Saturday, 28 December 2019


Well it’s almost the end of the  year and that means a new diary.

So, why in 2020 do I still use a diary?

It’s not as if I’m technophobic, I was an early and enthusiastic adopter of the Palm pilot, so much so that around about 2000 I simply stopped using my diary as an appointment book, and then there was a gap of around seven or eight years when I simply didn’t use a diary.

And then I started using them again, simply because I started travelling for work and using a diary as a planning tool gave me visibility of what I was doing and where I would be. It also had the advantage that you could stick postit notes in it on appropriate pages with names of hotels, airport shuttle booking numbers and the rest to save wading through a loosleaf folder full of booking dockets.

I use to favour the Leuchturm planner diaries with a week on the left and a notes page on the right, and what I would do is write down a two or three line summary of any important meeting such as a meeting, and system upgrade or a system failure of some sort.

I was even geeky enough to use different coloured inks for notes relating to different projects.

And then what I would do is, at the end of the week, scan the diary and notes page - the Leuchturm books opened flat to A4 - for that week and save it in Evernote, which made compiling project progress reports and activity reports a hell of a lot easier and less of a work of fiction that they might otherwise have been.

After I retired I carried on with my Leuchturm planners for a couple of years, but this year, 2019 I used a more normal week to a page diary with any notes simply attached to a postit note.

That seemed to work reasonably well - I certainly don’t need the notes page anymore, but I found the individual day boxes a bit small and restricting, so next year (2020) I’m going to try a day-to-a-page diary which, while it’s still the A5 format is quite a bit bulkier than anything I’ve used in the last 20 years.

It’s not an expensive imported one - no Moleskines or Leuchturms this year, but one I bought in a discount store in Queensland last August for ten dollars or thereabouts.

The reason for buying one so early is that we’re planning a reasonably complicated overseas trip in 2020 and already by August we had payments for flights, deposits, and due dates for payment, and even by August this was overflowing into 2020, and I needed a diary for planning purposes.

It’s strangely difficult to buy a decent diary for the following year in August - the calendar year diaries are not yet in stock and the unsold financial year diaries (July to June) are being sold off.

We’ll see how it goes - you never know it might wean me off my taste for expensive import designer diaries ...

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Bushfire planning

[This post is about bushfire planning for small museums. I've been getting some hits from people looking for help getting their bushfire plan together. If you've come here looking for general information check the relevant CFA or RFS pages.]

It's hardly the most festive of topics, but with the ongoing bushfire emergency on the east coast the time has come to update our disaster planning.

We've over four thousand artefacts - I'm not entirely sure how many, I havn't finished documenting the collection yet - so any evacuation would mean taking only the highlights.

It's a pity, but in an emergency we would have to abandon most of the collection to its fate.

I tried looking on the web for any useful examples of disaster planning for small museums or historic buildings but did not find any relevant examples, so I wrote my own based on my past experience of writing disaster plans as to what to do with archival computer tapes. (Since the recent bushfires more resources have become available online - see the Blue Shield resources page)

It's pretty minimal at the moment, and in no way an official document, but I've placed a redacted copy online to help anyone putting together a similar plan against a deadline.

As the document evolves and changes I'll put the changes into the redacted version as well.

Please feel free to copy, download or modify the plan - the redacted version is a Google Document and can be downloaded here.

If you do find it useful, please let me know how you've used it and what changes you've made - you can find my contact details online if you don't know them already - in fact if you end up using the plan, send me a postcard from your museum/historic house.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

2019 - what worked

For a long time I used to write a 'what worked' review of my personal use of technology in the preceding year.

Since I retired (almost exactly four years ago now) posting has been a little erratic with the last post being in August 2018, so I thought it was time for an update.

The success

I finally bought myself a new computer back in March and it's been an undoubted success, quick, fast, reliable - no comparison with my old Dell Inspiron

The not so much a success

My chromebook had gone end of life and my Macbook battery was seriously showing its age, so back in April I bought myself a second hand Yoga 11e. It's been a success as a second take to meetings laptop (yes I still go to meetings occasionally) but compared to my old Macbook Air it's still a bit on the heavy side. I don't regret the purchase, it's a useful versatile machine, but it's simply just not as light as my old Air, so much so that I've just paid out for a replacement battery for the air while I look for a sensible lightweight replacement

Hanging in there

The old Thinkpad X230 continues on as a useful workhorse, principally used for for family history work and for storing a second local copy of my work on Dow's Pharmacy. My coffee mediated disaster earlier this year taught me the value of having a second machine available as a backup.

While it's older, and is still Windows 7 based, the 500GB disk is big enough to store a local copy of  the family history database and associated documentation, as well as a second copy of the Dow's documentation.

Having a local copy has made it possible to get things done when I didn't have local access.

And of course coupling this with OneNote and Onedrive has of course meant that any new material saved locally is automatically uploaded as soon as the network becomes available.

This has also proved to be one of the problems with the Yoga - at 128GB its SSD is a little too small to comfortably store a copy of everything I've got on OneDrive.

My really old imac continues to be useful by dint of its large screen, which is ideal for viewing and transcribing scans of old documents, so while obviously there will come a time when it starts to suffer from software rot, everything is still at a recent enough version to be highly usable.

Not quite so useful

The iPad mini and keyboard combo I put together last year hasn't turned out to be quite as useful as I thought it would be.  I don't regret its purchase, its been incredibly useful on some occasions, but my work patterns have remained more computer focussed than I expected, hence my search for a light, versatile and cost effective windows machine. Currently it seems that you can have any two of these if you are on a budget, but not all three.

Other Changes

I've gone from using a Samsung Galaxy to an iPhone which has meant some changes in my work on the documentation project, mainly using a camera in place of the Samsung to take pictures of the artefacts.

Software and operating systems

Basically it's been Windows and the Microsoft ecology, with OS X and iOS playing aminor supporting role. While I still use Google docs for those living documents I have in docs, my use of the Google world has dropped right off since I made the change away from Android tablets and phones.

The other thing that's gone is my use of Linux. I always used to argue that software choice to a large extent dictates operating system choice and its true - my need for One Note and Evernote, not to mention OneDrive has forced me to abandon the use of linux in favour of windows.

Perversely, some of the genealogy software I use is designed to run on Linux, with the windows version being very much a follow on.

I've never got around to building a virtual machine to run it on - perhaps I should - to see how much better performance is. I have thought about converting my X230 to linux with the end of Windows 7 support next month, but the advantages of having a second machine to slot in are such I'll probably keep it windows until the end of the pharmacy documentation project.

That said I need to do something about getting rid of my old Inspiron. I havn't powered it up for about 9 months so I'm guessing that there's nothing on it I really need. Perhaps before I wipe it and take it to the eWaste disposal centre I'll stick linux on it and see how useful (or not) it is and how the genealogy software runs natively on an old machine ...

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Joined the herd - bought an iPhone

For years I've been a Samsung Galaxy user, but I've finally cracked and got myself an iPhone.

A refurbished one admittedly, but a pretty recent one.

Not that I've never been an iPhone user - work used to give us iPhones as the corporate phone, but I always had my own phone as well, and that was also a Samsung - good battery life, decent screen, reasonable camera, reliable, and since I retired four years ago now my Galaxy's been my one and only phone - and it's been a really good productivity aid.

But after four and half years, it's beginning to show its age. It's still stuck on Android 6, and it needs a new battery - only twenty five bucks for a third party one admittedly -but I took that as a sign that it was time to change.

Now, where we live, we have to have Telstra.

Non negotiable.

Optus's coverage is ok over most of the town, but we live in a blackspot. Vodafone's not great either, but Telstra works, a bit on the edge but we get a usable signal.

This means that you can either buy a phone from Telstra, either straight up or on a plan, or else you buy an unlocked phone from someone else.

Now you can buy a reasonable midrange phone from Telstra for not a bad price, and if you wanted the convenience of a phone on a plan it's probably not too bad a deal, but you can probably do better buying from one of the online retailers.

And that's why I ended up with a 12 month old refurbished iPhone.

Most corporates have standardised on iPhones as a company phone creating a healthy market in good second hand and refurbished phones, but it's not the case with Samsung phones meaning you probably are going to end up buying new.

So on the day I did this I could get a 12 moth old refurbished iPhone 8 for $600 and a new Galaxy S10 for a $1000. As always your mileage will vary, and it could be that next week someone drops a whole lot of decent Galaxy's on the market.

Being a cheapskate, I went for the iPhone and Apple's well known build quality.

I'm not a heavy phone user, and I'll probably keep the phone for a few years. So build quality and long term reliability is important to me, other things less so.

As I'm no longer working, I hardly call anyone these days, and if I do, I use my Skype account half the time, and  I'm not a great user of mobile data.

In fact the principal things I use my phone for is

  1. receiving verification codes via SMS
  2. calling J to let her know where I've parked when picking her up
  3. a little bit of twitter and email checking
  4. checking the weather
  5. looking at maps if I'm not sure where I am in Melbourne/Sydney/Brisbane

in fact just about any phone would do, but the iphone has a useful ecology round it of extra apps, bump covers, hands free holders for use in the car etc etc I thought I'd go for the iphone and Apple's build quality ...

[update 29 November 2019]

and I get Telstra's wifi calling service in the box - which given the sometimes spotty local cell coverage is a definite plus ...

Friday, 15 November 2019

Documenting artefacts - using a camera instead of a phone

The methodology I wrote up a couple of years ago has proven pretty robust - even coping with with me spilling coffee on my laptop - but the time has come to introduce a change.

Previously I've been using my Samsung Galaxy 5 to take images of artefacts. That phone is now about four and a half years old, and definitely due for replacement. What I havn't decided what I'm going to replace it with, some experiments with my iPad and general frustration at easily getting images out of Apple's walled garden has led me to suspect that if my next phone was an iPhone it wouldn't fit quite so well into the methodology.

However I have a Nikon CoolPix AW100 that was bought second hand on eBay for another project entirely that is as good as the Samsung's camera. Reasonable lens, reasonable zoom, and the added advantage of being designed for use in challenging environments it can be used comfortably while wearing nitrile gloves.

Getting images out of it is as easy as taking the SD card out and plugging the card into an external SD Card reader - external because my work laptop doesn't have an SD card slot, but does have a spare USB port - actually I use a little portable Belkin hub - and copying the files across and reviewing them.

The procedure works fine - the only downside is that the Nikon, like most cameras, uses a sequential naming system for images of the format DSCNnnnn rather than the Samsung's yyyymmddhhmmss format which has the advantage of making the date and order the image was taken immediately obvious.

The Nikon does record the date and time in the EXIF data (as well as the GPS information), but not using the date in the filename does mean recording the image name really has to be done at the time, or more accurately, during the review process, before the individual artefacts are entered into the documentation spreadsheet.

Otherwise, procedurally, the process is exactly the same and works well ...

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

The ipad as a research tool

It probably seems really strange, given it's 2019 and almost Hallowe'en to be writing about using the ipad as a research tool. but last week was the first time I'd used the second hand iPad I bought at the start of the year as an impromptu research tool.

I'd been down in Chiltern working on the documentation project, when I was chased out of the back room due to the unexpected arrival of a large tour group.

Now I'd been researching Karna Vita desiccated ox liver pills - it may not be your thing, but between the first and second world wars pills containing desiccated liver were very much a thing.

They were held to be really good for perking people up, getting extra iron into your system if you were a bit anaemic, and some doctors advised women to take them during pregnancy if they were feeling tired and worn out.

So, having been chased out I went down the road to the local library, which was (a) open and (b) had reasonable free wifi - in fact zippier wifi than last time to do my research.

But rather than drag my work laptop in, I simply took my iPad mini into the library.

Now I'm not a virgin as far as tablet and keyboard combo's for work are concerned - I've been through two seven inch android tablet and keyboard combos in the last seven years, most recently a cheap Alcatel tablet bought from Telstra's remainder shop.

It's around the same vintage as my iPad, and certainly feels as capable, even if the apple slickness is not there - you have to work at integration, but basically it does everything you would want to do:

  • search for stuff of the web
  • capture url's and web pages
  • write notes about stuff
  • export stuff to somewhere useful
absolutely no surprises there and equally so using the iPad - chrome basically is just chrome, and you can save stuff to evernote or one note as easily as anywhere else and apple's notes app certainly frees you from dependence on weird editors, of course it has restrictions - no markdown for example, and it only wants to talk to applications it knows about - and that revealed a little gotcha.

Now you might think, as I did, that if you save something from notes to Onenote, say, via Airdrop, it would save it to the cloud and then sync it back to local copies.

But no, what it actually seems to do is transfer data to the local instance of the application and then leave it to the application to do any synchronisation required.

Now you can see immediately why Apple implemented it this way - make it a universal on device service with a documented interface, and leave it up to the application implementers to work with the service and do any synchronisation required.

Fortunately it integrates with OneNote and with apple's email service meaning that content can be saved easily, or if you don't have the software installed use email to post content, as with Evernote.

Unfortunately, the email integration puts the content in the body of the message, rather than creating an attachment, which means that attachment based services such as sendtodropbox or Epsonconnect, are of little use to you.

And that's the rub. With the iPad, everything is slicker and easier than it is with the Android environment - but that's only providing your'e happy playing inside of Apple's walled garden ...

Thursday, 5 September 2019

X-rays and data access

Data sharing in the real world isn't always all it's supposed to be.

This is a slightly complicated story, but bear with it.

J had some surgery eight or nine years ago to fix a sports injury caused by years of cross country ski-ing. She had it checked by a local specialist in Albury - our nearest big town - just after we moved from Canberra three years ago to make sure it was holding up.

At the time everything was fine, but recently she's been having a bit of pain, so back we went to the Albury sports injuries guy.

Turned out he was moving overseas, like at the end of next week.

So very sensibly he said that even if we got the requisite scans done before he left - diagnostic imaging is outsourced to specialist companies in Australia - he wouldn't have time to do anything about it.

So, what he did was to refer J back to the original Canberra surgeon for him to take a look at it.

Which seem a big deal, but it's only five hours up the freeway, and anyway we're going there next month for a family thing, so it was simple to extend our stay and book in to see the surgeon.

That was when the fun started.

The Canberra guy still had his original notes, and the sports injuries guy was going to send him his notes, but he didn't have copies of the scans.

Medical imaging has gone all electronic and copies of the scans are usually archived by the medical imaging company. If a doctor needs to see them again, he requests an archive retrieval. There's none of the business of carrying X-ray films about any more.

I'm guessing that they're held in some nearline or offline storage.

Now, remember what I said about medical imaging being outsourced.

It turns out that the company in Albury uses a different system to the Canberra imaging companies, and there was no way that the doctor in Canberra could access the archive.

Logically you would think that the Albury guy could pull the file and send it to Canberra, but he's not set up - dropbox for doctors isn't a thing apparently.

Now at the time J had her earlier scan the Albury imaging company had sent us a link so we could download a copy of the image file. Being lazy, we hadn't, after all J's doctor could always request a copy.

So we called the imaging company, who understood the problem and were super helpful.

Their solution was to burn the image to a dvd for us to take to Canberra 😖. (Remember this is late 2019, not 2012)

I'm hoping that the hospital in Canberra still has computers with DVD drives, but just in case, when we get the disk from the imaging company, I'm going to use J's old 2012 vintage laptop which fortunately still has a working dvd-rw drive to copy the image files to a USB stick, as well as saving them to the cloud...

Monday, 29 July 2019

capturing a tweet thread ...

Every day I run a set of automated google alert searches on topics that I'm interested in - Greek and Roman Archaeology, medieval history. Egyptology and a couple of others.

A few years ago these would regularly pick up something interesting on someone's research blog, and I would start following their RSS feed, and I'd also quite often clip and store interesting material into one of my pack rat notebooks on Evernote or OneNote.

Well, it's 2019, and people don't write blogs anything like as much, but interesting things are still happening out there, but quite often what's happening that's cool is published as a twitter thread, and not as a blog post:

For example I've just read a fascinating thread on bringing Ancient Egyptian yeast back to life, which pushed my buttons in so many ways.

But it's a thread and that's a problem - how do you capture the thread to save to an online notebook, or indeed print offline to read on the train ?

Well I've found and used two solutions

Spooler -


Threadreaderapp =

Both work more or less the same, and both produce threads that can be saved to OneNote with the OneNote web clipper, or printed to a pdf.

One little gotcha is that if you have an image heavy thread you need to check that all the images are loaded before either saving to OneNote/Evernote or printing to pdf, otherwise you end up with a pile of blank rectangles where the pictures should be. OneNote's preview function is useful here for checking that your clip contains what you really want.

The major difference between the two is that threadreader doesn't force you to login with your twitter account to use the application while spooler does.

Spooler wants the url of the last tweet in the thread, Threadreader wants the first - all in all Threadreader feels a little better supported and a little more sophisticated, but that's about it - it does offer some options to save and download your threads if you login, but you don't need to.

Both do the job so it's really a coin toss as to which to use ...

Sunday, 7 July 2019

I nearly bought a windows phone ...

which seems to be a very silly thing to do, given that they've gone end of life.

But I thought I had a reason - overseas travel.

For the last four or so years we've used an old Nokia Asha 302, and while it's done excellently as a travel phone, long battery life, good for texting hotels and taxis, it's clearly reached the end of its life.

Increasingly one needs to have something that runs apps for Uber, Grab, some local service you've not heard of yet etc etc.

And that's the rub.

With the windows phone going end of life, you can guarantee that increasingly there won't be a windows phone version of that crucial travel app.

Which is a shame, because (a) you can get a pretty well specified phone for under a hundred bucks, and (b) you don't need to tie it to your Google or Apple account.

But as I said, the need for access to a mainstream software platform kills that dead, so I guess it's a cheap no name android phone and a dummy google account ...

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Digitising magnetic tapes - in house or outsource

Earlier today I posted the following on twitter as part of a conversation as to whether it was better to out source the digitisation of several hundred cassette tapes:

The answer is more complicated than twitter allows, so I though I'd expand it.

Cassette tapes were phenomenally popular during the roughly thirty year life of the tape cassette as a mainstream format. Not only were they used for student party tapes but were extensively used to record court transactions, music, including performances by non mainstream performers, and spoken language. So not surprisingly they form a huge resource for linguists, anthropologists and the rest.

Not only were cassette recorders cheap, the media was also cheap and universally available, be it in rural Turkey or Morocco or in high street discount stores.

The tapes did fail and jam in players, which is why no roadside was complete without a sprinkling of dead cassettes and flickering strands of cassette tape. The fact this is no longer the case is because they're not used anymore - most informal and non professional recordings are on USB sticks these days.

When we visited Sri Lanka six years ago all the drivers we had were already using USB sticks to play pirated Indian and Korean pop music.

This leads to a problem - no one much makes cassette decks anymore, and equally no one makes cassettes in volume, and more importantly these handy little kits you got to unjam, rewind and generally repair broken cassettes.

Searching on ebay for 'blank cassette tapes' does bring up a range of choices, but they're expensive, and certainly not the cheap universal medium they once were. Likewise, it's still possible to buy cassette players, the more expensive professional equipment can be difficult to track down.

So, the the first question is do you have the kit to record the data.

Tape cassettes are of course analogue, but you  can copy a cassette's content to digital media by connecting a cassette player's output socket to the microphone input socket on a pc and using some suitable software to capture the input and perform the analogue to digital conversion. You can buy devices that claim to do the conversion for you, but I've no experience of how well, or badly they perform.

However, doing a simple direct conversion  is probably fine for a few tapes, At a little over an hour for a C60 or and hour and a half for a C90 tape, it will be tedious, but possible. At least you'll have plenty of time to transcribe the label and any other information that comes with the tape.

The problem or course is that your tape player will most probably be at least ten years old, and the tapes will be equally old, and you need to have a plan B, or at least a spare tape player in case of equipment failure - remember the more tapes you have the more likely your old tape player will fail.

Equally, the more tapes you have the more likely tape failure becomes, and you need to have a plan to repair cassettes which break and jam, and you need people with the skills to repair damaged cassettes.

There used to be such things as high speed tape duplication machines which basically ran the cassette through eight or sixteen times as fast, and while you could conceivably use one of these to speed up the digitisation process, but remember that old tapes are more likely to fail and break due to being stressed by being played at high speed.

And this of course means that you really do need to have access to someone who works with the media and can repair both the devices and the tapes.

One place I worked, we had a project to recover and preserve culturally significant tape recordings and we had a couple of people whose job was basically to scour ebay for spares, maintain old tape recorders, and if necessary repair old broken decayed tapes.

That expertise is hard to find - you basically need to find and employ some old school sound engineers who have worked with a range of equipment and still have all their old skills.

That project was now over ten years ago, so it's important to remember as time goes on these skills are harder and harder to find as increasingly all the old school sound engineers and tape technicians are out of the workforce enjoying a well earned retirement.

So, it can be done in house, and if you are already set up to digitise analogue tapes it is a fairly straightforward, if tedious, exercise. Likewise if it's only a few tapes, and they're not critically important you could probably track down a decent quality cassette deck in working order and do it yourself - it's simply a decision as to whether outsourcing is cheaper than doing it in house.

If you've a lot, and the contents are valuable, I'd certainly seriously consider employing a specialist external company to do the work ...

Thursday, 20 June 2019

University news pages

As any fule kno I probably spend more time than I ought to retweeting links to interesting stories - principally though not exclusively ones based on classical and early medieval history.

I actually started doing this years ago purely for my own benefit - in the days before pocket - as a way of saving the url's of articles I wanted to read later. Oddly, some people found what I was tweeting interesting, and started following me, so even though pocket is now a feature of the information landscape I've kept on tweeting.

But sometimes I find an article that is sketchy and unsatisfactory in some way and I try and track down a better version, again really for my own benefit, but if someone finds it useful, well why not ?

If the article refers to a specific researcher at a university I usually try searching that university's news pages as that is where I kind of expect the original press release to be.

Except sometimes it's not.

Sometimes a university's news site is more about how well the rugby team did, or what the vice chancellor had for lunch than the actual outcomes of research, and even more worrying, sometimes all the news is hidden behind scads of marketing information aimed at attracting students (and bring their fee money of course) at a particular university.

And while research ratings are important, they're only one part of the university ranking game, and some university marketing/press departments  seem to be more interested in marketing than communicating.

I promise not to rant on about the actual irrelevance of  university rankings to student outcomes, but given that much university research, especially in the humanities, is funded with public money, I would have thought that communicating the results of the publicly funded research was an important part of the function of university press offices, rather than inviting people. the public, who paid for the work, to have to play a game of guess the url to find the university's research news site ...

(... and of course this has to be done manually, surprisingly a lot of institutions no longer provide an RSS feed)

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The joy of bibtex ...

The project's been chugging along nicely, and I've nearly finished documenting the dispensary and the back shop - we originally thought that there would be around 4000 items in total, but I've already documented around three and a half thousand, and there's still the shop to do.

Recently, one of the groups of items documented was a set of reference books - pharmocopaeias mainly, the earliest from 1914, the latest from 1963.

Too early to have ISBN's, and some different editions of the same pharmacopaeia.

So, how to document them and provide a unique reference, and preferably one that was machine readable?


All the books, and the correct editions, were on the National Library of Australia's catalogue which provdes a handy download of the BibTex reference, which gives us a professionally compiled description of the item, plus a catalogue reference to the NLA's catalogue to allow someone in the future to do a simple double check.

The one exception was a book which I couldn't find in the NLA, or any of the state libraries in Australia, but did find in the British Library, which unfortunately doesn't provide a handy citation export in BibTex format.

I could, I suppose, have downloaded the citation in the BL's preferred format and run it through one of the Endnote to BibTex, or Marc to BibTex conversion tools. but as it was only one entry, downloading, installling, and then checking the output seemed almost as much work as creating an entry by hand, so I ended up hand creating an entry based on the BL's RIS output.

And why BibTex?

Two reasons: (1) it's a common well documented format and (2) as well as being machine readable, its also human readable - more or less - which makes it easy for any future researcher or archivist using the data I've created to be sure that it was this edition and not that edition ...

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

recovering data from garages

Earlier today a former colleague retweeted this:

and strangely, I've been here before.

When I was managing the ANU's various ANDS funded data capture projects we made use of company in Perth that specialised in reading old tapes - in particular for the mining industry, but they would read anything - for a fee of course.

As part of the DC7A project, we used this company to read seismological data that was locked away on piles of DAT tapes that no one could read any more, due to no one on campus having suitable hardware.

As is the way in universities,  a researcher in social sciences, who worked in PNG heard of this.

He'd recently found some old 9 track tapes in a colleague's garage, and he recognised them as likely to hold a copy of some data from the PNG government. More importantly he thought that it might be data that the PNG government had lost as a result of a hardware failure.

Details were sketchy, there were some paper labels that identified them as 9track ascii tapes, but that was about it.

Any way I talked to our data recovery company and they were happy to give it a go.

Fortunately, despite languishing in a Canberra garage, the tapes were readable and were in a straight forward comma delimited format, rather than some old proprietary compressed data format, or some strange format used by some now forgotten data manipulation software.

So the data was recoverable and could be returned to the PNG government.

Now I'm not blogging about this seven years after the event to show how good I am, but rather to show that old data can (with a bit of luck) be recovered.

But to simplify your task do the following:

  • try and find if there's anyone still left who remembers the days of tapes - hopefully they might be able to help interpret the (paper) labels stuck on the tapes.
  • talk to the people who are going to read the tapes. Chances are the tape will be in a 9 track format and be ascii encoded, unless it came from somewhere that used IBM or Amdahl mainframes where it might be EBCDIC
  • don't be put off by people mentioning dead manufacturers like Prime or Data General, 9 track was a fairly standard format
  • When you finally get to read the data, remember that even though it's been recorded in a standard way it doesn't mean that the data isn't in some proprietary format - again if you can find someone who knew about the original data they might remember the name of the software package used
do some detective work, and chances are you might luck out, and don't be afraid to ask questions ...

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Espresso book machines revisited

A long time ago, over ten years ago in fact, I became quite excited about the espresso book machine.

At the time it seemed to offer the promise of small run book publishers, such as your typical small university press, the opportunity to avoid the costs of printing and holding stock, as well as the potential to on demand reprints of out of print books.

Well, ten years on, the landscape hasn't quite changed as I imagined it. Yes, there are various printers, mostly in India, who will do a cheap reprint of an out of print nineteenth century book, by printing a copy of a scanned edition downloaded from the internet archive, something for which you basically need a laptop, an internet connection, and a laser printer, and access to the equipment required to bind a book, which in a low cost country such as India, where labour is cheap and there is a well established book printing industry, it's probably cost effective to have a semi manual process.

But recently I've bought a couple of scholarly short run Australian books. Even though they were ordered through Amazon Australia's marketplace, due to the mysteries of the book trade, they came from online booksellers in the UK, and they had the look and feel of a print on demand book.

Strangely the front matter that contains the copyright statement and the NLA cataloguing in publication data, didn't list a printer, but at the back of the book there was a QR code and the text Lightning Source Milton Keynes, followed by what was obviously a reference number of some kind.

Being curious I turned to Google to discover that Lightning Source have a pretty informative wikipedia page,

Basically Lightning Source is an offshoot of the same company that developed the espresso machine and provides a print on demand service to small publishing houses - just as I thought would happen all these years ago - and what's more the espresso book machine is most decidedly not dead ...

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Not another bloody thinkpad ...

I've recently blogged about how I finally got around to getting myself a new larger screen laptop to replace my old Dell Inspiron, and of course I bought myself an old Thinkpad around about a year ago, which did a stellar job of replacing my official HP Probook when I dropped coffee on it.

Well I've been so impressed by both of my Lenovo machines I've gone and bought myself a Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 11E, one of the old touch screen models you can use as a bulky tablet.

Windows 10, 128GB SSD and 4GB RAM, and a reasonably specified processor - all for around $200. I even get 3 months warranty from the refurbisher.

So a bargain, and quite a rational purchase.

I'll explain why:

To get the most out of my old Thinkpad I really should upgrade it to Windows 10, and guess what, the upgrade cost is near enough what I just paid for the Yoga. Now if that was the only consideration I'd probably just have bought the upgrade, but I've two other pressure points:

  • My Chromebook has gone end of life - no more updates, and gradually things will cease to work. At what point it becomes unusable is unknown but what's clear is that the replacement cost will be around $400. One of my major uses of my Chromebook is reading my email and rss feeds in bed - the Yoga with it's touch screen etc is a more than decent replacement
  • My MacBook Air (a 2012 machine) is probably going to drop off the OS X supported device  list sometime soon. On top of that it could probably do with a new battery - it used to manage a couple of hours between charges, it's now managing barely an hour. A new third party battery replacement kit is around $150 if you fit it yourself, or a bit over $200 if you have a repair shop do it for you. The Yoga is heavier than the air and little bit bulkier, but could feasibly make a decent travel computer, and being roughly the same form factor as the Air will fit in both the travel backpacks I own.
So, at the moment, I seem to own a stupid number of computers. However, the old 2008 vintage iMac I use when working with old documents is showing its age, it's already unsupported as regards MacOS and I expect that Google will soon stop supporting Chrome for that version of the operating system, and it will eventually fade away. 

The Air will obviously last a little longer, but one can see the writing on the wall, as one can with the Chromebook. I expect to keep on using my old unupgraded Thinkpad X230 for another couple of years at least.

The Yoga, being ruggedised for educational use, should last as long, and survive trains planes and car trips reasonably well. It also has a decent thinkpad style keyboard to type on (as good as the X230's) which adds to its attractiveness, so I reckon at $200 it's a bargain, and while $200 is a reasonable amount of money, it's not much more than a night in a decent city centre hotel ...

[update 10 December 2019]

My Macbook started dropping off seriously as regards battery life - a bout 45 minutes max between charges. Definitely heading for the unusable.

However I found a repair shop locally - Moff-IT - who quoted me  $150 for a third party battery kit fitted and tested, which I reckoned was a pretty good deal, because while my Air has dropped off the supported models list, I should get a couple more years out of it - the real determining factor is Chrome and/or Firefox support for online banking. However both browsers currently support OS X versions from 10.9 upwards, so I reckon I've a bit of leeway there.

(My bank is picky about which browser versions it supports, and given that one of the key uses of the machine when overseas is online banking. Even so, it would still be possible to use a tablet for banking and use the computer as a general writing device for some years yet)

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Coffee 0 HP Probook 1

As I'm sure you're all aware, about six weeks ago I was stupid enough to pour coffee over my work laptop.

Well, it went off to the repair shop, and obviously my prompt if panicked reaction saved the day.

It was stripped down, cleaned up in an isopropyl alcohol bath. The processor daughter card was damaged, but that was replaced with a refurbished spare - tracking one down was the reason it took six weeks to repair my laptop, and it's back, almost as good as new.

All the data has survived, not that it wasn't backed up. The only problems are that it seemed to have lost its network configuration data - hardly a problem really, and the SSID was tied to the processor, so naturally excel whinges that it hasn't been properly activated, again something that just requires the contacting corporate IT dance .

Resyncing the data back wasn't a problem either, all I needed to do was download the data from OneDrive to cover the missing days and open OneNote, and tell it to do a sync. Fifteen minutes work at most.

Obviously before I say it's really fixed I need to use it for a few days, rather than a quick click around but everything looks great.

Oh, and if you're worried that you might be at risk of spilling something on your laptop, check out this sensible advice from the NYT...

[The original title of this post was 'Coffee 0 HP Powerbook 1' - complete brain snap on my part, the laptop in question is a ProBook - a 6470b to be exact]

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Power outages and documentation

As a rider to my use of coffee to prove a documentation methodolgy, we had another proof of the scheme's robustness a couple of days ago.

Under the scheme, data is saved twice, once to the computer's local drive and secondly to a USB stick. The data on the computer's local drive is also backed up to OneDrive, and entrusted to Microsoft to look after.

The crucial point is that you don't need a functioning internet connection to carry out documentation - as long as you have access to one somewhere in the piece to back the data up everything is fine as you always have at least two copies of the data - very useful as I found in the coffee pouring incident as I was able to check and confirm that all the data had been backed up.

This time it was the power company. The power went off with an unscheduled outage, and more importantly stayed off. However as I had (conservatively) about three and a half hours of battery life left on my computer and the same on my phone - I use my phone to take pictures of the artefacts and transfer the data to my computer. Normally I recharge my phone as I go from my laptop, but obviously I didn't do that once the power went off - a severe case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

So, with three and a half hours worth of power I could stay working.

Which I did - the only limiting factor was that it began to cloud over in the early afternoon, and the light began to go, making it difficult to work.

Once home, I powered up my laptop, let it sync to OneDrive, and hey presto, we were done and backed up...

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Ok, finally got myself a new computer


about a month ago I finally got round to buying myself a new computer.

Lenovo had a special offer on their AMD Ryzen systems where you got a 512GB SSD for the cost of the standard 256GB unit, and the one thing I'm hungry for is storage.

So I went for it.

Of course as it was a special build to order configuration I had to be patient and wait for it but it eventually arrived yesterday.

Out of the box it just worked. I can't say I took to the slightly shouty voice enabled activation assistant, but, but it all just worked.

And once it was configured, all I needed to do was add the tools I use, much as I last year with my old thinkpad.

Speed to set up, download and configure were impressive, and while the keyboard wouldn't be my first choice (I prefer older clacky ones), it's pretty nice to type on.

The only annoyance was that to install Dropbox, I had to unlink some of my older machines, as Dropbox now limits free accounts to three clients, but then there's also for use with older machines, and I guess I could start using Box more ...

[update 31/03/2019]

which indeed I've done. I've added the box client to my new computer and to my ipad (on which I'd never got round to installing dropbox) - and we'll see how this goes ...

The use case is of course slightly different - when dropbox, box, and the rest first came on the scene there was little in the way of cloud based storage, and sharing files between machines essentially meant copying them between machines.

Dropbox like services' unique proposition was that the files were always in sync providing you had a working connection.

Things of course are different these days. Be it OneDrive, Google drive or Amazon's services there are lots of way to both share files between machines and ensure that they stored securely. For exampl, if I'm working in a library somewhere with my ipad, I can easily save the notes I've written by sending them to OneDrive from pages, or indeed saving them to icloud.

What Dropbox (and the rest) now have as their unique proposition is  now 'save once, sync everywhere' without people having to go looking for the latest version.

Given the chaos I've seen with shared editing of funding proposals, that's a pretty powerful proposition for a group, but for an individual, especially as the first tier up costs the same as any other storage solution - say A$15 a month for a terabyte - perhaps less so.

As I said, we'll see how this goes ...

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Things I didn't know: part 183 - Alt F4 and shutdown

Once, a very long time ago, I used to be a power windows user.

Built and maintained windows based network installs, that sort of thing. Then I got to be a boss and had people to do things for me.

So while I learned and did new things I definitely lost my technical edge. In fact the last version of Windows I really knew anything about was XP, and even then I really just used my XP machine for remote console stuff and getting onto linux machines.

And when you work like that you really don't know a lot about the underlying OS, it's only a vehicle to get you there.

So much so that for the last 10 years or so before I retired I never really used Windows. Ok I did a bit of windows 7 at home, but 90% was mac or linux, and as I say it could have been BeOS as long as it ran a standard, and recent, web browser and you could run an ssh tool without having to put a snail in your left ear and dance round a tree at midnight. Standardish applications were useful, but once LibreOffice cracked Microsoft Office file level compatibility it really didn't matter what you used (unless of course you had to deal with a funding proposal created with some really bizarre Word template),

But I did use windows 7 enough to know about automatic updates and windows' irritating habit of sitting there and fiddling about installing updates when all you wanted to do was shut down and go to the pub.

Of course what you do in a work situation, or at home, is mutter under your breath and leave it to it. That is providing you don't want to take your machine home with you.

I did use to idly wonder what you did if it wanted to fiddle with itself when you were in a situation where you simply had to do shutdown - such as in an airport and about to go through security.

I thought there must be a way of doing it, but never bothered to find out, after all I had a MacBook or Dell XPS with Ubuntu as my work laptop(s).

Well yesterday it happened to me. I've been using my Thinkpad for the documentation project ever since I accidentally dropped coffee on my office laptop. And when you are working in BYOD mode, of course you want to take your machine home with you (not to mention that our NBN FTTC link at home is a lot faster than the Trust's ADSL link, so it sometimes makes sense to finish off stuff at home).

Got the dread little orange shield and exclamation mark thing on shutdown on my Thinkpad. And it was a time when I had to shut it down properly.

So I googled, and discovered all about Alt F4 and accessing the full shutdown dialogue.

And it works. Like a dream.

And you can use the same trick on Windows 10, which is kind of useful to know as I've finally bought myself a new Windows 10 laptop ...

Thursday, 7 March 2019

DNA testing of old family documents

Over the holiday season I spent a bit of time messing about with family history research.

One of the things I found was that if your ancestors got up in the morning, went to work, didn't end up in court, or burn down public buildings, they don't leave much of a trace in public documentation sources like newspaper archives.

Just the same as they don't end up in military records, or indeed convict records. but if they come from a country with a functioning public records system, you can at least trace the shape of their lives back to the 1850's, and possibly earlier, that is providing no one burned down the records office or pulped the records as no longer required.

The other sort of thing one can have are collections of letters passed down. This is particularly so in countries built on the back of migrant communities such as Australia, where people's ancestors may have come from places without a public records system, or one where war, revolution, and ordinary disasters has introduced gaps into the system.

However, even though the records may have gone a lot of places had an excellent postal system, which means that if you have the shoebox of granny's letters when she was still a schoolgirl in the Ukraine, you can trace your missing ancestors - maybe.

Certainly you can trace the aunts an uncles from the contents and perhaps a little more from old love letters, but you still come up against the problem that paper burns.

But if you could trace the DNA, maybe you might get a match from the stamp, or the envelope - sealed with a loving kiss - which I guess might well be driving the move to offer DNA testing of old letters - and that might offer people closure of some sort, particularly if your family was torn apart by the chaos that engulfed places like the Ukraine in the early part of the twentieth century.

There are of course other scenarios, Indian sailors who jumped ship and went to work in a curry house is one that comes to mind, or indeed trace the movements of British soldiers around the empire, and indeed the wives and sweethearts (and perhaps children) they left behind ...

Saturday, 2 March 2019

My Chromebook's gone end of life

This morning (2nd March here in possum town, but still 1st of March in the US) I made myself a cup of tea, fed the cat, took Judi a cup of tea, and powered up my chromebook to read my email.

All what happens most mornings, except that this time a little window popped open to tell me my Chromebook was end  of life and no longer supported.

Well this seems a little ridiculous -  while it's almost exactly five years old, it still works well, does its job.

So my plan is this:

  • procrastinate until it becomes unusable
    • I only really care about email and a couple of web based services
Loading an alternative OS, such as gallium OS or neverware  isn't really an option as my Chromebook is one of the Samsung Eyxnos powered devices - an HP11-1101 in fact and the firmware (it is said) restricts matters as regards alternative OS's.

We'll see how this goes. I guess long term the answer is to buy one of these very cheap eMMC memory based windows laptops - after all all I need is Chrome, and perhaps Thunderbird ...

[update 03/03/2019]

And slightly bizarrely, this morning I got an operating system update, so I guess that in this case unsupported means no guarantees about updates continuing to work, rather than we don't want to talk to you any more ...

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Using coffee to prove a documentation scheme

Last week I did something I have never done before.

I dropped coffee on the keyboard of my laptop while down at Chiltern working on the documentation project.

Being the highly trained IT professional I once claimed to be, I screamed 'Sh-i-i-t!!' while simultaeneously pulling out the power cable and inverting the laptop in the hope that any coffee that had got into the innards would go back out the same way without causing any damage.

Not a chance. It shut down before I managed to turn it off, so I pulled the battery out and then carefully carried it to my car and drove home, where I have minature screwdrivers and the like.

I took the back off, used J's hairdryer on a low setting to evaporate off any moisture and then put the device in an open book shape on our outdoor table on the back deck, out of direct sunlight - as we're still getting 35C in the afternoon I reckoned that should dry it out nicely.

Given I drink my coffee black and sugarless I thought there was a slim chance of the laptop still being in the land of the living, and certainly when I tried to power it up the fan started and it began to boot, and failed on self test, while blowing the smell of java (what else) out of itself.

Probably that meant there was still some coffee trapped inside somewhere, and probably the next stage would be to take the individual boards out and clean them with isopropyl alchohol and blast the case with compressed air.

Well, I don't have a suitable home workshop, so I took it back into work, said what I'd done, about which they were really nice.

The laptop was an old one - you can pick up the same machine from the various specialist refurbishers for something round about $400 - and a little more for one with an SSD in place of the hard disk - and no data was lost, so off it went to a repair centre to decide if it was fixable.

(We have an insurance based maintenance scheme - so basically if it costs more to fix than replace it goes in the bin).

But this of course left me without a laptop to work on, so I went into BYOD mode with the old Thinkpad I bought last year.

I'd designed the whole documentation methodology to be platform and application agnostic - the only dependency was OneNote for the supporting material, and Windows 7 supports that albeit with a different client interface, just as it supports OneDrive.

Despite having previously suggested Gnumeric as an alternative to Excel I decided to use Libre Office Calc as the windows port of Gnumeric is now  deprecated

Libre Office Calc opened the data spreadsheets without difficulty, and easily handled the day to day documentation created in Markdown with CodeWriter.

The net result was a seamless changeover, in fact more seamless that I hoped - everything just works and the Thinkpad as a slightly nicer keyboard to type on.

So, while I didn't mean to, I think I've demonstrated that designing data collection protocols focused on some standard formats, rather on a particular set of tools allows simple migration to other tools, and potentially other platforms, although the dependence on OneNote and OneDrive is a constraint here - but perhaps only to the ideologically pure, OS X and both Windows 7 and 10 support One Note and One Drive, so in practical terms it's not a problem ...

Friday, 22 February 2019

We have internet again ...

Now I've already written elsewhere about our internet troubles, but I'm glad to say we're all fixed now.

It did mean that for a couple of days while we waited for the NBN man we were dependent on our 4g modem, but the speeds were quite usable as long as we didn't stream any content - you could probably run a pop up business on a Telstra 4G modem.

Well, the NBN man turned up when he said he would, listened to my story about the guys working in the street, agreed it was most likely a cable break, pulled out his reflectometer, and voila, there was a break at 33m.

So off he went, looked at the street wiring cabinet, and there it was - our cable was broken off. Quick re kroning job later and we were up and running - time to fix 10 minutes, something I found quite impressive.

Now we were up and running I could back up my last set of data from the project, upload my photos from Norfolk Island, sync things and I was away.

We also got our internet tv service back. And thereby hangs a tale.

Our internet tv box uses an antenna connection for all the free to air channels, which had meant that when the internet died we could still watch them via the box.

Unknown to us it had quietly downloaded a new version of the system before the internet broke, but because we'd never powercycled the box we were running on the previous version.

Now, we'd had a notice from the power company to say that during the week we were aways they would be turning off the power in the street to do some routine work. When we got back we had clocks to reset and so on, but what we didn't realise is that the internet tv box rebooted into automatic configuration mode for the new version of the software, and imediately hung because there was no internet.

Not good design. Ideally it should have a 'carry on without an internet connection mode', to deal with scenarios like this.

Fortunately I'd never disconnected our old hard disk video recorder, which had a separate connection, so we could watch free to air tv via that.

Still, everything's tickety boo now, but the next time I see a cable van in the in the street, I'm taking a picture in case there needs to be some followup ... 

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Newspaper access solved

I've recently written about my experiences doing family history online, and if you've been following my stuff more generally, you'l also know I use Trove, the NLA's  digital archive quite a lot.

What I don't have access to is UK newspapers, or I didn't until now.

Now I live in rural Victoria, and while I knew the State Library had access to a lot of these online, I thought that you had to visit the State Library itself to use some of the resources. (I remember discussions with database vendors in the early days of CDROM networking where access was restricted to a block of ip addresses - something they called access within a single building and I called frustrating).

Anyway I discovered that the State Library provides networked access to a shedload of resources including the Times and the Irish Times archives, but you need to (a) sign up and (b) prove you are a Victorian resident, usually by showing some ID to the membership team at the State Library, or by a more complex postal procedure.

Well, I was in Melbourne for other reasons, so I made time to go to the State Library and sign up for resource access.

I was so curious to see if it worked, that when I got back to our AirBnB apartment, I tried it using my iPad over our 4G modem - and it just worked!

Having spent a good part of my professional life trying to get these things to work I was quite astounded at just how good the service was (mind you, to get the best you probably need something with a little more poke than an iPad).

The service looks to be provided via Ex Libris, nothing special there, and uses the standard ProQuest databases. And it works.

I'm quietly happy ...

router spam (sort of)

I've written before about our new 4G portable router, including its ability to be used like a pager to receive SMS requests.

Well, a few days ago I turned it on, and it told me I had a new SMS. I assumed it was a warning of a planned service outage, so I clicked on it to see if it was relevant to where I was.

It wasn't.

It was an SMS spam message telling me that there was an inheritance waiting for me and to email a totally unlikely looking email address.

Needless to say I didn't ...

Monday, 7 January 2019

I bought an ipad ...

Until a few weeks ago I was possibly almost unique in the western world for never having laid a finger on an ipad in any sort of serious way.

Sure I'd fondled them in an Apple store, looked at them when people showed me documents and images on them, but I'd never used one or owned one.

Not that I was tablet agnostic - I bought myself an Android tablet in 2011, and while I've been through several since, for a long time they did the job - as a notetaker, for research work in public libraries, and a few other tasks.

While most people use a tablet to surf the web and check their email in bed, I mostly use a Chromebook - principally because it has a keyboard and I can write on it, so my tablet use has gradually declined.

At the same time, I've begun to listen to podcasts more and more, and I've got some reference material in pdf's which is mostly digitised nineteenth century directories (family history folks!) and so on.

And with it's sudden wifi wierdness my Pixi wasn't cutting it anymore.

So I bought myself a refurbished iPad mini. They're reasonably cheap, as a lot of them come out of point of sales devices, and since they've usually spent a large part of their lives in a protective housing, they're usually in pretty good order.

To it, I added the logitech canvas keyboard - they were on discount on amazon, I only paid around fifty bucks for mine, and that's given me a device about the size of an A5 notebook on which I can type, listen to podcasts, and do web based stuff, be it research or fun.

I've yet to use it for serious typing, but I've downloaded both a plain text editor and a copy of pages, and I guess I could always use Google docs if necessary.

What I can report is for scrolling through things such as the 1865 Scottish County directory - all 500 odd pages of it - iBooks certainly does the job better than anything I've found for Android, and of course one gets the Apple niceness - one suspects that some of the people who put the environment together wear ties and nicely pressed chinos - which after linux, windows and android comes as a pleasant change ...