Thursday 18 January 2024

Using the distraction free machine


When I did my annual personal technology review at the end of last year, I mentioned that I hadn’t made as much use of the distraction free machine as I’d hoped, in part due to my actually finishing the documentation of Dow’s pharmacy.

Since I had my sclerotherapy last week that’s changed. 

For the first few days I found it difficult to sit for a prolonged period at my desk to write, so when writing, I sat with my leg up on the sofa with the distraction free machine on my lap – hopelessly unergonomic I know – and caught up on my blogging.

And it’s been good.

As I said at the time the machine is nice to type on and it’s of a size to sit comfortably on my lap, making it as an ideal writing machine.

I’ve been using Libre Office as a writing tool rather than a text editor such as kate or gedit to create either simply structured plain text or markdown to feed through a conversion tool such as pandoc.

Once finished I send the text to OneDrive using Emailitin, where I finish it off on my windows 10 desk laptop, and then cut and paste it into a blogging tool such as open live writer for Wordpress, or in the case of blogger simply paste it into the edit window, and tweak the formatting if necessary.

I’ve been being a good little vegemite and making sure I walk my ten thousand steps a day (as counted by my fitbit) with the result that I’m healing nicely and can now sit at my desk for an extended period, but having started seriously using the lightweight machine I’ve kept on using it.

It’s quite a pleasant way to write, with either ABC Classic or Radio National burbling away in the background. As I say it’s unergonomic, but pleasant.

One of the advantages of working this way is that it is truly distraction free.

While the machine is connected to the internet there’s no web browser or email client running unless I actively want to run one, perhaps to check something, which coupled with my withdrawal from social media, it’s a good way to work.

I also make a point of leaving my phone in the study while I’m sitting downstairs writing, or working on something, something which also makes for a distraction free environment.

I’m very tempted, once we’ve cleaned out the old garage which is going to be studio for J with a bit of extra desk space for me to bugger about with film photography, to find a half way decent second hand sofa to allow me to continue working in my lazy distraction free writing ...

Thursday 4 January 2024

Roman ghosts (again)

I'm probably I'm going to get a reputation as some sort of strange crank for going on about this but this time I'm going to blame Mary Beard.

I've been spending the past few hot sticky afternoons rereading her 'Confronting the Classics', which is basically a collection of reviews written for various classical journals and literary magazines.

The first time around I must admit I tended to dismiss it as 'professors arguing with professors', but this time, perhaps because I know more and have thought more, I can see more depth to the collection.

Anyway, in discussing Boudicca she mentions a theory that she was buried on Gop hill in Flintshire and that her ghostly chariot can sometimes be seen careering about (personally I suspect Boudicca's body was lost and thrown into a mass grave at best).

However, I'd never heard of Gop hill, so I looked it up and it turns out to be a substantial prehistoric mound of unknown purpose.

The various sites I looked at didn't mention any legend of Boudicca's burial but one did mention a legend that the ghost of Aurelian (identified as Ambrosius Aurelianus) was sometimes seen on the site, and included a link to an online database of ghost sightings in the UK.

Now, normally I wouldn't bother with such things, but as my post about Roman ghost sightings in the nineteenth century was one of my most popular blog posts in 2023, I thought I'd take a look at the database for mentions of Roman ghosts and I was immediately struck by two things:

(a) where the provenance of a story is known it is from the nineteen twenties at the earliest

(b) many of the stories repeat features from other stories, eg a group of Roman soldiers is seen walking down a street, but are cut off at the knees, presumably because the Roman road surface was lower than today's, suggesting a degree of re-invention.

Which kind of reinforces my view that ghosts of dead Romans were not a nineteenth century thing ...

Thursday 21 December 2023

Codd bottles

 Codd, or Codd neck bottles were a Victorian invention.

Invented by one Hiram Codd they were a stunningly simple design  - a thick glass bottle with a rubber washer and a marble in the neck. The marble was pressed against the washer by the internal pressure of the the aerated drink inside - aerated drinks were very much a Victorian thing as well, in part due to the temperance movement - to make a seal. A special pointy opener would push the marble down allowing to contents to be poured into a glass.

1915 Codd Bottle - Orbost Historical society

Codd bottles were in common use in Australia but relatively few have survived  due to children breaking the necks of the bottles to get at the marble inside.

Recently, when gardening, I found a small glass 1cm diameter sphere, which I assumed was probably a child's marble that had been lost.

Having spent some time trawling the web, I'm not so sure. Victorian children's marbles were usually either coloured pottery or patterned glass rather than plain glass.

However marbles obtained by smashing the necks are usually plain blue green glass, like the marble I found.

This is where I start getting all hand wavy.

Our house was not built until around 1880, and it's said - I havn't delved into this in detail - that prior to this the land our block and neighbouring blocks are on was an orchard and that Billson's brewery (which is less than 100m from our house and directly opposite on Last Street) would sometimes stable their horses there. Certainly I've found a discarded horseshoe and a set of broken nineteenth century farrier's pliers while gardening so perhaps there's some truth in the story.

There's also quite a lot of broken nineteenth century glass in the soil. I havn't found a complete recognisable nineteenth century bottle, so I don't know if the brewery also used the vacant land as a dumping ground for broken bottles, or whether they just ended up there by chance, or from the householders dumping broken bottles in the garden.

However, I did find an example online of Billson's brewery using Codd bottles for aerated drinks

which again is made of the same blue green glass that the marble I found.

So, still furiously waving my hands, I'm going to hypothesize that the marble came from a Codd bottle from the brewery. Whether it got there by being dumped in a pile of brewery waste, or whether a child smashed the neck of a bottle to get the marble sometime at the end of the Victorian era, is something we'll never know ...

Tuesday 19 December 2023

The end of Usenet news?

 Earlier today I tooted a link to a news article about Google discontinuing  links to Usenet news.

Personally, I'd more or less forgotten Usenet news existed.

Over fifteen years ago we killed off our Usenet news service at my then work. The exercise was bit of a hoot as we had an SLA with a couple of other institutions to provide a news feed, and of course needed their agreement.

In one case getting agreement was easy, in the other they'd outsourced their IT provision to a windows based commercial provider, and somewhere along the line they'd forgotten to include NNTP provision as one of the contracted services, and of  course all the original people had moved on, and there was no one left who actually knew what Usenet news was, or even if they still had a forgotten box sitting quietly in a cabinet somewhere...

Anyway, once they understood the problem, they found someone to agree to the termination of the SLA. I don't know if they ever found if they still had an nntp server running.

Because I was interested in Roman archaeology and some environmental science topics I would occasionally check in on Usenet even after we turned off our server via a server at a university in the Netherlands, but eventually everything I was interested in migrated to blogs and the service formerly known as twitter, and in the end I simply stopped using it.

For old times sake I checked in on a couple of the groups I used to follow via google groups this morning.

The moderated ones are simply moribund - moderators retire or get tired of the job and the groups just die and remain there frozen in time.

Unmoderated groups seem to be full of irrelevant porn and posts offering dodgy financial services, and even the mad conspiracy theorists who used to rave on about the fringes of US politics seem to have moved to another echo chamber.

I guess that's how services end, not a bang, not a whimper, but a long drawn out death rattle ...

Saturday 9 December 2023

Technology and me in 2023...

It has become something of a tradition for me to blog about my personal use of technology in the past year about now.

There’s nothing particularly special about this year, I havn’t updated or replaced any of my machines with the exception of my putting my money where my mouth was and building a distraction free lightweight machine for research, which, because I finally finished the pandemic interrupted documentation of Dow’s pharmacy a few weeks later, hasn’t seen as much use as I hoped.

I expect that to change in the new year, but until then I’m enjoying my downtime.

The refurbished Thinkpad I bought in 2022 to allow me to finish the documentation of Dow’s gave excellent service, and will probably see me onto another documentation project.

My now five year old windows 10 laptop that sits on my desk continues to work well, and I don’t yet feel a need to upgrade it.

The only doubts I have are about the very lightweight computer I had bought a few years ago to replace my Macbook Air as a travel computer.

It gave excellent service until we were in a remote area of Tuscany - I don't think being in the foothills of the Appenines had anything to do with it, it was more a case of creeping software bloat - when it started complaining about swap space. 

As a temporary fix I deleted a whole lot stuff, told it to write everything more than a day old to OneDrive, and removed various little used applications.

That worked, but it still gets slow when using chrome with a lot (>5) tabs open.

Various solutions are possible, including converting it to Linux, and using basically the same build as I did with the lightweight research machine, perhaps with the addition of chromium and some basic photo editing software.

However, before I do that I need to check the specification carefully I have an eMMC based model (why it was so cheap in the first place) and linux support can be a bit tricky on eMMC based machines.

I actually don't know this - looking at the blogs and discussion boards some people seem to have had trouble with eMMC machines - of course you never hear of the success stories. I would assume that the eMMC device presents itself as a standard storage device, so it should work. Equally, while the machine is more or less usable, I don't particularly want to brick it - probably procrastination with a purpose is a valid way of dealing with the problem.

(Confusingly Lenovo also sell an SSD based version of the same machine in some markets and as you would expect, Linux works well on the SSD machines.)

The alternative is to buy a refurbished machine as an alternative travel computer – refurbished due to the cost, and also because I don’t really want to carry around anything with a screen size much over 12”, if only because a lot of my backpacks only really support a 12” screen size.

Basic machines tend to some with larger screens these days, making them a non starter.

Or I could just use the lightweight research machine (or indeed my Chromebook, which has the problem of having only a single USB3 port which means that I would need to carry an external card reader around for photo imports.)

All of that’s a decision for the coming year.

Again my pandemic era Huawei tablet continues to perform well as does the dogfood tablet, both doing everything I ask of them.

I still have my old mac mini and keyboard combo as a note taker, but again, since the end of the Dow’s documentation project it’s seen relatively little use.

While it seemed a big deal at the time we went from an FTTC to a pure fibre FTTP connection here at chez Moncur - after the initial hassle of the migration process it faded into the background and totally unnoticeable, as all good infrastructure upgrades should.

All in all the only major change has been my ditching an iPhone for a mid range Android phone, after being so impressed by the performance of my Oppo phone when we went travelling earlier this year.

I’ve always had a suspicion that Apple is not the most cost effective for phone purposes and that there was nothing particularly special about their hardware capability and having swapped from android to Apple’s walled garden and back again, I’m more and more sure that they are over priced for what they deliver – a bit like the early 1990’s mini computer market where Digital was clearly the dominant player, and their hardware was good and highly capable, but there were all these other newer, more cost effective, manufacturers with Unix based machines that year by year became more and more capable and eventually pushed them out of the market. These vendors in turn fell victim to Linux on upspecc'd commodity hardware... 

Wednesday 6 December 2023

Another possible skirt weight


Back in September I blogged about how I'd found a possible nineteenth century skirt weight while gardening.

Well I've found another, a quite attractive one made of blue glass. I don't think there's anything significant in the colour, I suspect they were typically made of either recycled or waste glass.

But the colour is significant in another way. When I say I found it, I simply picked it up off an empty patch of dirt in the yard.

We've been having a problem with  a native bird (or birds) that has a liking for blue objects. They've picked out all the blue clothes pegs out of the peg basket and scattered them round the yard, and have stolen other blue items from elsewhere, including a pair ear defenders and a bright blue lanyard.

In this case, because the glass weight was lying on the surface of an undug patch of garden I suspect that a bird had picked it out of someone else's garden and dropped it here ...

Wednesday 29 November 2023

So why were there no Roman ghosts in the nineteenth century?

My little post about Roman ghosts was not being a thing in the nineteenth century, of course leads on to the obvious question of why?

Well, I don’t know, but I have a theory.

Nineteenth century people loved ghost stories, as much, if not more than we do. Like us they liked being creeped out, so it’s not a distaste for the actual idea of ghosts.

It's more to do with a lack of awareness of Roman remains in Britain in the nineteenth century.

Thirty or so years ago I used to live in the middle of York, near the centre of the old city, in a nineteenth century terraced house, and the standing joke was that if you wanted your garden dug over, all that you had to do was notify the York Archaeological Trust that you’d found something, and you’d get a van load of spade wielding diggers round that afternoon.

Not true, but there’s a bit of truth in the story. Archaeology only achieved any sort of popularity in the nineteen eighties, before that it was seen as an occupation of dotty academics who spent the summer poking about ruins in Greece or Italy, or equally enthusiastically went on about crop marks.

Again not true, but not exactly untrue either.

Lets wind back to the nineteenth century.

There was no archaeology until the latter half of the nineteenth century. There was the odd antiquarian, and some of them were quite odd, who would sometimes investigate the odd bronze age grave mound or some Roman masonry they found on their property, but that was about it.

Some were quite systematic, and some were decided amateurs, and some like seventeenth century antiquarian Edward Lhwyd made valid inferences based on the evidence available.

Archaeology as we know it developed on the back of Schliemann’s mis-discovery of Troy and the discoveries of Nineveh and Babylon, and was something that happened out there, rather than closer to home.

It’s only later, in the early twentieth century that one starts to see something like systematic archaeological investigations in England and Wales.

While local antiquarian societies would occasionally sponsor digs, and finds of  Roman coins and pottery would occasionally be reported in newspapers, reports only start to become common after about 1880 - which is slightly strange as I thought the railway construction boom of the mid 1800s might sometimes  turn up Roman remains, but if they did, they appear not to have been reported widely in the newspapers of the day.

Before the early twentieth century, little was known about the Roman presence, because there actually were relatively few visible remains from the Roman period, people simply forgot about the Romans, and hence no stories about Roman ghosts, because there was nothing to inspire them ...