Sunday 24 May 2009

Not your average sunday morning ...

We're going to Europe in a month's time.

So this morning we decided we needed a packing list for gear, cameras computers, adapters, powerboards and the like. So there we were sat in bed using the eee to create a shared document in google docs. A year or so ago it would have been pen and paper still, possibly then typed up on one of the computers, then printed out and stuck on the fridge. Not now. It's online and easily accessible. No more the trying to remember at work what we needed to do because we left the list behind.

And it's the ease and pervasiveness of this stuff that's fascinating. Judi's teaching a coures on operant conditioning, so instead of a hand out and pile of notes she's creating a web page with links to relevant YouTube videos and relevant online papers and articles. No reading block, all virtual ...

Saturday 23 May 2009

blogs and long term archiving

This blog, like a lot of other blogs (I was going to say of note, but that's a little presumptuous) is hosted for free.

Free hosting of course means there is no obligation on the provider to keep hosting as in the case of yahoo and geocities.

Well I used to have a blog on journalspace. I don't any more - it's gone, and JournalSpace looks now to be a wordpress based hosting site using wordpress-mu just as we do.

Whether it's gone bust, been taken over in GFC I don't know.

Anyway it's gone, along with two years or so of my posts and notes. (Which to be fair I referred to rarely, which is why I didn't notice its demise).

Fortunately I do have backups of most of the content so I'm not stuffed. But is does beg the question with so much discourse, scholarly or not, making use of hosted services, what happens when a service dies?

middle earth - not just for hobbits

Apparently Channel 4 in the UK has been showing a dramatisation of the events of 1066, called 1066 the battle for middle earth which seems to have had mixed reviews and excited some medievalists.

Well, like Sam Wollaston in the Guardian, I had previously associated the phrase 'middle earth' with hobbits, tolkein, drippy hippy crap, and a seriously bad marketing idea by New Zealand. But being of a curious nature I type the phrase 'middle earth' into wikipedia. Doing this brought up a hobbit related entry but also a link to midgard of Norse mythology, which could be translated as middle garth where garth can be translated as meaning enclosure. So the middle enclosure was the area where mortal humans lived. Doubtless this view was one that converted well into Christianity, hell below, heaven above, humanity in the middle. And building this idea out is quite simply fascinating etymylogically speaking. Why? For a start it tells us about their world and how they thought about things.

Garth is also the root word for yard, for earth, and for garden, as for example in the Scots term kail yard for vegetable garden, or more literally a yard or enclosure in which you grow kail or cabbage (kale). Just as in anglo saxon a vegetable patch was sometimes called a leac tun, a fenced off area where you grew leeks. Tun is of course the word that gave us town, the anglo saxons needing to have a word to describe the ruined walled towns of Roman Britain, just as you see the use of gard in Micklegard (Great or Large City) the viking name for Byzantium which was sequestered behind its impregnable walls.

(Kale was of course the sole green vegetable eaten in quantity in rural Scotland, David Kerr Cameron in his books on rural life in nineteen century scotland records how the hired farm workers were fed on oats, potatoes and cabbage mostly. (Shades of Dr Johnson). Kail yard was of course also a term for a school of Scottish writing idolizing peasant life and also used to refer to a lot of the vernanacular north eastern Scots prose of the time.)

Anyway, back to the point. The middle earth of the title might be more properly translated as middle domain, and I suppose that's really what 1066 was, the change from when England was a domain of peasants, priests and saxon lordlings and somehow more disconnected from the changes on mainland europe, to somewhere that was much more in the mainstream of european history, and as a place apart could be thought of as a separate enclosure.

Perhaps the title shows some unexpected subtlety on the part of the programme's script writers?

(*) Of course being in Oz we'll probably see it on SBS at some totally obscure time in about two years from now

Friday 22 May 2009

Pushing listservs out to a blog

Yesterday I ruminated about monitoring a listserv feed via a blog aggregator.

After an extensive (well 24h) test it seems to be working well giving me what I want - an easy way of scanning the topics. And because it's a blog, you can of course go and read the whole post if it piques your interest.

The only thing I might do differently is feed each listserv monitored into a separate blog, but given this is for my own use rather than a production service I'll leave it as it is.

The nice thing about this experiment is that it also shows a way we could potentially get service status announcements - which we normally send out via a list server to key members of our user community fed out into a blog on our blog service for people to monitor, and of course subscribe to the rss feed ...

Update 27 May

Only problem when people get chatty it overflows the maximum number of allowable posts. However the technique definitely works for less chatty lists.

Given that I'm only reading my feeds twice a day doing a set digest command to batch up the mailings to a short number of messages is quick fix. Question is, is this more efficient than simply getting the digest mailed to you ...

Update 28 May

Well digestifying solves one problem, but you lose the snappy summary of the contents, in just teh same way that the Guardian's full text feeds force you to scroll through each article to see the feed contents ....

Update 30 May

Well I think my experiment shows that it was a worthwhile exercise as an additional way of getting small infrequently updated material out there but less so for high volume mailing lists.

The blog has been marked as spam due to its repetitive nature. I was going to leave it running in case someone found it useful, but it's being a pain administratively so I'll be deleting it in the next few days ...

Forts, Picts, and American Indians

This is possibly a ludicrous idea, but hopefully not quite as ludicrous as the title suggests.

We know the Romans built forts in Scotland in an attempt to stop the people we know as Picts coming down and raiding the the would be settlements in the south. Tacitus's Agricola suggests that the Picts were not charmed by this but other than that we know very little about the impacts on their society etc.

However, what we do know is that in the nineteenth century the United States started colonising the Prairies, the native inhabitants were less than pleased. Like the Romans, the United States built forts to protect settlements, and that this had an impact on the social organisation and possibly the material culture of the native American tribes.

Unlike the Picts we have credible accounts of what the native Americans thought about the changes, so we could use them as an imperfect analogy, and thus if we see that native Americans started to form larger groupings we could then go and see from the archaeological record if the picts appeared to react in the same way.

Certainly, it looks as if, like the Lakota, the Picts reacted by forming larger federations and groupings ...

Thursday 21 May 2009

RSS, Listservs and even usenet news ...

Mailing list servers are something I've spent a fair amount of time with in a past life, even managed a number of JiscMail mailing lists when I was in the UK.

Mailing lists, like usenet news, are a bit of an eighties technology and have to an extent been replaced by multi authored blogs and wikis, but they're still valuable, and there are a number of lists out there I still follow.

However, if you use gmail as a mail service there's two problems with mailing lists.

  • While it's trivially simple to apply a label, because gmail doesn't do folders (shades of sharepoint) you can't filter off emails you might want to read later to a separate folder.
  • Gmail threads discussions for you based on subject. Generally this is a good thing, but if you have a thread with 15 or so entries it can be tedious to work through.
Now, I only lurk on some of the mailing lists I follow. Most of the posts are not of great interest, but every so often there's a gem. I reply very rarely to posts. So I had the idea of forwarding the messages from the mailing lists to a private rss feed (nothing clever, no threading or anything) much as I use twitter to generate the 'interesting links' feed. The idea being that I could then skim the first couple of lines of each message, much as I do with blog posts in my rss aggregator, and then decide if I want to read further. (Just call me superficial)And being a parasite I thought, someone must have done this and have a publicly accessible service.

Nope. Well not one that works. Various sites such as torss and xfruits claim to do this but it doesn't seem to work for me. And of course being a highly skilled professional it can't be me, although it could possibly be the mail account I was using as the feed source was blocking access.

Anyway it didn't work for me.

The alternative is to simulate this by forwarding the message into some blogging service that allows posting by email, rather than directly generating the rss feed from the email input, which is what I'm trying at the moment using blogger and what used to be mail2blogger to see how well it works

And everything I've said for listservs goes for usenet news - there are still a few groups out there that I follow.

We'll see ...

Monday 18 May 2009

wierd wheels

what with google using tricycles to map inaccessible locations I couldn't resist this snap of a singularly wierd machine:

and yes, someone has been seen riding it, it's not just some art as bicycle ...

Tuesday 12 May 2009

digital book piracy

Interesting article from the NYT on how scanned copies of books appear on services such as scribd for download, the theme being that the scanned books are then available for download and onscreen reading.

Given the advances in off the shelf scanner and ocr technology it's almost surprising it hasn't happened already. How long before some company sets up with print on demand capability and starts offering pirated printed versions mail order ?

Given the relatively low cost of surface mail it's not impossible, especially where comparitively expensive items such as textbooks and specialist texts are concerned. After all we already see 'leakage' of the lower cost Indian versions of some O'Reilly books via the second hand trade ...

sharepoint, workspaces and abstraction

Yesterday I went to a vendor presentation on sharepoint, which was more illuminating than I thought it would be, as I finally got what sharepoint was about.

Rather than simply providing a project documentation sharing tool it actually allows the building of tailored solutions to group together documents and data sources in a meaningful form.

Now you can do that with other products, and in fact we can get about 80-85% of this functionality using Sakai for project administration.

The thing about sharepoint is that it looks slicker, because of its integration into the microsoft software ecology, like the way it can pull data out of docx documents as metadata.

Looks good, and if you're already doing microsoft why wouldn't you. (I still doubt how it would play in a multiplatform environment)

The other nice thing is the workspace concept. You can get a taste of this with the Office live workspace service. Put your documents relating to a project together, build a little group, and off you go, co-operative working. The nice thing about the workspace concept is that no one needs to know where the data's located - you are abstracted from physical location and unc names, and work in a virtualised environment.

And this is an important metaphor - as computing moves off to the clouds the driver is the need for collaboration and the need to make collaboration simple. Hence no 63 character path names, instead group material together in a thematic way, so we all know where the documents relating to byzantine pottery distributions is located.

Equally it could be tremendously powerful for organising individual research. Collect the supporting documents, the research notes, the notes of meetings together and the drafts of papers. Or a major overseas trip, or ...

Need a projectette to experiment with it for real ....

Thursday 7 May 2009

Lovin' the Eee ...

A few days ago I bought an Eee PC as a travel computer for when we go overseas mid year. I'd not really used it until today when I'm stuck at home with a horrible drippy cold. Too sick to be at work and not sick enough not to be bored. And when I'm like that my mind wanders.

This time to the parallels between Scottish and Irish history in the medieval period, something sparked by this week's Time Team dig at Dungannon on the ABC.

And as I frequently do, I felt the urge to write myself an essay as a note in progress and post it too this blog. Seemed like an excellent idea to use the Eee, especially as the cat had installed himself in the study and I hadn't the heart to move him.

Into the lounge room. CTRL-ALT-T to open a terminal window and kwrite & to fork off kwrite which has been my favourite text editor for years, well at least 2006.

And I typed. And it worked. The small keyboard was perfectly usable for my somewhere between twofingers and touchtyping style, the trackpad was no worse than any other though I used a little travel mouse in preference (that just plugged in and worked as well). Create a directory, save the file. Just worked. Off to wikipedia to check something - again just worked, off to google docs to import the file, post to blog (the screen size was a slight problem, but I got there), off to the site to check the post seamless.

As a research and writing tool fantatstic. Small effective and powerful. Ideal as a note taker and a web terminal.

My only gripe would be battery life. Ok but not quite ok enough. Using I dropped from 90% to 30% in about ninety minutes. Not disatrous but could be better.

And I didn't mind the ooky goo either, after all it's a means of launching applications and as in the iphone it should be treated as such. The eee is a web and writing engine, not a full blown computer. It does however beg the question of how much power we really need as shown by my various adventures in low cost computing ...

Scotland and Ireland, and the mystery of parallels

One of the questions that I think about at three in the morning when I can't sleep, are the parallels between the history of Scotland and the history of Ireland and whether these parallels are obscured by the fact that history is taught as Scots history, Irish history and so on, with divisions that reflect contemporary political realities, rather than the realities the participants saw.

When I first started thinking about this it was more along the lines of why did the easter rising, which was the result of a few agitators with little support result in the formation of the Irish state, but the events of January 1919, which more closely resembled a revolution in the making did not result in the Worker's Republic being more than a drunken fantasy of left wing dreamers.

And James Connolly knew John MacLean. While not in cahoots, while they were separate events, there was a whole gamut of crosscurrents relating the two events.

Presented with the anonymized evidence on paper, you would call it the other way. Saying that the British mishandled one and not the other is too glib. Saying the British were lucky is possibly acceptable in the case of 1919, and stupid in the case of 1916 might be closer to the mark.

Latterly, I see this as a need for a parallel reading of the two histories, concentrating on the resemblances rather than the differences starting from some time aroud 700, shortly after Nechtansmere, which effectively disposes of any role for the anglosaxons as an expansionist society and before the appearance of the vikings.

Sometime around 700 you would have seen a patchwork of celtic chiefdoms across ireland and spreading into the west of scotland as dalriada, bordered to the north and east by pictish communities that probably did not look that different from those of dalriada, and british speaking communities to the south,with a small anglosaxon community in the south east of scotland. And then the Vikings arrive. Clontarf, the establishment of dublin, the lordship of the isles, the coalesecence of the scottish state. So by about 1000 you would still have seen a patchwork of chiefdoms across scotland and ireland, but in scotland, as a result of the viking incursions there was a single ruler, while in Ireland the Vikings had effectively destroyed the political role of the high king as a mediator.

Early medieval society in ireland was thus unable to offer a coherent response to Norman adventurers. As in wales they occupied the prime agricultural land and as in wales they reatined (nominal) fealty to the king of england. Even though by the 1400's the FitzHerberts were as Irish as the Irish, they still maintained this loyalty to England.

As in wales this pushed the native communities to the more marginal territories.

Scotland was different. The Anglicised early medieval state invited Norman lords, created burghs, traded with the low countries and the baltic. Even though it really only cosisted of the central belt and the eastern coastal strip scotland colonised itself to create a functioning medieval society. Outside of this pale it was a late Hiberno Norse society with little difference between the lords of the isles and the O'Niels of Ulster say. Certainly they would have under understood each other and had a similar dislike of the more urban societies around them.

And this I think is crucial. The Medieval Scottish State was a state with laws and courts and a functioning and developing civil society, and played a part in the powergames of medieaval europe.

In Ireland no such state developed. The Norman lords expanded piecmeal by a game of divide and conquer, and then shrank back to the Pale after the Black death. And while the English king wished to make the lords pay fealty to him in reality rather than name, and might have provoked a unified opposition, the collapse of anglo norman expansion, meant it was never much more than a frightened colony behind its ditch dreading an irruption of the wild irish.

In Scotland geography meant that until in the late 1400's the anglicised state developed a decent navy, the celtic chiefdoms remained out of control. In fact it was not until after 1745 that there was sustained control of these areas. In Ireland, it was possible for the English to re-expand acoss the midland plain pushing the chiefdoms to the margins.

The end of celtic ireland was much as the end of celtic scotland. In Ireland they blame the English. In Scotland there is a dim realisation that if Scottish state had been able to muster sufficient force it too would have bloodily suppressed the celtic chiefdoms, something which was so very evident after the '45, and was later hidden under a veil of tartanry and romantic nationalism. The same indifference to their celtic co-islanders was true of the eighteenth century anglo-irish establishment. And of course Wolf Tone was one of them.

So what does this parallel reading show us?

It shows that both histories are the history of the collapse of one form of society in opposition to the developing late medieval and early modern societies of europe. It shows similar reactions to the process but with different outcomes. Laos and Thailand if you will. There are differences, but rather than viewing them as the history of ireland and the history of scotland, viewing them as a history of the celtic peoples and their reaction to the developemnt of the medieval society in the islands of Britain. Viewed this way the history of Wales also forms part of a coherent whole. The history of the wars between england and scotland can also be seen as the failure to establish a single medieval state and as such can be seen to parallel similar processes in France.

And 1919 versus 1916? I don't know. History is the story of chance and mischance. perhaps Ireland simply had better poets and worse garrison commanders ..