Tuesday, 24 May 2022

Gopher and the birth of the web ...

 Yesterday I posted the following

it was a story about how a press release had been posted via Gopher rather than via the web.

In the early days of the internet, there was a lot of content out there, but it was badly organised. There were finding tools like WAIS and Archie, but there wasn't a lot in the way of tools to display a set of linked pages of information - aka hypertext. (If you are interested in the tools available take a look at Ed Krol's Whole Internet User Guide and Catalog - second hand copies can be picked up from AbeBooks for between four and five bucks plus postage).

There was no real gee whizzery to this - most content servers were standard Unix servers and access was universally via a command line terminal window, so all you needed was a way of searching for content and then perhaps following links to related pages - basically like a very simple text based wiki.

In the late eighties there were various attempts to develop products to display useful information - for example at York we had our own simple in house product to allow central compute system users to search user guides etc, which ran (if I remember correctly) on a little microVax.

Gopher was the first protocol to gain widespread acceptance, and replaced idiosyncratic local services almost overnight. And because almost all servers on the internet these days accepted connections from just about anywhere, it became a game to find the most geographically distant server - my best was the cricket scores gopher page from Wits in Jo'burg.

At the same time there was the WWW from Cern. A different protocol, also originally developed in house for document sharing.

Gopher had a more restrictive model, implicit in the design was the idea that it would provide a set of centrally managed linked documents, while the web was the world wild web - documents could be linked to from anywhere, and the simplicity of the markup involved in early HTML meant that anyone who had familiarity with the concepts of markup from anything from Wordstar to TeX could learn to put content together in an afternoon.

And in the early days of the web that is exactly what people did, putting together simple pages about their research, and linking to content, such as English lecturers putting course synopses, reading lists and essay topics on the web.

The other advantage that the web had was that both the protocol and server wer public domain, while Gopher's was licensable, meaning that anyone could have a webserver (At one point, I had one under my desk running on an old pc purely to share documentation, with the only real access control being whether or not you knew the server's address).

And so WWW won out over Gopher.

But it's important to remember it was originally just a simple text sharing protocol

and not the blooming buzzing confusion it is today ...

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

packaging changes in the early sixties


Interesting how in a couple of years the packaging iconography changed in the early sixties ...

Wednesday, 27 April 2022


 I was off down an internet rabbit hole researching something to do with Dow’s when I stumbled across a local history society’s contact page which listed a Rocketmail email address.


That was a blast from the mid nineties. I had a Rocketmail address back then, originally for testing things, but it turned out to be useful in other ways.

Back then if you were away you were away. 

Strange to relate, but at that time it was entirely normal to disappear to Greece, Bali or wherever for two or three weeks and be utterly uncontactable. It just was - not like today when you end up with a complex discussion standing in a foreign carpark somewhere.

Mobile coverage was variable, and anyway phones didn’t do email. If you needed to check your email you needed to find a cyber cafe, pay your ten bucks and logon for thirty minutes or so.

And this is where the early webmail services came into their own - type the URL, logon, and you were in. In fact quite a lot of cyber cafes would have a captive home page on their locked down machines that had links to the main services.

At work, at the time, we didn’t have our own webmail service - that came a little later - so the best way to check email remotely was to write yourself a .forward file to one of the webmail services.

Rocketmail was bought by Yahoo! and formed the basis of their original webmail service. I moved across to Hotmail, which was promptly bought by Microsoft for the same reason.

I don’t have my Rocketmail address anymore - I managed to lock myself out of it by accident, and after around twelve years of trying, eventually got Yahoo! to bin it. 

I still have (and use) my hotmail address though ...

Saturday, 16 April 2022

A minor Google Drive annoyance

 I'm not sure how you use Google Drive, but I usually keep a tab open in Chrome, purely because the documents I've got on Google Drive are 'live' documents which are edited frequently - dot pointers, live notes, some spread sheets etc. Basically I use it as a set of scratch pads.

This isn't a new thing, I've been using Google Drive pretty much since it first came available, and I've been keeping a tab open for pretty much forever, especially as I used to be a linux user in the early days.

As a way of working this works pretty well, especially as last four most heavily worked on documents appear as 'Suggested Documents' at the top of the window.

Now, you would think that you could go to the window and click on the document you wanted. 

Not in the land of Google. 

When you click on a document in the open window it does a refresh and sometimes reorders the documents in the 'Suggested Documents' list.

Which wouldn't really be a problem, except it honours the position of the click, and opens the document that has been reordered to that position rather than the document you clicked on:

So if your 'Suggested Documents' list showed

DocA DocB DocC DocD

and you clicked on DocB, but at the same time the document list reordered itself to

DocD DocA DocB DocC

you get DocA not DocB

which personally, I find incredibly annoying. 

I can see a logic to it - after all you (or someone else in the case of a shared document) may have been working on some of the documents from a different machine, and therefore the list of most recently modified documents may have changed since your window was last refreshed.

I'm pretty sure that the behaviour changed sometime in the last year or two, but I can't pinpoint when ...

Thursday, 17 February 2022

A tweak to the documentation methodology

 When I started on the project to document the contents of Dow's Pharmacy down in Chiltern I needed a documentation methodology - basically a standard procedure for documenting the artefacts.

Basically the procedure was

  • photograph the artefact
  • write a short standard description of the object in an excel spreadsheet and record the filenames of the photographs and what they are (one packet can look very much like another)
  • record the manufacturer name
  • save the spreadsheet and image files in a self documenting file structure (not quite true - each section has a short markdown description listing objects and locations as a sort of finding aid)
  • backup the saved information to a USB drive
Any additional background material was saved in OneNote. The day's work was backed up to OneDrive at the end of the day.

The reason for doing the backup at the end of the day was quite pragmatic - when I started in 2017 we had a rather slow ADSL link, and doing a backup to OneDrive during the day would slow the link to a near unusable state for anyone else.

In fact I often used to back up the data at home where we had a faster connection, even in the ADSL days. Once we had the NBN at home, it was a no brainer - a days work could be backed up in a few minutes. In fact it took longer to check that everything had been uploaded properly than it did to do the upload.

This methodology has proven robust, and has allowed me to work when the power was out, or indeed when the internet was off.

In fact, it's a methodology I'd certainly continue to use.

Recently however, there's been a bit of creep. Now that we have a reasonably fast NBN connection I've been doing a couple of backups to OneDrive during the day, rather than one big backup at close of play.
And then my work computer died on me. Not quite true, but the battery is buggered and not worth replacing.

This does mean I could keep on working normally as long as the power was on, but there would always be a risk of losing work (in rural Victoria the power can and does go off unpredictably during stormy weather).

So I changed computers. My new one is faster than the old one, but instead of a 500Mb hard disk, has a 128Mb SSD, which is just a little too small to hold a copy of the data set.

So, the simplest solution seemed to be to save the data directly to OneDrive, and then do backups of the days work to a USB stick - basically at morning tea, lunch, and at the end of the day, or roughly every two hours. There's no afternoon tea backup as I usually finish documenting at around 1500 or 1530, after which time I do a quality check to make sure that everything has been saved correctly and that OneNote has synced itself correctly.

Unlike my previous procedure, there's an assumption that there will be a working network connection and that OneDrive is online, so the procedure is slightly less robust, but in the event of a problem I can always drop back to the previous procedure, and back up the data once everything is back online.

The way OneDrive synchronisation works helps us here - the file is actually saved locally, and then uploaded in the background, meaning that even if the OneDrive upload fails I can still back the local copy up to the USB backup.

Yesterday was the first time I switched to this way of working and it seems to be robust enough. I probably need to test it in a number of situations, but I'm happy so far.

Tuesday, 15 February 2022

Replacing a no name fitness tracker with an Inspire HR

 About eighteen months ago I wrote about my life with a cheap fitness tracker.

Recently I acquired an Inspire HR, one of the fitbit range of fitness trackers, which gave me a chance to compare a no name device with a brandname device.

The Inspire HR actually does less than the no name device, but it records distance walked, heart rate, and exercise sessions, such as bike rides, which is what I was particularly interested in.

Like the no name device it will also show notifications.

So, on paper, you'd say I was right, the no name device, at less than half the price, was just as capable, if not more so.

The real difference is the fitbit environment - the fitbit dashboard which lets you look at your walks and your bike rides, making it easy to track how you are doing - for example you get a nice route map

as well as the usual exercise details

meanwhile the data you get out of the noname device is not so nicely presented

Functional, but not as nice.

Now, if like me, you're trying to lose a bit of Covid belly (like most people over the last two year's lockdowns, despite my best intentions to stay fit, I drank and ate a little bit more than was ideal, and probably didn't exercise as much as I should have), what you are really interested in getting out of the device is how you're tracking, and it's here that the fitbit device wins, purely through the niceness of its online support environment.

Would I recommend you buy one?

Possibly not. If all you want to do is check some basic parameters and can live with the bare bones environment, the no name device is perfectly capable, but the fitbit does give you that little bit extra niceness (as well as having a better designed charger that attaches magnetically - no fiddling with three pronged crocodile clips!)

Having had both, I'd go for the fitbit because it works for me for where I'm trying to get. How much you want to pay and what you want out of a fitness tracker may be different. Certainly having used the noname tracker I'd agonise about buying the Inspire if I was paying full price ...

Friday, 11 February 2022

Medicine Duty ...

 I was down in Chiltern earlier this week and came across ( and solved) this little puzzle

A Medicine Duty tax stamp was a long stamp as in this 1897 example:

and would have been attached in such a way as to seal the package, or over the cork in the case of a bottle, meaning that when the item was opened the stamp would have been ripped off, making bottles with stamps in place pretty rare, as in this screen grab from a Bonham's stamp auction:

I'm not going to claim to be a genius in working this out, there was nothing particularly special in the solving of it, I found the answer via Wikipedia, with a little bit of supplemental googling about revenue stamps, but what I find quite remarkable is the way that something like this, which once must have seemed normal, too normal to mention even, can disappear from the collective memory ...