Friday, 27 May 2011

Evernote three months on ...

I've been using evernote as my notebook application for about three months and I can say I'm pretty much satisfied with it, even to the extent of tinning up $45 for a premium subscription.

Not that it's perfect, sychronisation can be slow, especially when one machine is catching up, and the Mac client sometimes refuses to exit, but that said it's pretty good. Killer features for me have been
  • direct forwarding of emails into evernote - ideal for building up folders related to particular conversations, contracts etc, and have them accessible anywhere
  • being able to submit pdf's directly into evernote and being able view them in a client window
  • ditto with photographic images
  • drag 'n' drop reorganisation - life changes and sometimes you need to reorganise your files to make more sense, especially more when you are accumulating material for a project
  • it is multi platform, I've switched between mac and windows without problems
  • having a web view is ideal when you're working from a computer or a vm without the client installed
Annoyances have been
  • no internal preview for word documents - you need to have a suitable external application installed
  • no way of having an object in two notebooks at once
and it does mean you have to be disciplined about saving and tagging documents. I've found the best thing is to have documents go to a default folder and then to make time twice a day to go through the default folder to categorise and organise content while everything's relatively fresh in your mind.

You can also share notes with non-users by emailing them straight out of the app. Nice to haves would include being able to submit straight into Google or Zoho docs, or being able to post to wordpress or blogger - but these really are nice to haves - ctrl-c/ctrl-v works just fine and given that you're probably going to work on the document before sharing or posting it (and the use case I'm thinking of is creating internal technical or reference documentation such as engineering changes) the lack of a direct post facility is pretty minor.

All the functionality is there in a free account. I ended up paying for a premium account because I (a) found it useful, and strangely enough I'm not averse to paying for useful things and (b) got very close to the maximum usage limits on a couple of occasions.

I've also the nevernote client clone for linux on a couple of occasions, but not really seriously, as I'm no longer a serious desktop linux user. When I have used it, it's been more stable than my initial experiences suggested and seems to have had no problems syncing with evernote, which is a tribute to evernote's robust architecture.

So, it's good, and it's definitely made me more organised and efficient, which can only be a good thing ...

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Love and Leicas in the 1930s

Following on from my recent post about travel writing in the 1930’s, I took to musing on the connections between travel writers and journalists, and by a slightly roundabout way came up with what may be a story of life, love, and relationships among 1930s travel writers.

Most of these writers knew each other – as journalists and members of the upper and middle classes they bumped into each other, or knew of each other, and it would be quite interesting to document these as a social graph.

I also came across a little puzzle. I recently read Peter Fleming’s To Peking, A Forgotten Journey documenting a journey via Moscow and Manchuria to Peking in 1934, Simon Winchester in his introduction mentions how Fleming documented the journey with photographs taken on his trusty Leica III, which is not impossible given that the Leica III first appeared in 1933.

However, in the book Fleming refers to his ‘Kodak’ as his camera. Now Fleming did use a Leica, and says so in his 1937 News from Tartary.

The simplest explanation is that Peter Fleming simply made a mistake and referred to his Leica as a ‘Kodak’ simply out of habit. However, it’s also possible that Fleming was introduced to the advantages of the Leica by his travelling companion Ella Maillart in the latter part of the journey to Peking.

Whatever Ella Maillart’s relationship with Peter Fleming was, she was also close to her fellow Swiss journalist Annemarie Schwarzenbach, and indeed travelled to Afghanistan with her in 1940.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach was also celebrated as the epitome of lesbian chic in the last days of bohemian decadent Weimar Berlin before the Nazis put a stop to that and other such unGerman behaviour. Annemarie later contributed to various antifacist literary magazines and refused to deny her Jewish and leftwing friends.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach had also travelled to Spain in the early 1930’s with the photographer and photojournalist Marianne Breslauer, whose promising career came to a premature end due to her Jewishness meaning that her work was no longer published in the leading German language news magazines of the day.

Marianne Breslauer had learned her craft working as a photojournalist and was an accomplished photographer and one who would undoubtedly been aware of the advantages of the Leica over previous cameras.

So one could imagine a chain something like this:


where Marianne Breslauer introduces Annemarie Schwarzenbach to the virtues of the Leica, who then introduces the Leica to Ella Maillart, and then to Peter Fleming.

[update: it turns out to be more complicated that this - Ella Mailart received her Leica from Dr Leitz of Leica. The official story is that Leitz was impressed by Maillart's photos and gave her a camera. As we know, sponsorship can be a complex thing and it may be that Annemarie Schwarzenbach, who later went on to work as a photojournalist, helped mediate the deal or not]

The other thing to remember is that the Leica was an expensive camera for its time, and would have represented a significant investment. For example, my father had hoped to buy a Leica on a trip to what was then Danzig and is now Gdansk in 1938 to document a journey to Singapore, Shanghai and Japan but found that while they were cheaper and more readily available than at home in Scotland, he still could not afford one and settled for a cheaper 120 format camera.

Due to the needs of a journalist to have something reliable that ‘just worked’ personal recommendation would doubtless have been key.

And love? Annemarie Schwarzenbach was infamous for her many lesbian affairs. Marianne Breslauer was clearly fascinated by her, and its not inconceivable to imagine that their friendship was more than platonic. Likewise with Ella Maillart, and certainly Ella’s early, very close friendship with Hermine de Sassure could be taken as suggesting a tendency to swing that way.

The real puzzle is her relationship, or not, with Peter Fleming.

Ella Maillart was already an accomplished solo traveller by the time she met Fleming, and it would be tempting to dismiss their relationship as one purely of convenience and certainly in his 1937 book Fleming presents the relationship as a platonic relationship of convenience. The interesting thing is that in his account of his 1934 journey he writes rather more warmly of Ella Maillart suggesting that the relationship was more than just one of covenience.

Fleming later went on to marry Celia Johnson (of Brief Encounter fame) and have several children with her.

Monday, 16 May 2011

driving geese ...

An intriguing post from RogueClassicist about the Romans driving geese from the north of France to Rome, and taking around a 100 days to do this - the time taken seems about right, as for example we know that when Sigeric followed the pilgrim route between northern France and Rome, he took around 80 days to make the journey.

Geese being less disciplined and needing to graze on route would take longer, but equally the goose herds, who would have been experienced at making the journey would probably have had a longer travelling day than Sigeric. It's also a reasonable supposition that the gooseherds who probably camped up with their animals probably followed an established stock route with known campsites and water sources and grass for the geese to graze on between hikes.

I also remember - and this has to be anecdote rather than fact as I can't remember the details - when I was at the UWIST field centre in the mid eighties there was someone looking at the history of goose droving from mid Wales to London in the eighteneth and nineteenth centuries before the advent of the railways. The distance would have been around 200 miles (300km) and if they were making around 10 miles (16km) a day they would not be travelling much more slowly than Sigeric. The distance travelled also quite nicely fits with Pliny's report for 100 days for goose drovers to make it from the north of Gaul to the markets of Rome.

The other nice thing about using Welsh goose droving as a model is that they of course drove them across the Welsh mountains, not quite the Alps perhaps but showing that it is possible to drive geese across mountainous wild country, the key perhaps being the use of dogs to both keep the geese together and protect them.

a second netbook for the stable ...

I've periodically ranted on about ipads versus netbooks, but this time I've put my money where my mouth is and bought a second netbook.

Not as replacement for the Asus Eee travel computer but as a little laptop for J who needs something small and light for writing and researching and for web related tasks away from home - and Officeworks had this MSI netbook [video]|[wikipedia] for $249 - 1GB RAM, 250GB HDD, Windows 7 starter, 10.1 inch screen and a chiclet style keyboard with spacing between the keys that means you can actually type on it, compared to some of the other cramped netbook keyboards. Add a claimed decent battery life and it seemed fairly irresistable.

Windows 7 starter was a bit of a downer, but apart from the cosmetic irritation of not being able to change the background, it actually does seem to do the job. Add something lightweight like Abiword, the Chrome browser, and a lightweight pdf viewer such as Sumatra, and you have an excellent lightweight writing machine, with web access for email and fact checking. Drafts can be emailed to evernote if required. Add Skype and you're away - all you need to do is ensure that the library you work in has free wi-fi.

I was going to use wubi and install ubuntu 11.04, but given my underwhelming experience so far with Unity I ended up holding off on that, especially as that's a geek indulgence, and this machine is targeted as a lightweight machine for work stuff, and as a lightweight machine it should be fairly effective

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Ubuntu 11.04 on a real machine

Well, having built a VM yesterday I installed 11.04 on a real machine - my test laptop.

I could have run the upgrade tool from 10.10 to 11.04 but instead chose to build a second install side by side. Installation was pretty smooth - no hiccups to speak of, and this time Ubuntu came up with Unity as the default window manager.

What can I say, it's a window manager. On first look it's a bit too Ookygoo-ish with big chunky icons for the big three Libre Office apps and Firefox. Now it's arguable that 90% of people don't need much more than that out of the box, but I feel it simplifies things too much.

Now I've used gnome for years and know where the apps live in the menu system, ie I have certain expectations of the window manager, and as we all know change can be hard. It would be interesting to see how the UX experiences of experienced Ubuntu users and users new to Ubuntu compared.

Let us say I'm reserving judgement ...

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

ubuntu 11.04 on virtualbox

To know about things one needs to try them, and as someone who has espoused ubuntu as an alternative desktop system I thought it was about time I should try ubuntu 11.04 (natty narwhal) on myself.

As always I tested out the install on the latest version of virtual box. Download and installation appeared trouble free until I tried running a network app - there was no network connectivity at all.

Cue a flurry of trying alternate networking settings. No joy at all. Then just to ensure the past few months hadn't all been a nightmare, I tried an older virtualbox install of ubuntu (Ubuntu 10.10) This refused to start with a warning that I needed to install the latest Virtualbox extension pack.

Downloading and installing the extension pack fixed my 10.10 vm. I then deleted the natty vm and reinstalled it - just in case I'd broken something else in my hacking about in its config - and it all just worked.

My classic test applications of kwrite and abiword installed correctly. So I then installed nevernote, which has broken installations before now. Installing it caused various whinges from the package manager about it being a poor quality package, but it did install and run.

One problem about running natty on virtual box on OS X is that it claims that the hardware is inadequate to run Unity, the new web interface, leaving me with good old gnome. Which is fine, but I'd have lkied to have a play with Unity ...

Travel writing in the 1930's

The 1930's are often held up as a golden age of travel writing - Robert Byron, Peter Fleming, Fitzroy Maclean, etc etc.

But why?

Two reasons, technology and access to exotic and remote locations. I'll turn to technology second but access is one of the keys.

Before first world war (actually before the Russo Japanese war) much of the world not part of the French and British colonial empires had been closed to foreigners. Both tsarist Russia and the Ottoman empire were not exactly welcoming and China was definitely closed, meaning people did not have much in the way of opportunity to visit places that were definitely foreign - ie where opportunities to interact with people from a background not unlike your on were limited. I'm having difficulty expressing this succinctly, but if you've ever been to bath house in Morocco where all the signs to customers were in Arabic you'll know exactly what I mean - the slight edginess as to whether you've understood what is going on, and the surprise when something different happens - that's foreign.

And also - post 1919 - there was a great hunger for people to understand what was happening with the new world order - to understand the rise of Japan and the changes in Manchuria, and the great changes and convulsions in Russia, and whether the Soviet Union represented some fundamental change in the way the world worked.

At the same time, travel to these places, while difficult, was not impossible. People could travel around the Soviet Union before the purges and the terror with a degree of freedom, even if they did have to agree travel plans with Intourist, and access to China was relatively easy with substantial foreign communities in Beijing and most notably Shanghai in the international concession.
Also the mechanics of travel were easier. Contrast Peter Fleming's admittedly gruelling journey by truck, train and horse from Peking to Srinagar with the journey of a British official thirty years earlier to the same area who had to walk or be carried by sedan chair such were the state of the roads. Fleming chose to travel part of the journey by horse to both visit reote areas and dodge officialdom. He could have managed most of the journey by truck, as did Joseph Needham a few years later, except for the final stretch across the Kashmir border to Srinagar.

People could travel to these areas by road and by train, and road meant by truck and car. The roads were open and it was possible for people to drive from London or Berlin to Tehran or Kabul. Likewise the remoter parts of central Asia were accessible by train via Moscow across what is now Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

So the technology of travel was easier. So was photography. The first 35mm Leica cameras revolutionised photography - cameras were no longer clumsy things and crucially no longer used bulky films or plates - a 35mm cassette could hold 36 pictures - more than twice as many as a 120 or 127 film roll and less vulnerable to damage or accidental exposure. I've not used one of the early Leicas but I have used Fed 5b Leica clone dating from the late 1970's.

The results are pretty impressive, the camera is almost indestructable, and while at around 600g it's not light, it's not a great bulky monster either. It also crucially doesn't need batteries. Unlike later 35mm cameras it doesn't need a power source for range finders, light meters or autofocus. It does of course require you to do a bit more work, but with the slow films in use then, say 50 ASA, you had a degree of leeway if you guessed wrong.

The other great key technology was the portable typewriter. Probably about twice the weight of a laptop, but packed up probably no bulkier than a laptop in a travel bag, it allowed writers, who were essentially journalists, to work on material, type up notes and copy just about anywhere. Again crucially they didn't need a power source, and could work in places not connected to the power grid, or on trains etc.

It also meant that they could travel relatively light - always a consideration when having to haul your own luggage part on and off trains, or cram it into tuktuk or similar as I can attest from personal experience travelling through Laos at the end of 2005.

Also, the typewriters and cameras were a good deal tougher than a netbook and a digital camera, and would survive the occasional dunking or exposure to snow and cold.

So, changes in technology and improved opportunities for travel, plus a heightened public interest in what was happening in places previously off the map conspired to provide a combination of circumstances that provided a marvellous opportunity for both photojournalism and travel writing.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Banks, phone calls and security

[This was originally posted to my "stuff that doesn't fit anywhere else" blog. Probably actually should have gone here ...]

Now I’m probably turning into an old fart, but I get really annoyed by banks when they phone you up about something trivial:

- Hello this is the XYZ bank. Can I speak with Mr Xyzzyy?

- Speaking

- I want to talk to you about some correspondance. Can you please confirm your date of birth and account number?

- No, I am not assured that you are calling from XYZ bank. You are calling from a call centre on an unlisted number. Can you please confirm the last four digits of any of my bank accounts

- I am sorry I cannot release any information unless you confirm your identity

I’m sure you can see what’s wrong about this dialogue. The bank quite properly wants to confirm my identity. Unfortunately they are asking for a something (my birthday) you can find by googling, and something I’d like to keep secure, an account number. Now while I’d be happy to tell them that, I’m alert to social engineering, after all they keep on sending me emails about being secure online and scammers, so not unreasonably I want them to prove that they’re not some sophisticated scam.

They of course can’t do that as they don’t let the phone bunnies give out any information.

Much better would be something like:

- Hello, I’m from the XYZ bank. I’m calling about some recent correspondance. Would you like me to confirm my identity?

- Yes

- Do you have your credit card handy? If you look at the back of it you will see you customer number. The last three digits are a, b, c.

- They are.

- Can you please now confirm that your identity by telling me the last four digits of your savings account number

- m, n, o, p

Now it could be better, we could have agreed some security questions in advance but this system has the advantage that they tell me something unlikely to be public knowledge, but not all of it, and I tell them something that is unlikely to be public knowledge, but not all of it.

We have then established that we are who we say we are, but no one knows something that can be of use. Also, if I’m working in an open plan office I havn’t divulged anything that I’d be unhappy having overheard, accidentally or not.

Dates of birth, full names don’t work as they are scattered everywhere on social networking sites.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

bookmarks and persistence

In the process of importing my delicious bookmarks into evernote, I discovered that around half my bookmarks - mostly the older ones - went to dead links.

The dead links were mostly (but not all) links to magazine and newspaper articles, and the links that persisted mostly to academic papers. No, I didn't keep notes and this is all impressionistic and anecdotal.

Now, all my professional life I've kept notes, notes of presentations, conference papers, and also newspaper clippings (initially), later on printouts of web pages, bookmarks, and now evernote notebooks.

Of all my notes, about 80% are never referred to again, and of the remaining 20%, around half of it is irrelevant after five years.

Guessing which 20% is going to prove some use and of that which is worth keeping is the difficult bit, especially as happenstance can be a wonderful thing. That presentation that you went to many years ago on a long dead product's peer to peer architecture and it's use of a low bandwidth gossiping algorithm suddenly assumes significance when talking about data replication and resilient cloud storage - not because of anything other than the idea picked up on wet Tuesday long ago.

This doesn't come as a surprise - when we moved to Australia from the UK we got rid off, in one way or another, about 75% of our books. We started out the culling process by trying to be rational, but ended up being pretty random in our approach. And while we've had to rebuy a few things, it hasn't worked out too badly. The key point being that while there might be music you want to listen to again or books you want to reread, or material to refer to, you actually don't really need to as far as most of the content is concerned. (One wonders how many people will end up deleting books out of their e-readers to make space, just as people delete pictures out of flickr to stay below the 200 image limit).

Now, personally, I'll continue to keep notes as it helps me remember things, just as writing blogs about stuff helps me clarify my thoughts. And I've always been a sucker for buying books.

But this does have implications for digital preservation. People rightly worry about the sustainability of content, particularly in the current economy. However we can approximate forever to be something between five and ten years. After that time most things are fairly irrelevant, and probably could be let die.

In fact, using my experience as a guide, only about 10% of anything is worth keeping for more than five years. The problem is which 10%.

And the real problem is that the 10% will vary according to audience. For example, J, as an artist, images, ideas, pictures of textures, information about exhibitions, is important.

For someone else it could be book reviews. For my father, as an engineer, it was specifications, engineering change notices, schematics and diagrams. We're all different. Equally, I have the suspicion if we were to genuinely, randomly, delete 80% of all online content after five or so years we'd probably not be too badly off ...

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Social Network ...

Saturday night we finally got around to watching The Social Network, the film about the origins of Facebook.

We'd meant to go and see it when it came out, didn't get to the cinema at the time for a whole host of reasons, I then slept through most of it on a United flight back from SFO, which at least prompted me to buy the DVD, even if it took us another three months to get around to watching it. Why it took us so long to get around to watching it is one of the imponderables of life, because it was a pretty gripping, and slightly disturbing film.

How true it is, whether undergraduate life at Harvard is anything like it's portrayed (and I hope it isn't) and whether the portrayals of the main protagonists are as deservedly unsympathetic as they are in the film is for others to judge, but the story rings true.

I've seen a couple of failed startups, and the film certainly catches the manic mood, arguments and personality clashes. If you've read Robert Cringley's Accidental Empires, or books like High Stakes, you'll already be aware of the combination of luck, happenstance and hucksterism that accompany the way an IT company starts up, the idea, the product, the growing pains and so on, and the way that most projects start up as just two or three programmers working in their spare time and only once they're successful morph into something else.

However, to succeed you need to be driven and obsessional about your project, because basically until it ships you have nothing. And that definitely does not bring out the best in people. And of course, once it ships, you may still have nothing - the history of computing is littered with good concepts that just never went anywhere ...

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Entering books into LibraryThing (and a little pornography)

Entering books into LibraryThing
Originally uploaded by moncur_d.

Adding books to librarything has proved strangely therapeutic at the end of the working day - come home, make myself some tea, squat on the floor with the netbook and add some books. Takes around 45-50 minutes to do a shelf's worth of books, meaning it fits neatly in to that little gap between getting home, talking to J, running the cat's tummy and the evening news on SBS.

Our bookshelves are fairly prosaic knock down and put them up adjustable wood shelves - they came from the Lundia store in York some fifteen or so years ago, and are chiefly notable for travelling half way round the world with us - possibly the best travelled Netherlands Lundia shelving, although there is another manufacturer of the same shelving system in NZ.

Anyway - pornography. While utterly practical and sensible, our Lundia shelving is woody and boring - basically as sensible and indestructable as an old Volvo wagon and with about the same amount of sex appeal. So following the 'books do furnish a room' meme we've been looking for inspiration for something a bit stylish and architectural to have as a feature bookcase.

And thanks to Poetry News we've come across the Bookshelf Porn - not a naked body in sight, just lots and lots of sexy bookcase shots - and if that doesn't push your buttons there's the slightly more hardcore Bookcase Porn - seriously sexy bits of design. Definitely droolworthy ...