Tuesday, 24 May 2022

Gopher and the birth of the web ...

 Yesterday I posted the following

it was a story about how a press release had been posted via Gopher rather than via the web.

In the early days of the internet, there was a lot of content out there, but it was badly organised. There were finding tools like WAIS and Archie, but there wasn't a lot in the way of tools to display a set of linked pages of information - aka hypertext. (If you are interested in the tools available take a look at Ed Krol's Whole Internet User Guide and Catalog - second hand copies can be picked up from AbeBooks for between four and five bucks plus postage).

There was no real gee whizzery to this - most content servers were standard Unix servers and access was universally via a command line terminal window, so all you needed was a way of searching for content and then perhaps following links to related pages - basically like a very simple text based wiki.

In the late eighties there were various attempts to develop products to display useful information - for example at York we had our own simple in house product to allow central compute system users to search user guides etc, which ran (if I remember correctly) on a little microVax.

Gopher was the first protocol to gain widespread acceptance, and replaced idiosyncratic local services almost overnight. And because almost all servers on the internet these days accepted connections from just about anywhere, it became a game to find the most geographically distant server - my best was the cricket scores gopher page from Wits in Jo'burg.

At the same time there was the WWW from Cern. A different protocol, also originally developed in house for document sharing.

Gopher had a more restrictive model, implicit in the design was the idea that it would provide a set of centrally managed linked documents, while the web was the world wild web - documents could be linked to from anywhere, and the simplicity of the markup involved in early HTML meant that anyone who had familiarity with the concepts of markup from anything from Wordstar to TeX could learn to put content together in an afternoon.

And in the early days of the web that is exactly what people did, putting together simple pages about their research, and linking to content, such as English lecturers putting course synopses, reading lists and essay topics on the web.

The other advantage that the web had was that both the protocol and server wer public domain, while Gopher's was licensable, meaning that anyone could have a webserver (At one point, I had one under my desk running on an old pc purely to share documentation, with the only real access control being whether or not you knew the server's address).

And so WWW won out over Gopher.

But it's important to remember it was originally just a simple text sharing protocol

and not the blooming buzzing confusion it is today ...

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

packaging changes in the early sixties


Interesting how in a couple of years the packaging iconography changed in the early sixties ...

Wednesday, 27 April 2022


 I was off down an internet rabbit hole researching something to do with Dow’s when I stumbled across a local history society’s contact page which listed a Rocketmail email address.


That was a blast from the mid nineties. I had a Rocketmail address back then, originally for testing things, but it turned out to be useful in other ways.

Back then if you were away you were away. 

Strange to relate, but at that time it was entirely normal to disappear to Greece, Bali or wherever for two or three weeks and be utterly uncontactable. It just was - not like today when you end up with a complex discussion standing in a foreign carpark somewhere.

Mobile coverage was variable, and anyway phones didn’t do email. If you needed to check your email you needed to find a cyber cafe, pay your ten bucks and logon for thirty minutes or so.

And this is where the early webmail services came into their own - type the URL, logon, and you were in. In fact quite a lot of cyber cafes would have a captive home page on their locked down machines that had links to the main services.

At work, at the time, we didn’t have our own webmail service - that came a little later - so the best way to check email remotely was to write yourself a .forward file to one of the webmail services.

Rocketmail was bought by Yahoo! and formed the basis of their original webmail service. I moved across to Hotmail, which was promptly bought by Microsoft for the same reason.

I don’t have my Rocketmail address anymore - I managed to lock myself out of it by accident, and after around twelve years of trying, eventually got Yahoo! to bin it. 

I still have (and use) my hotmail address though ...

Saturday, 16 April 2022

A minor Google Drive annoyance

 I'm not sure how you use Google Drive, but I usually keep a tab open in Chrome, purely because the documents I've got on Google Drive are 'live' documents which are edited frequently - dot pointers, live notes, some spread sheets etc. Basically I use it as a set of scratch pads.

This isn't a new thing, I've been using Google Drive pretty much since it first came available, and I've been keeping a tab open for pretty much forever, especially as I used to be a linux user in the early days.

As a way of working this works pretty well, especially as last four most heavily worked on documents appear as 'Suggested Documents' at the top of the window.

Now, you would think that you could go to the window and click on the document you wanted. 

Not in the land of Google. 

When you click on a document in the open window it does a refresh and sometimes reorders the documents in the 'Suggested Documents' list.

Which wouldn't really be a problem, except it honours the position of the click, and opens the document that has been reordered to that position rather than the document you clicked on:

So if your 'Suggested Documents' list showed

DocA DocB DocC DocD

and you clicked on DocB, but at the same time the document list reordered itself to

DocD DocA DocB DocC

you get DocA not DocB

which personally, I find incredibly annoying. 

I can see a logic to it - after all you (or someone else in the case of a shared document) may have been working on some of the documents from a different machine, and therefore the list of most recently modified documents may have changed since your window was last refreshed.

I'm pretty sure that the behaviour changed sometime in the last year or two, but I can't pinpoint when ...

Thursday, 17 February 2022

A tweak to the documentation methodology

 When I started on the project to document the contents of Dow's Pharmacy down in Chiltern I needed a documentation methodology - basically a standard procedure for documenting the artefacts.

Basically the procedure was

  • photograph the artefact
  • write a short standard description of the object in an excel spreadsheet and record the filenames of the photographs and what they are (one packet can look very much like another)
  • record the manufacturer name
  • save the spreadsheet and image files in a self documenting file structure (not quite true - each section has a short markdown description listing objects and locations as a sort of finding aid)
  • backup the saved information to a USB drive
Any additional background material was saved in OneNote. The day's work was backed up to OneDrive at the end of the day.

The reason for doing the backup at the end of the day was quite pragmatic - when I started in 2017 we had a rather slow ADSL link, and doing a backup to OneDrive during the day would slow the link to a near unusable state for anyone else.

In fact I often used to back up the data at home where we had a faster connection, even in the ADSL days. Once we had the NBN at home, it was a no brainer - a days work could be backed up in a few minutes. In fact it took longer to check that everything had been uploaded properly than it did to do the upload.

This methodology has proven robust, and has allowed me to work when the power was out, or indeed when the internet was off.

In fact, it's a methodology I'd certainly continue to use.

Recently however, there's been a bit of creep. Now that we have a reasonably fast NBN connection I've been doing a couple of backups to OneDrive during the day, rather than one big backup at close of play.
And then my work computer died on me. Not quite true, but the battery is buggered and not worth replacing.

This does mean I could keep on working normally as long as the power was on, but there would always be a risk of losing work (in rural Victoria the power can and does go off unpredictably during stormy weather).

So I changed computers. My new one is faster than the old one, but instead of a 500Mb hard disk, has a 128Mb SSD, which is just a little too small to hold a copy of the data set.

So, the simplest solution seemed to be to save the data directly to OneDrive, and then do backups of the days work to a USB stick - basically at morning tea, lunch, and at the end of the day, or roughly every two hours. There's no afternoon tea backup as I usually finish documenting at around 1500 or 1530, after which time I do a quality check to make sure that everything has been saved correctly and that OneNote has synced itself correctly.

Unlike my previous procedure, there's an assumption that there will be a working network connection and that OneDrive is online, so the procedure is slightly less robust, but in the event of a problem I can always drop back to the previous procedure, and back up the data once everything is back online.

The way OneDrive synchronisation works helps us here - the file is actually saved locally, and then uploaded in the background, meaning that even if the OneDrive upload fails I can still back the local copy up to the USB backup.

Yesterday was the first time I switched to this way of working and it seems to be robust enough. I probably need to test it in a number of situations, but I'm happy so far.

Tuesday, 15 February 2022

Replacing a no name fitness tracker with an Inspire HR

 About eighteen months ago I wrote about my life with a cheap fitness tracker.

Recently I acquired an Inspire HR, one of the fitbit range of fitness trackers, which gave me a chance to compare a no name device with a brandname device.

The Inspire HR actually does less than the no name device, but it records distance walked, heart rate, and exercise sessions, such as bike rides, which is what I was particularly interested in.

Like the no name device it will also show notifications.

So, on paper, you'd say I was right, the no name device, at less than half the price, was just as capable, if not more so.

The real difference is the fitbit environment - the fitbit dashboard which lets you look at your walks and your bike rides, making it easy to track how you are doing - for example you get a nice route map

as well as the usual exercise details

meanwhile the data you get out of the noname device is not so nicely presented

Functional, but not as nice.

Now, if like me, you're trying to lose a bit of Covid belly (like most people over the last two year's lockdowns, despite my best intentions to stay fit, I drank and ate a little bit more than was ideal, and probably didn't exercise as much as I should have), what you are really interested in getting out of the device is how you're tracking, and it's here that the fitbit device wins, purely through the niceness of its online support environment.

Would I recommend you buy one?

Possibly not. If all you want to do is check some basic parameters and can live with the bare bones environment, the no name device is perfectly capable, but the fitbit does give you that little bit extra niceness (as well as having a better designed charger that attaches magnetically - no fiddling with three pronged crocodile clips!)

Having had both, I'd go for the fitbit because it works for me for where I'm trying to get. How much you want to pay and what you want out of a fitness tracker may be different. Certainly having used the noname tracker I'd agonise about buying the Inspire if I was paying full price ...

Friday, 11 February 2022

Medicine Duty ...

 I was down in Chiltern earlier this week and came across ( and solved) this little puzzle

A Medicine Duty tax stamp was a long stamp as in this 1897 example:

and would have been attached in such a way as to seal the package, or over the cork in the case of a bottle, meaning that when the item was opened the stamp would have been ripped off, making bottles with stamps in place pretty rare, as in this screen grab from a Bonham's stamp auction:

I'm not going to claim to be a genius in working this out, there was nothing particularly special in the solving of it, I found the answer via Wikipedia, with a little bit of supplemental googling about revenue stamps, but what I find quite remarkable is the way that something like this, which once must have seemed normal, too normal to mention even, can disappear from the collective memory ...

Friday, 4 February 2022

Public libraries as wifi providers ...

I’ve written before about using public libraries as a place to work, and how even really small public libraries can be tremendously useful in that they usually have a table or two to spread out, reasonable wifi and sometimes even a printer one can use for a nominal fee.

And all of this fits quite well with the portable surveying mode of working.

But of course, come the pandemic, libraries were shut during lockdown to protect both staff and patrons, and understandably the emphasis changed to online services such as e-book lending and providing online access to family history research resources.

Well, despite the Omicron variant, we are increasingly learning to live with the virus, even if at times living with the virus is reminiscent of how the nineteenth century lived with tuberculosis – voluntary self isolation, keeping one’s distance, and the ever present risk of infection.

I’m glad to report however that public libraries are back and are as helpful as ever with their workspaces – now socially distanced, and of course their free wifi.

Since the peak of the pandemic I havn’t used a public library seriously as a place to work, but I have used their wifi, sometimes in the building, and even from an outdoor table at a café next door. 

I even used Yarrawonga public library’s wifi from the physio next door where J was some specialist physio in connection with her shoulder op, to check some notes I’d made down at Dow’s the day before.

Public wifi is undoubtedly an incredibly valuable resource. A public good, in fact.

When I retired, the one thing I expected to miss was eduroam, even if I had begun to doubt how relevant it was in a world with almost universal free wifi, even if sometimes the free wifi in shopping malls and the like is not exactly free.

Well these days I hardly ever go to university campuses, so even if I still had eduroam access it wouldn’t be much help – but public libraries and their free wifi, not to mention local authorities who are farsighted enough to provide public wifi nodes, have largely filled the gap …

Tuesday, 1 February 2022

Google assistant amusement

 We've finally cracked and put a smart speaker with Google assistant in our sitting and tv area purely so we can play music via Spotify.

Now every couple has something that they like to do together that's a little bit odd - ours is watching non English language cop shows.

So we were peacefully watching Hierro, a Spanish language series produced by Movistar and currently available on SBS on demand (and it's excellent, give it a go).

SBS only ever subtitles foreign  language programmes so of course you get the full force Spanish dialogue, which naturally includes raised voices and Spanish spoken at 250km/h.

Google Assistant of course monitors for someone saying 'OK Google', rather than particular voices meaning it monitors everything going on from us discussing what's for dinner, talking to the cats, and also listening to what's on the TV or the internet radio when we have them on.

And suddenly in the midst of Hierro,  it heard something that made it think someone was talking to it and started complaining loudly that it didn't understand and generally being confused. Telling it to shut up stopped it.

The obvious solution is to turn the microphone off, which given we basically only use it for Spotify, wouldn't be a great loss, but it just shows, they're listening ...

Tuesday, 25 January 2022

The Gibraltar scoop on Trafalgar

 Something I did not know until last night - The first reports of the battle of Trafalgar were printed in the Gibraltar Chronicle some two weeks before the news reached London

(detailed image viewable on Christie's website)

This probably made no difference to how the news spread within the UK, but given that it was common practice for ships to carry newspapers to other ports, it may be that the news may have spread  from Gibraltar to other Royal Navy bases  in the Mediterranean and Caribbean via the Gibraltar Chronicle post and not via the London Gazette announcement on the 6th of November ...

Monday, 24 January 2022

Portable surveying (take 2)

 Back in July, I blogged about how a simple wheeled box had simplified the whole basis of doing documentation down at Dow's.

And it most definitely did.

The only problem is that I've been through two of them since then. Despite being rated for a 35kg payload the first one cracked at one corner after a few weeks of use. 

I put this down to bad luck and bought a second one.

Last Wednesday, the bottom (literally!) fell out of that one as I was lifting it out of the back of my car when I was down at Dow's. Fortunately everything, including my laptop simply slid into the boot, but the box was a write off - I ended up dumping it in a recycling bin in the carpark.

Now this is a problem. My experience with the boxes was that this was definitely the way to go, but obviously the boxes themselves weren't up to it.

I could have tried a wheeled toolbox from a hardware store - and certainly they are more substantially made, but they won't hold a laptop.

However I found that Bagworld had a special deal on wheeled computer backpacks so I jumped for that, despite having had bad experiences in the past with airline baggage handlers destroying soft wheeled bags

There's enough space (just) for my camera, laptop, ipad, and notebooks, not to mention a box of rubber gloves and my toolkit.

It looks as if it might do the job. Let's hope so ...

Sunday, 23 January 2022

Neatness and legibility in the nineteenth century

A few days I made this slightly intemperate reply to a tweet bemoaning an Ofsted report on UK school performance having a fixation with neatness

Well, while  some degree of legibility is clearly required, when we look at the great and the good of the nineteenth century, it's clear that many of them - Darwin and Dickens to name but two, had appalling handwriting.

But what of more ordinary people?

This is where it gets interesting.

From my experience of looking at nineteenth century documents both from the family history viewpoint and my work documenting Dow's pharmacy, I'll say that most professional people, be they ministers of religion, pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, registrars etc., had okayish handwriting. 

Madeleine Hamilton Smith, who wrote a lot of letters to her lover Emile L'angelier, who both was only recently out of education and was not someone who wrote all the time, and someone who we might expect to be neater than most, only had okayish handwriting. 

As another example, Charlotte Bronte, who course wrote her novels in longhand, again only had okay handwriting:

Not perfect, but okay, and probably better than today, and I'd conjecture that's because in the nineteenth century, prescriptions, minutes, ledgers etc were handwritten and had to be read by someone else.

For example, Lapenotiere's expenses claim for the cost of his overland journey from Falmouth to London to bring the news of Trafalgar is legible but  not overly neat.

Likewise, at the other end of the century, when the vicar of Ingleton in North Yorkshire recorded the death of Queen Victoria in his parish register, it's again legible but not overly neat:

So where did the fixation with neatness come from?

Well, in the nineteenth century there was a class of professional writers who wrote out copies of official correspondence, company minutes and the like and they wrote beautifully in copperplate script, often working from draft documents that were written in a more ordinary manner.

I have this theory, and it is only a theory, that once universal education came in there was a great emphasis on neatness simply because being a copy clerk was a well paid and aspirational job.

And this fixation continued on for years - when I was very small and in primary school they first of all taught us our letters as printed letters in pencil in rough work jotters with terrible rough woodchip paper.

Later on, they began to teach us cursive writing, which was basically a simplified copperplate in ink on better paper.

Then the curriculum changed and it all became free expression, and being able to write neatly didn't get you any points, though people did care about legibility in these pre-computer days.

University assignments and so on were all typewritten, which of course meant that as long as you could read your own notes, it didn't matter if, like me, you had handwriting like a drunken spider crawling over an inkblot ...

Monday, 10 January 2022

Voice recognition and an ape's reflexion

 When I wrote my annual 'Technology and Me' post at the end of last year I mentioned that I had bought a smart speaker on a whim and how we were both amazed at how good the voice recognition was.

I must admit to being a bit of a luddite about voice recognition preferring keyboards, and I mean physical keyboards over voice commands - more privacy, and more thought, and of course the chance to review and edit.

It's why I've only just thrown out my last Nokia Asha - essentially a poor man's Blackberry with a responsive little keyboard you could type on, and importantly learn to type fast, which I'd kept for years for overseas travel even though some of the services such as push email had stopped working some time ago. 

However, luddite or not, I've helped set up voice recognition for people who for one reason or another had difficulty using keyboards, including one library systems admin who tried unsuccessfully to use Dragon Dictate with vi in a terminal emulator.

Not a great success - Gnu Nano however proved surprisingly usable as an alternative.

However I'd never used it seriously until we got a smart speaker.

While the voice recognition capability is impressive, like all such devices it's highly reliant on its backend data set,  meaning the answers are fairly standard and after a while predictable - like if asked to play ABC Newsradio it sucks it in from I💗Radio, while it sources Classic directly from the ABC's own feed, even if like all such devices sometimes its response to a query almost seems like magic.

Just as many years ago I asked the GPS system on my car to take us to a hotel in Brisbane. The system threaded us through the urban motorway system and took us past the hotel heading west, ducked us down and round an intersection and back up heading east - the GPS 'knew' that the parking garage for the hotel  was only accessible from the east bound lanes and directed us accordingly.

Of course it no more knew than the fictional Emilybot knew about Emily Bronte's inner life, what it can answer and talk about is determined by the richness of the underlying dataset.

So, my car's GPS 'knew' you needed to be in an eastbound lane to get into the underground parking garage, just as the Google assistant in the smartclock knows about radio stations, knows we have a spotify subscription and so on.

It also has some strange aberrations - asked the weather it invariably gives us the weather for Blacktown in Sydney - which is where our outward facing IP address resolves to. (Our ISP uses a combination of NAT and BGP which effectively obscures our internal NBN network address meaning the external address we are allocated at any one time comes from one of their Sydney points of presence).

However we can forgive it that, the Guardian invariably makes the same mistake as do sites with these silly clickbait ads 'The prices of cremations in Blacktown may surprise you'.

But to return to the main point, the assistant, for all its faults gives the appearance of intelligence, just as my car's GPS did.

In fact neither of the systems are intelligent. Unlike apes, or my cats, they are controlled by the richness of their dataset and outside its parameters, flounder helplessly ...

Monday, 3 January 2022

Finally gave in and joined whatsapp

 For years I've resisted the Facebook, now Meta, services.

I didn't like the way they squirrelled away all your data and tried to take over your life.

Recently I softened and installed Instagram on my Huawei, because a number of regional archive services have taken to posting interesting material on Instagram.

I post little, other than the occasional cat picture, and really am just a lurker in the background.

I've also avoided Whatsapp for the same reason - the ownership, not the technology, but over the Christmas break I needed to talk to our health fund about the billing for J's op. Nothing major, just a query on one line item.

Normally, when you contact our fund you can chat with them via one of these chat apps, and it's relatively efficient - raise a query, upload a bill for payment, and it's all quite painless.

But of course, we've just had Christmas, and while the helpdesk was still there they'd changed over to using whatsapp rather than their own chat service. Whether this is a permanent change or not, I don't know, but the only way, other that sit on hold until the heat death of the universe, was to use whatsapp.

So, ever the pragmatist, that's what I did.

I'm still not going to use Facebook tho' ...😼

AI, Eliza and the Ape's Reflexion

 Yesterday I read a short story in the Guardian

I enjoyed the story - without giving too much away it imagines a world in which dead authors are re incarnated via AI as blade runner like avatars and wheeled out to various 'meet the author' events like those found at literary festivals world wide.

It's fiction, but it got me thinking about things that I hadn't thought about for a long time.

It would be entirely possible to train an AI bot on any large corpus of material - the digitised letters and notebooks of Charles Darwin - for example and have it reply to questions based on that corpus of material.

What exactly you would get out of it I'm unsure, but it would at least generate replies in the style of Charles Darwin. It would of course get things hilariously wrong, which is how we would know it was a computer program and not a reincarnated version of Old Beardy himself.

Chatbots and interactive digital assistants are of course all around - Siri's an example, as is Alexa, but one of the more interesting examples is Codi, the one Telstra uses.

If you ever have the dubious pleasure of contacting Telstra about a problem you first of all have to have a chat session with Codi to try and route the problem appropriately rather than have you transferred between numerous helpdesks. 

Personally I've always found Codi completely useless, and got better service from the humans, who always seem to be called Ben or Susi, but whom you suspect are really Ravi and Sunita sequestered in a cube farm in Bangalore.

What is interesting is the way that Telstra have tried to make Codi part of the workflow and indistinguishable from a human.

All these bots and assistants take their inspiration from ELIZA - the first chatbot program - a program that takes its input from a human, processes it and replies based on whatever model it has.

So Codi replies on the basis of whatever world model Telstra has created and the fictional Emilybot replies based on the corpus of Emily Bronte's writings.

Now a long time ago Adrian Desmond wrote a book called the Ape's Reflexion, in which he argued that all these 1960's experiments in which they attempted to teach chimpanzees American Sign Language were failures.

What Desmond argued  was that apes are very bright, so that if you made a particular series of gestures and then presented a slice of watermelon, the apes would get the idea that if they made the gestures  they would get more watermelon, and that given apes are very bright the complexity of learned responses are indistinguishable from a true linguistic response.

Which of course opens up a whole can of philosophical and psychological worms about the nature of language and communication.

Let's take a simple case, when my cats want to go out they sit by the back door - they know they're only allowed out the back door into a fenced off play area. If you ask them what they want they'll look at you and then the door and if you point at the door they'll get up and walk towards it expecting to be let out.

No one taught them this, they worked out for themselves that a particular set of interactions would result in them being allowed out. Is it language? No. Communication ? Definitely.

And so it is with digital assistants. The Eliza effect may lead us to think that they are cleverer than they are, but fundamentally they are only responding to the inputs that they parse in a certain way and respond on the basis of the dataset that they hold.

So if there was ever such a thing as an Emilybot, she would appear to tell you things about Charlotte say, but only what was in both her and Charlotte's letters and diaries, but to an uncritical observer might think they were being told secrets, but really only  stuff that you could find in Juliet Barkers' book on the Bronte sisters.

She wouldn't, for example, be able to tell you if her sister Charlotte smelled or any other personal secrets ...