Thursday 29 April 2010

literacy, accountancy and the poets

Building on my previous post, it could be argued that that the recent statistical analyses of Pictish Symbol Stones, shows that literacy comes from the need to record events, and that by implication proto literacy precedes complex list making.

It doesn't. It shows that a society developed a controlled vocabulary of symbols that conveyed certain meanings, just like the signs for the exit, trains and buses at airports. Yes, they contain meaning, but unless you know the conventions they are meaningless and contextless. Roadsigns are another example of a set of universally understood conventional symbols.

List making literacy happened when someone had the bright idea of combining tally counts with these symbols so that instead of knowing there were 'cattle' in fact there were 8 cows, and then from this one can add modifiers so we have '7 female dun cows', '1 male black cow' etc.

And literacy really happens when one person can read the list and know what it refers to without having to know other contextual information.

Of course somewhere in the middle it's a halfway house, like my previous flashcard analogy, but literacy happens when we can say more than 'men fought here, cattle were taken', ie when we can say how many people fought, who died and how many cattle were taken.

Literacy adds detail and detail enables the development of narrative ...

literacy as the child of accountants

I've been rereading Michael Wood's 'In search of the Trojan War' as a back grounder for planning a visit to the Mani later this year, and sad anorak that I am I was going to sneak some visits to Mycenean and Byzantine sites into the holiday plans. (Vigorous walks and scrambles to some of the smaller sites)

However, rereading the book, what I was struck by was the idea that literacy developed as a result of the need to count and record things, and that if you do that you can plan - so in essence we have complex societies which we can distinguish by their need and ability to plan - which in turns requires information, how much land, how much grain, how much does a soldier eat etc.

Even these great literacy standouts, the Inca used khipiu to count things in complex ways.

So we can say that literacy developed as a way of making and recording lists of things, as a set of aide memoires, and we can then probably guess that full literacy started as something like a set of flash cards to aid the remembrance of oral poetry for the purposes of recitation.

What of course would be even more fascinating if we did find one of these flash cards, though how we could tell from a list might be a tricky question:

For example is

10 warriors
20 slave girls
1 ship
5 dead
5 swords lost

an account, a situation report on a battle lost, or a performer's flash card?

Tuesday 27 April 2010

death of the floppy (again)

Sony's announcement that they are to stop selling floppy disks is one more nail in the coffin of the once ubiquitous 3.5" floppy. (The 5.25" and 8" are long gone). Now to most people it's not a disaster - computers havn't incorporated floppy drives for years, and if you really need them other manufacturers still make them, though for how long is anybody's guess.

However this is interesting from a digital preservation point of view as the 3.5" floppy was the de facto backup and temporary storage medium at the start of the born digital/read it on the screen/email it era, meaning that a lot of people's drafts from the late 1990's are sitting in boxes of floppies on the top shelf of their bookcases.

Now, older computers with floppy drives can still be found. They're all about five years old but probably have a version of XP or Ubuntu on them and can read all these floppies (unless you have any of these really old variable speed format Apricot or Apple ones).

Find one and copy the contents of all these floppies onto a hard disk and burn the contents to CD. If the machine can't burn CD's zip up the files and transfer it to a machine that can. Do this now. Because even if you're a penurious researcher who still uses a really old laptop and backs up their work to floppy you need to consider three key points
  1. your floppy drive is going to break sooner rather than later
  2. your drive may be slightly worn such that it can only read (and write floppies) produced on your machine
  3. you need a different backup solution - floppies will soon be gone, probably by late 2012
Now like typewriter ribbons and old Orwo black and white film you'll probably be able to find the odd box on ebay, but really it's time to change if you want to keep your work.

(you might notice that I'm not mentioning document format - Open Office and AbiWord can, in combination, handle just about anything that you might have used in the last 10 years or so)

Sunday 25 April 2010

the greek dreamtime

been reading and thinking about Homer’s Iliad, and I have this idea that I can’t get rid of that of course it is a story from the Greek dreamtime, from the pre literate time when all was remembered was stories and legends, in much the same way that in Australian aboriginal cultures we have the dreamtime legends.

Homer is not unique, but perhaps the best attested because we know that the places he described existed, in part because they were never really completely lost – just misplaced.

There are other stories for example the Tain, the stories from the migration period of German history, or indeed some of the early anglo saxon accounts of the settlement of Britain.

So we know that pre literate societies can construct a body of story and myth that contain a history of events and places that we believe to have occurred and have existed.

Now of course when we come to Australian aborigines, it’s mysteriously different. There are people who deny for political reasons that the original inhabitants did much more than wander about, eat snails and grubs, and recount the days doings, eventually turning them into legends to form some sort of social glue. But strangely it’s not history.

And that’s really all the Iliad is – a story that recounts the history of a fight between the rulers of two  towns, villages really more like a hill fort than a classical city, over a woman. It could be the Tain. And doubtless other societies have similar stories, I’m sure some of societies in PNG have similar stories of fights between villages.

And of course it’s also the story of Ten Canoes.

One of course is classical and one is told by people who did not walk about wearing bedsheets. But actually both sets of stories are equally likely to contain a memory of significant events and really belong in the context of what stories from per literate societies can tell us of events past – just because they’ve been retold and celebrated by our culture for three millenia doesn’t make them any more special than that of other cultures.

After all folk tales and legends are storytelling and even now, in much of the world informal history  is spread by story telling – be it Berber peasants on the edge of the Sahara watching soap operas from Dubai or kids in Honksville, Idaho watching Xena re-runs – and we should recognise that these are all equally important, as it is the informal history that colours most people’s opinions, not the scholarly analyses of professional historians –ask any politician …

Thursday 22 April 2010

Single logout solutions

We're all really comfortable with single sign on (SSO) solutions and the fact that they are essentially same sign on with credential caching, ie once the user has logged into one application the credentials used are replayed to other applications. This is essentially how portal solutions work - log in to the portal and then behind the scenes log into mail, documents etc. iGoogle with it's gadgets is quite a nice example.

But what about logout?

If you have a web desktop (aka portal) it's a reasonable assumption that you want to log into everything at once. It's not the case that you wish to logout of everything at once. You might for example want to logout of the blog application but keep your mail open.

The only reasonable solution is to modify the logout behaviours of each application and give users a screen with a choice of :

  • logout of
  • I'm done - log me out of everything
However in a global wide area network where some applications are local and others may be elsewhere and authenticated differently this may be a trifle more difficult to implement.

However, the good news is that Feide have also looked at the problem and both come up with a near identical solution and also carried out usability tests - the good news is that users seem to cope with this rather well, including the idea of a list of applications and their login status, which is, I think, quite a neat idea ...

Tuesday 20 April 2010


Last weekend we had an excellent weekend out of town.

We drove up to Coonabarabran, stayed in a wonderful, and ever so slightly impractical cottage built of mudbrick and corrugated iron, went bush walking, and looked at the stars.S6300464 As with everything it depends what you want out of life – what this place gave us was a few days without television or internet – and space to relax, to listen to Classic FM and generally unwind.

Getting there

We drove up through Cowra, Cooniwindra, a slightly tatty and run down town with some wonderful art deco shopfronts, Dubbo and Gilgandra.

Our cottage was on a property outside of Coonabarabran and is best described as a fantasy cubby house for adults – if you like rugs, woodburning stoves, and a relaxing stress free ambience. Somehow listening to the news on Classic FM of the flight disruption caused by the volcano in Europe was interesting but remote – definitely news of far away events. And later on that evening listening to a concert of early music from Utrecht while sitting by the stove seemed just right.

What we did

Bushwalking – Gould’s circuit in the Warrumbngle national park one day and the rather easier Burbie canyon the nextS6300446 otherwise we talked, relaxed, drank wine, cooked some meat on the barbecue one night, and marvelled at the clear cold night sky, including the milky way, as visible and as clear as it would have been to the ancients (Coonabarabran styles itself the astronomy capital of Australia, in part due to its proximity to Siding Springs. Round about where we stayed it seemed like every second or third property had a little observatory dome in the paddock – almost as if every astronomy nut in the country had retired there)

Driving back

As a point of principle we always try and come back a different way to the we went.  This time we went via Gulargambone, Dubbo, Parkes and Forbes.

Getting to Gulargambone was fun, through the park on a sealed road and then onto dirt. At one point we came to a deep creek gully where the bridge had been washed out.

Someone had bulldozed a temporary ramp down one side of the gully to the more ore less dry creek bed and up the other, and while the signed warned it was for four wheel drives only our trusty Subaru managed it without difficulty.

The turn off, still on dirt was obvious:S6300473

Gulargambone is the place of the Galahs and has taken to putting up iron birds as a sort of mascot and an expression of local pride. The town is held up to be a model of regeneration for the small drought damaged towns of the central west. We only knew about from an article in the Canberra Times magazine a couple of weeks before about Gulargambone and the Cafe 2828 as a symbol of regeneration.

By the time we got to the town itself, after dodging several fairly impressive looking lizards on the road we were ready for a decent coffee and hunk of cake. Cafe 2828 certainly lived up to its reputation and it was pleasantly warm – 25C as opposed to Canberra’s grudging 19 or 20 at this time of year.

The rest of the drive back was not really interesting. Peak Hill, an old gold mining town near Parkes, has some old 19th century shop fronts that would merit photographing sometime, but Parkes didn’t fascinate (admittedly the road skirts the old centre of the town) and while Forbes had a nice looking old court house, nothing else looked remarkable.

So four days, 1200 kilometres, and an escape from the world for a few days. Definitely worth doing.

Monday 19 April 2010


Originally uploaded by moncur_d.

This little chap was playing about in broad daylight, totally unconcerned about people walking past, happily fossicking for acorns.

Of course, as soon as he saw me he scarpered up the tree ...

Wednesday 14 April 2010

have it your way

happened across - a service that formats a twitter feed as a newspaper - for an example have a look at my feed reformatted.

This is interesting - set up a feed - follow some sources you're interested in, and then present them nicely in a way that would look nice on some sort of device. (A fruit themed tablet device perhaps?)

The reason why this is interesting is that it gives easy access to content - so let us say that some content provider puts its content out as a set of feeds (state, national, world, politics, finance) you could then subscribe to these and get a tailored digest every morning.

It also then allows you to look at content in a more natural way to follow up on those things that pique your interest ..

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Long term archiving of digital newspapers ...

As newspapers increasingly transit to becoming online news sources what then happens about their archiving as a historical record - especially as in the transition process there will inevitably be news publishers that fail, with the consequent risk of loss of content.

Newspapers provide a more interesting set of questions for any escrow service than academic journals as they are usually more content rich with images, embedded audio and video - take a look at the Guardian or the SMH if you don't believe me, and also reused and refactored content, for example the Guardian might have both a web version of the story an the text available in a G24 compilation for download and offline reading (the pre-iPad news digest if you will).

They are also documents whose structure implies things - simply archiving the individual items doesn't necessarily capture the whole story - the relationship between items can also form part of the story.

And of course it's not just newspapers - as academic discourse increasingly encompasses richer media, its something that will need to be addressed - for example INRAP's use of online video for archaeological site reports ...

Monday 12 April 2010

una esclava en venta

Another damned orientalist painting!

But this one is different from the rest. Una esclava en venta by Jose Jiminez y Aranda depicts a slave girl up for sale. Yes, it's a picture of a naked girl, but this one is compassionate showing her dejected and resigned to her fate rather than as something simply using the metaphor of a slave market in antiquity as an excuse to produce art for the titilation of men.

What I also like is the fact that the model is not overtly cleaned up, but is clearly a depiction of areal person, right down to her slightly podgy stomach.

Una esclava en venta can be seen in the Malaga Art Gallery, Spain

Sunday 11 April 2010

Tomato day

Winter is coming to Canberra. The non native deciduous trees are turning yellow, the nights are getting colder, with frost an increasing likelihood and an increasing chance of snow flurries in the mountains.

In the veggie patch the zucchini are almost all done, the last of the peppers and chillis are picked as are the last of the tomatoes (not quite, we probably have about a kilo of green ones left – whether they ripen before the frost or field mice get them is anyone’s guess) and only the pumpkins seem unaffected by the seasonal change.

So what do you do with a bucket of tomatoes?

Like generations of Italian and Greek migrants, decide that today is tomato day where all the ripe tomatoes not wanted immediately for salad, or the tomatoes with scabby bits, can go to make home made passata. Normally in large extended Italian families Tomato day is an event where the whole extended family pools resources and people drink, chat and make passata. (And doubtless traditionally the women did the work and the men harvested the tomatoes and other vegetables).

Well there’s just two of us, so it was all together a more modest affair, but fun.

Get out the largest pan we have, the one that’s only ever used for boiling fruit and making passata. Load in the tomatoes, cover with boiling water to blanch and leave until the skins split and peel. Pour off the boiling water, quench in cold water and then go through the messy business of peeling the tomato skins, and cutting out any thick chewy green cores, or anything else untoward.

Take a brown onion, slice as thin as possible and cook in some olive oil in the bottom of a big pan. Pour in the peeled tomatoes, add a good pile of parsley (it was going to be basil but we forgot to buy any at the market, but we have more parsley than you can shake a stick at in the veggie patch), and crush in six or seven cloves of garlic, and add sea salt and black pepper to taste. A little water and leave to cook gently on the gas for an hour or so.

You could at this stage put it through the blender, but we prefer a rougher texture so we mashed the half stewed tomatoes with a potato masher. At this point it was a little too runny so we thickened it with a small can of good quality organic tomato paste and then back on the gas to cook down until it was consistency of pasta sauce.

Ladle into some recycled jam jars, and hey presto! – our own fresh organic tomato sauce for pasta later on in the year. And what’s more it tastes damned good !

Friday 9 April 2010

knowing who you are ...

Scaling out from my tumblr post on providing long term access to an email redirection service for students, knowing who someone is over time is an interesting problem.

And it's not the email forwarding solution that's the problem - essentially if what you do is create a rule on your incoming mail gateway that says

if recipent == ''
add_reply_to (
rewrite_to (%actual_address)
forward_to (%actual_address)

all fairly straightforward and it can run forever - computers are good at that sort of thing. Obviously there's things like scaling and processing time, but basically if you can process these rules for 30,000 accounts you can easily scale up to three times that amount.

And of course you can play tricks like rewriting the reply to address to be if you want to make it clear that the person isn't really anything to do with anymore.

There is of course the 'Dan Smith' problem - you probably want to ensure that the able young researcher is and the miserable old bugger with a degree in landscape design is There are a range of ways to solve that problem but the easiest is probably making alumni and giving duplicates the possibility of changing their name to be

After all no one really wants to have a clunky looking email address - which is why alumni never much bother with their student email address when it looks like once they've told all their facebook friends and they're new address is - a decision they may later regret, but hey, that's life.

No, the problem comes with when they tire of funky_dan and want to change the redirect to something more professional - how do we allow someone to prove who they are?

My initial suggestion is to make them get an OpenID or tie it to a yahoo or google account. That's probably an ok solution for email forwarding - if there's a compromise probably the worst that will happen is that some embarassing emails from a former girlfriend end up in the mailbox of some poor guy in Patagonia. No worse than what happens when you get a new, but actually recycled, phone number.

However, if we also say that students can access their transcripts - something that's important for proving their qualifications - online we have a different problem - we have a serious long term identity management problem, especially when someone has stopped using the system for a number of years, changed address and name twice, and now wants to apply for a job, needs a transcript and has forgotten their student number - the problem of persistence of online identity - oh yes and in an international university you can't appeal to things like id card numbers or drivers licenses - they change as well ...

The probable actual solution is to have a password/identity management system that allows multiple entry points, ed student number, or if you've forgotten that, either a previously nominated OpenID, or the email address that you previously nominated to have your email forwarded to - this at least identifies you as a person known to the system.

However, given that you might not actually still be using that email address, what we do in the latter two cases is drop you into a classic challenge/response magic questions scenario where you have to answer three out of the five that you answered when you registered for alumni services when graduating, or even better when you first got your student computing account.

As the answers for these questions need to be long lived they need to be gender and culturally neutral and things already unlikely to change by the time you're eighteen.

Examples include:

What is the name of the first school you went to?
What was your mother's first name?

Bad examples include 'what street did you live on when you were eight' - some places don't have street names, eg small towns in 1960's Sarawak, 'what is your mother's maiden name' - some cultures have different rules about what happens to a woman's name when she marries.

Answer three out of the five correctly, and we'll confirm your student id number. Answer a different three out of the five correctly, we'll let you change your password, and then you can change your email forwarding address, download your transcript, update your alumnus record with new name and or address or whatever, and we can be reasonably assured that you are who you say you are.

The important thing is to realize this is very much an 80% solution - there will be people who somehow escaped registration for alumnus services, people who answered 'Pope Celestine XII' to all the questions, and who twenty years on can't remember what they did, and people who just do wierd things - offering a 1900 paid for support line should however keep the support load to a minimum.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Digital preservation and the gfc

As content increasingly moves online we face a problem - what happens when the content owner ceases to exist (or ceases to maintain content)?

In the old days it was simple - content was mostly marks on paper collected together in things called journals and books and we stored the content on shelves in buildings called libraries, and they could stay there for a very long time without much maintenance at all.

Of course, content has now gone digital and the content resides on the servers of the content providers. And these servers need patching, upgrading, and the content needs to be periodially migrated to new hardware - all of which costs money, and unlike dead tree material with high production and distribution costs, instead has ongoing substantial service continuity costs.

Obviously there is a risk that if the content providers go out of business the content disappears as no one is going to maintain the servers and pay the power bill. Initiatives such as CLOCKSS provide an escrow service for the content - the assumption being that universities will pay to provide an escrow service.

Now they probably will, out of self interest if nothing else. But of course not all journals are covered, nor is all the scholarly output of a university stored on corporate servers - some of it is on flickr, youTube and the rest - creating preservation headaches, and some of it resides on random servers under people's desks.

So, let us assume for the moment that a university has managed to capture its scholarly output and has managed to put it all on a server or servers. It then has to pay to maintain these servers, and maintain the content.

And one thing that the global financial crisis has certainly demonstrated is that universities are not immune from outside funding pressures. So what happens in a few year's time when the content is no longer required for reporting on the success or otherwise of research funding, or when Dr X has left to go elsewhere, and Dr Y has retired, and even worse when a department has closed and the staff dispersed to the four winds? There will be a natural tendency to ask why should we keep all this old stuff spinning, and then start to cull material.

Some of it may be valuable, some of it may not be. However, no one can go through Dr Y's notes ten years on to check on a possible anomaly in his data once it's deleted, and it will be too late to start pointing fingers - once it's gone it's gone.

So, before we start saying we will start keeping content we need an explicit statement of what content will be kept and how long, and more importantly we also need to say what happens when data is expired. Do we delete it, do we burn it to dvd and post it to the owner, do we offer it to other institutions - after all one might imagine that if Dr Y worked on slavonic philology say, somewhere else that still maintained an interest in that field might want to host the body of his work.

It is, as they say a problem ...

Monday 5 April 2010


Now I admit that I’m currently on an orientalism kick at the moment – actually I’ll go further admit I’ve always liked these sorts of paintings, and in the days of Athena posters would have covered the walls of my bedsit with copies of them.

Recently I happened across a picture I didn’t know – Hypatia by Charles William Mitchell. And it’s certainly a powerful image – wild, naked, wanton, speaking of sex and exoticism. (The real Hypatia of course would not have looked like this, certainly would certainly never have run naked through the Library of Alexandria. Raphael’s much more conservative view was probably much closer to reality.)

However the thing which struck me most about Mitchell’s Hypatia was the way it pushed the buttons in the same way as a recent Isis cover, again with its suggestion of uninhibited Oxbridge parties with wit, intellect and more than a little nude frolicking. Oxbridge of course having a reputation for such things as it historically provided a bubble where the clever and the intelligent could be uninhibited together. Other universities, Hull, for example, even when Phillip Larkin was librarian, never convinced in the nude frolicking stakes.

However, the point about Mitchell’s painting is that it borrowed the clothes of a faux Antiquity to legitimise a painting of a naked, quite possibly wanton, woman and as such these paintings exercise a powerful hold on our imaginations of antiquity being full of such goings on before the christians slammed down the shutters. Eroticism made respectable by being clothed in a false antiquity.

Strangely enough you see the same use of false antiquity in some Victorian Christian churches as a result of the Anglo-Catholic movement making high church colour and robes legitimate again after the grey of previous decades. Especially so in Australia, where nothing was venerable, you get some fine examples on mock Byzantine decoration such as St Paul's in Melbourne. Of course Catholicism proper was not immune from the bug - just look at Westminster Cathedral in London.

Antiquity as a golden dream of gold spires, mosaics, and just a hint of eroticism and decadence.

It wasn't of course. Late Antiquity and the early Byzantine centuries may have been full of colour, drama and golden icons but the reality was rather more prosaic – political instability, inflation, the collapse of the old assumptions, in fact just like the revolutions in eastern europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union – moment of high drama certainly, but interspersed with long periods of grey grimness.

As such art is always more attractive than reality …

Sunday 4 April 2010

Brayshaw's hut

interior, brayshaw's hut
Originally uploaded by moncur_d.

As well asbeing Easter Sunday today is the first day of daylight saving in Canberra, and suddenly it's autumn with all the non native trees turning yellow, red and gold, the heating is starting to come on in the mornings and the evenings.

Autumn is one of the nicest times of the year in Canberra, lazy and golden, after the heat of summer and before the cold of winter.

Neither of us felt much like working or gardening so we drove out to Brayshaw's hut, an 1890's preserved graziers hut on the southren edge of Namadgi National Park, and looking much as it did when new. Traditional, slabsided, two rooms,with a fireplace at one end it gives an indication about what life must have been like.

The slabs are sections of tree trunk set vertically. The caulking between the slabs has long since gone, hence the 'see-through' effect. In places there are fragments of newspaper still stuck to the interior walls - in the old days they used to paper the walls with newspaper to give a final finish. Sometimes they painted over the surface - sometimes not.

(There are some slighly newer huts at Ororal valley which have a better set of newspaper remnants)

Brayshaw's hut was inhabited until 1931 until, old Mr Brayshaw fell off his horse on the way home from what was eupemistically described as a 'good lunch' with his brother who had a neighbouring property.