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 ...