Saturday, 18 September 2021

Cats, polecats and good ideas

 Here on the east coast of Australia we still have a native predator called a quoll.

They're not very common but they can be found in remote areas in east Gippsland and on the edges of the Snowies.

In the nineteenth century the early settlers sometimes called them native cats, just in the same way wombats were sometimes called native badgers - due to wombats excavating large burrows like badger setts than any physical resemblance.

But quolls?

Well they don't really look like cats, more like European polecats.

European polecats are also pretty rare these days, but when I worked at the Field Centre in mid Wales, there was a guy trying to work out how many were left, and he had a couple in a cage that had been hit by cars.

So not only have I seen the pictures, I've seen live polecats and can confirm that they really do have a marked odour.

So, were the early settlers thinking about polecats when they called quolls native cats?

The answer's probably unknowable, but if we had more references to native polecats in the first have of the nineteenth century and more to native cats in the latter half we could say maybe with some justification.

So, using Tim Sherrat's querypic to search for the phrase native polecat what do we see?

Looks promising, with the phrase being more common earlier on.

But if we search for native cat we see something similar

which is not quite what  I expected. In fact if you graph the two queries together you find that native cat has always been a much more common usage

so, it was a good idea, but one that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Incidentally if you graph native cat against quoll you see something quite similar

with the phrase native cat predominating over quoll.

The Trove corpus of digitised newspapers only goes as far as 1950, so this means that the name quoll only came into common use sometime after 1950, which is exactly what you would expect, given that it was not until the 1960's that David Fleay campaigned successfully for the name quoll to be used in place of the older colonial name of native cat ...

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Wm Docker and straw hats

 In our collection at Dow's we have glass bottle embossed Wm. Docker Sun Brand

which looks like a late nineteenth century or early twentieth century medicine bottle. I'm not alone in this, the WA Museum has a similar item in its collection - but unfortunately, no image:

which is fine, except for the fact that William Docker was known as a varnish and lacquer manufacturer, which begs the question as to why a bottle from a varnish maker was in a pharmacy.

When I documented it back in 2018, my best guess, and it was only a guess, was that the bottle had originally contained linseed oil, which is not only used in varnish manufacture, but was sometimes used as dietary supplement and also in in animal husbandry - in fact you can still buy linseed oil capsules today.

But I now have another idea. The bottle originally held dye for straw hats. 

And for that hypothesis I have to thank ebay.

As I've written elsewhere, ebay can be a useful research resource, as collectors and bottle hunters often advertise old bottles and ceramic pots for sale, although often unprovenanced.

Well I was idly surfing ebay and I came across these two items, which were described as straw hat dye bottles:

and they clearly the same as the Dow's bottle.

Hat dye for straw hats makes sense as it allowed one to add a little colour to one's outfit.

So did William Docker make hat dye?

Well google was completely unhelpful, wanting to sell me a straw hat, including those by a certain well known manufacturer of men's apparel, but Trove came up trumps, including this advert from the early 1920's

So, while on one level it's all hand waving - after all there's no label or evidence to connect 'our' bottle directly to hat dye - circumstantially it fits, and a country pharmacy might well be where one might go to buy hat dye ...

Monday, 30 August 2021

Search engines being helpful ...

 A good part of my work documenting the contents of Dow's Pharmacy involves chasing down and documenting old pharmaceutical companies and products.

Some are easy, some are difficult and some doubly so because either the name has been reused by a later, better known product - sometimes overseas - and sometimes because the name resembles a well known name and search engines increasingly have an auto-correct like capability.

I'll give you an example.

Over the weekend I did some family history work and needed to research a farm in Angus, Scotland called Burnmouth of Kintyrie.

Traditionally east coast Scottish farm names in the form X of Y mean either a house or smaller property associated with either a larger fermtoun or even a small community.

So to keep things simple I searched for the fermtoun name alone as they tend to persist while houses and smaller subdivisions can disappear, especially in the last fifty years or so as farms increasingly became larger, more mechanised and reabsorbed subdivisions.

So what did I find?

Well, everyone uses Google don't they?

Helpfully, by default, it assumes that I meant the more popular Kintyre, on the other side of the country, and not what I was looking for.

Microsoft Bing is not much better:

and bizarrely, the best is Yandex:

which is not the answer I would first have thought of.

Now, there's a problem here. I'm aware of the problems of search engines and know of various tricks to to sharpen a query, but a lot of people don't, and there's quite a bit of evidence that most people only look at the first page of results.

Search engines are basically advertising supported, which of course means that it is in their interests to be 'helpful' and provide answers that not only provide them with revenue but actually answer more common queries and take account of common typos etc.

Not what you really need when trying to research a particular item, location or whatever.

The problem is easy enough to work round, but I've the impression, and only the impression, that it's become more of a problem in the last eighteen months or so ...

Sunday, 29 August 2021

Another use case for google docs on an iphone ...

 Way back in March, I wrote that I had finally found a use case for installing Google Docs on an iphone.

I've now found another use case for Google Docs on an iphone.

Here in regional Victoria we're currently in lockdown, as we have been, of and on, since March last year - while we've had quite long periods where we seem to be on top of the virus and can have something like the life we used to have, it's been punctuated by periods under lockdown when there has been an outbreak.

One of the lockdown rules we have in Victoria (and it may be different where you live) is that only one person in a household can go to the supermarket at a time, and then only once a day - a measure aimed at reducing community transmission.

Now, before the pandemic, we usually used to do our shopping together, and basically we didn't plan - we used to make it up as we went along, buying what looked fresh and good, plus the basics. 

This of course meant sometimes we bought too much, and sometimes we forgot things.

Come Covid, we couldn't be so slack about things, so we took to maintaining a Google Docs shared document to which we added items as we ran out of them, plus anything else needed - basically a living document.

When one of us did a supermarket trip or an online grocery order, we'd print the document out, scribble any last minute amendments on it, and then use it as either a shopping list or as document to work from to build an online grocery order.

Nothing that unusual in this, except that, as we had been historically crap at lists we would miss things leading to flurries of last minute text messages of the 'can you get?' kind.

Well, we can't do much about the online orders - shouting Rinseaid! from the kitchen works as well as anything else when it comes to last minute updates.

Supermarket trips are something else. Remember the one person once a day rule.

That means that you can't go back and get something if you forget it first time around.

The geeky answer we've come up with is to update the Google Docs shopping list online - no more illegible scribbled additions - and the simply view it on the phone rather than printing it out.

Now I'm sure we're not the first to do this - after all, despite not being very good with lists we've been emailing shopping lists to each other and using PDA's for shopping lists since the start of the century - I was once stopped in the Marks and Sparks food store in York some time around 2001 by one of the store security personnel for walking round a store with a palm pilot doing our shopping. For the record, when I showed them what I was doing they were absolutely fine about it.

What is different this time  from simply passing a document back and forth is the shared editing of a living document meaning that additions can be made in real time, rather than simply viewing a static instance of a document - which may of course be out of date.

Ok, it's incredibly geeky as a solution, but it works (for us at least).

Friday, 20 August 2021

Documenting offline ....


Well, for the moment, we're out of lockdown, which means back down to Dow's for a day of documentation.

So, off I went last Wednesday to record some artefacts - like the 1930's hair removal wax (pictured above) still in its packet - only to discover when I got there that the internet was down - probably just the router needing a reboot, but as I don't have a key to the router cupboard it might as well have needed exorcism after having been beset by demons from the deepest circle of hell for all I could do about it. It didn't work and that was how it was going to stay.

This didn't worry me as, I knew from previous experience that my methodology works offline, and so it proved again. Which was rather pleasing as it meant that the procedure was still robust and there had been no creep.

Perversely, I wished that I had thought to bring my portable internet modem as I'm still looking for a real world case to prove that it will work using a 4G connection in place of either an ADSL or NBN connection. No reason to think it won't, it's simply a matter of checking for performance or some unsuspected gotcha.

But for the moment I need to research some 1930's cosmetics ...

Friday, 13 August 2021

Fruit Bread and the great forgetting

 Last weekend we made some fruit bread in the bread maker.

We didn't do it from scratch, we used a pre mix kit that we had bought in Castlemaine some embarrassingly long time ago that we found at the back of the kitchen cupboard.

Why it was still there was quite clear - one look at the packet showed that we must have picked up a gluten free mix.

(gluten - clip from the wonderful Norwegian series Beforigners)

Now, neither of us have an intolerance to gluten so we'd obviously put the prospect of pea flour based fruit bread in the too hard basket.

Anyway, the time had come to use it or toss it. The instructions on the back of the pack helpfully said something like 'for information on how to make in a breadmaker, visit our website'.

So we did.

And of course there were no instructions. Gluten free bread mix was obviously a discontinued product.

So we busked it, adding some wholemeal flour and semolina to lighten it, and guessing at the amount of yeast required.

We were obviously pretty close as the result was not as brick like as it might have been.

Now there's obviously a limit as to how much text you can put on a bread mix packet, so putting the usage instructions on the web probably seemed like a good idea, as probably did taking the instructions off once the product was discontinued.

But there's a question here. Suppose that instead of bread mix it was the instructions for something a little more sensitive, say one of these  quasi pharmaceutical products such as these multivitamin and herb mixes you can get in wellness shops and organic grocers. 

What do you do if you find an old packet of the product and some the information has gone to the great bit bucket in the sky?

Monday, 9 August 2021

So when did toothpaste start to be sold in tubes?

 Artists oil paints had been sold in France in lead tubes since the 1850's - prior to then artists usually made up their own colours.

One of the colours sold in lead tubes was a rich brown - Mummy Brown - which was made up of ground up dead Egyptians. In fact in the 1870's the pre Raphelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was so shocked when he discovered the origin of Mummy Brown, he buried his tube of the paint in the garden and foreswore ever using the paint again.

However the idea of putting toothpaste in tubes took a little longer. 

In 1870, toothpaste was still sold in ceramic pots

but by 1897 it was commonly available in tubes

so when was it first put in tubes?

Well, wikipedia gives most of the story. There's some dispute about exactly when it started being put in tubes but it seems to have been around 1890. 

Either Johnson and Johnson or Sheffield Pharmaceutical were the first to market toothpaste in tubes sometime in the late 1880's. 

Both companies had previously marketed something very much like toothpaste in jars earlier on, and at some point both companies started putting toothpaste in metal tubes - initially first made of lead.

The idea seems to have been popular and as we see it was being sold in Britain (and by extension the British Empire) by Beechams by 1892 - the earliest mention I can find in Welsh Newspapers online is from the Carnarvon and Denbighshire Herald from July 1892. In Australia, the earliest advert I can find is from the Sydney Mail in October 1893.

(There's a little twist to the story of Burne-Jones and Mummy Brown. The story is recorded by Burne-Jones' nephew, one Rudyard Kipling.

Burne-Jones apparently found out the origin of Mummy Brown in the course of a discussion with some of his artist friends over Sunday lunch. One of his colleagues was of course George Wardle, who besides being William Morris's workshop manager,  did several engravings for Burne-Jones.

George Wardle's wife was Madeleine Smith, though she called herself Lena by then. We don't know who was present at the ceremonial interring of the tube of Mummy Brown, though it's intriguing to think Madeleine Smith could have been there ...)

Saturday, 7 August 2021

Toothpaste and Worcester Sauce

 In between the last two lockdowns here in Victoria, I managed to get a day down at Dow's documenting artefacts.

One of the items I found was a pack of Sanos toothpaste. The pack looked, stylistically speaking to date from the 1930's

but when opened, the tube - still intact with the original contents still present had rather more of a 1920's look about it

Trying to identify the manufacturer proved tricky - there's been various Sanos companies over the years but none of them quite fitted the bill. A quick eyeball search of digitised newspapers in Trove suggested that the 1920's through to perhaps the 1940's was when this brand was a reasonably common product.

To confirm this I used QueryPic to search for instances of  Sanos Toothpaste - and what I got was not quite what I expected

see that peak around 1870 - it's anomalous. 

While people did use tooth cleaning preparations in the 1870's they were usually sold as hard pastes in ceramic pots.  This of course doesn't mean that toothpaste wasn't sold and advertised

just that it wasn't sold in a squeezy tube.

But I was puzzled by strong peak in the 1870's so I checked out some of the articles and I found quite a few like this

which certainly doesn't have anything to do with dental hygiene - and then I realised what might be  going on - in Trove, blocks of adverts, especially single column adverts as found in  older newspapers, are usually scanned and indexed as a single entity, not to mention that grocers sold both toothpaste and Lea and Perrins.

Sauce can of course be misread by automated OCR as Sanos, especially given the small font size and blobby ink typically used in early newspapers, and so, if one searched for Sanos AND toothpaste, rather than "Sanos tootpaste" as a single string there was a risk of false positives ...

Saturday, 24 July 2021

Yet another bloody computer !


I've bought myself another computer - this time one of these minimalist Windows machines that are supposed to compete with Chromebooks in the education market - 4GB RAM, a mere 64GB eMMC storage, 11.6" screen, Celeron processor.

All a bit minimal these days, but the keyboard is nice to type on and the trackpad is pretty good, and the screen's easy on the eye.

But the obvious question is why did I buy such a low spec machine?

Well, for the past seven and a bit years I've used a Chromebook to read my email in bed (and also look at various online news sites) in the mornings, but two and a bit years ago it went end of life, meaning no more operating system updates.

Recently, it's become erratic, with occasional unexplained shutdowns, sometimes refusing to charge, and a few other signs that it is starting to die on me. It's still usable, but there's a question as to how long it will be before it goes to the e-waste centre.

At the same time my 2011 vintage MacBook Air that I used to take travelling with me (remember travel?) is no longer receiving operating system updates, and there's an obvious question as to how long Chrome and Thunderbird will continue to work on the machine.

The new minimal Windows machine gives me something that allows me to run Chrome, and by extension, applications such as Evernote via their web interface.

The other driver is that these days I'm a Windows user again - the Dow's Pharmacy Documentation project is all based around the Microsoft ecology - Excel, OneNote, Word, OneDrive, and these days, frankly, what you get for your dollar in the Windows world is a hell of a lot cheaper than you can get from Apple, and requires less fiddling than you need to use linux as a day to day desktop environment.

A couple of years ago I did buy myself a second hand Thinkpad Yoga as a carry about machine. It has worked pretty well as something to take and setup for a day or so, but at the same time it's proven a bit bulky to easily carry about,  while my new minimalist Lenovo is lightweight with decent battery life making it as easy as the MacBook Air to carry around.

I picked up the Lenovo in a stock take clearance, meaning that it cost quite a bit less than the sticker price, and markedly less than a new Chromebook built on more or less the same hardware.

So, while I have a stupid number of computers at the moment, we can say that in a few months I probably won't have the Chromebook, and possibly will have ditched the Air.

So what's it like to use?

All the standard stuff works - using Word or Excel you can't really tell that you are running on low spec hardware and saving material to One Drive - sort of like the network computer model which you see in the Chromebook. 

Obviously anything compute intensive would tax the hardware, but then that's not what the machine is for - it's for some simple web browsing, note taking, and email.

Used as a lightweight device, it's absolutely fine. And while it's most definitely easier to use it connected to a network, unlike a Chromebook, it also works fine as an offline device and syncing everything later - something I've done using the Yoga over the past couple of years, and which I have confidence in as a way of working.

So, we'll see how it goes in practice ...

Friday, 9 July 2021

The network computer lives on ...

There was a time, back in the late nineties, when I was very interested in thin clients/ network computers, the idea basically being that you could deploy a standard predictable computing environment using low cost hardware.

My actual idea was to use old underperforming desktop pc's to do this via a lightweight client environment, perhaps based on linux and open source applications to keep licensing costs down.

I wasn't alone in this - some of the major manufacturers got on board producing dedicated client hardware such as Sun with the JavaStation and Sun Ray.

All long gone now, or so I thought.

Today was the day that J was having her surgery, and as always in our overly complex hybrid public private health care system, first off we had the conversation about what Medicare will pay for, what our private health insurer will pay for, and can I have your credit card to cover anything not covered by either Medicare or your health insurer?

And that was all pretty normal.

The accountant had a perfectly normal Dell monitor and keyboard on his desk, but they were plugged into something most definitely not normal, a Sun Ray2.

Quite amazing, especially given that Oracle discontinued the units in 2014.

But then if it ain't broke, don't fix it, especially as refurbished units can be found  online for between fifty and a hundred bucks - neatly proving the cost containment aspects of using low cost devices on the desktop ...

Saturday, 3 July 2021

A surveying we will go ...


One of the aspects of working at Dow's that's slightly unusual is that it's more like carrying out a field survey than a normal bit of artefact documentation.

I have no desk, no workspace, so I have to take everything in with me each day and then bring it back at the end of day's documentation.

And it's amazing what you need, rubber gloves, spare box of gloves in case you run out, laptop, paperbased workbook, usb sticks for a live backup of data, usb hub, sd card reader, camera, pens, pencils and all sort of extra doobries like plastic tweezers.

Over the four years or so I've been doing this I've got pretty good at packing and repacking.

Basically I have a plastic cargo box in the boot of the car that holds my spare gloves, anti fungal powder (rubber gloves and an Australian summer do not play well together) and less commonly required items.

The rest has to be taken in and out every day.

I used to carry things in multiple Woolies shopping bags but that was a pain, but then on Catch I saw the ideal solution:

a wheelie box! Basically a collapsible crate with wheels. Everything, including my laptop can be fitted in, and anything extra can go in my day pack, meaning I can set up anywhere where there's a power socket.

While we've NBN broadband at Chiltern, there would be nothing to stop me adding our 4G  travel modem to the mix meaning that I can work anywhere ...

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Out of lockdown and back documenting


As I've written elsewhere, lockdown has eased in regional Victoria, meaning that I can get back to working on the documentation of Dow's Pharmacy.

People have been asking me when I'll be finished. 

I thought possibly Christmas, but that's a total guess. Given (a) the on and off nature of normality at the moment and (b) there's some unknowns in that I'm unsure just how much is in the old dispensing drawers, we might be looking at an end date some time in 2022 ...

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Lithium, dogfood and reproducibility

 In my last post - nearly a month ago - I mentioned how I left the lithium open on the dogfood tablet, and I ended up with a warm device and a flat battery.

Well, I've been unable to reproduce the problem, my best guess is that something, some process,  tried to do a background update and got its electronic knickers in a knot.

Anyway, Lithium is almost certainly blameless, which is good, as I really like the app ...

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Of lithium and dogfood ...

 Well the whole dogfood tablet thing seems to be a qualified success.

It certainly makes an excellent pdf reader, including offline pdf work, and I successfully pressed it into service to help me check the contents of Dow's pharmacy when the documentation project restarted.

In addition, I'd also started using lithium as an epub reader. The application is nice, lightweight, and intuitive, all the things one wants, and seems to have no trouble at all reading epubs downloaded from

So, sounds like a success.

And until today I would have agreed with you. But today I went to the dentist - again another place with no free wifi, and I took the dogfood device with me.

There was certainly no problem in using lithium to read a downloaded epub. Again sounds good.

But there's one troubling little event.

When I was called in to see my dentist, I just shoved the dogfood tablet back in my pack, with lithium still open,  assuming that after some period of inactivity it would go to sleep as all good devices should, and as it certainly does when using acrobat.

Well, I plain forgot about it for most of the rest of the day.

When I got home and eventually got around to emptying my pack, which was about four hours later, I found that the  battery was flat and the device felt distinctly warm, suggesting that something had been hoovering up compute cycles.

At the moment, I don't know if this is a lithium thing or a lithium and offline thing. Given that I was at home for a couple of hours before I unpacked my pack, I would have thought it would have been able to glom onto our home network, if it was the lack of a network upsetting it.

Likewise, if it had needed to glom onto a network to do something I wouldn't have expected to have a warm device when I unpacked it.

I tend to suspect it's something to do with leaving lithium open - I'll experiment further, there might be a change of epub reading software in the offing, which is a pity, given that lithium is pretty nice to use ...

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

The Dow's pharmacy documentation project is under way (again)


You might remember that nearly three months ago I wrote about how the Pharmacy Documentation project was restarting.

As always in these uncertain times it took a bit longer than expected, but today I finally was able to take my gear in and document some artefacts. 

Only three mind you, most of the day was spent using what I'll call the dogfood tablet  - my recently acquired 7" Lenovo e Tab - to access all the pre lockdown reference photos on one drive and check for changes or deterioration in any of the artefacts I'd documented previously.

Thankfully as the old pharmacy building is mostly cool - sometimes downright cold - and dry , I didn't find any evidence of significant deterioration ...

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

resetting Dell laptop batteries

 I have an old Dell E6320 that I bought second hand for using with Linux.

I hadn't used it for a few months so when I booted it up a few days ago it complained that the battery was almost out of power.

Naturally I plugged it in to the wall socket, but nothing doing - the battery refused to charge

It looked like the battery might have died but it all happened so quickly I suspected that it was only playing dead - which it was - so I did some googling and found some instructions on how to fix the problem on windows machines. 

Good news - it meant the problem was generic to Dell hardware and not some Linux driver weirdness. 

So I did what it suggested - basically power off the laptop, take the battery out, power up the laptop without the battery present, power it down, reinsert the battery, and power the device back up again.

The device should now begin charging, as you've (hopefully) fooled the battery sensor into thinking it has a new battery.

I was pretty happy about this - an aftermarket battery is about fifty bucks and a quarter of what the device cost me - and I posted a couple of tweets about it

One oddity was that the Xcfe power manager turned out not to update dynamically, which was a tad confusing, but some good people in the Xubuntu community picked up on this and posted a bug fix request

While confusing, the Dell comes with a couple of lights to show you the battery's charging, and if these are lit, you're good to go.

All in all this turned out to be a pretty good experience and the fix turned out to be astoundingly simple when you know ...

(If you are interested the thread is available at and the original help note at

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.