display was getting progressively dimmer, and then it died.

I suspect something like a blown capacitor, but there it was - from useful device to piece of junk in forty minutes.

So I bought us another one.

Which was more difficult than you would think. Most of the local big box stores claim to have them, but they don't, they're inevitably on back order. And while they may be rebadged as something else most of them seem to be the same as Ocean digital internet radios from Hong Kong - so, as they have an online store I bought direct.

It took about 10 days to arrive, but plugged in and configured it just worked. A little quieter than the old Asus, but with a very similar menu system - in fact the only major change to the software  I can see is that it honours ntp, the internet time protocol which the old one didn't - otherwise the user experience is much the same.

Physically, it's wifi only - no wired socket, which makes sense given that most people have wifi everywhere at home - we're just odd in having a bit of physical ethernet between our internet router and a little unmanaged switch in the lounge room - it's how the old one was connected and how our internet tv service is connected, but the wifi is fast enough so we don't really have a problem.

And as for a range of stations?

Ocean claim more than 23,000 - we've tried exactly three, all ABC, but doubtless we'll expand in time to add a few decent jazz and classical music stations ....

Friday, 14 September 2018

Yep, the methodology works offline

If you've been paying attention at the back, you'll be aware that I'm currently volunteering as a sort of archivist to document the contents of Dow's Pharmacy.

Actually, the job is more like being the finds officer on an archaeological dig than a straight digital archiving job, but it's all good fun. I'm using a fairly simple methodology, and I did say that it could be used without an internet connection.

Well last Wednesday, I got in nice and early, only to discover the internet was down. This had happened previously, and I'd worked in offline mode, so I decided to do so again.

Last time, it was fairly early into the project and I hadn't built up a comprehensive pile of reference documentation locally so the process was a bit slow, with quite a bit of trying to look stuff up on my phone - OneNote isn't the best on a small screen, and neither are most of the reference site that I use.

This time, as I've now built up  a fairly comprehensive set of notes on manufacturers in OneNote, it went considerably faster as regards checking details in documentation and so on - I built up a little dot pointer in notepad as I went along of anything that I needed the internet to check, but otherwise I managed to document almost everything fully, including a couple of local updates to OneNote.

Back at home, I backed up the days data to OneDrive, spent about an hour working through the dot pointer, sync's OneNote, and I was done.

Simple - and proving you can do documentation offline, even if having the internet makes things a bit more convenient.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

What I'm using this year

Before I retired, I used to do a blog post at roughly 12 month intervals saying what technology worked for me and what didn’t and commenting on the changes.
Since I retired, I’m no longer in the loop technically, or using super clever stuff. But I’m still using technology, both for my own amateur research, and of course in the case of documentation project I’ve signed myself up for.

Firstly the documentation project.

As the main output is a set of CSV format files containing item descriptions as structured text, I could use anything that can generate CSV files, but as the corporate standard is Windows/Office I use excel.
Besides that I also use OneNote for all the supporting material I’ve accumulated about former pharmaceutical and patent medicine manufacturers that might eventually be used as supporting material in an online catalogue.

I’ve also a lot (10GB and counting) of reference photographs, and they’re stored as separate files in OneDrive. While they could be stored as binary objects in the excel spreadsheets, the import workflow to the final archive solution does not require this, so storing them in a self documenting directory structure makes sense.

So, nothing remarkable, but Microsoft end to end.

Now I’ve always had a love hate relationship with Microsoft. In the nineteen nineties, it was my opinion that Microsoft abused their monopoly position by adopting licensing models that were very expensive for institutions such as universities that ran large networks with large numbers of servers and clients. I spent a large part of my time trying to put together a set of solutions that used non Microsoft servers and where possible used non Microsoft applications to reduce the overall licence cost.

This led me to an interest in both thin client systems, and the use of desktop linux, in part to extend the life of older hardware.

Well, I didn’t win that one, and I have to admit that at the end of the day one of the reasons Microsoft took over the corporate landscape was because they had better products, and could afford to invest in them.

I was never an apple person until the mid 2000’s, when I changed from using Windows machines to using Apple hardware and open source products, as well as some desktop linux - some of the open source OCR stuff just works better under linux, and the editors are nicer, but for day to day work it was Apple, admittedly with Open and then Libre Office as my principal office tool.

But my view of Apple has changed over the years. While they still make beautiful hardware, it is eyewateringly expensive, and they seem to be becoming more and more intent on creating a walled garden and closing out non Apple approved products.

So, I’m moving away from Apple.

I may be writing this on a 10 year old iMac, and I might still use my old MacBook Air as a travel computer and a machine to work on in libraries, but if either of them were to break, they’d be replaced by a Windows machine - perhaps not quite so sexy or well made, but considerably more cost effective.

So for my own local history stuff I’m also working in a windows environment using a second hand Thinkpad, One Note and One Drive.

However for a lot of the basic research of digitised newspapers using the National Library of Australia’s Trove and the Welsh Papers online site is still being done on my old iMac, purely because the screen size is more convenient to work on than a laptop screen. 21” will always beat 14” for this.

I still have an old linux netbook, but I must admit it’s little used these days. Of my old linux machines, I do tend to use is my old Eee PC as a basic writing device - very simple - just using Kate or Gedit to create text for import and final edit elsewhere. Again, I’m still a fan of Focuswriter for simple writing when one wants to get stuff down with the minimum of formatting. For blogging I usually use either Open Writer or Windows Live writer.

Markdown however no longer features as a text formatting tool - simply because I no longer need to take structured notes in meetings, so being able to rapidly create a nicely formatted set of dot points is no longer a major requirement.

Again, I no longer make much use of tablets - probably because I no longer go to meetings and no longer need a simple means to access a set of papers. I still use my old Alcatel tablet with a bluetooth keyboard to take notes if I have an afternoon in a Library working on my local history stuff while J is at an art workshop in town.

However, what I don’t do is use a tablet for general surfing - instead I tend to use a Chromebook, simply because I like to have a keyboard for writing emails and the like.

Notes management is either One Note or Evernote - for legacy reasons Evernote is used for things like household invoices and bills because I’ve used it for years and our whole financial history is in it and One Note is used for more creative stuff and individual projects.

If there’s a theme here it’s that I’m not tied to one platform or operating system, but that I’ve selected a set of tools that let me do what I need to do, and what I enjoy doing.

The hardware is pretty irrelevant - most of the tools with the exception of notes management and blogging tools are available on all three major platforms, and as I’m no longer a mainstream linux user, their non availability for linux is no longer the annoyance it once was ...