Sunday, 21 May 2023

Literature searches in the time of Chat-GPT

 I have never been convinced by bibliometrics, viewing it as something between black magic and a shell game. The fact that Scopus is owned by Elsevier didn’t exactly help either.

It’s been my view that all these attempts to measure impact are flawed and incorporate unconscious bias against researchers who work at less prestigious institutions an perhaps do not publish mainly in English.

The reasons for this are complex, but I suspect it is in part because the reviewers and editorial boards tend to be drawn from a small number of anglophone institutions who tend to favour researchers working in institutions known to them.

And twenty years ago, they might have had a point. Computing resources were expensive and access to libraries and journals was difficult outside of institutions that did not take a full range of journals. (When I was a researcher forty years or more ago, I had an Inter Library Loan allowance to cover gaps in my home institution’s journal collection, but it did mean the process of reviewing the literature on a topic could be tedious as one waited for the loan article to arrive and then inevitably had to request another two.)

Nowadays it’s easier. Most laptops are powerful enough to run quite complex data analyses, R is public domain and a cornucopia of tools and techniques, online access to journals is relatively easy, and if there’s a problem getting hold of something, you can always hope the lead author is on Researchgate or and amenable to providing an electronic offprint.

But searching the literature is still much the same. One starts with a search engine and a query, 

Usually it’s Google, but it could be Bing or Kagi, all of which  make use of large language models, with Bing being the most reliant on a large language model.

Let’s say I was doing some fecal analysis at an archaeological site - old latrines and their deposits provide a host of information about what people ate, even if the contents are not the nicest to work with, and I had discovered a lot of raspberry seeds.

Raspberries do grow wild in Europe, so I might wish to know if they were cultivated, or gathered wild.

So a reasonable first query would be ‘when were raspberries first cultivated in Europe

I’d expect then to search for sources for the results, perhaps the results of other fecal analyses, but as part of the search process, the first results would be crucial. I ran the same query on the AI Enabled Bing, Google, Kagi, and as a control on the old school Yandex search engine.

The results are, shall we say, inconsistent.





Bing, even though it quotes a less reliable source is possibly the most accurate. There’s a lot of evidence for fruit cultivation starting in monastery gardens across Europe from the 12th century onwards.

Kagi is helpful, Google less so and Yandex simply goes for wikipedia, whch is as good a solution as any. 

None of them mentioned cesspits, so I reran the exercise specifically mentioning cesspits in the hope of getting more focused results.

When asked about raspberry seeds being found in cesspits most of the found the same content although only Kagi found detailed research, although Bing made a creditable attempt.





And what does this mean for research citation?

I’m not sure, but the differences suggest that the various large language models have biases, and probably it’s best at the moment to run literature searches on multiple search engines ...

Wikis (again)

 Earlier today I read a mastodon post about how someone had upgraded their personal website to a different static site generator, a topic about which I am woefully ignorant, although I can immediately see the value.

It may seem strange, despite having been a computer fiddler since Algol W was trendy, I don't run my own website.

I have my blogs and my wiki of interesting links, but I don't have my very own server. 

Even though there are occasions where it might have been useful (and I admit to in the past having instances of Dspace and Omeka running on a machine under my desk - purely for test and evaluation your honour).

And the reason is very simple. Having once managed a content management system based web site, I'm acutely aware of the sheer amount of work required to keep things patched and secure. If you're into that sort of thing, that's great, but I've always felt that dealing with system internals is like dealing with waste water systems - you do it if you have to, but on the whole it's better to get someone else to do it.

And so it is with my links wiki.

The web view is boringly simple, nothing flash.

And that's because of one of the superpowers of a wiki - creating simple content is quick. I actually use Notepad as a simple text editor to write the text, markup and all, and then paste it into the wiki page editor and do a validation.

And because there's no complicated design or web wiggling, I can concentrate purely on the content rather than worry about the HTML or the page appearance, making page editing and updating pretty trivial.  

Trivial,  because it's been separated from the furniture, the stuff that web designers and implementers do to make a site look both consistent and nice.

It's interesting that the Zola static site generator takes a similar approach, where you generate some very simple furniture  - actually it can be as simple or as complex as you want, and then add content, with the content being written in markdown, something which simplifies content creation.

Thursday, 18 May 2023

History links (plus some other stuff)

 As anyone who has been following along at home will know, I've largely abandoned social media, deleting my accounts to avoid any temptation to go back.

At the same time I've started collecting the links I might otherwise have posted to twitter in a wiki, starting a new page every Friday.

This week's links are at

(and there's a link back to the previous week's links at the top of the page.)

It's mostly about Roman history and archaeology with a smattering of nineteenth century stuff.

I don't collect usage data, I'm purely doing this for fun, and the links are simply things that floated my boat ...

Friday, 28 April 2023


 A long time ago, 2010 in fact, I started playing with the use of wikis to create live documents to develop and share ideas.

The whole idea was, that as wikis lend themselves to the creation of structured text, one could build out from series of basic dot points to create some more structured text, much as I do with notable when researching something.

Apparently this is called 'scaffolding'. I just call it fleshing out an idea.

Wiki's have the great advantage of being shareable, either with multiple editors, or simply by letting people read and review online and post comments, or even simply projected on a screen in a brainstorming session and edited during the session.

And as a live document, it's not immutable meaning  it can be used to reflect changes - such as for a project log to record who did what when.

And as always, I experimented on myself with some non critical bits and pieces.

The people I was working for at the time were not particularly keen (understandably so) on experimental servers mysteriously appearing on their network, so for my first experiments I used, which allowed you a free account with enough storage.

So I did my experiments, satisfied myself it was a good idea, but didn't take it further, for no other reason that the environment I was working in changed - the buzzword nowadays would be 'pivoting' - back then it was 'changing the focus'.

Basically the emphasis changed.

And I kind of forgot about my wikidot account, which left it kind of moribund. Not good practice, I should have closed it.

And so ten-plus years later, I had a little problem.

For years I've posted links to things I thought interesting to twitter. 

Originally, it was to share interesting technical stuff with my team. Gradually I started adding some things I found interesting, mostly about archaeology and archiving, and this got some interest, so I carried on even after I retired because people seemed to get some value from what I did, and I enjoyed doing it.

As we all know, Twitter is pivoting so much now it's more like an erratic tumbling cartwheel than anything else, and I finally got to the stage where I'd simply had enough and canned my account.

This left me with a problem. I was quite happy on Mastodon, but Mastodon has a different vibe, less tolerant of people simply retooting content, and some (actually quite a few) of the people who followed me for my Roman history and archaeology links, hadn't made the jump.

So, since I'd forgotten to get rid of my wikidot account, I resurrected it and started collating a list of the things I'd read each day that I found particularly interesting. I didn't bother about stuff like 'Roman burial possibly found in Nuneaton', unless there was something particularly interesting about the burial site or internment.

I reckoned that most people who were interested in that sort of thing could pick the news up elsewhere.

And I then created a live document that I updated as I went.

And it's surprisingly valuable as something to refer back to, something I always had trouble with with Twitter.

I'm doing it for fun and to keep my skills up, and I'm hoping it adds some value. For the moment I'm just strangely surprised in how a twelve year old idea has turned out to be useful.

Sunday, 23 April 2023

So, social media

 I'm an introvert.

Much happier to curl up with a book and a cup of tea than go and interact with people. I've never been good at small talk and am absolutely crap at maintaining friendships, even though I want to.

That's not to say I don't like talking to people, I do. I like a good conversation about history, nineteenth century communications, roman plumbing or whatever, I just don't do the social thing very well.

Probably these days they'd put me as being on the spectrum, but when I was young I was simply considered as a slightly odd loner, and I'll admit I quietly revelled in being a bit of an oddity.

And there were enough weirdos out there for me to find what human contact I needed.

During the pandemic, when we were all locked down I found social media invaluable in maintaining a sense that there were still kindred spirits out there.

Living in a rural area lockdowns were not as onerous as in the cities, but still with the pharmacy documentation project suspended I was isolated from the things I enjoyed.

Now, we've all moved on, and I've taken a long hard look at my social media use, in part because of the Twitter clusterfuck.

First to go was Pinterest,  which I'd been using to build a portfolio of images of the end of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires.

Pinterest had other ideas, and stopped being suitable as a visual diary type tool and turned into something to market cupcakes. Instagram started drowning in adverts and well Facebook - it was useful as a forum for community news, but after several years of stupid adverts and stupider friend suggestions - like do I really want to be friends with some sociopath in Texas? - that got the flick as well.

Which left twitter. Since the change of ownership, the content has changed. More people just posting images of  Alma Tadema's historical tableaus and less real Roman history and archaeology, not to mention the intrusion of stupid and irrelevant ads.

So, despite it having been my go to platform for fifteen years, I ditched it.

This leaves me with Mastodon as my only social media.

And there's benefits to doing this. 

I reckon I'm getting an extra hour in my day - more or less. And what I am reading in the way of blogs and online news I'm reading in greater detail.

So, let's agree there are benefits to ditching a lot of it. But only if you want to ditch it.

I'm reminded of the various stories about people who did a digital detox out in the bush somewhere and spent a month doing yoga and meditating and were straight back onto social media to tell their friends just how great the experience was.

No, it's about changing your life and how you feel about things. And, as an introvert, I guess I find it easier to say no once I've decided to move on ...

Wednesday, 5 April 2023

Green pharmacy bottles (again)

 It's all a bit of a puzzle.

I chanced across the following on Etsy (I did contact the guy selling the items and he's happy for me to copy and use the images)

which shows two rather battered green bottles dug from a bottle dump somewhere in the UK. Both look at first sight to be nineteenth century and still have their labels attached

Looking more closely, one label is illegible, but the other clearly lists Henry Sawyer, Chemist, Green market Carlisle. Trying to get a date I contacted Cumbria archives and the truly wonderful Helen Cunningham replied

Thank you for your enquiry.

Kelly's Directory 1873 James Sawyer Chemist 37 Fisher Street Carlisle
Kelly's Directory 1880 Henry Sawyer Chemist 35 & 37 Fisher Street (37 is on the corner of the Green Market)
Various Directories 1884, 1894, 1901, 1921 & 1925 similar entries
Kelly's Directory 1928 & 1938 Henry Sawyer Chemist 4 Green Market Carlisle
1952 Directory Henry Sawyer no longer listed

I hope this is of assistance.

which gives us quite a wide date range. However if you look closely at the bottle on the left you can see that not only does the label use a sans serif type font, which tends to be a post world war one thing, it lists a telephone number

which is certainly not nineteenth century.

Now I've been here before, bottles get reused, or else old stock is used, and label styles sometimes don't reflect the actual age of the contents. It's different with patent medicines where you can usually anchor the product a bit more firmly on the basis of newspaper advertising. 

However, if you search for 'green victorian medicine bottles' on Ebay or Etsy, almost all the items for sale are from the UK suggesting that the use of green bottles was a British thing

So, I think that all we can say is that green bottles were used as late as the 1920's and perhaps even later, and that sometimes older designs of bottles remained in use for decades.

Tuesday, 4 April 2023

Green nineteenth century pharmacy bottles

 I've been documenting the contents of Dow's pharmacy down in Chiltern since 2017 and I thought I'd more or less got my eye in as regards nineteenth century pharmacy bottles. The rules are (more or less):

  • Blue ones contain real nasties like strychnine
  • Brown ones are usually ribbed and sometimes embossed Not to be Taken as they contained preparations for external use
  • Clear ones contained medicines for internal use
Blue ones are often ribbed and embossed - the ribbing and embossing are because in the days before electricity, it made it easy to identify the ones not to be taken if you were fumbling about in candlelight for your medication.

But today, my boss pointed out that there was a green bottle among the undocumented items:


Definitely nineteenth century from its shape, and one shoulder side is ribbed and the other embossed Not to be Taken.

Most of the normal reference sites are vague on this but a little digging on Etsy and Ebay revealed that antique green pharmaceutical bottles do exist but are relatively uncommon. 

Green bottles seem to have been used as an alternative to blue sometimes to hold poisons. Most of the ones for sale online to bottle collectors seem to be located in the UK, so I'm going to wave my hands and say that it is mainly a UK thing, but of course occasionally imported bottles may turn up in Australia and New Zealand