Thursday, 30 December 2021

Getting the news of Trafalgar out

 The battle of Trafalgar took place on the 21st of October 1805.

No one in London knew this until late on the 5th  or possibly early on the 6th of November when Lapenotiere reported to the secretary of the Admiralty Board Sir, we have gained a great victory. But we have lost Lord Nelson.

So, how soon was the news public knowledge?

Remarkably quickly, it seems. The official government gazette in London published news of the victory on the morning of sixth and  by the eighth the Cambrian newspaper in Swansea was reprinting the official announcement

(The full text can be found on Welsh Newspapers Online)

meaning that the news had managed to reach Swansea in around two days - quite impressive when the fastest thing was a mail coach, which with autumn rains and mud could probably only average 5mph.

While newspapers were not common in 1805, we can guess that the news spread at around the same speed across Britain, meaning that most of the newspaper reading gentry, like William Holland, would have known of the victory by the middle of November.

And certainly by December 1st the minister of Airlie and Eassie parish in rural Angus not only knew of the victory but that he was also expected to hold an official service of thanksgiving on the 5th of December.

But what of Australia?

Well, at the time of Trafalgar there was only one newspaper, the quasi official Sydney Gazette, which makes it fairly simple to estimate when the news reached Sydney - on or about 27 July 1806,

or roughly nine months after the battle, considerably longer than the roughly six months it took for news of the death of George III to reach Sydney (George died at the end of January 1820, and the news did not reach Sydney until mid-July).

or indeed twenty years later,  the roughly three moths it took for news of Victoria's accession to reach Sydney.

Essentially it shows just how isolated Sydney was in the early days of the colony, and both Norfolk Island and Hobart even more so ...

Sunday, 19 December 2021

Of iron gall ink and re-enactors

 Earlier today I posted the following tweet

Over the years I've posted quite a few posts about iron gall ink - after all it was the dominant ink used Europe (and by extension European settlements overseas) between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Relatively waterproof, permanent, and easy to use with a dip pen, it was ideal. In fact some jurisdictions still require its use for signatures on legal documents, and it was only with the development in the nineteenth century of alternatives such as Stephen's Endorsing Ink, that its use declined - that and the fact it didn't play nicely with these new fangled fountain pens.

The great drawback to iron gall ink, and the bane of archivists, that it was acidic and slowly corroded the paper was not a problem to the original clerks who wrote out the documents, after all they didn't care whether their document would be legible in two hundred and fifty years time, only that it was correct and ready for use.

But when reading about making iron gall ink I had an epiphany - the ingredients are easy enough to obtain, especially in a medieval Europe covered  in oak trees, and while its preparation needs a bit of skill, it's not that much more difficult than making jam or a tomato relish - ie an individual clerk could make his own if need be.

And that's not something we would know unless people had had a go at making it in their kitchens.

And, in a chain of consequence that reminded me of what Lucy Worsley said about re-enactors a few years ago, about how you have to try things out to find how they worked, as with the iron gall ink.

And that encapsulates what I feel about re-enactors - some people just like dress-ups as a bit of light relief - nothing wrong with that - but others do it to find out how things were done - as I discovered when talking to a member of the Ermine Street Guard nearly thirty years when he described just how it was to sit in a Roman four pommel saddle without stirrups-  almost as secure as using a contemporary western style saddle apparently. Again something that no one would know unless they tried.

Now we can't all ride horses, but we can experiment, be it making iron gall ink or making Georgian puddings and pies, and at best it gives us an insight into how the past worked, and if nothing else a bit of fun trying.

Even simple experiences can be valuable - once, years ago in Thailand, I borrowed a single speed sit up and beg bike - the riding position was different, and the way the bike handled was different, and the speed was slower and gentler, yet the machine was supremely practical, making one realise just what an enabling technology the safety bicycle was ...

Saturday, 18 December 2021

Technology and me - 2021

 Almost every year, round about this time, I've done a blog post on my personal use of information technology over the past twelve months.

This year past has seemed at times like Groundhog Day with repeated lockdowns, but the good news was that the project to document the contents of Dow's Pharmacy restarted in April. Lockdowns and even an earthquake caused some delays meaning that I've probably managed only half the amount of work I would normally have managed, but it's certainly way better than 2020 when we shut down at the end of March for what turned out to be a twelve month hiatus.

The methodology and equipment remain the same, more or less. The methodology works well and the only major, but very successful innovation was the use of a wheelie box to move my gear.

At home there's been rather more in the way of changes - my seven year old chromebook finally died on me, and at the same time I bid farewell to my old 32bit linux netbooks. In fact, I seem to have lost the need for linux in my life - obviously I need a project to revive my interest.

My Huawei mediapad continues to function well, it's amazing how useful having a second device on which to look things up while working on something is, While most of my work is on my Lenovo laptop I'm still giving deskspace to my 2008 vintage iMac, purely because of its large screen when looking at scans of old documents.

Also still getting deskspace is my old Thinkpad Yoga I bought second hand, It was originally supposed to replace my MacBook Air, but in practice turned out to be just that little bit too heavy to carry around.

However it has a valuable role as a second machine, and once I set up a little work area in the corner of the old garage - which is also destined to become Judi's art studio - it will probably move in there.

The MacBook Air continues to soldier on, but has finally been replaced as a travel computer by one of these eMMC based lightweight computers, which has proved more of a success than I expected - light, responsive, good battery life. It's obviously a lighter built machine than the Air and will probably have shorter working life, but even so I'm amazed at how good a sub $300 machine is.

The Air itself, even though it is out of operating updates continues to work well and run a recent version of chrome. It did have a bit of a glitch earlier this year when sometimes it wouldn't charge. I bought a third party power supply which seemed, for a month or three to solve the problem until it developed the dreaded blinking green light. This could suggest something serious or just a dud charger, The cheapest solution was to buy a  refurbished charger to see if it solved the problem, which so far, it seems to have.

The old iPad mini I bought a year or two ago and tricked out with a keyboard finally came into its own as a note taker, but the real tablet success was the dogfood tablet, using a cheap, in fact the cheapest seven inch Android tablet I could find as an ereader for Gutenberg epubs, and digitised books from Google Books, plus pdf's of research papers - simple, lightweight, and with good battery life it's proved genuinely useful.

However, the real star of 2021 is the Lenovo Smart Clock Essential  that I bought more or less on a whim.

I had a whole lot of Telstra plus points that I'd accumulated over the years that I'd never used, and Telstra were offering the basic smart clock to Telstra plus members for not a lot of points. Cynically, I suspected they were trying on unload old stock, but we needed a new bedside clock in the bedroom, so I reckoned that even if we never used the voice activated features it would tell the time well enough.

I'm personally a little bit suspicious of voice activated assistants ever since I saw a non-disclosure presentation of one of the early assistants back in the nineties - picky on accent and pronunciation, and prone to give downright weird responses, but I've got to say I'm impressed at how well the assistant copes with my Australian by way of Edinburgh accent as well as Judi's posh end of Melbourne with a bit of London accent. The only glitch is that it seems to have decided that we live in Wooragee (a 100m or so lower) rather than Beechworth.

Sound reproduction from the speaker is pretty good - ABC Jazz sounds as good as it does on our internet radio, and of course it can access your Spotify account and playlists.

Basically, it's pretty good. In fact, I'm so impressed by it I've just bough a second one for Judi's studio to use as clock cum smart speaker so she can play music while painting without covering usb sticks and cd's with paint and pastel dust ...

Thursday, 9 December 2021

Using the minimal windows machine

 A few months ago I bought myself one of these minimal eMMC based Celeron computers from Lenovo.

The intent was to use this in place of my old MacBook Air which I've used for travel for years.

Well, lockdowns and disruptions have meant that I've not actually gone anywhere, which of course means I've never actually tested it for real.

However, last week we went down to Yanakie for a few days R&R followed by a trip to the city and I took the Lenovo with me for email, blogging and web searches. (Yes sad to say, even holidays chez Moncur involve the internet  these days.)

I havn't done anything weird to it - it runs a vanilla install of Windows 10 Home, along with Chrome and Thunderbird plus some antivirus software. Given the small size of the internal storage adding a linux partition probably isn't a good idea.

I used it over a mixture of a complimentary wireless NBN connection at our rental unit and our Huawei 4G portable router when we visited the city.

Performance was absolutely fine.

Despite its limited power and storage, performance was almost indistinguishable from my old ThinkPad Yoga.

I'm sold.

While obviously performance is constrained, it's an excellent lightweight device for travel ...

[update 15/12/2021]

... and it continues to impress.

I've just been back down to  Melbourne for a couple of days and the machine performed excellently for a bit of blogging, general writing and photo editing.

Like the Air it doesn't have an SD card slot, but the same €3 minimalist SD card reader I bought for the Air in an airport somewhere in Europe a few years ago worked just as well ...

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

omicron and omega

 A couple of days ago I happened across a tweet that gave me a complete 'course it bloody does' goldfish moment:

A moment of thought and I suddenly realised that not only did omega mean big o, but that in all probablity the lower case omega, ω was simply a stylised double ο ...

Monday, 15 November 2021

Queen Victoria smoking dope for menstrual cramps ...

 While researching asthma cigarettes I came across the old chestnut that Queen Victoria smoked cannabis to relieve her menstrual cramps.

Well, she almost certainly didn't. 

Queen Victoria's medical history is more or less unknown and her doctor's notes not accessible so we really don't know a lot about what she was prescribed, but it is the case that in the mid nineteenth century women were sometimes prescribed a tincture of cannabis to relieve menstrual cramps.

(example of American late nineteenth century patent remedy for menstrual cramps containing Cannabis as the principal indgredient)

Furthermore, Queen Victoria suffered a prolapsed womb after the birth of Beatrice in 1857, so  it wouldn't have been at all surprising if she had been prescribed something for pain relief.

The actual genesis of the story seems seems to be an 1890 paper on the uses of cannabis for pain relief by Sir J R Reynolds, Reynolds having been one of Queen Victoria's personal physicians from his appointment in 1878, or some twenty years after the birth of Beatrice.

There seems to have been a case of people putting two and two together to make three,

However, it is the case that William Brooke O'Shaugnessy, one of these polymaths in whom the Victorian era excelled, introduced the use of cannabis into western medicine in the 1840's, so it is entirely possible that one of Queen Victoria's earlier doctors had prescribed it for pain relief.

However, in Victorian times, it was normally prescribed as a tincture, so the image of Queen Vic sitting on the throne with a joint is almost certainly wrong ...

Asthma Cigarettes ....

 Something that I get asked about down at Dow's is Asthma Cigarettes.

Now, as far as I am aware, we don't actually have any examples in our collection, but it's entirely possible that we've a few hiding somewhere.

Most people, understandably find the idea of people smoking a cigarette to alleviate the symptoms of asthma downright weird, but in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century they were most definitely a thing.

However, like a lot of nineteenth century medicine, there was a nugget of good sense in using asthma cigarettes.

If you're asthmatic, or live with one as I do, you'll be familiar with Ventolin puffers. Ventolin however, only came into use in the mid nineteen sixties.

Before then cures varied. Some doctors treated it as principally a psychosomatic disease, and others treated it with corticosteroids, which had to be injected.

However, prior to this in the nineteenth and early twentieth century herbal cigarettes became available containing herbs that helped dilate the blood vessels and relieve the symptoms of asthma.

The original discovery had been made in Madras in 1802 by a Scottish doctor working for the East India company, who discovered that the local cure of inhaling Datura ferox smoke, indeed relieved his asthma.

On his return to Britain he found he could no longer obtain Datura ferox and turned to Thornapple (Datura stramonium) which he found equally effective.

There were and are side effects from inhaling Datura smoke, but if users were careful they probably obtained real benefit from an occasional asthma cigarette.

Individual manufacturers had their own mixes of herbs, but  most contained either Thornapple or Belladona as the active ingredient. Some also contained lobelia leaves, which were also believed to help relieve the symptoms of asthma.

None of them contained tobacco, but some brands contained a small amount of cannabis as a relaxant (Nineteenth century asthmatics were sometimes prescribed a tincture of cannabis to calm them down during a severe attack.)

While we can't say what was used in the mixture for each individual brand, Grimault's was a brand that did definitely contain a little cannabis. We can say this as they advertised the fact.

 After the nineteen twenties, when the use of cannabis in medicine was discouraged asthma cigarettes probably only contained thornapple or belladonna.

Friday, 12 November 2021

The dogfood tablet - six months on

 Way back in April, I bought myself a cheap, in fact the cheapest I could find at the time, tablet to use as an e-reader for public domain books from Google Books and epubs from Project Gutenberg.

Six months on I can say that the idea is a success.

There has been a bit of creep, I've been using the machine more and more tethered via my phone, rather than purely as an offline reader, and I've been using both Amazon's Kindle application and Google Play books more and more to read books rather than the pure model I envisaged originally.

That said, Lithium remains my preferred e-reader of choice for epubs from Gutenberg.

In use performance has been reasonable - good enough to read books and quickly check email and twitter, plus a couple of news sites, and battery life has been good enough, although if I was doing this over again I'd probably go for a device with longer battery life.

The 7" screen format is ideal for reading - about the size of a classic Penguin paperback - and again adequate for text on a screen, and of course the small size makes the device supremely portable, small enough to shove in a backpack or messenger bag.

In use nothing has broken the original premise that a cheap tablet is perfectly acceptable as an ereading device - my $75 device can and does do the job.

Definitely a success ...

Saturday, 6 November 2021

Getting a new mobile in the bush

 Last Wednesday, when I was down at Dow's doing some documentation I looked at my phone screen and realised that what I'd originally thought to be a bad scratch was a spreading crack.

It would be a pain at anytime, but now, when one has to sign in everywhere with QR codes and show one's vaccination status to get into cafes and restaurants, being without a phone would be a major hassle.

The phone was an iPhone 8 I'd bought second hand a couple of years ago, and probably due for replacement sometime soon, so it wasn't really a problem having to replace it early, but the replacement process itself was a tale.

In the small rural town I live in there are no phone shops, or phone repair shops - the best you can do is the local Post Office for a not terribly competitively priced generic Android phone.

There are a couple of phone repair shops in the nearby larger towns, but at around $150 to replace the screen, it probably wasn't worth it - after all you can get a perfectly competent mid range Android phone for between $200 and $250 mail order or from one of the bigger office supplies or home electronics stores, and to be honest I did seriously consider getting one of the higher spec Vivo or Oppo phones.

However I'm a little bit of a snob about phones - I prefer to have a quality phone - for years I had Samsung, and at the moment I have Apple. More because of their track record for reliability and performance than anything else.

However most of the current quality offerings are over a $1000 which was a tad more than I wanted to pay out in a lump.

Now I could have gone for one of these deals whereby I sign up for a plan for 24 months and pay off the phone in monthly installments, and I certainly thought about that to get either one of the newer iPhones, a Samsung, or the new Google Pixel 6.

However, there's a catch.

Where I live you have to have Telstra - coverage from the other networks is simply not reliable enough. I'm sure it'll get better, but for the moment it has to be Telstra.

There's also no 5G coverage. It'll come, but not yet. 

Telstra are not keen to sell you a 5G capable phone on a 4G contract. You can see the logic, but it's annoying as you are paying extra for something you can't use. Admittedly you get extra data, but as I only use less that 5% of my monthly data allocation on my existing contract, that's not a plus.

So, the logic said stay on your existing 4G SIM only contract and buy a decent unlocked 4G phone from one of the big online retailers, which is exactly what I would have done in normal times.

But the times are not normal.

The big online retailers do not have the stock levels they normally have and some phones are on back order. That, and the near collapse of the postal system means it can take two weeks for a package to get here from Sydney or Melbourne.

And remember, I couldn't be without a phone.

Enter Apple.

Apple's online store had stock of the 4G only iPhone SE, and claimed that they could get one to me in a couple of days. They'd also buy back my existing phone, even with a cracked screen.

The deal was a bit more expensive than I'd hoped for, but not disastrously so, and due to the buy back offer, cheaper than a Samsung S20. (Yes, I know the S20's 5G capable and the SE's not, but as we don't have 5G that's not a deal breaker)

So I went for it.

In the event Apple excelled themselves, getting the phone to me for close of business the next day (1655 to be precise). With Apple's data transfer technology I was up and running within half an hour, with all my vaccination and QR code data transferred, rather than spending half a day downloading and installing software as I would have if if I'd changed back to Android.

So, long story short, I'm still an iPhone user due to excellent service from Apple and a rather nifty means of transferring your data from your old phone to your new device ...

(actually the deal turned out better that I imagined. Apple ended up giving me a more generous buy back price than their initial estimate, which meant that while my phone was still more expensive than a well spec'd phone from one of the second tier manufacturers it wasn't too bad overall)

Sunday, 10 October 2021

The dance of the dying chromebook

For the last seven and a half years or so, I've used a chromebook to read my mail in the mornings

No more - the battery has finally died - basically, it won't charge any more, and it's not worth replacing the battery, especially as the machine itself went end of life in March 2019.

All that was left to do was to powerwash it while it still had some charge left and put it with the other stuff for the e-waste centre.

So, would I buy myself another chromebook?

Yes, it was a good experience for what I used it for - basically web based things like mail, calendar, online news sites, and unlike a tablet, it had a decent keyboard meaning you could do a draft using Google docs, or put together a spreadsheet.

I even used the Google Slides on a number of occasions to put together presos.

So all good. You can most definitely use them to do serious things if you're so minded.

So you're off to JB HiFi this afternoon are you?

No. As you might recall I bought myself one of these lo spec Lenovo Celeron laptops in a stocktake sale a few months ago both to replace the chromebook and step in should my 2011 vintage MacBook Air become unusable due to the fact it's off support - not to mention I'm a windows user again these days, so I've no pressing need to buy myself another Chromebook.

And I have always been a staunch believer in eating one's own dogfood, so the Lenovo it is for the moment (although I confess I used my elderly Air this morning out of habit).

I won't be off to the e-waste centre this afternoon either. 

wiping the old EEEpc701...

I've a couple of old 32-bit linux netbooks that I havn't touched for a year or more. I've decided that over the next week or so I'll wipe them and give them a clean install and take them to the e-waste centre along with the chromebook  ...

Friday, 24 September 2021

An old ipad mini

Way back in 2019, I bought myself an old iPad Mini, which I outfitted with a discounted bluetooth keyboard.

I originally envisaged using it as a note taker, and certainly the form factor was right - about the size of a Moleskine notebook, but I never truly warmed to it, the keyboard feeling cramped.

which was a pity, because it certainly still has the Apple niceness despite being incredibly underpowered by today's standards.

Recently however, I've revised my opinion. 

What with lockdowns and so on, and then the gradual lifting of restrictions it's come into its own.

Grab a coffee, sit at an outside table, and turn on your personal hotspot if you are out of wifi range you can work researching things, or simply depress yourself by reading the news.

Like the dogfood tablet, the small form factor makes the device supremely portable, meaning it can be crammed into a small backpack or shoulder bag alongside hand sanitizer, an umbrella, and a paper notebook. And while the keyboard is cramped, you do get used to it in time.

Like the original EeePC, the small form factor makes it supremely portable, something you appreciate when perched on a socially distanced park bench.

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 ...