Thursday, 26 January 2023

Playing with Chat-gpt

 There’s been a lot of talk about Chat-gpt and its capabilities. Out of curiosity I tried Chat-gpt with the phrase describe wet plate collodion photography. This what I got

Wet plate collodion photography is a photographic process that was popular in the mid to late 19th century. It involves coating a glass or metal plate with a mixture of collodion (a viscous solution of cellulose nitrate in ether and alcohol) and silver nitrate. The plate is then sensitized in a darkroom and inserted into the camera while still wet. The exposure time is typically several seconds to a minute. After exposure, the plate is developed, fixed, and washed to produce a negative image. The process is considered to be one of the first true photographic techniques. It was widely used for portrait and landscape photography and was especially popular for making cartes-de-visite and tintype photographs.

It might not be the best or most detailed answer out there, but it’s not wrong either (apart from the bit about tintypes - similar but different process), but I liked the mention of cartes-de-visite...

1890's photographic developing chemicals

 Yesterday I posted the following on Mastodon, which I'd turned up in a drawer while documenting the contents of Dow's pharmacy

and which garnered a fair degree of interest. 

It's not the whole story - in fact we've got two slightly different packages from the same period

the second one being labelled tank developing powders. 

Both boxes are cardboard, approximately 75x75x20mm and are black with a white design. Amazingly enough both appear to have their contents intact, which gives us a problem

My project is simply to document the contents of the old pharmacy - we don't have a conservation lab on site or any specialist facilities to handle potentially hazardous material. In fact it's just me, so there are limits as to what can be done.

In cases like this it's simply a case of a visual check to confirm the contents are present and then carefully repack them and return them to their location after photographing the box and contents.

Stylistically I'm dating the boxes to the 1890's - but,  as designs didn't change much they could be Edwardian in date. Crucially neither of the boxes have the post 1907 Eastman Kodak logo

Illustration (c) DesignHill

which suggests that the boxes pre-date its introduction.

Of course, these boxes were produced by Kodak Australasia and the chronology of their packaging may differ from that of the US and Europe.

The Wodonga historical society has a tin in their collection which holds some photographic powder packages that appear similar to those in our cardboard packages that they date to the late 1800s early 1900s which fits with my dating hypothesis, but Museums Victoria hold a box that looks similar to the Dow's tank developer box that they date to the 1930's.

One crucial difference is that the Dows box is priced at 1s and the Museums Victoria box priced at 1s6d, suggesting that the Dows box may predate the Museums Victoria box

Sunday, 15 January 2023

Twitter and Mastodon two months on

 Well, it's around two months since the Twitter became a Musk enterpise, and I, like a lot of other people decamped to Mastodon.

At the time of the Musk takeover, I fully intended to abandon Twitter and stop posting.

Well, I havn't. Inertia and convenience and all these other things have kept me engaged.

I don't like a lot of the changes to Twitter and one day, I might simply stop using it, but when? Who knows.

At the same time Mastodon is an interesting experience. 

At the moment I'm basically lurking, but there's some interesting material and stimulating posts there. It's definitely much more of an online community than twitter, but I don't find it a replacement, more a complimentary service to Twitter.

Now this could simply be because I'm an anti social introvert and don't really feel comfortable with throwing myself into online social interactions, much in the same way that I'm not good at small talk but I don't think so.

This of course is a weird time - we've just had the holiday season - Christmas, Hannukah, New Year etc, and of course it's also the annual holiday time in the southern hemisphere when a lot of people go away and drop out of circulation for a week or three.

Rather more I think it's because I havn't yet found my tribe.

In a sense this is not surprising - it took me a couple of years to get comfortable with Twitter, so I don't see why Mastodon should be any different ...

Friday, 13 January 2023

Moving to FTTP (maybe)

 When the NBN came to Beechworth in 2018 we ended up with an FTTC (Fibre to the Curb) connection - which is exactly what it says - a fibre connection to a fan out unit down a hole at the end of the street and a connection to the fan out unit over the old copper network.

And it's been pretty reliable. We have a 50Gbit/s link and all the usual speed tests show that we get that most of the time.

Apart from some teething troubles in the early days and network congestion at the start of the pandemic it's been reliable and done what we wanted.

But it does glitch and drop out occasionally. These smart modems with a little failover 4G connection unit inside them are not an option as we are in a small 4G blackspot - our mobiles use wifi calling in preference to a 4G connection.

So far however my only worry has been the bit of the old copper phone wiring between us and the fan out unit. I'm not sure when it was installed but our connection box outside of the house still has the pre-1995 Telecom Australia logo

so we can probably guesstimate the wiring as being at least thirty years old.

So when I got a marketing email from NBNco saying that we may be eligible for an upgrade to FTTP I was immediately interested. 

Yes it would cost a bit more a month with a faster plan, but while a 50 gig plan was really fast a few years ago, having several smart devices and a stupid number of computers, not to mention the tv, it probably makes sense to upgrade.

Now, we're with iiNet, which is part of TPG/Vodafone. And the reason we're with them is because we have a Fetch box to let us watch (or actually these days stream) some of the less common news and doco channels - this gives us around 250 channels of which in reality we probably watch four. In fact it's mostly ABC iView and SBS OnDemand with a leavening of BBC First and BBC Earth, plus the occasional Netflix movie.

As a solution it works for us and we don't have a particular reason to change.

Why am I telling you this?

Well NBN has a web page about FTTP upgrades that asks you to nominate a provider, and I guess then takes you to the providers website. So, if you were with Optus and wanted to stay with Optus, you would click on the Optus logo, and follow the bouncing ball.

But if you look at the NBN providers web page you'll notice that the TPG/Vodafone brands are notable by their absence - most the non TPG companies are there but not TPG.

So, I emailed iiNet's support desk. The first time around they gave me the wrong answer - they told me about paying to have a custom private installation. but then when I pointed out it was the NBN Fibre connect program I was referring to, they  came back with the following:

In regards with your inquiry about the email your received from NBN regarding the change technology to NBN FTTP iiGroup will be participating in the NBN Fibre Connect Program soon but for now you can register your address here and we notify you as soon as it's ready.

In other words, they're not quite there yet.

The actual form is pretty easy, but it does require you to tell them your NBN Location id, a magic number that NBNco use to identify your physical connection.

Perversely the NBN's own check my address page no longer gives you your location id, but if you use the check my address form on Aussie Broadband's new customer page it gives you your NBN location id.

Obviously there's no point filling in the form unless you're (a) a TPG group customer, and (b) have received a mailing from NBNco about potentially being eligible for an FTTP upgrade, but if you are, it might speed things up a little for you ...

Saturday, 7 January 2023

Where did Trim poo?

 I woke up this morning with a strange thought - where did Matthew Flinders cat, Trim, do his business?

On a small boat, and remember that before the mid nineteenth century a lot of ships were small, a ship's cat must have had to have somewhere to go. 

Googling doesn't help - all one gets is articles about cute cats, and pictures of happy naval cats in little cat hammocks, nothing about nineteenth century litter boxes.

My guess is that the cats must have been provided with an enclosed wooden box filled with wood shavings or something similar - enclosed as one does not really want cat poo being flung about when the ship was rolling in a storm, and wood shavings, or perhaps straw from the packing around bottles and jars because it would have been disposable. But I'm guessing... 

Public libraries and KPI culture

 I'm putting my head above the parapet here, but since my last post about what I want out of a public library, I've read quite a few articles by librarians working in public libraries.

Public libraries are clearly under pressure to justify their costs and in the course of attempting to justify their existence, have copped a nasty bout of the KPI disease.

KPI's, key performance indicators, are not intrinsically bad but they can have a distorting effect on what a service does.

KPI's are usually based on counting things, simply because counting things is easy to do and produces an unambiguous numerical result.

So in a library context KPI's are things like

  • year on year membership growth (or not)
  • books borrowed
  • ebooks borrowed
  • problematically, the number of distinct public wifi users
which are perfectly sensible in themselves, but they do have the problem that once in place they tend to drive library activities, such as book clubs and reader groups to increase footfall (nothing bad in that), while concentrating on particular activities means that a disproportionate amount of limited resources (budgets are always too small to do everything) are put into satisfying the KPI requirements.

Equally, as often habitual library users are drawn from older segments of the population the buying policy tends to be conservative and reflect the tastes of the current user base, not what might appeal to other segments of the population.

And that's a problem. Keeping the current user base takes priority over outreach activities to other segments of the population who may want to use the library in different ways, such as a place to study rather than a place to borrow books from.

So things like study space of HSC and TAFE students tends not to be seen as helping meet KPIs. After all students  probably won't use the library as a resource because most of resources they need are online, and anyway,  library reference collections have been hollowed out over the years.

Yes, you can make them register to use the wifi rather than make it open access, but that starts putting barriers in the way of their use of the library.

Counting distinct MAC addresses might help, but can you tell easily between someone using the wifi to upload some pictures from someone studying? I think not.

So what to do?

You could offer people an inducement to register - 50 free pages of printing for registered users, access to a secure storage locker so they don't have to take material home with them, are my first thoughts. I really don't know what to suggest other than an outreach  programme of some sort, even something as simple as putting a flyer in student packs for HSC students and TAFE students.

If it's successful, the idea of using the library will probably spread by word of mouth, if it's not, well it's back to book clubs ...

Tuesday, 27 December 2022

Being a public library user after the pandemic

I am not a librarian. I have worked with librarians, but I am not a librarian.

What my competence is is difficult to explain, so I’ll start with a little autobiography.

My first post graduate job was working for a field research station in the mid eighties, where basically I helped people with no IT skills manage their data, run statistical analyses, and write reports.

Later I moved to work in a university where I had a serious job in a computer centre.

It was an old mainframe focused computer centre but they had realised change was coming and they wanted someone to help support these pesky users who increasingly wanted to use a desktop computer instead of the central timesharing system (and incidentally help people who wanted to get their data off their PC and run it through one of the mainframe statistics packages).

Initially my job was much the same as the job at the field station, but as the IT revolution gathered pace it mutated into buying computers for the university, helping people get off the ground with projects – I did a lot of talking with archaeologists and botanists about how to do field survey work and finds logging in wet and computer antithetical environments – and building and maintaining a student teaching network.

However, by the time I moved on elsewhere in the early 2000’s I’d come to realise that the old model of central provision was breaking down.

Everyone who wanted a computer could afford one – not true of the population generally, but certainly true of the student and academic population. There were companies, such as Microsoft, who would provide you with a small amount of online storage which was regularly backed up, and there were even companies that would rent you time to run a bigger compute job on a virtual machine.

Basically, I could see that I would be out of a job some time soon.

At the same time I’d spent increasing amount of time dealing with serious storage and backup – big tape libraries and the like – which coupled with a familiarity with OCR and scanning  allowed me to move into digitisation and digital archiving. A bit niche, but it kept me employed until I retired a few years ago.

During my digital archiving years I came into contact with librarians. Like computer centres, they felt threatened.

Computers are good at counting and keeping track of things. First it was the card catalogue, and then it was self service checkouts, and gradually all the mechanical parts of a librarian’s job started to disappear. After all you could even buy pre-rolled catalogue records to save having to manually catalogue books.

And of course there were e-books which somehow couldn’t be handled  as if they were simply digital version of a physical book, or something else tangible like a CD or a DVD.

Search engines and free online access to databases like Trove or Welsh Newspapers online, not to mention other more specialist resources also meant that libraries could no longer function as the exclusive gatekeepers to knowledge.

So they tried to get funky.

Not just the simple provision of somewhere with reliable wifi and places to work, we got beanbags, makerspaces, and in public libraries story sessions and reading groups.

Looking in from the outside, I’d say these have met with mixed success.

Over the years since I retired I’ve spent a fair amount of time using public libraries as places to work and do background research on my volunteer project documenting the contents of Dow’s Pharmacy in Chiltern.

First of all, I can do almost all the work from home, I don’t need to use a library. I choose to because I don’t have a permanent desk at the pharmacy, and when there’s some big tour groups it’s easier to decamp. Small tour groups are fine, in fact I enjoy talking to them about my work on a one to one basis.

And sometimes if J is going to an art workshop somewhere it makes sense to help her take her stuff to where the workshop is and then do some work from a local library for the two or three hours the workshop takes.

So, what do I value?

A desk, a chair that doesn’t induce numbness in my lower back and decent wifi, preferably without me having to fill out forms and turn three times anticlockwise to use it.

I don’t mind registering with the library as a user, but I don’t want to have to do a dance with some online portal every thirty minutes to renew my connection.

And no, I’m not going to look at dubious material online, but then one person’s nineteenth century art photography is another person’s pornography – for example one of Rejlander’s moral tableau images that Queen Victoria gifted to Albert would probably be considered NSFW these days.

Equally, when I look around me at other people using the library as a place to work it’s clear that some people find having access to a public computer useful, if only to complete online forms that don’t play well on an iPad, and quite a few people find access to a decent printer really valuable.

While public libraries undoubtedly do have a role in lending fiction to people who either do not want to or cannot afford to buy books, even second hand, it is often the case that their reference and non fiction sections have shrunk away.

Now, I’m the first to admit that some of my requirements are perhaps a little obscure, but even when I look at a mainstream topic such as World War I, outside of Gallipoli and the Australian experience of the Western front, there’s little available, and even inter Library loan searches fail to provide much in the way of results.

In fact I’ve basically given up on libraries for background material and often buy books second hand from overseas second hand booksellers – and perversely the reason for going to overseas booksellers is not only are they cheaper, but the cost to send a book economy from the UK is less than to have the same book sent via Australia Post.

I don’t have small children so I can’t comment on the value of story sessions, but some of the adult reading group sessions look fairly dire. I’ve never been to one, and none of the authors that they’ve had in locally to speak to readers have appealed to me.

As for the beanbags, well yes, having a nice comfy chair to flip through material on  a tablet is nice, but I wouldn’t say it was essential.

So where are we?

Libraries have undoubtedly lost their role as gatekeepers to knowledge.

They do have an important set of roles though:

A)      Teaching effective search strategies and how to assess the ‘worth’ of information sources, including Wikipedia

B)      The provision of internet access and places to work, be it for school students seeking somewhere away from the hurly burly of home, oddballs like me, or people who simply need to get something done and don’t have suitable access at home

C)      Educating people about the effective use of online resources be it Trove, Scotland’s People or Ancestry. Family history won’t save a library, but access will undoubtedly increase footfall and act as a springboard to other things

D)      Providing access to books, including publicising the availability of new and popular books and improving interlibrary loan services – which means revisiting holdings and acquisition policy

As such they remain valuable community resources. 

How well they fill that role is dependent on the front of house staff developing and keeping the necessary skills. 

Being funky is nice but not essential.