Thursday, 17 December 2020

Technology and me in 2020

 Every year or so, I write a little report on how my use of technology has changed.

This year has been, shall we say, different from preceding years - here's how things have changed since 2019.

The successes

The new laptop I bought back in 2019 continues to deliver as does the Thinkpad Yoga, which has turned out to be a useful second machine, even though I have not used it as extensively as I might have in a normal year. 

The same can be said of my old Thinkpad - adding a linux partition increased its usefulness during lockdown, but honestly I've not been using it as frequently as I might have been if Dow's Pharmacy documentation project was not in covid-limbo.

However, it's being on Windows 7 is increasingly a pain and I might look at upgrading it Windows 10 after all.

The undoubted success is my Huawei mediapad - excellent battery life, good screen, etc. I've ended up using it more than I expected and not just for viewing images of old documents - a genuinely useful purchase.

Hanging in there

My chromebook, which went end of life back in March 2019 continues to soldier on, even if it does grind a bit on occasions.

I'd probably have replaced it by now, but with lockdown, shortages and inflated prices it simply didn't make sense to do so while it still worked.

Likewise, I still have my 2011 vintage MacBook Air which still makes an excellent travel computer, especially since I replaced the battery. However, like the chromebook, it will have to be replaced sooner or later, probably by a lightweight Windows 10S machine.

While I took a load of old tablets to the recycling, I hung onto my various old netbooks and laptops that had linux installed on them. In time I need to rationalise the stable, but the time is not yet.

Despite my purchase of the Mediapad, the ipad mini and keyboard combo continues to grow in usefulness as a note taking machine, not that I've been anywhere much to take notes, but it's the ideal size to have on the sofa while reading something.

Domestic technology

2020 opened with smoke and bushfires, and the situation was so dire that I resorted to buying an air purifier. Apart from its slightly odd internet setup it worked well and did the job. So far, we havn't needed it this year, except for a weekend when the fire mangement people did some back burning.

Like everyone, we've watched a lot more TV this year, and our Fetch box with its extra channels and easy access to Netflix certainly eased the ennui of lockdown. Apart from some glitches in April at the start of lockdown, our network connection held up well through everything.

Sometimes I think that I'm the only person in Australia not to have used Zoom. Facetime yes, Skype yes, Zoom, no. However my partner in crime has made extensive use of it for everything from art workshops and life drawing to yoga classes, so much so that I ended up tracking down a good quality refurbished laptop for her principally for zoom sessions from her art studio and when lying on the loungeroom floor for online yoga.

Software and operating systems

It's still basically the Microsoft ecology. I've almost stopped using OS X totally, and even when I use my MacBook Air, I basically use it as if it was a highend chromebook, albeit one with a few extra editing tools installed.

Strangely, my use of linux came back a bit when I wanted to experiment with some things, including a half built omeka installation to showcase some of the Dow's project work. Half built because the second lockdown in Victoria caused me to lose momentum a bit and since then the Trust has invested in a new corporate repository and asset management solution.

I still haven't taken my old Inspiron to the disposal centre, I have xubuntu installed on it and sometimes the slightly larger screen comes in useful when playing with image editing software, much in the same way that my old hopelessly out of date 2008 vintage imac with its 21" screen can be incredibly useful when looking at digitised documents.

In the ideal world I might replace both of them with a decent refurbished desktop and dual screen solution, but for the moment I'll continue to make do ...

Sunday, 29 November 2020

I said I would ...

 So today, finally, after lockdowns and closures, I took our accumulated e-waste to the recycling centre.

Mostly it was bits and pieces, dead hubs, old keyboards and stuff like that plus a gaggle of older tablets - not just my original zpad, but J's old 2012 vintage Lenovo K1, and old Samsung Galaxy Tab, which would still be useful today, except that its battery died and it wasn't worth the cost of a replacement.

Other junk that went was my original 2009 vintage e-reader, long replaced by a tablet with epub software.

I'm still struggling with how to get internet into the studio, or at least a decent signal, so I hung onto to my old Cisco Linksys 2008 vintage wireless bridge and my old 3G router in case either of them turned out to be useful.

I still have a couple of old netbooks and laptops with linux installed, but I'm taking my cue as regards their longevity from Mari Kondo - if they spark joy, they stay, for the meantime anyway ...

Friday, 20 November 2020

Bye Bye Zpad

 Back in 2011, I bought myself a no name (it was packaged as a Zpad) Android 2.2 tablet from China for evaluation purposes.

Android Froyo 2.2, 16GB eMMC memory, and surprisingly powerful. 

At the time when I bought it, the Android tablet marketplace was a wild west sort of place, with a lot of players besides the obvious major manufacturers, and I thought we would see something happen in the tablet market place akin to the PC clone revolution of the nineteen nineties with a large number of cheap devices outcompeting the iPad.

In the event I was wrong. For a little while, it looked as if I might be right, but no, the iPad kept is dominant position in the market place. More because of the software ecology around it than anything else. When I look at my recently acquired Huawei Mediapad, or any of the more recent Samsung tablets, I still find it difficult to understand why the iPad is so dominant, it's certainly not operating system or hardware performance.

Anyway, I was clearing out some of old hardware yesterday - a couple of Sun keyboards, some old PC bits and so on and I came across my Zpad - last used about three years ago - and out of curiosity, plugged it in to charge.

It was slow to charge, but it got there

even if the clock was a little out.

I found I hadn't wiped it since last using it, so I wiped it to reveal the factory default desktop

I left it unplugged overnight, to see if the battery still would hold some charge the machine still powered on the next morning.

Of course, the world has moved on, and it is so hilariously out of date as to be useless for all practical purposes, so I guess it's a trip to the e-Waste centre ...

Friday, 6 November 2020

Scanners scanners everywhere ...

 A few weeks ago I wrote about the advent of cheap camera based  book scanners.

Well, I was in our local post office this morning collecting a package, and guess what, they had one of these fixed focal length scanners setup on the counter.

Our post office does document and id checks and processes all sorts of official business as well as the mail, so it makes sense - when I noticed the device one of the clerks was in the middle of scanning someone's drivers licence in connection with their passport renewal.

Interesting to see how the pandemic has made even the business of government increasingly digital ...

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Adventures in calendar land

 I am very dependent on Thunderbird.

I work on a number of machines, Windows 10 (mostly) Linux (sometimes) and OS X (more rarely than I used to) and I use gmail as mail service and google's calendar to manage appointments.

And, while I'm retired and my calendar is not as stuffed with meetings and things as it used to be, lockdown has embiggened it a bit with scheduled video calls, sometimes across timezones.

Thunderbird has the advantage of working across all the three platforms I use, meaning (a) I don't have to think too hard and (b) I can maintain a degree of consistency.

All good. I've tried (and even paid for) some alternative email clients, but at the end of the day I always come back to Thunderbird. Clunky but reliable - kind of like my 20 year old Impreza.

So, yesterday morning, I fired up Thunderbird to check my mail and see what was on for the day.

No calendar. Thunderbird had upgraded itself overnight and disabled the bit of magic 'Provider for Google Calendar' that makes it work with Google calendar due to incompatibilities,

I was not happy

but as you can see, later on in the day, the problem fixed itself.

But for a time I was without a calendar solution. So, being a tinkerer at heart, I tried some other things


It might well work well, but there's something rather screwy about my outlook installation, in that it won't let me add my gmail account. It's not just me, there's quite a number of people on the various Microsoft fora with the same problem, and the fix most likely needs some registry wrangling.

Life is too short and I had things to do, so I left it there.

One Calendar

Not a Microsoft product but a product from a company in the Netherland that claims to handle multiple calendars from multiple providers. Useful if you have to work across a number of different teams using different calendars.

It's a paid for application, but there's a free version, which worked well as a stopgap, but wouldn't let you print, or do a couple of other things without ponying up.

The interface was bit block and tile like, reminiscent of Windows 8 or Windows phone, but it worked.

Microsoft's Windows 10 Calendar application

I hadn't tried this before, because, hey, I use Thunderbird, but it worked impressively well, with a nice full screen view, handled timezones, and let me do all I wanted . Surprisingly good in fact

Yesterday wasn't a linux day, so I didn't look at alternatives. I have used Orage and Evolution in the past, and Evolution is definitely the more serious product. It was however an OS X day, and I can report that the standard Mac desktop calendar app did the job.

And then mysteriously it fixed itself. I don't know why, I'm guessing the update process got a little out of step, but that's just supposition on my part.

However, what I have learned is that if someone ever gives me a Windows 10 S machine and tells me not to do the one time change, there are standard bundled apps that will let me do my job ...

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Old machines and education

 Way back in May, I wrote about how (a) old machines had vanished off of the second hand market, and (b) why taking an older, less suitable machine, and sticking linux on it was a bad idea.

Not that it won't revive the machine and make it useful, but that it comes with a support cost.

Basically, being a fully paid up geek, and someone who has played with multiple operating systems for years, I can cope with using just about anything. 

That's fine for me, but it's unrealistic to expect a teacher, with no experience of linux, to cope with student using open source products to do their work, or be able to fully support the student.

Basically it would be sink or swim.

To work, online learning needs a predictable environment that gives a degree of standardization. There's no reason why you couldn't standardize on linux, but you need to plan it properly. (Huayra linux from Argentina is an example of what can be achieved with an education focused distribution)

Windows and OS X both offer predictable environments and ones where one can assume the presence of certain browsers - edge and safari respectively and the presence of some standard applications. The joy of linux means you can't do that - while there are a lot of components in common, various distributions are different enough to complicate things, and as I showed some time back, if you are using an older revived machine, you may be using a less than mainstream distribution.

So my heart sank when I saw an article in the Register about taking an early 2007 vintage Macbook (one of the early intel based machines - the article doesn't make that entirely clear) and sticking Elementary OS on it.

Actually, I'm lying when I said my heart sank - I actually thought it would be a fun thing to do, well except that no one's selling polycarbonate Macs on ebay in Australia for fifty bucks - more like a $150, and that's too much for a fun project.

But reviving a machine is only the start of it - if you provide it to someone you need to provide some support, and if you have multiple linux's which do you support?

Consider the start menu. In Xubuntu it's at the top left. Gnome or KDE distributions usually have it at the bottom left, and OpenBox based distros like Bunsen Labs prefer you to right click on the desktop.

Nothing wrong with any of them, but a nightmare to support.

So while I'm all in favour of reviving old machines by running linux on them - basically there are social and environmental positives in doing so, I'm well aware of the support costs involved and why, to succeed, any project needs to have a carefully thought out end user support plan ...

Using an Android tablet for a serious purpose

Recently, I came across a New York Times article on how to get various older computers to be useful that, while it agreed that iPads could be useful, was quite dismissive of using android tablets for real work.

(I've lost the URL, otherwise I would link to the article)(see

As always the problem is what you define as real work. 

Way back in 2012 I spent around a $130 on a Shenzen special seven inch tablet packaged with a keyboard - and I used the device for around three years to take notes in meetings and so on - it was both incredibly useful, and terribly nonstandard, with a USB micro B connector for the keyboard and a separate 3mm jack for charging, but it worked, and I could get a day out of it.

I still have the device - the battery failed and was not replaceable - it really ought to go to the e-waste disposal people

but the damned thing was so useful I went out and replaced it with another cheap tablet - this time an Alcatel Pixi 7 I got from Telstra's disposal shop on eBay for round about eighty bucks to which I added a case with an inbuilt bluetooth keyboard:

Even though nowadays I use the refurbished  iPad Mini I bought a couple of years ago as a carry round device, the Alcatel was a good machine, and you could type reasonably well on it, and save your notes to Dropbox for further processing - as with the Shenzen special I tended to use Markdown to create semi structured text that you could feed through PanDoc to provide something a little more corporate when required, but Polaris Office  also worked well with the advantage of being able to sync to OneDrive or Google drive.

And there I left it, or rather I did until my recently acquired Huawei Mediapad.

Having retired, I no longer have to go to meetings, or at least, not very often, and an A4 pad is usually good enough for notes. Occasionally, I did some research or writing work in a public library, and when I did I used to first use the Alcatel, and latterly the iPad Mini when I didn't want to cart around a full size computer - a netbook or my MacBook would have done, but there's the question of battery life - a surprising number of public libraries provide desks, but nowhere to plug in your device.

Now you might recall that the MediaPad came bundled with Microsoft's Office tools for Android. I had no intention of using as a laptop substitute, but out of curiosity I invested the princely sum of eighteen bucks (including delivery) in a no name bluetooth keyboard

and it was surprisingly good. They keyboard was a little bouncy, but good enough to type quickly on and Microsoft's word tool for android was equally responsive, and allowed documents to be saved OneDrive using one's Office 365 credentials.

As an experience it was provocative - a tablet could be used for real work with a standard application. While I've no intention of using it as a poor man's surface the whole thing worked so well one could imagine doing so ...

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Of bookscanning and image sizes

 J, my life companion, is an accomplished pastel artist, and wanted to put some of her artwork into a competition.

Pre-Covid, this would have meant selecting a picture or two, getting them framed, driving somewhere, and watching someone from the exhibition team put them on the wall.

This year, of course, everything is different. Pictures are photographed, and the images uploaded to the exhibition website, where they are loaded into some gallery software.

Now, what was interesting about this process is that the exhibition organisers said to use a digital SLR for the images, not a mobile phone because of the image quality.

Now, J's artworks are normally something between A4 and A3 in size (that's because that's the sizes specialist paper for pastel work comes in), and for archival purposes she takes a picture with her iPhone, which has an 8 Megapixel camera, and archives them in iCloud, using what I'll call iPhoto (it's actually called Photos these days).

Apart from iPhoto's tendency to produce smaller than expected jpegs on export this works well as a process

Internally, Photos uses the newer High Efficiency Image File Format  rather than one of the other more standard formats to achieve an efficient use of resources using lossless compression.

As always, we can argue about compression, image formats and archiving, but using HEIF is no more at risk of introducing compression artefacts than anything else, and may even be better as it is claimed to be lossless.

Professionally though, most people use cameras for archiving work rather than mobile phones.

We've all seen pictures of archivists using digital SLR's mounted vertically on a stand to take images of old photographs, and obviously when you don't know the exact size of the image and want a high quality image this makes sense. 

But the question is what is good enough?

Well my little experiment using a photoscanning app on a phone has convinced me that a phone produces a good enough image, even if the OCR's result of the text would need a little work:

and there was report in Nature this morning (which I retweeted) about a group of scientists using the Covid hiatus to scan old lab  notebooks

now the interesting thing is that most of the work was done using mobile phone cameras and a phone scanning app - in other words the scientists concerned found the images perfectly adequate.

At the same time if one searches for book scanner Google shopping or Amazon, one gets results similar to this

delving into the specifications one finds that they all use a camera with a fixed image size - the cheaper ones tend to be designed to image only a set page size, usually A4, the more sophisticated 'bendy' ones can be adjusted to scan a page to a maximum paper size - usually A4 or A3. All, or almost all, use either an 8Megapixel or 5Megapixel camera - assuming the better or pricier devices using an 8MP camera, the cheaper fixed image size devices a 5MP camera.

I don't know this, but I'd guess that the scanners are using mobile phone camera assemblies. An 8MP image of an A4 page would give you roughly 300 dots per inch, which is pretty sharp and as sharp as many high quality printed images. (If you are planning to OCR the text, you actually don't want a supersharp image of old typeset pages as these can introduce artefacts that confuse the OCR software.)

So, where does that leave us?

For J's artwork, for a sub A4 image is probably good enough at 8MP and for book scanning it's certainly good enough for OCR.

If your image is bigger, yes there's probably an advantage in using a higher quality camera, but for most purposes 8MP is good enough ...

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Huawei mediapad

 It's no secret that I like messing around with old documents.

Normally, when working with digitised content, I use an old 2008 vintage iMac - long unsupported but still with an excellent screen - to display the item, and I'll  type the notes into a laptop.

I could, I guess, have a single machine with dual screens, but at the moment this works for me. What this solution is not, is portable, which can be a pain when working somewhere like a library (which I havn't done for six months because Covid.)

Now the little note taking ipad I bought myself a year or two ago has become useful as a carry around device - but the screen is a little too small to work with when looking at old documents. 

Given that I normally work off of a laptop, I decided that a standard format tablet would probably be the thing to go for.

An iPad Air would have filled the bill, but not at the price Apple charge for a new one, and decent refurbished items have disappeared off the market.

So that meant Android.

Now if you go to any of the big box stores you have a choice of Lenovo or Samsung, and the items with decent quality displays are reasonably pricy. 

So I read some reviews and overseas people seemed to rate the Huawei mediapad - decent screen, good battery life etc. There's two models and the better specc'd 64GB model isn't currently available in Australia - except that for some reason Amazon will sell you one from Amazon UK via their market place.

so that's what I did.

It only took a couple of weeks to get here. Gratifyingly it was not crammed full bloatware, giving you a fairly vanilla machine to work with. The only problem was of course that it came with one of these bizarre UK claw chargers:

which wasn't a problem as, like most people, I've oodles of spare micro-USB chargers. I've also got an array of international sockets in my workshop dating from the days when I used to play with kit from overseas

Setup is standard Android, and the tablet comes bundled with the Office 365 tools for Android. There's not a lot in the way of unnecessary bundled apps, but the device comes with  Huawei's own app store as well as Google Play. The whole setup experience is pretty vanilla.

In use the device is responsive and the bundled Microsoft swiftkey virtual keyboard is one of the nicest I've come across.  Screen quality is as good as promised, and the device is light and sits nicely in the hand.

Definitely a business class machine despite its low price.

Huawei include their own mail client and 5GB of their own cloud storage but there's no compunction to use them, or their own app store - you can just as easily use your own preferred mail client and cloud provider, and delete their apps off of the device should you prefer.

Due to Huawei being banned from 5G networks in Australia and the recent reported hacks of university computer data, there's obviously going to be some questions around security.

Personally, if like me, you are a private individual, your data is probably no more at risk with Huawei than with any other cloud provider. 

If, however I still worked for a university or a government body, paranoia might kick in and I might think twice about buying such a device, but equally, you can be too paranoid - after all Telstra, no less, sold me a Huawei 4G broadband modem a couple of years ago ...

Equally, if you want to be careful, you can simply avoid installing applications like online banking on the device, or simply access them via the web.

It's a shame that the Mediapad is not better known in Australia. It's a good well made, well priced device that does what it says.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

What should happen when an online journal dies


Over the last few days I’ve tweeted links to a research paper and two news articles, one from The Register, the other from Nature, on the phenomenon of disappearing open access journals.

I must say I’m not surprised.

While I have never worked on an open access journal, I have built a number of data repository solutions for both higher education and government, and was once even on the management committee for the long gone UK Higher Education National Software Archive.

And if there’s one problem with every solution I’ve built, it’s sustainablity.

While the systems are comparatively cheap and simple to deploy – you can build an Omeka instance in an afternoon, and building a non customised Dspace install is similarly quick, production based systems need hardening, security and customisation, all of which requires a small of software engineers – usually about two, and a part time manager to manage the install and deployment of the solution – and because the only metric we have is money, we can say that if deployment takes a year it will cost around $300,000.

Pre-cloud, and pre-virtualisation, the cost of hardware and storage was a significant consideration – nowadays, less so, so let’s stick with the $300,000 annual cost but assume we manage to deploy and get signed off in less that twelve months, and that we are using a virtualised server and cloud based storage. Sure there are hosting fees and storage costs, but you don’t need to worry about redundancy, backups, and maintenance costs for the hardware – a lot of these costs are simply abstracted into your monthly hosting and cloud storage bill.

After you’ve got your solution deployed, there’s probably less work for your deployment team, but they still need to have a role patching your repository or journal system, adding features, and so on.

So while you may not need so much of your repository or journal system team’s time you’ll still need a reasonable bit of it, so let’s stick our fingers in the air and say that the ongoing costs of running a solution is around $200,000 a year.

Remember that’s the cost of keeping it running. It doesn’t cover any of the costs, in the case of a journal solution, associated with managing the publication workflow – getting the submitted paper in, out to the peer reviewers, back from the peer reviewers, updated, revised, returned to the reviewers etc.

It’s quite a lot of work and require employing at least a couple of staff and a journal manager. Obviously, you can reduce your costs by running a preprint server as opposed to an open journal solution. Typically, though, preprint servers do not charge a submission fee, and trust that anyone submitting a preprint cares enough about their academic reputation not to publish rubbish.

Many open access journals work by charging a fee for you to publish your research – for example PLOS One charges a one off fee of US$1350. In the case of PLOS One, a well known journal with high impact scores, they almost certainly have a submission rate that allows them to cover their operating costs.

For smaller journals, and ones dealing with a highly specialist area, it may be difficult to charge a fee sufficient to cover their costs, or indeed achieve a submission rate that generates a sufficient level of income.

Inevitably, that will mean that the cost of running the journal is subsidised in some way by a learned society or by an academic institution, sometimes for reasons of prestige.

Now times are hard in academia. Government funding is grudging to say the least, and in these Covid times, student fees don’t provide the income they once did.

And departmental managers then look at the $200,000 or so it’s costing them to host a journal and not unnaturally think ‘we could get three, even four, postdocs for that, and they might do something significant’.

And so the journal ceases publication.

But of course it doesn’t end there.

To keep the already published content available, you need to keep the server running and patched, which means employing someone with suitable skills. In the old days you could trust that some libraries would keep the old issues on the shelf. With electronic journals it's a little more tricky.

So not surprisingly, sometimes the host ends up killing the whole thing and the content simply goes. Specialist dark archives such as CLOCKSS sometimes ensure that the content survives, but CLOCKSS is no resourced to cover everything, so smaller journals might simply be missed and disappear down through the cracks.

People who start small specialist journals sometimes fail to understand that starting a specialist journal is a bit like owning a cat – when you take on a cat you agree to cover its costs, feed it, take it to the vet, and in return you get affection, companionship and the occasional dead rodent – but the point is that you agree, implicitly, to pay for the animal for the fifteen or seventeen years of its life, and if circumstances change you get the animal rehomed so it can continue to scratch furniture for the rest of its natural life – in other words you have a tacit sustainability plan.

Small online journals need to have such a sustainability plan to cover what happens when the host institution can no longer afford to cover the costs of the journal, including alternative hosting arrangements …

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Using a phone photoscanning app to capture old documents

When you work with old documents and photographs, not to mention ephemera such as labels and packaging, sooner or later you need to make a copy.

Being an utter geek, I've both a flat bed scanner and a film and slide scanner at home, which means I can scan most things, and at the Dow's Pharmacy documentation project I use a little Nikon camera to photograph artefacts. The only thing I can't so is  photograph or scan books, but I do have half a thought to make myself a DIY book scanner. Or perhaps not - basic book scanners are remarkably cheap these days:

But sometimes, when you are out, you come across a photograph or document that you want a copy of. You can't take it home to scan, so what to do?

The obvious solution is to take a photo with your phone, but you then end up fiddling about afterwards tweaking and straightening the image.

But over the last few years, various scanning applications have appeared, initially with the aim of allowing you to easily and accurately scan invoices and receipts, but clearly you could use them to scan anything.

So how good are they?

Well I did some experiments using the Google Photoscan app on my iPhone (it's an iPhone 8, so the camera is nothing remarkable in terms of capability and resolution).

First of all, I scanned a page from an old notebook, and certainly I got a nicely lined up and legible image:

Now we have a copy of the Compleat English Gardener which belonged to J's great^n grandfather who was a market gardener in Barnard Castle in the 1810's. I took a photograph of page 9 and also scanned it with the scanning app.

(top: iphone photo app :: bottom photoscan app)

The photographic image is more realistic than the scanned image, but the scanned image is perhaps more legible, and has got rid of the shadow of my chair. What it does show is that photographs can be perfectly usable, but you might want to use the scanning app to guarantee an accurate image.

I then decided to compare how it handled photos. I've a picture on my pinboard that was taken of us by a photographer friend of ours after Christmas lunch in 2003. Despite showing how depressingly young we looked compared to now, it's a nice test example as it was taken on a reasonable quality Olympus SLR on standard Kodachrome and processed in an automated film lab as opposed to any clever stuff. Despite being taken by a professional press photographer, it was taken on his everyday camera and treated as an ordinary fun picture.

(top: scanning app :: bottom: flat bed scanner)

The scanned image is certainly better, but again the image taken with the scanning app is perfectly usable though a little bleached out - better lighting may help here)

So what do I think? - for documents it's certainly more accurate out of the box and gives more consistent results than simply photographing them. It also does a reasonable job of photographing images, but not to the quality obtainable from a proper flatbed scanner. 

Undubtedly, dedicated equipment will give better results, but where this is not possible, using a photo scanning app may give better and more consistent results than simply using the camera app. As always your mileage may vary and more recent phones with higher resolution cameras may give better results. 

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Using a cheap fitness tracker ...

When I joined the herd and bought myself an iPhone, I discovered that I'd become reliant on using the Samsung health app on my old Galaxy to track my bike rides and cross trainer sessions, and what's more Apple's equivalent app was not nearly as sophisticated.

So I bought myself a $30 no name Chinese fitness tracker that let me track work outs, bush walks, bike rides and so on, as well as measuring heart rate and blood pressure. The tracker came with a nice little app that interfaced with Apple health, which was pretty cool.

So, for the last few months I've used it purely as a fitness tracker for workouts and bike rides. It's certainly not the jazziest, but it does the job, and the data it records is not too different from what I got out of my old phone, so we'll say it's accurate enough - a reasonable indication rather than clinical grade data.

And then, a couple of weeks ago my watch broke. Actually the story's more complicated:

About a year ago my old trusty Seiko died, like never to go again died. So I took to wearing a minimalist black plastic Swatch I'd bought for travel and rough stuff as my everyday watch. And as always happens with plastic watches, the strap died long before the watch did.

The simple solution was to get a replacement strap and the poky tool to get the pins out, but this of course all took time, and in the interim I used a $10 unbranded army style watch I'd bought off ebay a couple of months ago.

Well $10 watches are fine - some I've bought for everyday use have lasted two or three years. This one wasn't one of them. It stopped and the battery wasn't easily replaceable.

So this left me without a watch. Now I live in rural Victoria and the nearest town with any decent watch shops is in NSW and inaccessible due to the COVID-19 border closure. The local pharmacy has some overpriced shiny no name watches, and that's about it.

So I held my nose and bought a watch from Amazon. Stupidly, I failed to notice that they were shipping the watch from Canada, so instead of being without a watch for two or three days, it was potentially two or three weeks.

Now, I still like a watch to know the time, so I decided to start wearing my fitness tracker all the time.

And that was quite interesting - turned out that I was more active than I thought I was, and that my resting heart rate and blood pressure were lower than I thought. The latter being of interest as I've always had blood pressure at the high end of normal, and doctors periodically like to give me the healthy lifestyle speech as a consequence, and don't want to hear when I tell them it's probably genetic, and that when I regularly ran 10km it was still the high end of normal.

But I digress. What was it like in daily use?

Surprisingly good - battery life was good, running for three or four days without having to be charged - which was a blessing because the charger clip - basically a large USB crocodile clip with two prongs that need to be positioned just so, was incredibly fiddly to use.

Basically it told the time. Features like vibrating when you got a new mail message were less useful - the screen really was too small to read, and of course you have to be in bluetooth range of your phone - like you can  hear your phone ping.

I suppose if you had your phone on silent in your bag when you were in a meeting, or else somewhere noisy like a train station it would be a useful feature, but for me, less so. I didn't test how well it's claimed ability to start and stop your music play list or remotely operate your phone's camera worked.

The heart rate and blood pressure monitors use the standard flashing light technique, which meant that you had to have the band pretty tight to get a decent reading.

Other than that, it did the job - and did it well. My major gripes were (a) it was IP27 rated, and not fully waterproof - something to bear in mind nowadays when we're all scrubbing our hands so much, and (b) the device was designed to be worn on the inside of the wrist, rather than the outside.

However, these aren't major criticisms. I came away quietly impressed how well a $30 fitness tracker worked in daily use. In fact it did the job so well that it's not clear to me why you would use one of the more expensive named brand  models unless you were engaged on a serious training regime...

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Which linux should I run on an old netbook?

I was always a fan of the netbook concept – small format, low power and highly portable machines with a decent keyboard to type on.

In the days when I used to go to interstate meetings, I often used to take a netbook in preference to my bulky 15 inch Mac laptop, and travelling – for years we used a netbook in preference to a full size computer.

Good enough for online banking, travel journaling, uploading photos, emailing and the rest. It’s no surprise that I still take a 2011 vintage Macbook Air with me when I go travelling – robust, light, reliable, and so much less hassle to unpack, put through the scanner, repack.

However, the market disagreed with me as to the superiority of netbooks, and while the netbook had a final flourish as an ‘ultrabook’, by 2013 the concept of the netbook was pretty much dead. The iPad had eaten the netbook’s lunch and tipped the waiter on the way out.

The reasons as to exactly why this happened are complex, but a lot of blame lies with the consumer sentiment. The original Eee netbook was a linux based machine which was pretty efficient at extracting the maximum from a low powered machine with relatively little in the way of memory or storage.

Unfortunately, most people preferred Windows over Linux. Due to the extra costs incurred due to licensing windows, manufacturers tended to cut corners using lower cost processors and installing less memory in machines.

Some also tried to produce low cost models to compete with the iPad – unfortunately in trying to compete they often ended up with an underspecified device.

Microsoft didn’t help by offering a cut down (restricted capability) edition called Windows 7 starter to netbook manufacturers at a lower price.

Windows 7 starter was only 32 bit, and would only use a maximum of 2GB memory.

Even so, some machines came with only 1GB, and were pretty slow as a consequence. Upgraded to 2GB they were reasonable, but not fantastic.

Ultrabooks used to be a bit better specified with better processors and capable of running a 64bit operating system. However, while upgradeable, a lot shipped with only 2GB of memory.

Now none of this would matter, most netbooks have long ago been sent to the recycler, or shoved on the top shelf of the book case in the study and left to gather dust.

Except that now, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, all sorts of old machines have been pressed into service as second computers, computers for the kids, and so on.

And netbooks have, on the whole, been found wanting.

Most of the 32bit machines can accept a maximum of 2GB RAM – and remember that these are ten year old machines. Finding suitable (recycled) memory can be hard, assuming you have the technical skills to identify the right sort and install it. Equally so for the older 64 bit machines.

The obvious solution (to me at least) would be to install a version of Linux that works well on old machines with minimal memory and processor power.

Rather than anything exotic, I would go for an out of the box version that provides you with a set of standard tools that lets you do real work:

  • an office suite – usually Libre Office
  • an email client – which if you use Gmail, effectively means Thunderbird
  • a modern web browser compatible with online banking – usually Firefox
Having a modern web browser also means that you can use online services such a Google Docs, and services such as Evernote or OneNote that are not available on linux, but provide a web client.

Just to muddy things, there’s a problem – the two dominant desktop distributions of linux, Ubuntu and Linux Mint, have recently stopped distributing 32bit install sets meaning that you are either locked into an old version, or that you have to go elsewhere.

So where to go?

Just for fun I decided to look at some 32 bit only installs and see what they were like. My choice is completely arbitrary, I simply picked some that were mentioned online as suitable alternatives:

  • BunsenLabs linux – the ‘official’ successor to CrunchBang
  • CrunchBang plus plus – another Crunchbang successor
  • Lubuntu – the last major Ubuntu project to offer a 32 bit distro
  • Bodhi linux – wonderfully eccentric and non standard

BunsenLabs Linux

I actually use this on my old MSI netbook with 1GB of RAM. Installation was relatively straightforward, and running the ‘extras’ post installation script installs Libre Office 5 and a few other applications.

BunsenLabs linux running Libre Office (and the screenshot tool )

Strangely it doesn’t come with a mail client but this can be easily rectified – thunderbird installs and works well.

The interface uses OpenBox which is fairly austere, but is efficient and does the job:

Bunsen Labs default desktop

Where can I get it:

Crunchbang plus plus

I didn’t test this on a real machine, instead I used virtualbox and built it on my test machine.

From my install notes:
- debian derived like the original crunchbang and bunsenlabs linux
- uses old text installer as in debian and early versions of ubuntu
- reasonably fast to build
- runs an update script on install to update software and install extras
- install script prompts for printer support, java runtime and libre office install
- if you do not install libre office left with abiword and gnumeric for office apps
- also prompted if you want to install extra development tools
- very similar to bunsenlabs and the original crunchbang, but perhaps not so polished
- does not install an email client by default
- startup and shutdown are old-school verbose, which may appeal to some

What does it look like?

Crunchbang default desktop

Extras install script

and running abiword ...


The only reasonably mainstream ubuntu project to support 32bit. Actually that’s a bit of a lie. The official Lubuntu site distributes a 64-bit only version.

However there’s also an unoffical site, that continues to distribute Lubuntu 19.10, the last 32 bit version. This was the version I installed and tested.

Again I used virtualbox and built it on my test machine.

As with all things ubuntu, one boots the live cd image and then clicks on install:

The installer is nicely graphical and after a reboot one ends up with a very clean looking desktop

All the standard applications, including libre office, come pre installed:

Where can I get it:

Bodhi Linux

I last looked at Bodhi Linux back in 2015, when I used a pre rolled images from
This time however I built it from scratch using my test machine, using virtualbox.

This was the smallest cd image to download and the quickest to install:

bodhi default desktop

The reason why the small image and quick install was that no applications are installed by default leaving you to install applications on a case by case basis. For fun I installed abiword to test the install process:

and once installed:

all pretty standard, but means that installation of applications could be a pretty tedious exercise. Fine for building a lighweight system, but not ideal for where one wants to just install a system once and get on with what you’re doing.

Where can I get it:

But I’ve got a 64-bit machine ...

As I’ve said above, there are also some ultrabooks out there, some with only 2GB RAM and Windows 7, and a fee others, which have been upgraded to 4GB RAM, as seen in this screen grab from eBay:

Given that you might want to upgrade them to linux, especially if you have a Windows 7 machine – which distro should you choose?

Basically, you can choose anything, you could even deploy the 64bit version of one of the 32 bit distros mentioned above, or you could try something more mainstream, but with a lighter weight window manager.

If you want something well supported, your choices come down to the Linux Mint XFCE version – Ulyana – or Xubuntu.

Technically, there’s not a great deal to choose between them – both are built on an Ubuntu 20.04 core and use XFCE as a window manager.

I use Xubuntu on a lot of my linux devices, and can report that its fully featured, easy to install and robust.

I’d never played with Linux Mint before now, so I built a version on my (Xubuntu) test machine using virtualbox.

Everything just worked, and the installation process was very ubuntu like. Without having done any extensive usability testing, I came away with the feeling that perhaps Mint was slightly more user friendly, but as always your mileage may vary.

Xubuntu …

Mint …

and what it looks like in VirtualBox …


If you’re looking for a second machine, try and pick up a 64bit device, even if it’s short on memory – at the very least you should be able to run something like Xubuntu or Ulyana, which will both give you a good user experience and ensure that you can get stuff done without worrying overmuch over support.

Some packages, eg Notable, don’t provide a 32 bit version. Using a mainstream distribution should ensure that everything stays working and up to date.

If you’ve no alternative than to use a 32 bit machine, it’s a bit more tricky. Of the distributions reviewed above Lubuntu 19.10 is undoubtedly the best in terms of support but personally I would go for one of BunsenLabs or Crunchbang Plus Plus due to their low resource use overhead. Be aware though that some of their software repositories may not be as up to date as Lubuntu’s. Also as 19.10 is the end of life 32bit version of Lubuntu, it may not be an ideal choice if you wish to use the machine for more than a few months.

As for Bodhi Linux, my view is that it’s definitely one for the enthusiast, and really only a tenable choice if you want to teach yourself about Linux internals rather than simply trying to get stuff done ...

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

How I added a Xubuntu partition

Below are a set of notes I made while adding a Xubuntu partition to my Windows 7 machine.

They are my rough working notes - use with care!

How to add a Xubuntu partition to a Windows 7 machine

This is not a guide it's a note that I wrote as reminder to myself. 
It is not a definitive set of instructions. 
As always your mileage may vary.
Playing with partitions can be destructive and you may lose data or 
brick your machine if things go wrong. 

Think carefully before doing this and make sure you have a backup of your data

Assess your machine

I have only done this on machines with a traditional hard disk - 
this has not been tested on an SSD based machine
  • check the size of the existing hard disk
    • you will probably need between 75 and a 100GB to make a usable Xubuntu partition for useful work. If you just wish to use it to run a quick start web browser and a basic editor 50 to 75GB may be enough
    • check the amount of data currently used by windows. To give yourself adequate headroom double it for the partition size
    • thus if you have a windows machine with a 300GB disk, and you have used a 100GB, you would give 200GB to Windows and 100GB to Xubuntu
    • Do not reduce the size of the Windows partition below 75GB
  • check that you can boot your machine from a usb device and the bios is not locked in some way
    • Dell machines usually require you to press F12 when the Dell logo appears during startup
    • Lenovo thinkpads usually prompt you to press Enter during startup
    • use Rufus to make a bootable volume - Rufus can be downloaded from
    • slightly outdated documentation on using Rufus
    • download the Xubuntu 20.04 LTS iso file from
    • using a blank USB drive (minimum size 8GB) use Rufus to write a bootable USB stick
    • on the machine that you intend to install the partition, boot from the USB stick
    • verify the stick contents pass self test and the system boots into the Xubuntu environment
  • click on Try Xubuntu and check basic functionality
    • check the mouse works
    • check the keyboard works
    • check wi-fi works (you will need your wi-fi password)
      • performance may be slightly slow, especially program load as you are running off a usb stick
    • reboot the machine

Installing Xubuntu

  • power cycle and boot your machine from the USB stick
  • click on Install Xubuntu
  • answer the questions to specify keyboard etc
    • procedure detailed at

  • specify the partition table size by dragging the slider to adjust the sizes in line with what you originally decided
  • answer the scary questions about whether you really want to do this
  • wait while xubuntu resizes the partitions
  • continue the installation process
  • remove the boot media and reboot
  • Boot into Xubuntu and check everything works

    • check the mouse works
    • check the keyboard works
    • check wi-fi works (you will need your wi-fi password)
    • reboot the machine

    Boot into Windows and check everything works

    • run chkdsk when prompted
    • log into windows when prompted
    • check everything still works
    I found I had to reinstall OneDrive and do a resync - unsure if this was due to repartitioning the disk or if it was broken anyway
    • you’re now done - enjoy (remember you may need to install additional applications and configure printing on your Xubuntu install)

    Monday, 15 June 2020

    Adding a Xubuntu partition to a production Windows 7 machine ...

    Windows 7 was in many ways an admirable operating system, but one of its major problems was its slow startup and shutdown times,

    On a desktop computer, this didn't matter much, basically you never bothered to reboot them unless necessary  and then a restart or planned shutdown was an excuse for an extended coffee break or informal meeting. However on a laptop being used as a portable machine it was a pain - while there were tricks like Alt-F4 to force a quick shutdown when running for a flight, startup was always tedious - I've lost count of the number of times I've spent making polite conversation to people while my laptop booted.

    Windows 10 is much better - faster startup, faster shutdown, and no irritating mandatory updates at inappropriate moments.

    Well, the old Thinkpad X230 I bought a couple of years ago is still stuck on Windows 7 due to its role as a backup machine for the Dow's Pharmacy documentation project, and is probably not worth upgrading to Windows 10, given that I always intended it to become a linux machine after the end of the project.

    Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 lockdown, I've lost nearly three months, and instead of being finished sometime around the end of winter, January next year looks more realistic.

    The machine is quite a nice machine to work with in an extended session but a pain for a quick looksee operation due to the slow startup time.

    After my success making a dual boot work machine, and given that the disk was only about 25% full, I decided to sacrifice around 100GB of the unused space to make a Xubuntu partition - I could probably have made it smaller if I had to, but I had the space anyway.

    The idea was to build a quick boot partition and add a minimal set of applications to allow for work in a quick startup/quick shutdown situation.

    This isn't an original idea. HP to name but one, used to sell laptops where you could boot into what they called Quickweb - a minimal web based environment to allow you to check email etc.

    So, to do this I used the repartioner in the Xubuntu installer to shrink the windows partition, and did a vanilla install of Xubuntu - this gets you Firefox, Libre Office, Thunderbird, and the Ristretto image viewer in the box - essentially all you need to do useful work.

    To this I added Focuswriter for quick distraction free writing, ReText for MarkDown editing, and Notable as a way of grouping together notes.

    I didn't install printing and I reckon that material can be uploaded or downloaded from OneDrive/Google Drive/iCloud as required via a web browser.

    Making the Xubuntu partition just worked. Utterly unexciting.

    Shrinking the Windows partition also worked smoothly. As always, it wanted to run chkdsk afterwards to verify the volume integrity - which it passed with flying colours.

    The only problem I found was that the OneDrive widget had gone stupid on me and required to be reinstalled - whether due to my shrinking the partition or some other cause I don't know, and this then required a massive resync with the cloud instance - all 64 GB of it - which took several hours.

    Painful, tedious but ultimately a fairly straightforward mechanical process.

    However, in the end it was worth it - I still have an alternative machine to keep working with should disaster strike the project machine, and I also a have quick start linux based machine to get work done in these boring half hours waiting for trains that never come ...

    Friday, 5 June 2020

    Notable ...

    When I built my Xubuntu machine for research I suggested installing Standard Notes as a notes management application.

    I didn't install it at the time but yesterday I started a little project on the Yelverton case to track its coverage through newspapers of the time.

    I'd forgotten how sparse and featureless Standard Notes was without a paid subscription, so much so that it was useless to me. I guess I could have used CherryTree, which I've used in the past, but instead I though I'd try Notable, which has a feature list similar to that of CherryTree back in 2017 when played with it, but with one important addition - MarkDown support.

    For some people this might well be a hindrance, but given that I usually use MarkDown when writing notes to give myself some semi structured text, to me it's an advantage.

    There's also a windows client, meaning that if you add Google drive support to both your Xubuntu and Windows machines you can share the database between the two machines.

    I havn't played with it extensively yet, but from a bit of work I did yesterday, it's looking good ...

    Sunday, 31 May 2020

    Making a wordcloud for the Waterloo Bridge mystery

    Remember wordclouds?

    A few years ago they were incredibly popular as a way of visualising the key themes in a document.

    Just for fun, and out of curiosity, I decided to use the accounts from the Mount Alexander Mail of the murder and the inquest to pull our the key themes.

    There's nothing special about using the Mount Alexander Mail - they had more or less the same syndicated reports as other newspapers, but the OCR'd text in Trove was among the cleanest.

    For the wordcloud software I used the IBM java wordcloud package - the same one as I used some years ago, and which I'd forgotten was (a) tortuous to install - for some reason my Xubuntu machine did not install OpenJDK 8 as a default (b) needed  some modifications to the startup script to work on Xubuntu, but I got there - you can see the results from working with the defaults stopwords file at the top of this post

    I then 'borrowed' a stopwords list from a nineteenth century literature research site, rather than using the default, and came up with a slightly different wordcloud:

    I don't think you actually learn much from either wordcloud, other than the stories were concerned with bones, blood, the bag, and the clothes, but it was a fun exercise for a wet and blowy Sunday afternoon ...