Monday, 31 December 2018

Doing family history online ...

As I've written both on this blog and my other website, I've been spending time on family history tracking down some unanswered questions I had about my antecedents.

Before I started on this quest, my images of amateur genealogists was that of people wearing tatty grey cardigans sitting hunched over an old computer surrounded by piles of mouldering scribble covered printouts in some dim and dismal corner somewhere, and not at all like these slightly glamorous ones you see on tv shows like Who do you think you are?

I don't own a grey cardigan, and my computer may be overdue for replacement, but I've come to realise that it's actually quite an interesting little research hobby to keep the grey cells firing.

That is, if you do the legwork yourself.

There a quite a few sites out there that want to provide you with an end to end service and make it easy for you to trace your ancestors, and I guess, if they were scattered across the world and you really didn't know anything about them it might be a start.

These services are however very reliant on existing digital archives of birth, deaths and marriages, not to mention newspaper archives, plus archives of useful things such as military records.

The assumption also is that your ancestors hail from somewhere with a reasonable functioning public records system that goes back a reasonable time in the past. As I found while researching the story of Robert Burns Clow, this can sometimes mean only to early last century. Paper burns, or people make unwise decisions about retaining information.

So, broadly speaking, your ancestors need to come from the UK, Ireland, Australia, NZ or the US and if you are looking for ancestor from much before 1850 you've really got to hope that the parish registers have survived, and even then it is not always an easy guess where they might be. Despite living his whole life in Dundee, my grandfather's first marriage was registered in a rural district of Angus, presumably because that was where Catherine's (his first wife) parents lived.

Likewise, I discovered, that as well as his sister Annie, he had another sister, Lizzie, but she was a schoolteacher in Perth.

In other words, you have to know the geography of the area, and also have search skills, such when I tried to work out whether there had been a farm at Clocksbriggs, only to discover it had been a rural railway station that closed in 1955. Google maps and Streetview didn't help, but fining online digitised copies of nineteenth century maps did.

However, based on my limited experience of working with a single family, my mother's, all of whom hailed from a fairly circumscribed area of Scotland, you can do it yourself without resorting to the expensive paid for services.

Scotland's People, the Scottish Government's genealogy site, charges to download copies of register pages, but the cost is quite modest, a little under A$3 a document, and then you have the fun of deciphering nineteenth century handwriting - usually straightforward, but sometimes less so.

The National Library of Scotland doesn't charge for access to its digitised town and post office directories, nor does Historic Environment Scotland charge for use of its Canmore database of historic sites and images.

The British Newspaper Archive, run by the British Library, doesn't charge to search its indices, only to view an article. The cost of forty prepaid page views is again quite modest, around A$35. (If you are looking for entries in Welsh newspapers, remember that the national Library of Wales's Welsh papers online archive is free and comprehensive.)

Given that newspapers really didn't take off until the mid nineteenth century as a mass medium, the practice of putting hatched matched and dispatched notices in the local paper didn't really become common until after 1860, and even then only the aspiring members of the middle classes did it.

If you're family was simply hardworking people trying to get on, they probably won't feature in the local paper unless they were someone in the community such as a minister, a bank manager, or a member of the kirk session - that is unless they were arrested for public drunkeness, theft, violence,  or some other misdemeanor.

The only other reason they might feature is if they had an advertisement - one example I've come across is a music teacher advertising their services - all these Victorian children being taught to play the piano - the other is if they had a shop.

Otherwise no, not unless you come from what Jane Austen would have called quality and other people genteel folk.

So, you don't need to use one of those paid for heavily advertised services. In fact it may be cheaper not to, as well as being more fun.

Keeping track of everything is a problem.

About the only decent software package I've found is Gramps, and as I've said it's not the most intuitive, but its worth persevering with - I started from a position of loathing to move to one of grudging respect - it's powerful.

However you also need to use something such as Evernote to organise all your suppletmental material - as you would with any research project, plus some sort of notekeeping solution - Evernote will do both.

There are other solutions, J's cousin, who is an amateur genealogist and a former museum cataloguer still uses 6x4 record cards, for the absolutely killer reason they are easy to reorder if some new information changes the order they should be in. A wiki would also let you do this if you want to be high tech about it.

So, it's fun, easy to do online if you have ancestors that conveniently came from the right place. Like any hobby it's going to cost money, but it doesn't need to be so expensive if you work with the primary sources yourself ...

Friday, 28 December 2018

Digital family history

Over on my other blog I've been writing about what I've been doing over the holidays delving into my own family history.

Now, it's probably not terribly interesting to anyone other than myself and a few nephews and nieces. but one of the most important aspects of this work from a digital archiving point of view is that I've been able to do it using only online digital resources and do the work from my study on the other side of the world.

And this of course is because the National Record of Scotland (previously the National Archives) has done a tremendous amount of work in scanning and indexing the births deaths and marriage records, and in work done by both Historic Environment Scotland in digitising the online records of Scotland's archaeology and environment, and the National Library's digitising old maps, not to mention the work by regional archive services, and the sheer range of material available via Wikipedia - I'm saying via, because it's often the external links that add value, rather than the content itself.

I often used to dream of a world where resources were easily discoverable and linkable , and with the aid of tools such as Evernote and OneNote we seem to be getting close - at least as far as Scottish family history is concerned.

My only real frustration with the process is the Gramps genealogy tool - it's clearly very powerful but for whatever reason, I don't find it totally intuitive, but, for the moment it does the job.

Given the multithreaded nature of the material and connections probably starting a little private wiki with both context pages and links to the documents would be the next step - that way I would end up with shareable living revisable document ...

[update 29/12/2018]

Ever the experimenter, I took a look at one of these online ancestry sites, in this case MyHeritage, in comparison with Gramps, and certainly the interface was slicker, it had a nice consistency checker and it had a good set of prompts for building and populating the family tree details, plus rather a nice way of building a biography for each person in the tree.

Once you'd put in enough details it also scurried off and tried to find a match to the people you'd listed in other family trees - I know because it found a family tree that my brother had started and abandoned three or four years ago.

Nice features.

Also it would let you import data in GEDCOM format. but crucially not merge it into your existing tree, nor export your tree using GEDCOM.

Certainly, it was definitely slicker and easier to use, and the matching with data in other trees was quite good but I didn't like the way it locked you in, nor the way, despite being run on a freemium model, it continually touted signing up to a paid subscription, which admittedly it claimed gave you access to a whole range of online resources, which I'm sure it does - as I havn't signed up I can't comment on the breadth of resources signing up gives you access to.

I don't want to seem totally negative about them - they've done a lot of work on building histories of tribal peoples in PNG, and as an Israeli company, a lot of work constructing the family histories of holocaust survivors.

However, since I'm having fun learning how to do genealogical research from primary resources, I already  have access to most of the resources I need, and I prefer the pay for use model that Scotland's People have adopted, I've decided not to continue with them and will plough on working with Gramps.

What I will do, is that once I've done as much as I want with it is upload the material I've assembled to let other people reuse it as they wish

Saturday, 8 December 2018

An android wifi wierdness ...

I came across a really weird problem the other day.

My Alcatel pixi tablet that I bought in 2015 for note taking no longer sees our home network,

Other android devices  (mostly Samsung, but including the no name android tv decoder) see it just fine.

Over the past few months I've done two things

1) swapped the home router but kept the name and password the same
2) locked the 2.4GHz network to channel 13 to solve a problem with our Fetch box

otherwise nothing.

So I turned the router on and off. Still no connection.

I then reset the tablet back to the factory defaults. Still no joy. Strangely it doesn't even see the wireless repeater we have in the lounge room suggesting that it's some really odd driver problem.

It will however see the Huawei portable internet router, and works just fine.

Interesting J's old  (like 2012) Lenovo Ideapad doesn't see the home network either pointing to it being some wierd driver problem that affects some older versions of Android - maybe they just can't see channel 13...

[update 27/04/2019]

we've been having trouble again with our IP TV box and this time our ISP's support desk (aka) clown central, suggested resetting our router to the defaults.

Once I'd remembered how to get into it to change the network SSID and so on, everything came back to life including our internet tv channels. Just for fun I tried my old Alcatel Pixi 7, and guess what it worked as well.

Don't know if it's down to it not liking wifi channel 13 or some other screwiness, but it now works ...

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Travelling with the new 4G router

Well, we're back from a 10 day road trip to Bendigo, Halls Gap, Port Fairy, and Leongatha.

Apart from Hall's Gap, where our accommodation came with an individual Optus wireless NBN connection we've been dependent on our new Huawei unit for internet.

Now I didn't carry out any scientific tests but our usage involved a MacBook Air and a Samsung tablet simultaneously surfing the web, reading email, twitter stuff and some other stuff like Pinterest.

Unusually we didn't bother uploading any pictures this time so I can't comment on speed for that, but in practice performance was not markedly different from that over the complimentary wireless NBN connection in Halls Gap, or indeed markedly different from our 50GB FTTC connection at home.

Now if we'd streamed video or done something else bandwidth intensive it might have been a different story, but for general on the road use it was absolutely fine.

Occasionally if a web page was slow to load it would throw you into the unit's management page, but that was usually the downstream sites performance not the link itself - that was fast enough for most purposes.

And that's it - most purposes. Once the link is fast enough it's the performance of the downstream servers and your local host that governs your experience, not the link.

For example, I had to download a 30MB pdf document over the NBN service we had access to in Halls Gap. Prior to that I'd have called the service adaquate - which it was until I tried downloading and it was like going back to the early days of ADSL - and remember I was downloading. Uploading would have been worse.

I didn't have occasion to try a similar upload or download over the 4G link, but I suspect that performance might not have been stellar.

Battery performance was good - it lasted something similar to the advertised 11h. On standby the unit needed a kick to wake it up, but again that's perfectly understandable.

So, in conclusion, we have a good well performing unit that's fit for purpose ...

Saturday, 20 October 2018

The new 4G router

Well the new modem duly arrived - a Huawei device rebadged by Telstra, unlike my previous unlocked MF910V which was a rebadged ZTE unit.

Physically it's about the same size, but a bit heavier and bulkier, possibly due to a heavier battery being used to give it a longer life.

Fitting the SIM was a bit of a pain - it uses a mini sim and it needs to be slotted into a pretty stiff clip and locked into place, but then that's something you only have to do once.

One nice feature is that it can double as a pager and receive SMS messages - Telstra use this to send you messages about your data running low, or about planned service outages, but there's no reason why you can't use it as a pager substitute.

With my standard connectivity test - look at a UK university's home page - in this case the University of Huddersfield - performance was obviously slower than over our NBN connection but felt comaparable to the performance of our previous ADSL link.

The charger is a standard USB charger but one with the USB slot on the top, not the side meaning it doesn't take up two sockets space on a standard powerboard, which is a nice ergonomic touch.

All that remains to do now is to field test it - something that will have to wait a week or to. In the meantime there's the question as to what to do with my old unlocked device - whether to keep it as a spare or in case of overseas travel, or attempt to sell it ...

Thursday, 18 October 2018

4G routers and family data pools

A year ago I wrote about how we'd been able to get a cheap 4G data connection for our portable router by using Telstra's family data pool feature. Basically we have a 4G router for when we go travelling to let us use our laptops and tablets while we're away to avoid dealing with shitty hotel wifi, or indeed holiday cottages with no internet at all. By using the data pooling feature we could buy a minimal amount of data for the router's contract and use the excess unused data from our phone contracts instead.

Well, the bad news is that Big T doesn't do family data pool contracts any more, and as our initial special offer 12 month contracts were about to expire we had to change contracts - or else carry on as we were but pay silly money (the first one's free but come back to me...).

So we changed.

This of course left our 4G router on a minimal 1GB contract, so that needed a new contract as well.

Naively, I imagined we could just upgrade to a new bring your own device plan, but no you can't do that unless you're a business (or more accurately have a business registration number).

Now, I used to have one of these, as it was the only way I could get paid for some external work that I did, but I closed it down as there's an administrative overhead in keeping it live - basically you have to keep records, file business activity statements and do a business tax return.

None of it is really difficult, you can do most of it yourself, but it's a hassle. So, while I thought about reregistering for thirty seconds, I decided no.

So the bottom line is that Telstra no longer sell ordinary people sim only data plans. Optus and Vodafone still do but there's the problem of their poorer coverage outside of Metro areas. There's also the question of how much data you need.

We basically use it for email, twitter, and web. We don't stream video while we're away, but we do sometimes backup camera SD cards, so waving your hands you could say we use an average of a little under 1GB a day, and our average trip inside Australia is around 10days, or more accurately we have a maximum of 10 days usage - decent free wifi is becoming more common, even in bush cottages.

So basically 10GB a month should do us. Optus and Vodafone charge $30 a month for a 12 month sim only 10GB plan.

Insanely, Telstra charge $29 a  month for a 24 month 10GB plan that includes a new 4G router - basically just a newer version of our existing unit - battery backup is a little better, it's got a nicer control and display panel, but it's essentially the same device.

It's almost as if they have a pile in a warehouse they're trying to get rid of.

So we're getting a new portable 4G router ...

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

ipods in 2018

A long time ago - 2007 - to be exact - I bought myself a 4GB ipod from the Apple store in Cupertino.

And it was a truly excellent device, and one that I used mainly for listening to podcasts.

Light, portable, would fit in a shirt or jacket pocket.

But it was not to last - around about 2012 the rotary switch thingie on the front died, and I stupidly didn't do anything about getting it fixed, and instead variously tried a cheap no name MP3 players, which worked fine for one off recordings of webinars and lectures, but they were all universally a pain to use for podcasts as they had no itunes or other podcast app integration. I also tried  an old tablet with gpodder (too unreliable, too bulky), using my phone (wrong religion, I've always preferred Samsung to Apple), and in the end I decided life was too short, and anyway Apple no longer made ipods (not strictly true - the ipod touch is still hanging on in there and Apple will sell you a nice reconditioned one for a price) -  and yes I could have got myself a cheap refurbished ipad, but I've already got way too many computers.

In the end, I found myself downloading podcasts to a USB stick and playing them back via the soundsystem in the loungeroom.

That wasn't exactly optimal and I still needed something that I could listen to podcasts on over lunch at the project. (Or potting on seedlings.)

So I bought myself a reconditioned ipod off of ebay. That was about eighteen months ago. I never got round to setting up itunes on windows properly, clearing out junk from god knows how long ago, etc, etc., so it languished in a drawer for that long.

Finally however, I've dug it out and configured everything the way I want. And it was worth it.

It may no longer be supported in hardware terms, but the itunes ecology still supports it, it syncs and deletes files sensibly, and basically does everything I want, not too mention the excellent sound quality ...

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Orage and google calendar

A long time ago, eleven and a bit years ago, I wrote a fairly noddy script to import a google calendar file into orage.

It wasn't syncing, but wrapped up in a cron job it could mean that you got your calendar updated once a day, a week, or whatever.

The script was an adaption of one I wrote to see when content on a remote website changed - basically it grabbed a copy of the webpage once a week, diff'd it against the previous week's, and if it was a different size emailed me.

Anyway, for a long time the orage/google calendar script worked for some people. I know this as people would sometimes email me requesting enhancements or fixes.

Well, no more. Andi Harlan posted a comment to let me know of a better, more sophisticated solution.

Which is kind of cool ...

Plastic decay and the documentation project

I recently tweeted a couple of links, one from the Telegraph, the other from the New York Times about the problems of the long term conservation of plastic objects.

Basically plastic decays.

Plastics manufacturers try to choose formulations that will last for a reasonable time, but eventually plastic goes hard, cracks, breaks, or worse, turns into vinegary goo.

It's a problem manufacturers have been aware of for a long time, but understandably they have expectations as to the reasonable life of the product - it's no use designing a container that will last a hundred years when the contents will last five at most.

Plastic items, especially containers, were designed in the expectation that they would be thrown away once the contents were used up.

And it's not a new problem. Once, many years ago while out walking on the Lizard in Cornwall I happened across a steel board in a wire cage with a whole lot of different types of network cable attached - my guess is that some cabling company was carrying out a long term test on the resilience of various sorts of cable for outside use.

And plastic decay just happens - for example my old Subaru has a cracked aerial mount due to exposure to sun as well as sun damaged paint.

So, given all this, it would be natural to expect that some of the artifacts in Dow's would show signs of decay.

Well, so far none of the plastic items do. Obviously they've been handled gently, but none of them show signs of decay or leakage - unlike some of the flexible metal tubes from the same time, the mid fifties to the mid sixties.

I attribute this to most of the plastic items documented so far being stored in semi darkness and in reasonably dry and cool conditions, and not subject to much more than the normal diurnal changes.

However I'm still working on the dispensary at the back of the shop.

We've got a number of as yet undocumented items in the front of the shop, including some fairly funky 1950's plastic sunglasses. I've had a cursory look and they look ok, but they probably need a more detailed examination ...

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Another internet radio ...

A long time ago, I bought myself an internet radio.

For most of its life it was a toy, a curiosity, but since we moved to the rural north east of Victoria, it became a rather more serious device.

Being rural, there is of course no DAB, Radio National is on crackly AM, and ABC Newsradio is nowhere to be found, So the Internet radio came into its own to give us access to a wider range of stations that the local FM stations.

And then a couple of weeks ago it died. Gently. I noticed that the standby display was getting progressively dimmer, and then it died.

I suspect something like a blown capacitor, but there it was - from useful device to piece of junk in forty minutes.

So I bought us another one.

Which was more difficult than you would think. Most of the local big box stores claim to have them, but they don't, they're inevitably on back order. And while they may be rebadged as something else most of them seem to be the same as Ocean digital internet radios from Hong Kong - so, as they have an online store I bought direct.

It took about 10 days to arrive, but plugged in and configured it just worked. A little quieter than the old Asus, but with a very similar menu system - in fact the only major change to the software  I can see is that it honours ntp, the internet time protocol which the old one didn't - otherwise the user experience is much the same.

Physically, it's wifi only - no wired socket, which makes sense given that most people have wifi everywhere at home - we're just odd in having a bit of physical ethernet between our internet router and a little unmanaged switch in the lounge room - it's how the old one was connected and how our internet tv service is connected, but the wifi is fast enough so we don't really have a problem.

And as for a range of stations?

Ocean claim more than 23,000 - we've tried exactly three, all ABC, but doubtless we'll expand in time to add a few decent jazz and classical music stations ....

Friday, 14 September 2018

Yep, the methodology works offline

If you've been paying attention at the back, you'll be aware that I'm currently volunteering as a sort of archivist to document the contents of Dow's Pharmacy.

Actually, the job is more like being the finds officer on an archaeological dig than a straight digital archiving job, but it's all good fun. I'm using a fairly simple methodology, and I did say that it could be used without an internet connection.

Well last Wednesday, I got in nice and early, only to discover the internet was down. This had happened previously, and I'd worked in offline mode, so I decided to do so again.

Last time, it was fairly early into the project and I hadn't built up a comprehensive pile of reference documentation locally so the process was a bit slow, with quite a bit of trying to look stuff up on my phone - OneNote isn't the best on a small screen, and neither are most of the reference site that I use.

This time, as I've now built up  a fairly comprehensive set of notes on manufacturers in OneNote, it went considerably faster as regards checking details in documentation and so on - I built up a little dot pointer in notepad as I went along of anything that I needed the internet to check, but otherwise I managed to document almost everything fully, including a couple of local updates to OneNote.

Back at home, I backed up the days data to OneDrive, spent about an hour working through the dot pointer, sync's OneNote, and I was done.

Simple - and proving you can do documentation offline, even if having the internet makes things a bit more convenient.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

What I'm using this year

Before I retired, I used to do a blog post at roughly 12 month intervals saying what technology worked for me and what didn’t and commenting on the changes.
Since I retired, I’m no longer in the loop technically, or using super clever stuff. But I’m still using technology, both for my own amateur research, and of course in the case of documentation project I’ve signed myself up for.

Firstly the documentation project.

As the main output is a set of CSV format files containing item descriptions as structured text, I could use anything that can generate CSV files, but as the corporate standard is Windows/Office I use excel.
Besides that I also use OneNote for all the supporting material I’ve accumulated about former pharmaceutical and patent medicine manufacturers that might eventually be used as supporting material in an online catalogue.

I’ve also a lot (10GB and counting) of reference photographs, and they’re stored as separate files in OneDrive. While they could be stored as binary objects in the excel spreadsheets, the import workflow to the final archive solution does not require this, so storing them in a self documenting directory structure makes sense.

So, nothing remarkable, but Microsoft end to end.

Now I’ve always had a love hate relationship with Microsoft. In the nineteen nineties, it was my opinion that Microsoft abused their monopoly position by adopting licensing models that were very expensive for institutions such as universities that ran large networks with large numbers of servers and clients. I spent a large part of my time trying to put together a set of solutions that used non Microsoft servers and where possible used non Microsoft applications to reduce the overall licence cost.

This led me to an interest in both thin client systems, and the use of desktop linux, in part to extend the life of older hardware.

Well, I didn’t win that one, and I have to admit that at the end of the day one of the reasons Microsoft took over the corporate landscape was because they had better products, and could afford to invest in them.

I was never an apple person until the mid 2000’s, when I changed from using Windows machines to using Apple hardware and open source products, as well as some desktop linux - some of the open source OCR stuff just works better under linux, and the editors are nicer, but for day to day work it was Apple, admittedly with Open and then Libre Office as my principal office tool.

But my view of Apple has changed over the years. While they still make beautiful hardware, it is eyewateringly expensive, and they seem to be becoming more and more intent on creating a walled garden and closing out non Apple approved products.

So, I’m moving away from Apple.

I may be writing this on a 10 year old iMac, and I might still use my old MacBook Air as a travel computer and a machine to work on in libraries, but if either of them were to break, they’d be replaced by a Windows machine - perhaps not quite so sexy or well made, but considerably more cost effective.

So for my own local history stuff I’m also working in a windows environment using a second hand Thinkpad, One Note and One Drive.

However for a lot of the basic research of digitised newspapers using the National Library of Australia’s Trove and the Welsh Papers online site is still being done on my old iMac, purely because the screen size is more convenient to work on than a laptop screen. 21” will always beat 14” for this.

I still have an old linux netbook, but I must admit it’s little used these days. Of my old linux machines, I do tend to use is my old Eee PC as a basic writing device - very simple - just using Kate or Gedit to create text for import and final edit elsewhere. Again, I’m still a fan of Focuswriter for simple writing when one wants to get stuff down with the minimum of formatting. For blogging I usually use either Open Writer or Windows Live writer.

Markdown however no longer features as a text formatting tool - simply because I no longer need to take structured notes in meetings, so being able to rapidly create a nicely formatted set of dot points is no longer a major requirement.

Again, I no longer make much use of tablets - probably because I no longer go to meetings and no longer need a simple means to access a set of papers. I still use my old Alcatel tablet with a bluetooth keyboard to take notes if I have an afternoon in a Library working on my local history stuff while J is at an art workshop in town.

However, what I don’t do is use a tablet for general surfing - instead I tend to use a Chromebook, simply because I like to have a keyboard for writing emails and the like.

Notes management is either One Note or Evernote - for legacy reasons Evernote is used for things like household invoices and bills because I’ve used it for years and our whole financial history is in it and One Note is used for more creative stuff and individual projects.

If there’s a theme here it’s that I’m not tied to one platform or operating system, but that I’ve selected a set of tools that let me do what I need to do, and what I enjoy doing.

The hardware is pretty irrelevant - most of the tools with the exception of notes management and blogging tools are available on all three major platforms, and as I’m no longer a mainstream linux user, their non availability for linux is no longer the annoyance it once was ...

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Being organised

Working on the documentation project, I'm essentially hot desking. I bring my stuff, do my thing, and then go away again, and this means being organised.

Initially I  just used an old pencil case with pens, pencils, usb sticks, and so on rattling around inside it, but when I was out helping J buy some materials from an art store I saw these really natty two level boxes which have pretty robust hinges:

and opened out it looks like this

with space for usb sticks, space reserved for SD cards in the future, a usb hub, spare usb cable, pens, pencils, ruler, scalpel and spare blades, magnifying glass, and a pack of wax crayons - sometimes the easiest way to read an faint embossing on a bottle is to take a take rubbing - and hiding beneath the hub is a size reference card and a little multi tool

All in all I'm pretty happy with the setup. Ideally it could be a little bigger and have space for a 250mm ruler, and you really need to train yourself to open it with the box the right way round to avoid spilling the contents.

being not much longer than an A4 pad the box fits comfortably in any work bag.

Definitely a find ...

Sunday, 29 July 2018

'Twas on the Monday morning the gasman came to call ...

The English humourists Flanders and Swann used to perform a song known as The Gas Man cometh, the first line of which was 'twas on the Monday morning the gasman came to call, which details a tale of woe as how a quite simple problem escalates, and involves many more tradesmen than first thought.

Over the past week I've been mentally composing an alternative version 'twas on the Tuesday morning the nbn man came to call'.

When we came back from Malaysia at the start of June I had a nice message from the NBN telling me that we could now go live with high speed internet, and rather than a Fibre to the Node (FTTN) based service we had a Fiber to the Curb (FTTC) based service, which means that basically we have a short range VDSL run into a local Fibre access point and the rest is all fibre.

So we decided to convert. At the same time we decided to change our internet providers - not because it would be any cheaper, but over the last couple of years we've come to valued  internet based tv, and wanted to add a few paid channels to our service, basically the BBC Australia ones and a couple of others.

With our existing provider (Telstra) this turned out to be an expensive option, but with a couple of other providers that offered a Fetch box with their range of 'skinny' lightweight packages, this turned out to be cost effective.

The only real loss was that Telstra gave use 200GB of Onedrive storage which I've been using for the documentation project I'm working on for the National Trust.

One option I looked at was staying with Telstra and simply buying a Fetch box, which would allow use to keep our Onedrive storage, but over the life of another two year contract it was cheaper to go elsewhere and buy 1TB of storage from Microsoft for around $100 a year.

So we changed.

Apparently we needed an NBN technician to make the change, so I booked the appointment.

The day came, and the NBN guy turned up with a VDSL connection box, but our new isp hadn't shipped us the new gateway (or the internet tv box).

So I talked to the guy.

He plugged in the VDSL box, did some tests, and unplugged it. He did try our existing Telstra gateway, but it wasn't designed to work in tandem with our new VDSL service, so that was the end of that. He did tell me however, just to plug it back in when the new kit arrived and it should all be fine.

So I chased our new provider, and to their eternal credit they sent the new equipment to me express, which meant we had the kit a couple of days later.

There remained the slight problem of our solar power system. Its monitoring system has the old (Telstra) address hard coded into its configuration file. The solar power company's website didn't tell you how to get access to edit the configuration table, so I called them.

They came back with a stunningly simple solution - change the new gateway's address and wifi password to match the old gateway, and wait for about ten minutes while the system reconnects.

Brilliantly simple, and what's more it meant not having to reconfigure the myriad computers, tablets and printers we have. The only problem we one of aesthetics - I'd never changed the network SSID from the Telstra default of Telstraxxxx where the xxxx is a random hex string - leaving us condemned to go through the next two years or so with a Telstra style SSID.

I also plugged in our phone service to the new service and it rang out, so everything seemed fine, or it did until I called Telstra to say we'd jumped ship.

They didn't know we were porting our landline number, and while they were quite happy to turn off our old service, we would lose our landline number, which as we're in the middle of organising a bathroom renovation and are dealing with a number of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, tilers, etc didn't seem like a brilliant idea.

So, we're still paying for our ADSL service, and I'm chasing our new ISP about the number port.

Otherwise, touch wood, it seems fine, though strangely not that much faster than our previous fast ADSL service ...

[update 30 July 2018]

I of course spoke too soon. Our number had been ported, Telstra had lost the port request, and what's more managed to lose any record of my conversation requesting to cancel our ADSL service, so when they fixed the port request problem, they created a new adsl service with a two year contract specially for us.

Fixing that was fun - I logged into our account and clicked 'contact' for a chat session to a customer service representative. Instead I got an 'intelligent' chatbot called Codi that provided a range of completely irrelevant suggestions. However, the magic phrase 'get a human' at least got me someone who understood the problem. Four identity confirmations later it turned out Telstra had lost all record of yesterday's conversation, so when they acted on the port request they automatically  created a new service.

However, they were quite happy to believe they had stuffed up, and more importantly waived the exit charge for the service we hadn't asked for. Then of course I had to talk to the customer retention people who asked if we had any family members who wanted to take over the service, plus a couple of other silly questions, but again they did get that we had jumped ship.

All in all, about 40 minutes. The key is to always get a reference number  for any call and quote it back to them - if I'd had a reference number we could have sped matters along as they would have had a record of the previous disconnection request ...

[update 02 August 2018]

Well Telstra still seems to be suffering under the delusion that we want their broadband service, sending enthusiastic emails about it being on its way, etc.

Rather than talk to customer service again I've filed a complaint. Maybe that will cause them to go away.

On the other hand it is worth it. Yesterday was one of the days I give my time to the documentation project I've volunteered for and one of my tasks at the end of the day is to upload the day's cataloguing data to OneDrive for backup. Normally it's around 250MB and used to take about 45 minutes. Yesterday it took less than 10 ...

[update 04 August 2018]

Well, filing a complaint seems to have done the job.

Last night I had an email from Telstra saying things would be fixed up as agreed and this morning I had a bill for last month's phone and internet usage that seemed to be more or less correct, showing the credits that I'd expect.

Unfortunately Telstra's 'My Accounts' page still shows us as having a broadband account, but hopefully that's just an artifact of the deprovisioning process ...

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Possible Kilwa coin found in Arnhem land

A long time ago, I blogged about the problematical find of Kilwa coins in Arnhem land in the 1940s.

Well, now we have news of a possible find of another coin, this time in situ on one of the islands off Arnhem land, and as far as we can tell, roughly in the same location as the find in the 1940s.

If it does turn out to be a coin, it helps show that the coins really did get there, but of course still doesn't answer the question of how they got there ...

Winter documentation gear

One of the problems working on the documentation project is that the old pharmacy is bloody cold, especially on a winter day when the temperature stays resolutely in single figures.

Normally my work kit consists of the following:

  • A4 notebook
  • plastic tool box containing pens, usb sticks, usb cable, magnifying glass, bendy ruler and wax crayon for taking rubbings of bottle embossing
  • cheap artstore visual diary for diagrams, bottle rubbings etc
  • 'proper' paper diary
  • box of disposable nitrile gloves
  • tube of nappy rash powder to absorb sweat and so on from gloves
  • phone (who needs a camera?)
  • laptop
to which for winter I normally add a woolly hat. Definitely unflattering but I'd rather look like a gnome than be cold.

But that leaves a problem. My hands get bloody cold typing, and while I have a little fan heater under my desk, all it really does is turn bloody freezing into just plain cold on days when the temperature hovers around 5C all day.

And then I remembered what I used to do when I worked at Llysdinam field centre in the middle of Wales all these years ago. It was equally cold over winter, in fact once so cold that the locks on my car froze on the way from home to work (it was only two or three km up a steep twisty hill so the car never quite warmed through). 

I use to wear fingerless gloves to type.

So, onto ebay, and I bought a cheap noname pair of fingerless wool gloves. And they really do make all the difference, even if they do make me look like an escapee from a Dickens novel ...

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Anglo saxon scribes in St Catherine's monastery in Siniai

Yesterday I tweeted a link to a BBC story about the digital recovery of palimpsets from St Catherine's monastery in Siniai.

Essentially, by using clever digital techniques they can recover the writing from the various erased texts from reused parchment pages.

One thing that really caught my notice was the throw away comment that there was evidence of texts being written in Anglo Saxon hands. Doubly so as at the end of 2010 I became mildly obsessed with the question as to wether it could be true, as reported in some versions of the Anglo saxon Chronicale that Alfred sent Sighelm the ealdorman to visit the Christian communities in Kerala.

From this I started accumulating a fair amount of references covering links between the late Anglo Saxon world and both the Islamic world and the remaining christian communities of the middle east and India [summary].

Now the presence of an Anglo Saxon hand in a palimpset at St Catherine's doesn't necessarily mean that there were Anglo Saxon monks in the scriptorium - they could after all have been working elsewhere and the book ended up in St Catherine's, but it's more intriguing evidence of links between the late Anglo Saxon world and the christian communities of the middle east ...

Monday, 11 June 2018

The persistence of brands ...

When we were in Malaysia recently, I wanted to buy myself some fish oil capsules as I had forgotten to pack my usual brand, so, on the first opportunity I popped into a Watson's chemists to buy some.

And there they were, imported from Australia, and branded with the distinctive 'A' logo from Abbot laboratories that I'd come across time after time when documenting 1950's and 1960's pharmaceutical bottles for the National Trust.

Abbot is no longer a common retail brand in Australia, but there it was, alive and well in Malaysia.

One of the things coming out of my work documenting Dow's pharmacy is how you can (a) document the change from pharmacists making up their own formulations from materia medica to the rise of prepackaged products from pharmaceutical companies, and indeed due to the consolidation in the market, assemble a rough chronology based on brand names and packaging, and (b) track how some of the early suppliers of patent medicines turned into the pharmaceutical companies and wholesalers we know and love today.

And brands persist, Burgoyne Burbridge, a major nineteenth to mid twentieth century chemicl supplies wholesaler, long gone from Britain and Australia, lives on in Mumbai, and May and Baker, again long gone and now part of Aventis, still trades as May and Baker in Nigeria.

I would guess the reason for the persistence of brand names in some places is imply one of recognition - a brand has a reputation for trustworthiness, and once well established, it would be silly to abandon it ...

Friday, 25 May 2018

Klout RIP

Klout's gone.

For those unfamiliar with Klout, Klout claimed to measure your social media impact via some totally obscure algorithm that tracked retweets and mentions weighted by the number of followers your retweeters had, plus possibly some other factors.

It also did the same thing for facebook, linkedin,  and instagram.

For all I know it was all made up and the numbers were totally meaningless, but in the days when I cared about impact, altmetrics and bibliometrics (and some of that is possibly just as much a con game) Klout was incredibly useful as it provided a justification for the use of social media in academia, and time spent blogging and tweeting, even if it didn't show up in the traditional measures.

Now it's gone ...

Friday, 4 May 2018

another non isbn

I've been reading Amelia Edwards  A thousand Miles up the Nile, and I came to the realization that I really needed a copy of Murray's guide to Upper Egypt to make sense of both her's and other nineteenth century travellers' accounts of their travels up the  Nile.

Just as today we tend to follow our Lonely Planet or Footprint guides, they followed Murray's.

It turned out that the best and cheapest way to get a copy was to buy a reprint from one of these Indian print on demand shops that pop up on AbeBooks, so I duly ordered a copy.

It of course took about three months to arrive, during which time customs had sequestered it for examination to make sure it wasn't suspicious in any way, but it arrived, and in one piece:

and strangely, it again had a number that looked like an isbn on the cover. So I tried it in

and again, an apparently valid, but unregistered isbn.

Which makes me wonder if there is some software out there that's being used by these overseas print on demand shops to generate fake isbn's ...

[update 05/05/2018]

and in fact, ten minutes with Dr Google has turned up a number of generators such as GeneratePlus

which when pasted into isbnsearch gives the following result

There's also a number of code recipes out there, including one for making fake isbn's for pre isbn books so you can put them into a library management system and track them as assets ...

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Tracing patent medicine bottles with ebay

If you're interested in nineteenth century trade patterns nineteenth century patent medicine bottles are a godsend.

They're usually readily identifiable, often embossed with the manufacturers name or logo, and what's more, durable, attractive and collectable, which means that they turn up for sale on sites like ebay and gumtree, as well as more specialist bottle collecting sites.

So by treating ebay as a research resource, you can readily work out the rough distribution of the bottles - for example in both the cases of Hayman's balsam of horehound and Jacob Hulle, ebay gave me a rough spread of the bottles.

But of course it's not perfect. For a start there's no real provenance. We don't know where the bottles were found, or indeed under what circumstances. We don't know a date, even a hand waving one based on other items found with the bottles.

For example, with Jacob Hulle, we know that the company was operational for roughly ten to fifteen years, which can give us a rough date.

For Hayman's it's a bit more difficult. I've found adverts as early as 1861 and as late as 1895, which probably brackets the lifespan of the product. There's no real way of dating anything more exactly.

And of course, I'm making a big assumption, that the vendor is located close to where the bottle is found. It may of course been traded on at a collector's fair and have been found several hundred kilometres from the vendors location.

Now in the case of Australia, Wales and New Zealand the online collections of digitised newspapers are our friend, they give us clues as to where he was advertising, much as we can see that Hollway's pills were advertised extensively in the goldfields as in this example from the Ovens and Murray advertiser from 1869:

But then we turn to places such as South Africa.

I'd really like to know if the Hayman's bottles turn up exclusively in the former Cape Colony, or if they were rather more widespread. And of course one can't as there's no real provenance information ...

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Is trove difficult to use ?

Yesterday, I went to a collections use workshop organised on behalf of Collections Victoria.

Essentially they want to find out how people are using their services and to that end have organised a series of workshops with people working on local history projects, and yours truly was one of them.

I won't go into what we said or did, because I don't think it was particularly remarkable but one key takeaway is that a lot of the participants said that they found trove, the NLA's digital resources website difficult to use.

I didn't have time to drill into what was difficult to use, but I got the feeling that a lot of people felt that they did not know how to search effectively online.

Most of those involved were reasonably competent local historians, used to dealing with books and paper archives but being in their sixties appear to have missed out on digital skills training or simply didn't have the opportunity in their past professional lives.

Seems like there might be a training need. And possibly one not to difficult to fill, after all most university libraries have been running online search skills courses for years ....

Friday, 20 April 2018

TextWrangler is end of life, and why I care

For those of you unfamiliar with the product, TextWrangler is a very nice language aware text editor for OS X from the same people who produce BBEdit.

Over the years I've used in mainly to write MarkDown, raw HTML and Perl, and it's done my proud. The folks at BBEdit have now decided to cease development of TextWrangler, and encourage people to move to BBEdit, although existing TextWrangler installations will continue to work provided you don't upgrade to the latest version of OS X (now Mac OS).

Essentially if you move to BBEdit, you get a thirty day free trial of the paid for product after which time you can say 'No thanks' and dropdown from the paid for product to a free version BBedit Lite, which has all the features currently in TextWrangler.

BBedit don'd publish product roadmaps, so we can't say with certainty what's the future of BBEdit Lite, but it's probably fair enough to assume that it'll be around for a few years.

Unfortunate, but that's life. It's their product, and they can do what they like with it.

Personally, I find that these days I'm increasingly going back to the Windows platform, so I'll probably not be that inconvenienced by its demise.

However, over the years, I've helped several citizen science, local history, and other community projects get going, be it counting bugs (real bugs ones with six legs) or transcribing old records.

These projects usually struggle to buy a box of teabags and a pack of MacVities digestives, and this is usually where I get involved.

These projects are often very reliant on volunteer labour and have next to no budget for anything. Basically what I do is try and get their recording methodology in place and help them get software installed.

Often they acquire what IT equipment they have through donations - old iMacs from dentist's surgeries, local library system cast offs, or PC's donated via a bank's community programme.

Now the people involved in these projects are often highly skilled in their specialisation, but they're not really into digital archiving or indeed IT generally.

So, when helping them get going I've tended to emphasise open products with open file formats so that the data can be imported into something else later with a minimum of effort. At the same time I've usually encouraged people to use text as a format for working notes and records because of it's clarity and simplicity.

And where possible, I've tried to leave them in a situation where they can be self supporting with simple products that it doesn't matter too much if they don't upgrade.

Now, remember these iMacs from the dentists surgery (and others from other places).

Over the last 10 or 12 years I've been recommending TextWrangler to my Mac users, because (a) it was rock solid, and (b) free. It's running on old machines, many of which will never, or can never, be upgraded to the latest version of OS X.

That shouldn't be a problem, except that TextWrangler now tells you it's end of life when it checks for updates, and this confuses people. They think they have to upgrade, even when they don't, and the  whole 'try before you buy' thing confuses them even more.

And that's creating a support problem. Like I said, unfortunate.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Standard Notes

About a month ago, I bought myself an old ThinkPad as a stopgap replacement computer and installed Standard Notes on it.

Since then I've played with standard notes as a note taking application.

Just to be clear, I use OneNote and Evernote to manage documents, be they scanned nineteenth century newspaper extracts, household bills, or useful web pages. On the whole I don't use them to manage working notes.

These I usually simply write up in Markdown - my markdown documents are more of an expanded dot point list rather than a complex document with embedded images and links - using an editor such as Kate and save them with a filename starting with the date and something sensible.

Probably I ought to use something a bit more structured to group documents together rather than a self documenting file structure, but then I've survived forty years on the fringes of academia working that way.

Cherrytree, about which I blogged some time ago, would be a suitable tool, especially as you can locate the .ctb file on Dropbox, OneDrive or what have you to share between machines (and incidentally provide a backup of sorts).

The only concern is that CherryTree is basically a one person project, which has long term support implications, while Standard Notes is owned by a small company and possibly a better option for long term support. Basically if you need to do due diligence on your software tools as part of a project, Standard Notes would probably come out ahead on longevity and risk.

So I had a play with Standard Notes. Out of the box it's fairly sparse, you need a subscription to unlock the clever edits, saving to OneDrive, and other nice features.

Featurewise the basic version is much of a muchness with CherryTree. Given the way I work there's effectively no difference in functionality.

The lack of a native markdown editor in the basic version isn't really a problem, as I've said I usually type up my drafts in an editor to create a file a little like this wiki example. As Markdown is fundamentally a text file it's easy enough to cut and paste the markdown text into the standard notes application to make a new text note.

For me, as the idea of using markdown is to improve readability (basically all I use is indenting and section titling) pasting the fie as a text file works fine. If you do some clever things in your note taking, this probably won't work for you.

So, it's a competent product. Out of the box it has some restrictions and limitations, and if you want a full featured note management application, you might want to look elsewhere. As an application for managing working notes in text format it's fine. It does everything that you would expect.

And, unlike its big brothers, it's available for linux.

I would however like to have a 'try before you buy' evaluation mode for the various extensions to be able to explore its capabilities more fully.

But, if you need a competent note taker and management application for text based notes, standard notes might well do the job, especially if you are a linux user ...

Saturday, 17 March 2018

And now, an old Thinkpad

My old Dell Inspiron that I've used since 2010 is finally reaching the stage where it's running out of puff, not disastrously, but getting to the stage where one would start to think about replacing it.

Of course I could just put up with it's huffing and puffing and use my MacBook Air as a day to day machine, but I'd reached the stage where a new Windows machine seemed like a necessity.

The only problem was that we'd just paid out for a trip to Borneo, and I really couldn't justify the extra money right now.

Well, I'd always half planned to buy myself an ex-lease Thinkpad for Linux work, so after a little bit of agonising I bought myself a X230 with Windows 7 professional license, reasoning that I could use it as a windows machine, and perhaps even convert it to dual boot - Windows 7 and Linux, for the simple reason that the documentation project I've volunteered for is built around windows, meaning I need One Note, and that most of the rest of my personal notes and documentation is in Evernote, which again is not available for Linux.

So I paid my two hundred and thirty bucks to one of these companies that refurbish ex-lease machines and a few days later it arrived, beautifully packed in shock absorbing packaging and with a refurbisher's test report, and nicely imaged with a clean copy of Windows 7 with an install of Open Office 3 thrown in.

Out of the box, battery life was better than my Air, which realistically manages about two hours work these days between charges. The Thinkpad claimed a realistic four hours thirty out of the box and the what's more the battery is easy to replace down the track if needs be.

So, installing things.

First off were the standard utilities that I use:

  • Focuswriter - for distraction free writing
  • Kate - for when only a text editor would do
  • Open live writer - an open source clone of windows live writer for bloggin
  • Tweeten - a desktop twitter client
  • Gnumeric - spreadsheet for data manipulation
  • Libre Office - when I need to write something and format it nicely
  • Thunderbird - for email and calendaring
  • Texts - for wysiwyg markdown editing

And then it was the data intensive things

  • Dropbox - for data sharing
  • One Drive - cloudy filestore
  • One Note - Microsoft's note management tool which has all my project documentation
  • Evernote - which basically contains my entire life, invoices, bills, research notes and so on

All in all, close to 40GB of data to download, which took around a day with a few timeouts when we wanted to watch the morning news on iView, or actually use the internet. Given that our internet and phone plan has a stupidly large cap ( a terabyte of data per 28 days - effectively it's unlimited, we usually only use around 10% of it) I wan't worried by the download size..

Also given my general interest in note taking applications I installed Standard Notes for fun, and I should probably also install the windows version of CherryTree given that I waxed lyrical about it a few months ago.

It might have been quicker, but windows also wanted to download a zillion patches (actually a little over 200) and apply them, all of which took time out of the process.

At the end of it I've a machine with reasonable battery life, a decent form factor for working on the train and these silly little tables.

I havn't installed virtual box yet, but I'm planning to do so to build a virtual machine to put together a prototype Omeka site to showcase the project so far.

Sooner of later I'll probably add a couple of extra applications - such as the Gramps family history tool.

The only Linux software I really need is tesseract and cuneiform for OCR work on pdfs from old printed documents and they'll run equally well in a Linux VM.

So, next steps.

Basically use it, and keep the old Inspiron for backing up data from documentation project.

I do face a decision down the track as to whether I keep the machine, or migrate it to linux as originally intended. If I keep the machine I probably need to think about an upgrade to Windows 10, but for the moment seven is good enough. After all it's the software base that's important, not the operating system...

[update 18/03/2018]

... and this morning I was looking up some references and discovered I'd totally forgotten to install my preferred refernce maneger - Zotero, doh!

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Lecture recordings and intellectual property

There's a strike over pensions in the UK university system at the moment and it's brought to light an interesting little argument over intellectual property.

Obviously, if a lecturer is on strike, a scheduled lecture is not going to be delivered. Some universities have tried to force lecturers to deliver cancelled lectures once they return to work, or persuade non striking colleagues to deliver them with varied degrees of success.

But some have tried a different tack, giving students access to the lecture recording of the previous years lecture.

Lecture recordings vary. Some simply record voice or else voice and video somewhat in the style of nineteen seventies Open University recordings. Others record voice and the accompanying powerpoint slides.

Lecture recording systems are usually touted as a revision aid for students, or else as allowing students at multi site institutions access to material delivered at another location. Cynically, it allows students who discover Statistics 1B is timetabled for 0830 on a Monday an extra hour in bed.

Individual universities rules on intellectual property and lecture content all differ slightly.

In many cases they were drawn up  some years ago before lecture capture systems were in widespread use, and before the world went digital.

In some cases the university owns the teaching material, some cases the individual owns it, and in some cases the lecture is owned by the university, but handouts, including the powerpoint slides, are owned by the individual.

And some lecture recording products have terms of use that require consent by the lecturer before the material can be reused. And of course there's the case where a teaching assistant delivers a lecture using existing notes and material when the lecturer whose course it is is on sabbatical. We won't talk about MOOCs here, but that's another problem, especially if material from other lecture courses is reused.

Basically it's a very grey area. In fact once you start to poke into it it's a complete nightmare ...

Friday, 2 March 2018

When an isbn isn't really an isbn...

Now we all know that isbn's are persistent identifiers par excellence, but I recently came across a case where they weren't

I'd bought a version of Valentine Baker's Clouds in the East, the book he wrote while imprisoned for his assault on Miss Dickinson, as part of my reading about the Great Game.

I'd bought the reprint from one of these Indian print on demand companies that reprint out of print out of copyright nineteenth century books.

Unlike some of these reprints this one came nicely bound with a card, as opposed to paper, cover and had a barcode, an isbn, and a suggested price in both Indian Rupees and US dollars, in other words rather than print on demand it looked like one of batch produced for retail sale.

So I entered it into LibraryThing - no such ISBN. Now I know from past experience of having bought books from India that they usually in Amazon's database, so I was a little surprised.

I tried Amazon India directly - no such luck. Neither was it on or, so I'm guessing it's an invalid isbn generated by the publisher when packaging the book up to make it look like a 'proper' retail copy.

Strange, hadn't come across that before ...

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Working in a really small public library ...

Today on the documentation project I was chased out for an Hour or so when we had a large tour group come through.

It was too early for a coffee, and I had some notes to write up, so what to do?

It wasn't worth going home, but then I had a brainwave. I googled local library, and discovered there was a local branch library in the town, and it was (a) open and (b) had wifi.

I've written before about working in larger public libraries, but this wasn't the case here - this library was basically a largeish room like a conference room in an old local government building and didn't really have much in the way of workspace provision - just a couple of comfy chairs and an old table with a couple of desktop computers.

But they did have wifi - which claimed to be 5G, and had been moved from some other library as it still had the old name as the SSID, but it worked, or at least it did once I asked the library staff to reset the router for me - apparently a known problem.

I don't actually know what they were using, from my view of it it was a standard looking wifi router -  how it was connected I don't know but I guess over whatever infrastructure the local library corporation provides - I'd guess ADSL.

As a working experience,  it was really good - quiet, I could get my work done, no background clamour of coffee making and enough space to sit comfortably if unergonomically with my laptop on my knees, and notebook on the chair adjoining.

So next time you need a place to sit and use wifi, think about (and support) your local public library!

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Provenance - it's all about provenance

Six months ago, on a plane between Singapore and Melbourne, I watched a remarkable documentary about the attempt by the city of Detroit to sell off the contents of its art museum to defray the city's debts.

The scheme ultimately foundered - because of provenance.

One of the original founders of the museum apparently used to go on collecting tours of Europe, buying paintings from cash strapped aristocrats who had lost everything in the first world war - so you would think it would be easy to work out provenance.

But, no. The person in question was an art collector in his own right, and while he would sometimes use the museum's money to pay for items, sometimes he would use his own, and sometimes he would 'sell' a piece to the museum at below cost and claim it as a tax loss.

And the records were a complete mess.

It wasn't clear which had been bought on behalf of the museum, which were on loan, and which were donations - and of course the more saleable paintings' records were as confused as the less valuable.

In this case having an unclear provenance worked for the museum - they couldn't sell what wasn't theirs, and the didn't know what wasn't theirs.

And I suspect that this is the case with a lot of museums who developed their collections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century - the documentation is quite unclear.

Not for everything of course, for example the Elgin Marbles have a clear provenance and the case really depends on the legality or otherwise of Elgin's actions and whether his firman from the Ottoman governor really gave him permission.

But then we have cases like the Nizam of Hyderabad's mummy, which I blogged about back in 2015, where provenance is unclear, we know he bought it, but not if it was illegally acquired. Likewise in Amelia Edwards' account of her trip up the Nile in the 1870's, she recounts the story of the tourists who bought a mummy at vast expense, and after a week or so found that they could not stand the sweet odour emanating from it, and (literally) jettisoned their losses by throwing it in the Nile.

And this all makes the problem of artefacts acquired during the period of European colonialism.

Were the items acquired legally, were they acquired under duress or what.

And of course rules change. Egypt, for example started to license archaeological digs quite early and had clear rules about both documentation and ownership - basically that the more significant items were automatically property of the Egyptian department of Antiquities, which is why so much of the material is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but as we know, there are significant collections elsewhere, and as the Nizam of Hyderabad case shows us, the system was not perfect.

Other countries, especially those under colonial rule, were not so strict.

And for this reason, probably one thing that should be done is to digitise the museum records and correspondence, as well as that of individual archaeologists and collectors, to both settle the question of provenance, but also to provide an unrivalled insight into the history of archaeology, and it's relationship to the antiquities trade in the nineteenth century ...

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Lenovo Ideapad K1 six years on ...

Yesterday was ferociously hot, so I did what I usually do when it’s too hot for gardening, and played with some old hardware, this time J’s old Lenovo IdeaPad K1, an android tablet dating from late 2011.

In its day it was pretty slick, slicker than the zPad, and a pretty nice bit of kit with an excellent screen - being an artist J spends a lot of time looking at pictures and illustrations - but it was a bit heavy to hold, and even though we'd invested in stand cum charging station for it, it could be a pain to use for extended periods. Not only that, it would occasionally lose its network connection, or more accurately not recover gracefully when our router flipped from adsl to the backup 3G connection, so eventually it was replaced by a Samsung Galaxy.

By the time it was replaced, Lenovo had more or less abandoned the K1, but had unusually, provided an option to upgrade it to an unsupported version of Android 4 - the K1 having originally shipped with 3.2.

We never followed that up at the time, as the only thing I used it for was downloading podcasts, and gPodder was happy with things as they were.

In retrospect, this was probably not such a good idea, as the links to the generic version have now (understandably) disappeared off of Lenovo’s website.

So, what can you do with 3.2?

Well, no modern browser, but Opera mini installs and runs quite nicely.

The previously installed wikipedia, gmail and twitter apps still work as does inoreader - an rss feed reader. You can’t, of course install anything recent, which means no decent text editor or anything like that.

But, given that most of what I use my  current tablet for is wikipedia, email and twitter, plus a bit of rss feed reading it isn’t a disaster. Not having access to OneNote or Evernote is a bit of a pain, but were my existing tablet to unexpectedly come to a bad end it would be good enough for a stopgap, which isn’t too bad for a device over six years old running an old operating system ...

Friday, 5 January 2018

Transcribing a blot

One of the tasks in documenting artifacts as part of the project is transcribing labels on the bottles of materia medica in the pharmacy.

Mostly this is fairly straightforward - the labels are on the whole beautifully stencilled in india ink on good quality paper, and so while they may be a little yellowed they're perfectly legible. It's the early twentieth century ones that are more of a problem - cheaper paper and sloppilly writen in faded fountain pen ink.

To be sure they have their peculiarities - the extensive use of Æ  in nineteenth century pharmaceutical latin and outdated abbreviations like TṚ for tincture, but it's all fairly straightforward.

Until a couple of days ago, when I came across the following

where the label had been corrected at a later date - if you look carefully you can see what appears to be an extra L which has been blotted out in a different thinner ink. presumably at a later date.

This of course raises an number of questions about transcribing the label - should I transcribe the label as it was meant to be read, or include the blot, or transcribe it as the original text and note that the first L had been blotted out at (presumably) a later date.

I decided to go for the middle route and transcribe the label as you would read it today, blot and all.

While I knew about the Text Encoding Initiative and the Leiden Epigraphy conventions, which I'm using to indicate missing or illegible characters, I didn't know about blots.

My first thought was to simply insert a unicode blot symbol, except there isn't one - as a stopgap until I could spend more time with Google I decided to use the cyrillic Zhe (Ж) as

  • there was no cyrillic text involved in the pharmacy anywhere
  • it sort of looked like the H^HZ^HN sequence we used to use in Wordstar days to generate a cursor symbol on daisywheel printers when doing documentation
  • having learned to read and write Russian I could write it with a degree of fluidity
I guess I could have used the unicode block character ( █ ) but as I also keep a longhand paper workbook in parallel with the transcription spreadsheet Ж seemed a better choice.

I started off by searching for things like 'epigraphy blot' without much success - well I guess stone inscriptions don't have blots, although they do have erasures, so I don't think it was that silly a search. 

Changing the search terms to something like 'TEI transcription blot' was more useful and produced a lot of information on how to represent blots in XML as well as important questions such as whether it was a correction by the author or a correction at a later date and differentiating between the two, as well as what to do if you weren't sure.

The only problem was all this information was for creating XML markup, and I was transcribing the labels to an excel spreadsheet using unicode, and I needed a standard pre-XML way of doing this that was going to be intelligible to someone else.

In the end I found the answer in the epidoc documentation maintained by Under erased and lost  it not only documented the TEI XML but also referenced previous pre XML paper technology conventions, in this case [[[...]]], which was ideal.

This little journey has raised a whole lot of questions, including should we be using TEI XML encoding for the labels.

The short answer is probably not, unicode in excel plus some standard notation is more than adequate in 99.9% of cases, and the whole majestic edifice that is TEI seems like complete overkill, but certainly this little diversion shows the importance of discussing and agreeing on transcription standards before starting on something as seemingly straightforward as a sequence on nineteenth century materia medica labels ...