Monday, 28 July 2014

Travelling with a 3G router

As I’ve written elsewhere, we’ve been on holidays, riding the train up to Cairns and driving back south through the edge of the western emptiness. During that trip we of course faced the great question of the twenty first century - how to get internet access.

Some of the places we stayed at provided complimentary internet, some did not, and some were simply out of range where there’s no coverage.

We couldn’t do a lot about a lack of coverge, but to combat the problem of small motels and rental cabins without the internet, we took our own, in the form of a little D-link 3G router I bought off of ebay for $18, an unlocked Huawei USB modem and one of these cheap data sim packages.

In the small towns of the bush it worked reasonably well allowing us to surf the web from an android tablet, check our email, and use internet banking and newspaper apps. In bigger, coastal places, such as Port Douglas, which was swamped with tourists, it didn’t do so well, probably because the 3G network was overloaded, meaning we suffered from dropped connections and timeouts.

Where we had good connection we even managed to have two tablets running at once - which was pretty neat.

It was fortunate though we’d taken tablets with us at the last moment, I’d originally planned to simply take the Chromebook and rely on phones for the rest.

Previously at home I’d successfully used applications on over a 3G link from my chromebook so I reckoned we’d get good enough performance.

In practice I didn’t. The Chromebook was tempremental - I’m guessing just too much back and fro to big G and time outs. Where we had a fast connection it was usable, where we didn’t it wasn’t, even though our tablets were. We’d have probably done better with the Windows netbook I took to Sri Lanka last year, and using postbox for email despite my various whinges about the netbook’s overall performance.

Spending blocks of time - four or five days off the net at a time also just revealed how dependent we’d become on the net for news and weather information - in the old days we’d have taken an AM/FM radio with us and listened religiously to the news and weather forecast on Radio National - well we still have the radio we used to take with us, but didn’t think to take it.

We also became extremely adept at spotting where there was working internet in a restuarant or a stop on the highway - where the internet worked people, starved of electronic interaction, sat and looked at their phones or tablets - where it didn’t they talked to each other, and there were payphones and people using them …

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Friday, 27 June 2014

25 years of the internet in Australia

Australia’s been connected to the internet for twentyfive years now.
I of course don’t remember this, as I wasn’t here - I was working in a university computer centre in the UK, and in 1989 it was still all DECNet and Coloured books protocols.

(The UK had invented its own set of networking protocols, and connection to the rest of the world was either via complex email address translations or strange non interactive ftp incantations - something that I was a dab hand at - sending files to India via usenet etc…)

A couple of years later (I’ll say 1991, but actually I can’t remember) there was Project Shoestring which was a pilot migration to TCP/IP which recognised that Coloured Books was not going to make it globally and we’d better all move to TCP/IP - something that made the Unix people very happy (and Macintosh users - they could use Eudora for email and send each other BinHex encoded attachments).

Now we still used to run a student advisory service - this was a hangover from the days of batch programming but essentially what it was that one of the programming team sat in a booth and answered user queries as to why their batch job had gone stupid.

I was officially an analyst programmer which meant I had to do advisory even though I was singularly useless at it - rather than Fortran coding I knew about network transfers, document formats and these pesky new things called desktop computers. My principal contribution to human happiness at the time was explaining to US exchange students was how to email their girlfriend/boyfriend at or their mum or dad who had a compuserve account.

Anyway, one day shortly after we started a TCP/IP service, a visiting Australian academic turned up asking if we could help her access her email - she had thought to bring the numeric address of the mail server, so I fired up a VT100 emulator, connected to a terminal server, typed c tcp {server ip address}, and after a few seconds a login banner appeared, typed out at what looked like 300baud, she logged in and fired up elm to read her mail.

Clumsy for sure, but there it was, a connection across the planet …
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Thursday, 26 June 2014

E-readers are (probably) dying

E-readers, as in dedicated devices for reading content are on the way out.

How do I know this - well, just by looking about. I’ve occassionally blogged about people’s reading habits on public transport in Canberra and even Singapore, but yesterday I was in Sydney for a meeting, and did something I hardly ever do these days - caught a peak hour train. The train was one from the CBD out past the airport to whereever the train goes once it’s past the airport, and being peak hour it was pretty full.

In between gawking at the sunset over the the Harbour Bridge (tip: try Circular Quay station at sunset for an excellent view) I looked around at my fellow passengers. The train car was pretty full and around three quarters of the people were reading something. A few oldies with paperbacks, but everyone else was using a tablet or a smartphone. Interestingly, young people of Asian experience seemed to mostly read on smartphones, while their western counterparts seemed to prefer 7” tablet. (I agree, they could be doing something else, but of those I could see clearly, what ever they were doing involved screenfuls of characters - which kind of looks like reading to me)

No one I could see was reading using kindle or other like e-ink grey screen device.

Now, e-readers have many virtues - especially Kindles - buy your book and it lands on your reader as soon as you have a wireless connection - long battery life and the rest - in fact they are very good at what they do. Proof of the pudding is that as well as my kindle I still use my Cool-er for reading public domain books from gutenberg as part of my unarticulated informal research into the nineteenth century colonial experience. Yes, of course I could use my kindle for this, but having two readers on the go means I can separate reading for interest from reading for fun - a bit like having two books on the go at once.

And I’m sure that a great many people will carry on using their readers, but if you’re carrying one device round with you, you’re more likely to carry a tablet, because of its versatility …

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Monday, 23 June 2014

Curating Legacy Data

Data is the new black, everything seems to be about data at the moment and it’s desperately trendy. At the same time there is an entirely laudable movement towards researchers making the data that underlies their research available, for all sorts of reasons, including substantiation and reuse and recombination with other data sources.
This sometimes gets conflated with Big Data, but it should’t - outside of a few disciplines, most experimental data is pretty small, and even quite large sets of results will fit comfortably on a twenty dollar usb stick.
It’s important to remember that this is a recent phenomenon - only in the last five years or so has cloud storage become widely available, or commodity hard disks become large and cheap.
Before then data would be stored on zip drives (remember those) CD’s, DVD’s, or DAT tapes - all formats which are either dead or dying, and all of which are subject to maintainance issues. Basically bitrot due to media degradation.
Even if you’ve stored you data on an older external hard disk you can have problems - my wife did just that, and then lost the cable to a four year old external disk - it of course turned out to be a slightly non standard variant on USB, and it took us a lot of searching of documentation and cable vendors (including a couple of false starts) to find a suitable cable - when is a standard not a standard ? - when it’s a proprietary one.
Recovering this legacy data is labour intensive. It can be in formats that are difficult to read, and it can require conversion (with all that implies) to a newer format to be accessible - which can be a special kind of fun when it’s not a well known or well documented format (nineteen nineties multi channel data loggers come to mind).
So, what data should we convert?
Well most scientific publications are rarely read or cited, so we could take a guess and say that it’s probably not cost effective to convert the data underlying those - though someone did once ask me if I still had the data from an experiment I did back in the nineteen eighties - turns out they were having difficulty getting regulatory approval for their physiology study and thought that reanalysing my data might give them something to help their case. And I’m afraid I couldn’t help them, the data was all on five and quarter inch Cromemco Z2D disks, or else punch cards, and long gone.
So, what probably a legacy data curation strategy should do is focus on the data underlying highly cited papers - it’s probably of greater value, and there’s a chance it might have been stored in a more accessible format.
However even recovering data that’s been looked after still has costs associated with it - costs to cover the labour of getting it off the original source media and making it useful. And these are real dollar costs.
From experience, getting a half dozen nine track tapes read costs around fifteen hundred bucks if it’s done by a specialist media conversion company, and the administration, shipping, and making useful phase probably another fifteen hundred, less if some poor graduate student can be persuaded to do the work, but still is a reasonable chunk of money, and money that need to come from somewhere.
So, who pays, and is it worth it?

[Update 26/06/2014 : Notes of a meeting in Sydney on this very subject ...] 
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Monday, 26 May 2014

Digital Humanities and Citizen Science

The humanities are going digital. This of course is not wholly true but those who study language and history - to name the two most obvious examples - have found the internet an unrivalled resource to provide access to digitized material.

No more trekking to obscure libraries and archives in the hope of finding material, it’s online, often as a result of various digitization and digital preservation initiatives. Even if the material is not online the archive’s catalogue almost certainly is, making the preliminary search something that can be done from home.

And then there’s archaeology - before the establishment of university archaeology departments in the sixties and seventies, a lot of excavations were sponsored by local archeological societies, and theire results never fully published. Digitization and initiatives such as the Archaeological Data Service in the UK have helped make that information available, findable, and searchable.
This is escpecially important in these financially constrained days where university archaeology departments are contracting and investigations are increasingly carried out by specialist sub contractors to mining and construction companies, meaning that there is no clear location for the deposit of results - digitisation, cheap storage, and a publication mechanism means that these results are less likely to be lost.

And there is of course what used to be called natural history - something that tends to fly under the radar these days but actually of great significance.

A lot of the fundamental information of species abundance and change is derived from the work of local natural history and field societies, good solid observational work that individuals find enjoyable to do, costs little, yet is of fundamental importance for assessing the impact of climate change or introduction of pest species. Truly citizen science.

Yet many of the results remain locked up in local society journals and botanical surveys yet it is of great potential. The digital humanities have shown the power of mass digitization, the field sciences have track record in citizen science - one can but wonder what would come out of putting the material collected by local societies online - time perhaps for Digital Ecology as a discipline ?
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Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Apple iCloud and Oracle Comms server

I’m not an apple iCloud user - yes I’ve an account and I’ve tried the online version of pages, but that’s about it.

However, this morning I stupidly left my personal phone at home. Apart from the irritation factor it’s no big deal, except that it had the weekly shopping list on it and no, I hadn’t synced it anywhere sensible, like it’s a shopping list.

Once a week I go to the Mawson supermarket and buy all the boring bulk items like toilet paper and dry cat food. The list is more or less the same except for the extras such as dishwasher powder that we don’t need every week.

However I still have my work iPhone, so my quick fix was to recreate as much of the list as I remember on iCloud and sync the note.

Ok, so far so good. On a whim I also mailed the note to myself and dumped out the headers to look at the routing info. Ok, very geeky, but interesting.

In the middle of the routing data was the following:

Received: from ([]) by (Oracle Communications Messaging Server
7u4-27.08( 64bit (built Aug 22 2013)) with ESMTP id
<> for
d^^^^^@^^^; Tue, 20 May 2014 22:06:29 +0000 (GMT)

(I’ve obscured the name of the mailbox I was using by ^)

And there it was - iCloud uses Oracle communications server. Kind of interesting given that at work we changed from an older version, Convergence, to Office365 at the end of 2012 - obviously the Oracle product scales reasonably well …

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Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Capacitive gloves

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t resist springing a dollar for some Chinese iGlove clones - ie normal acrylic gloves with a little bit of capacitive material in the finger tip to allow you to use touch screens.

Well, my dollar gloves arrived and they do work. My only criticism is that the ‘one size fits all’ size only just fits my not particularly large male Caucasian hands - ie if you have big hands they may not fit you.

I’ve tested them on a variety of touch screen devices and they’re fine. They also work well on a standard laptop track pad, meaning you could use them for surfing with a laptop or a chromebook.

As always, I find typing with gloves akin to dancing wearing clogs, but if you were desparate, you could probably type on a chiclet style keyboard while wearing the goves and using the trackpad.

The pair of gloves only have capacitive thumb and forefinger tips - you can get ones with all five fingertips made of capacitive material and these might allow reasonable typing on an iPad or Galaxy virtual keyboard …

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