Monday, 25 February 2013

Roman Bricks in America

Rather nice piece in the Atlantic explaining how a recycled Roman brick from England ended up in Oregon.

A fascinating story in itself, but also one that neatly demonstrates the global reach of trade on the nineteenth century, just as the assault on Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky shows the grlobal reach of the Crimean war, or indeed George Kennan's Tent Life in Siberia shows the global reach of commerce.

Another nice example is the use of the Mexican dollar or silver Peso in China well into the twentieth century. The silver peso was the direct descendant of the pieces of eight of fame. Same size, same weight. The Spaniards traded with the Chinese in the Phillipines and the Chinese liked the peso for its regularity, and consistency. So it became established as a trade currency with the new Chinese republic in 1911 striking their own coins of the same weight.

Peter Fleming, in his 1930's travel writing about China, mentions having to get a supply of Mexican dollars for exchange purposes, in other words they were known and trusted, just as the US dollar is in countries such as Laos today.

Not that any of this is new, the world has always been connected as delving into Sighelm showed me, or indeed the original Scylax and his possible trip down the Ganges 2500 years before Eric Newby.

Trade has always found a way. One morning in northern Greece we were on the road early and we passed some trucks with plates we didn't recognise pulled over at the side of the road and the drivers were performing their morning prayers. The trucks turned out to be from Teheran. Like I said trade always finds a way.

The other nice thing about the Roman brick story is that it demonstrates that things quite often turn up in surprising places for very ordinary reasons. When I  read the introductory paragraph, I thought 'oh yes, ship's ballast'.

I was wrong this time. But actually the bricks could have been loaded as ballast as part of the cargo to be replaced with rocks and dirt from Portland if required - and that explains how Roman small change sometimes turns up in the Americas - not that some Roman got there but that they dropped the change and some thousand plus years later it ends up in a load of dirt and rocks as ballast. Still an interesting story, but perhaps not so much fun as people first thought ...

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Goodbye Hotmail

Microsoft is finally killing off the Hotmail brand, although it''s allowing you to keep your old hotmail address.

Like this guy in the Guardian, I've lived with the shame for what's now fifteen years. Microsoft did once send me a congratulatory email for being a hotmail user for over ten years, but I wouldn't say I've been an avid user, but I do still use my account - not as my everyday email account but for occasions where I've had to give an email for a one off purpose or for the odd one off message such as from a public terminal in an airport where the wifi's expensive and you don't have data roaming turned on.

It's useful, and like the guy in Guardian I'll probably keep my account, even if, like now I consolidate all my email back to my gmail account, as I do with my other accounts.

It even has a sensible name, even if I chose to put an underscore in the middle of it - which has caused endless trouble over the years trying to explain to people its an underscrore not a dash ...

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

ebooks and the backlist problem

I’ve previously written about how the rise of the ereader and allied technologies such as the espresso book machine allow an easy way of distributing, older and less popular books. The cost of storage is pennies, the only real cost is that of distribution and printing, and if you have an espresso book machine you don’t even have that.

However, there’s a problem I’ve been dancing around.

A lot of older books, say pre-1995 were filmset and even if the orginal text was marked up on a computer techology and file format changes have probably done for them, and the publishers may well have got rid of the film masters as well - meaning that we can’t even scan them.

Now I kind of had this problem tracking down some books about the post-Revolution civil war in Russia, but I thought that that was an artefact of no one in the west really giving a stuff about Russian twentieth century history .

But recently, I’ve been re-indulging in my love of classical period and mystery novels (actually I’m a sucker for anything set in the classical period, mystery novel or not), and I thought I would try and track down two books that I enjoyed at the time, ‘Tamburas’ by Karlheinz Grosser and ‘An elephant for Aristotle’ by L Sprague de Camp.

Tamburas was published in English in the early seventies and reasonably popular at the time. Basically the sort of book that a publisher might reissue as an ebook if they had an electronic version in the vaults. It might be popular ad it would cost very little to put online.  Obviously no one did, as the only version I could find was a pre-loved paperback on Abebooks.

The other one is slightly more interesting. Lyon Sprague de Camp was a well known science fiction author of the golden age of science fiction and commanded a substantial and loyal fan base. Now while his fan base is probably my age or older there’s probably enough people out there who would buy copies or retrospectives of his work - as evidenced by the prices being asked for second hand paperback versions - the original hardback being on sale for something like $50. At these prices they’re probably going to collectors rather than readers.

But again the same problem. The last paperback edition appears to date from the late sixties, Again it was probably filmset and if there was an electronic version of the text it has probably long gone to the big bit bucket in the sky aka /dev/nul.

Now, there’s a more important point here than my own literary tastes (or lack of them).

Clearly the future of the book is electronic. Ebooks are going to replace the mass market paperback and short run literary fiction. The change will be uneven, and take time, but we see this already with well known chains like Borders going to the wall and ebook sales beginning to overtake print.

Fine, change is good. But this does leave the problem as to what to do about pre-electronic books. Some of course, like the classics, and pre-ebook works by popular authors, will undoubtedly end up in the Kindle store sooner or later, but the obscure, the niche, may simply disappear. People chuck books out when they move, when they no longer have space. And so the books just disappear because they’re no longer popular, be it an obscure historical novel or the Alexiad. And that’s a problem as it means that most of twentieth century writing will disappear off the radar.

Frequently, when I talk about digital archiving I talk about a mythical archive of Cantonese pop songs that track changing social attitudes among the population of Hong Kong. The same is true of twentieth century popular fiction, it reflects the changes in society, the paranoia about the coldwar (spy novels), the rise of technology (science fiction) and even changes in social structure - material that is even now being chucked in the bin ...

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Evolution and exchange 365

Back in December I mentioned that at work we'd changed to Office 365 for email, and how to get gmail set up as a client to office 365.This works well as a solution and I've been happily using it, especially as the gmail clients for android and iOS are sensible enough to use the work email account to send email if you change the 'send' account appropriately.

However,  Libre Office on Ubuntu has this nice feature that if you want to send a document (or a pdf version) to someone it fires up the evolution send dialogue. (Actually, what it's doing is starting the default local mail client - it doesn't have any capabilities to start a webmail client)

Evolution is,  of course, the default graphical email client that ships by default with Ubuntu.

To make the dialogue work for you in an Exchange 365 mail environment,  you of course need to configure evolution.

Rather than working it out for myself I resorted to Google and found this really clear  'how to' on the web.

 I've checked that it works (and it does!), although obviously you'll need to personalise it with your own Office 365 settings. To find these sign into to Office 365 as if you wanted to read your email.After signing in click on Options > See All Options > Account > My Account > Settings for POP, IMAP and SMTP access and make a note of this information as you'll need the server names when configuring it, and remember that the username formats are in the form As always, you local IT support should be able to help you with the information even if Evolution is a bit of a mystery to them.

Save icons (again)

Back in September I mentioned that the Libre Office save icon had its problems  and broke the near universal meme that  the save icon should be a floppy disk despite floppies being dead these ten years past.

I've just upgraded to Libre Office 4 and guess what:

the save icon has become a floppy disk ....

Being printerless

Our lab used to have one of these big whizzy multifunction devices that let you print, scan, email and fax, as well as act as a good old fashioned xerox machine.

Truly useful. Scan dockets and contract related documents straight to evernote. Scan documents which have to be signed first to pdf and email them off. Print drafts. Print big A3 spreadsheets. Share scribbled sketches of code designs.

All good, except that the week before Christmas it died, never to go again.

Christmas of course segues into the summer vacation here in Australia. The printer is leased rather than owned on one of these complex deals that we pay so much for the hardware and rather than pay for the consumables, pay something like three or four cents a page to cover the cost of routine maintenance and consumables, as well as having a printer tech come out and fix it if it breaks. The printer company obviously hopes we'll print a lot, not do a lot in terms of scanning, and that there won't be too many expensive repairs along the way.

So the first part of the process was to get somone to come out and agree it was no longer in the land of the living. This took longer than you would expect due to it being holiday time, but that wasn't a whole lot of a problem as a lot of people were away.

The only problem was that the people who need to approve changing the contract were also away. And then the start of semester was upon us. So due to the accumulation of minor problems we've been without a printer for nearly two months.

The really interesting thing is how we've coped.

The first thing was to dig out an old HP laserjet and put it on the network. This turned out to need toner and because the people who look after the supplies contracts were changing contracts, that turned into a saga in itself.

Other strategies included going and 'borrowing' other people's mfd's for a heavy scanning session. But the really interesting thing is that people stopped printing. Instead they started reading stuff onscreen, on a tablet, dropping it in dropbox as a pdf. People started taking pictures of whiteboards and scribble pads with their phones, not quite the paperless office but close.

People got used to not having a printer, and because there were other ways of sharing and distributing information they coped.

I'll even admit that J and I used to edit our home shopping list on Google Docs – shared document editing is designed for compiling joint shopping lists and I used to print it out. Now I simply view it on my phone.

And this really is the key takeaway. People's habits changed. Yes, when they really, really needed to print they found ways round not having ready access but they've found ways of living without a printer.

Our replacement printer is finally scheduled for delivery. It'll be interesting to see if people start printing in volume again ...

Monday, 11 February 2013

The other thing powering up an old imac showed me

I've been having a burst of linux activity recently, as might be evidenced by my forays into markdown and pandoc,

So much so that I'd been thinking about going and buying myself a refurbished thinkpad to install linux.

Well maybe I don't need to.

Power up my old imac again Install pandoc. Save the markdown documents into a 'to be processed' folder on dropbox. Pull the files down and run pandoc, and upload the output files. Save $250.

What's more, given that there's a bash curl script to upload to dropbox out in the wild it ought to be scriptable ....

What an old imac told me about tablet computers ...

Yesterday was a hot, humid, sticky day with thunder rumbling around, and it was also the day that I'd decided to set aside to hack the hedge on one side of our driveway backinto something like a respectable shape. The hedge grows up between Manuel's , our neighbour's, car port and the fence which means I have to do my side.

It was a hot dirty job, hacking, cutting and feeding the trimmings through the shredder. Towards the end of the afternoon the background rumblings started sounding more serious so I thought I'd better check what was happening. The Bureau of Meteorology have this reall useful rain fall viwer on their website that lets you track storm activity.

I could have run inside, grabbed my tablet, or powerd up one of the computers and checked, but no, my eyes fell on the newer of the old power pc imacs I installed xubuntu on back in 2008.

Now this machine hd languished unused in the garage since 2009 on what had been my workbench, but when I flipped the power the machine powered up, as did the wireless bridge and the hub connecting it to the home network. Xubuntu came up, I logged in (obviously I'm not very imaginitive about user names and passwords), the machine told me I had about a zillion updates to install, something I ignored, started firefox and got the rainfall viewer page up, and hey presto I had a display I could check on to see how storms were tracking.

Now it was pretty gratifying to see what is a ten year old machine come up first time after four years of gathering dust, but it got me thinking.

Back when I was I proponent of desktop linux, the thing that always struck me was how linux would give a new lease of life to old hardware – basically it was just more efficient in its use of resources than windows, and I used to think that running linux was a way of extending the life of old hardware, especilally for web browsing, and basic word processing, which is probably ninety percent of what people do on a computer.

Well, desktop linux didn't happen. Tablets did.

The question of course is why tablets and not netbooks running linux which seemed the blindingly obvious way to go back in 2008. The difference was the interface. Full linux is scary. It's not actually, no more scary than windows or a mac but it comes with a reputation of 'scary'. And some of the applications are scary to use.

Manufacturers responded by creating dumbed down interfaces, as seen on the original Eee or Acer Aspire. What they didn't make easy was adding extra applications - and of course applications are what people use.

Tablets are highly portable not particularly powerful devices, but they have been a runaway success because they make tasks easier. You have your weather app. Your banking app, your mail program, a couple of other apps, and perhaps a lightweight editor and that's that. Adding apps is easy, just a couple of clicks.

What people typically do on a tablet you could do the same on a laptop, any laptop, irrespective of operating system. But you don't get reasonable battery life, and you get complexity, the dread pauses while a billion upgrades install, and sometimes they're not that easy to use.

Tablets take the pain away, and they are highly portable and let you do standard tasks easily. And that's why we have tablts rather than netbooks.

The other thing is that you just don't need that much power. My seven inch android tablet and keyboard combo is superb as a note taker, but no way is it a general purpose computer, instead it does a small number of tasks well.

People on the whole don't want a general purpose computer. People instead want to get stuff done, and that's what the tablet phenomenon is about. It allows people to get stuff done. And it means that those people who had computers at home to do the two or three things they needed to do, online banking, a bit of email, a bit of skype say don't need to have a computer any more.

What it doesn't mean is that the general purpose computer is dead. It's just that the use case for having one at home or at work has changed.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Using Markdown

I've been using my seven inch tablet and textedit to successfully take notes for three or four months now.

I like on the whole to take structured notes (headings, indents and the like) and sometimes to polish up the notes afterward.

Now textedit is agnostic. It's a basic text editor and doesn't care how you lay things out so I started by using a subset of media wiki layout. This was good but not particularly readable.

Since the new year I've taken to using Markdown - and it's really powerful - the syntax/markup  is simple enough to remember, the layout is simple enough to read easily in evernote's viewer as if it was a simple textfile. Yes, I know I've just mentioned using inline hand coded markup, but it's not difficult - we're not talking TeX here ...

The real killer is that if you have pandoc installed somewhere you can take your markdown documents and convert them into good looking libre office odt files (or word if you're that way inclined) apply whatever corporate prettiness is required and it's ready to be whacked out as a pdf of meeting notes etc etc.

The other nice thing about Markdown is that most texteditors will handle it nicely, including textwrangler on the mac and kate on linux, meaning that a file can start on my android tablet, be saved to dropbox, and be finished off and polished on whatever text editor I'm using (usually either kate or textwrangler)

So, if you are looking for a standard lightweight note format, try Markdown ...


since writing this I've come across two dedicated editors - markdrop for android which neatly synchronises with dropbox, and markdownpad for windows,  which has quite a nice preview feature