Thursday, 22 April 2021

So, how's the dogfood going?

 It so happens that a bit over two weeks ago J managed to do something to a thigh muscle while doing some yoga at home. What actually happened we don't know, but it was painful enough to make her yelp.

Normally rest is the best answer, but over the next couple of days it was pretty painful, and didn't seem to be getting better on its own, so off she went to our GP. 

He didn't know either, so it was off to Albury for an ultrasound scan and physiotherapy to try to relieve the pain of the injury.

The upshot of this is that I've been spending a lot more time in medical facilities' waiting rooms and had ample time to work my way through James Clark Ross.

This has been a pretty good test of using the barebones Lenovo as an offline pdf reader as most medical facilities around where we live don't provide public wi-fi, and of course all the dogeared copies of National Geographic you normally see in doctors' waiting rooms  have been removed and incinerated as an anti-covid precaution.

In practice, off line reading on the tablet was a pleasurable experience, the 7" screen sharp and legible, and scrolling was smooth.

Battery life was pretty good as well, which meant that the device could be left in standby all day without the risk of running out of power.

So as far as offline reading of scanned books goes, this was a win.

Now I'd purposely started out with an item in pdf format and using acrobat, as the automated conversion of scanned books to epub tends to mess up tables and do horrible things to footnotes. In practice I've found the 'as is' pdf version preferable for anything with complex layout or formatting.

But, there's also a whole pile of nineteenth century books available from Project Gutenberg.

And the crucial difference about the books available via Gutenberg is that rather than being scanned, they've been rekeyed, meaning that epub is a viable option as I learned a decade or so ago, when I read Crawley's nineteenth century translation of the History of the Peloponnesian War on a seemingly endless Etihad flight from Sydney to London via Abu Dhabi.

So, given the success of the pdf strategy, I thought I should experiment with an epub reader as well as acrobat for offline reading.

I was a bit out of touch with epub readers on android, so after a bit of googling for reviews and recommendations I settled on Lithium as it was 

(a) lightweight with a simple interface - a consideration when using a basic tablet

(b) the free version was ad-free

(c) it was pretty highly rated across a number of reviews

I've only just downloaded it but on a first look it seems satisfyingly both functional and sparse. I've got to take J back next week for an MRI scan (the ultrasound didn't show anything of significance), and that looks like an opportunity for a decent test of its offline capabilities ...

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

James Clark Ross and eating one's own dogfood


A few weeks ago I wrote that using  a cheap tablet as an e-reader to read digitised nineteenth century texts made a lot of sense financially compared with buying old second hand copies, or print on demand versions.

Now I've always been a believer in eating one's own dogfood - if you say something like this you should damn well go and try it out.

So that's what I did.

I searched ebay for the cheapest most basic brand name tablet  I could find. My only requirement was that it should run a recent version of Android.

What I found was a refurbished Lenovo Tab e7 for $75 (including shipping) running Android Go 8.1.

 For comparison you can find the latest Lenovo budget tablet for around a hundred bucks from the usual suspects, but of course you'd have to go and collect it, which is a consideration if you live in a rural area - there's no popping down to Officeworks or Bing Lee, it's an 80km round trip. 

So, assuming $10 for delivery, my Tab e7 cost me around $65. For comparison, here in Australia, Amazon will currently sell you a basic kindle with a backlit screen for $139.

For my $75 I got a fairly basic tablet with 16GB storage. Performance is not lightning but adequate, and the touchscreen is sharp and reasonably responsive.

It's never going to let you run a scad of apps, but if you're using it as an ereader, basically you need the google books app and a pdf reader. You could also add an epub reader, but for offline reading digitised books from google books, acrobat is probably the best solution.

So how was it in practice?

Well I went to get a flu shot this afternoon, so I took it along with me to Terry White's chemists in Albury. Emphatically no public wifi.

After my flu shot they asked me to wait for fifteen minutes in case I turned green and started foaming at the mouth. (I didn't.)

Rather than watch the guys building extra vaccination cubicles in advance of the Covid vaccine rollout, I pulled out my tab e7 and started on James Clark Ross.

It was pretty pleasant in use - as nice as using a recent model kindle, with no embarassing pauses when you scrolled forward or back through the text.

Battery life seems good enough to get you through the day.

The unit itself is not particularly heavy in the hand it's listed as weighing 271 grams and being about 10mm thick which makes it a tad bulkier than a kindle, but not ridiculously so.

I'm sure you can get a case for it if you look, but I havn't - the protective sleeve that I bought for my old Cool-er ereader fits just fine (The Cool-er of course recently went to the ewaste people for recycling).

As with all these things one needs to live with them for a while to be sure, but I think this might be one of my better ideas ...

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Software creep and James Clark Ross

 If you've been following my other blog, you'll be aware that I've become intrigued by the Lady of the Heather story.

Now I researched James Clark Ross's account of his visit to Campbell Island via Google Books on my Huawei mediapad.

Like many nineteenth century accounts Ross's account of his voyage is highly readable and I thought 'maybe I'll download the pdf and read the whole book later'. 

Nineteenth century books can be difficult to find second hand, especially collecable books like travel books,  and by the time you've bought yourself two or three print on demand copies, you might as well have bought a cheap tablet to use as a dedicated device to read the books on. After all GoogleBooks lets you download the digitised copies of out of copyright books as PDF's or EPUB's.

While my full size tablet has proved incredibly useful I find that smaller format devices are better for portability and can fit comfortably into a small backpack or briefcase, yet the screen size is about the same as a printed book. And of course if you download the content to the device, being somewhere without network access - such as a bus - is not a problem.

Now I have a couple of old 7 inch tablets, a 2014 vintage Samsung Tab Lite and a 2015 vintage Alcatel Pixi-7, both of which were stuck on different versions of Android 4, meaning that they would not support the latest versions of acrobat. However both have the same formfactor as an A5 (paper) notebook - more or less anyway - making them ideal to use as an e-reader.

The Samsung turned out to be just that critical bit older by a few point releases and the latest version of Acrobat it supported had difficulties reading the Google Books PDF. 

Since the device was seven years old, and clearly limping a bit, I decided to wipe it and send it to the e-waste people. ( is an invaluable source of information as to which version of the Vulcan death grip is required to wipe a tablet or phone before disposal)

Amazingly, the Alacatel, despite being a bin end device bought from Telstra's disposal store turned out to be just up to date enough to cope with the downloaded PDF.

So, probably, it's good for a little bit longer.

But the lesson is that software creep does kill old Android devices sooner or later ...

Monday, 15 March 2021

Google Docs on an iphone ...

 I've never seen the point of having Google Docs (or indeed any other text processor) on a phone.

Screen's too small and fiddly, in fact I've found over the years that even on a seven inch tablet, you really need an external keyboard to use a text processor effectively.

But today I realised that I'd been thinking of smart phones as if they were sophisticated general purpose versions of personal digital assistants. (And yes, I was once a PDA enthusiast - wonderful useful liberating machines and now hopelessly out of date)

And indeed phones are highly effective pda replacements.

But of course what they also are are information access devices. Unlike the original PDA, your phone can also access the internet, and by extension, cloud storage.

So this morning, I was in our local post office posting off a package. It was a one off thing, so I hadn't saved the recipient to my contacts file, but cut and pasted his address to google docs and printed off a copy of the document.

I, of course, naturally, left the page with his name and address on the printer.

So when I'd bought a padded bag from the post office and went to write the delivery details in the address section, I had a problem.

So out with my iPhone, install google docs, and sixty seconds later, I had the name and address of the recipient.

This of course only worked because the post office has quite zippy 4G coverage, close to the theoretical maximum.

But it taught me a lesson - you don't need a creation capable device to view content, and you really don't need to print off notes and short emails.

Strange it's taken me ten years to realise this ...

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Learning palaeography ...

 I've previously written that I like messing about with old documents, either as part of family history , or as part of my documenting the contents of Dow's pharmacy.

I reckoned that I had been doing reasonably well reading old documents and pharmaceutical labels, so I decided to put my skills to the test by doing the Futurelearn course on Early Modern Scottish Palaeography.

I didn't bother with paying for a certificate of course completion or anything formal, as I just wanted to benchmark my skills and see how I was doing.

I came away both challenged and satisfied - I can say that I'm not bad with eighteenth century running italic - which is what I need to read Kirk Session records ( and by extension some early colonial period Australian convict records).

Due to the documentation cliff effect with records in eighteenth century Scotland I'm not sure how far back I can push the timeline of my family history - basically if they were too poor to own a horse or a clock, and didn't incur the wrath of the Kirk Session for extramarital sexual adventures - they will not have left much of a documentation trail.

And that leads me on to secretary hand - the style of handwriting more common before the eighteenth century. Scrawly and difficult and peppered with odd contractions and abbreviations. I learned that I could read it, but that if I was to become good at it I'd need a lot more practice, which was as I thought.

But for a short course it was good - three self paced two hour sessions with a mix of videos and written material, along with quizzes to see how you were travelling.

You had to concentrate, but it was interesting and concise. Understandably it was more targeted at people interested in Scottish history, but given that you can skip some of the historical material, that's not a great drawback.

So, if you're sufficiently mad to want to learn to read old records, you could do worse than start with this course ...

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Boot order on a dual boot windows/linux machine

 Department of the bleeding obvious this one.

You might remember that a few months ago I added a linux partition to my old Thinkpad while it was still on Windows 7.

Now, on a dual boot machine, linux always installs itself as the first option in the boot manager script. 

This didn't really matter as windows 7 was no longer supported and was no longer going to receive any updates.

What's more, when ubuntu and its derivatives install updates they always do an os-probe and check what operating systems are on the machine, and rewrite the options in the boot menu appropriately, always putting ubuntu as the first option.

And this all worked well as long as I left the windows partition on Windows 7.

However,the time came when I couldn't delay an upgrade to Windows 10 any longer, so I upgraded the Windows 7 partition to Windows 10.

And not unnaturally, Windows 10 wanted to download and install updates in the background, along with its habit of doing a reboot or two while doing an unattended update.

Obviously, if the first, ie default, option in the boot menu was Ubuntu (or indeed anything other than Windows 10), it would get stuck half way through its update.

Not a good thing to have happen.

The solution is of course simple - always have windows as the default operating system, and remember to change it back after any linux updates ...

Thursday, 18 February 2021

RSS and the Facebook lockout

 Australia woke up this morning and discovered Facebook had blocked access to  news sites as part of the ongoing dispute with the federal government over paying for news content.

The major providers of news, after their initial scream of annoyance, started advocating that you download each of their individual applications so you could follow news coverage.

There is however another way.  After all, you may not wish to clutter your phone or tablet with apps, or you might prefer to work on a laptop or desktop, or just simply want a single application to view content from a number or sources.

You may recall that I recently posted about my continued use of a rss reader.

Most of the major news providers, eg 9news, The Age, the SMH, ABC news, and SBS continue to provide RSS feeds - there are probably other major players in Australia who also continue to provide RSS feeds, as do most overseas news providers, for example RNZ in New Zealand, NPR in the States and the BBC.

Now the RSS reader I use is Inoreader. There are others out there that do the job but I've settled for Inoreader.

I choose to subscribe, but there is a free plan, that gives reasonable functionality, including the ability to post stories and save them to evernote, one note or pocket.

More importantly, as well as the web client, there are iOS and Android applications besides the web client.

I have used both the iOS and Android app on tablets, and they work well. The web client works well in both Chrome and Firefox, and can be used on a Mac, Windows, or Linux desktop, as well as inside of Chrome on a Chromebook.

It's probably easiest to build your list of subscriptions from a web browser, but the subscription list is shared between the web client and the apps, meaning you only need to do this once.

While GoogleNews and MicrosoftNews aggregate news content the content is curated algorithmically and you have no control over the sources, and as a friend of mine has commented, you might not want to read just what Microsoft or Google consider worth of your attention.

Using an RSS reader allows you to curate your own news sources.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Why I still use RSS

 RSS, really simple syndication, was the poster child of content delivery in the naughties.

Today, other than podcast distribution, not so much.

And increasingly, sites, even when they provide something that looks like a blog, don't provide an RSS feed of the content.

And there aren't that many RSS feed readers around, and a number of packages that used to include an RSS feed reader no longer do.

So why do I continue to use RSS and pay good money to subscribe to a feed reader application?

The answer's pretty simple.

I live on the dark side of the world, in rural Victoria in Australia.

The blogs and news sites I'm interested in, usually ones dealing with archaeology and history, are mostly based in either the UK or North America. This means that, during Daylight Savings we're 11 hours ahead of London, 16 ahead of the east coast of the USA, and as for California ...

The net result of this is that when people post interesting things to their blogs or websites I'm hopefully tucked up in bed listening to the possums dance the fandango on the roof.

Using an RSS feed reader means that when I wake up, I easily scan all the feeds I follow for overnight updates in a single webpage rather than checking a whole lot of different sites with different update times. Alternatives, such as twitter, which thrive on immediacy don't really cut it - your immediacy is my 3 am.

In such circumstances the decoupling between time of posting and time of reading that RSS provides is crucial - think of the death of William IV:

On 20 June 1837 William IV of England died and Queen Victoria became, well, queen. No one in Sydney knew this until late October 1837 when the James Pattinson sailed into Sydney Harbour bringing news of a change of management.

This meant that people in Sydney had been toasting 'William IV, our sailor king' long after the old boy was in his box in the crypt of St George's chapel in Windsor.

The time lag seems inconceivable to us, used as we are to doomscrolling every press release and update, but to people then it was quite normal - they got the news of William's death and state funeral, and Victoria's accession all together in a set of newspaper reports in a single October morning, rather than spread out over several days.

And just like news of William IV's demise using RSS to follow events let's me compare reports and follow the story. No it's not immediate, but a lot of the time there's not much value in immediacy, it's what has happened that's the most important thing.

Simples, yes ?

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Extending our wifi

 There's an annoying NBN commercial which pretends to be giving helpful advice about installing your wifi router, which includes the advice to put the access point in  central location close to where it will be used the most.

Nothing wrong with the advice, except that, short of rewiring, you need to put your router within a patch cable's length of the NBN box, which in turn is plugged into what was originally your master phone socket.

Fine if your master socket is in the middle of the house. Ours isn't, it's at the front of the house, because that's where the phone socket went when it was originally installed. The patch box on the outside still has a Telecom Australia logo on it, it's that old.

Now, our house is an 1890's weatherboard cottage with a modern extension on the back.

Originally there was an extension socket in the extension but that was plastered and tiled over when we remodelled the kitchen and built a sitting and TV area on the back of the extension.

This all happened before we had the NBN, and had a Telstra ADSL connection. The old Telstra ADSL router happened to produce a pretty powerful wifi signal so everything worked, even though the unit was at the 'wrong' end of the house.

We did have a bit of ethernet run down from the study at the front of the house to the sitting area, and we connected the internet TV decoder to the wired ethernet. The wireless signal was a bit attenuated so I bought one of these $10 no name wireless repeaters from ebay to allow us to surf the web while watching TV.

When we changed to the NBN and changed ISP's that meant a new router, but everything basically kept on working the way it had.

As a solution, this worked reasonably well.

Except for one problem. The studio.

The previous owners had converted the double garage into a teenager's retreat, even to the extent of putting in a nice timber ceiling and a TV antenna. What they didn't put in was the internet, and neither the wireless repeater or the router provided much of a signal.

We don't use it as a teenager's retreat, in fact J uses it for oil painting, and I store bikes in there.

Rather than use a sketch book, J quite often uses a drawing program on her iPad for the preliminary sketches when working things out so having a wireless connection would be useful.

It would also give me a place to bugger about with old computers and Linux if we had wifi in there.

So, how could we get wifi in there?

Well, there were a number of possible solutions that didn't involve running cables:

1) Reconfigure my old TP-link router that I installed as a backup to our flaky ADSL when we lived in Canberra - obviously we wouldn't need the 3G failover, but plugged into the ethernet connection it could act as a repeater.

2) Install a powerline ethernet connection in the study, plug the other end of the connection into the old TP-link router and locate the router in the studio

3) Use a wireless extender.

Well, scenario #1 would almost certainly have worked. When we lived in Canberra, I could get a signal in the driveway, but having previously had some trouble with the internet tv box and hubs - essentially it likes a direct connection to the router, I decided to leave this to last.

Scenario #2 might have worked. Everything I've read says that it works best if both devices are on the same circuit. The house and the studio are on separate circuits, meaning the signal would have to find it's way via the power box, and to add to the fun, we have our old overflow fridge in the studio.

Again, everything I've read suggests having fridges and microwaves on the same circuit as you powerline ethernet is a bad idea.

Nothing I read said it wouldn't work, but I didn't have a lot of confidence in this solution.

So scenario #3 looked to be the best. The simplest solution seemed to be to put a second no name wireless extender as close to the studio as possible. That worked, but the signal was pretty attenuated and not reliably usable.

So I was looking at going to scenario #1 when I found a guy on ebay selling refurbished Netgear EX2700 wireless extenders for around the same price as the no name units - under twenty bucks including shipping. The Netgear units have a good reputation, and for comparison, the current model costs around a hundred bucks, bought from the usual suppliers.

I suspect the unit had been sourced from China, as the one I received had a Chinese style flat two pin plug and a safety sticker in Chinese.

Nevertheless, when plugged into an international adapter, it powered up and configured nicely, and produced a pretty good signal downstairs in our sitting area,  out on the back deck and a reasonable one inside the studio, good enough for me to stop there.

Moral of the story - if you are in the market for a wifi extender, do your research first. The cheap no-name ones certainly do work, but if you want a serious boost, you do need one of the brand name devices, but as I found, refurbished units can be as cheap as the no name units.

Friday, 29 January 2021

It's alive! restarting the Dow's Pharmacy project ...

 Way back in the winter of 2017 I started as a volunteer with the National Trust, documenting the contents of Dow's Pharmacy in Chiltern.

It was, and still is a fairly large and complex piece of work, and it's taken me longer than I thought it might.

However, by March of last year, it was about 80% done and I was expecting to be done by Christmas, so much so that I was even having preliminary discussions about new projects.

Then of course we went into lockdown due to the pandemic and that was more or less that.

I did ask if I could keep on working one day a week during lockdown, but HR said no for a number of reasons, meaning all I could do was kick my heels and fiddle about with family history.

I'm happy to report that the project's not dead, and even beginning to twitch a little. I've had a positive discussion with the Trust's collection manager about restarting the project.

I don't yet have a date, and they still need to come up with a Covid safe workplan, which given that social distancing in the old pharmacy will be a challenge, but I can see the project restarting in time for a Christmas 2021 finish ...

Monday, 11 January 2021

Upgrading a dual boot Windows 7 and Linux laptop to Windows 10

 Back in June, I added a linux partition to my old Windows 7 thinkpad.

The machine was still, and remained, on Windows 7 as a backup machine to my documentation work of Dow's Pharmacy.

However six months on, we're still in a hiatus because of the ongoing covid-19 emergency, and I'd reached the point where I really couldn't delay upgrading the Windows 7 partition any longer.

So yesterday I upgraded it.

I was a bit apprehensive about doing so as I could imagine various scenarios where the Windows 10 upgrade process and the linux boot manager had an argument, but I needed have worried, it just worked.

It's an open secret that in most cases Microsoft will still allow you to update from Windows 7 to Windows 10 for free providing you have a legitimate Windows 7 install.

I did two things outside of the standard upgrade procedure before starting:

  • I used Grub Customizer to make Windows the default operating system to boot, so that when the system rebooted during the upgrade process it wouldn't need manual intervention to select Windows.
  • I used the Magical Jelly Bean KeyFinder (seriously) to find my Windows 7 license key in the registry, as some comments I'd read suggested that occasionally the upgrade process requested that you re enter the license key. As I'd bought the machine second hand, the Microsoft license key sticker on the base had of course disappeared.
Other than that I just followed the bouncing ball. 

The whole process took about three hours, but at the end I had a working Windows 10 install. 

(When I was researching how to do this I couldn't find any sensible posts on the subject - I've since found one on the Microsoft Community website, but you do have to register with Microsoft if you don't already have a Microsoft account)

As it's on a old thinkpad with a spinning disk, it's not the fastest, but it works, and does the job...

[update 12 Jan 2021]

After the upgrade grub, the Linux boot manager, still labelled the new Windows 10 system as Windows 7. This didn't affect booting the Windows partition but was unaesthetic - I like things to be right.

Rerunning the Grub Customizer to change the boot priorities back to Linux first fixed this - the grub customiser does an os-probe and rewrites the boot menu by default.