Monday, 3 October 2022

jPilot updates

 Back in June I wrote about how I'd resurrected one of my old palm Pilots as a documentation aid.

Well that's working well, but my old thinkpad decided to barf on the Ubuntu 22.04 upgrade, so I took the opportunity to wipe it and do a clean install - which worked.

This of course meant I had to reinstall jpilot.

Doing this I discovered that jPilot now has a PPA for Debian and Ubuntu, making installation a breeze

Curl was missing from my initial kubuntu 22.04 installation so first of all I installed curl

sudo apt-get install curl

then ran the jpilot repository install script

curl -s | sudo bash
sudo apt install jpilot jpilot-plugins
For some reason the script installed the repository fine, but the app didn't install. 
A manual install command fixed that
sudo apt-get install jpilot
and it just worked! Running jpilot as sudo I was able to do a backup of my palm pilot without any additional fiddling. Quietly impressed

Sunday, 2 October 2022

Lenovo IdeaPad Duet continued

 Back at the end of August I blogged about how I'd bought myself a Lenovo IdeaPad Duet. A month on I'm even more impressed with the device.

Android support is really good, meaning that you can run the BOM weather app or the Qantas app in a little container, valuable given the fact that Bureau of Meteorology's website looks like it hasn't been updated since 1996, and Qantas's website is a maze of twisty passages, all different.

Coupled with this is a feature that I only discovered thanks to my cat. 

He likes to sit on my lap, meaning I couldn't use the duet in keyboard mode, so without thinking I folded back the keyboard, and hey presto! I had a chrome based tablet with the web page I was reading in full screen mode.

Very impressive, and something that frees you from the need to carry a tablet as well as a keyboard based device ...

Scribe, elipsa and remarkable


Back at the end of July, I blogged that I suspected that there would soon be some competition for the Remarkable 2.

Well I’ve been proven right by the announcement of both

·       Amazon Kindle Scribe
·       Kobo Elipsa

I’ll be clear here. I havn’t played with any of the devices, I’ve only read the reviews, and this is all second hand. But as an inveterate note taker I’m interested in the devices and their capabilities.

Both cost around the same, and are at something close to the same price point as the Remarkable 2 (ignoring any ongoing subscription costs). Both are essentially e-readers that allow annotation and which have the capability of allowing you to not only annotate existing documents but to create collections of your own hand written notes.

Of the two, on paper at least, the Kindle scribe is the device that seems to give the remarkable a run for its money – essentially the Scribe lets you work with more formats (good) but locks you into only being able to use Amazon storage. The Remarkable is currently limited to pdf and epub, but allows you to work with OneDrive, Google Drive and Dropbox.

The elipsa seems to sit somewhere in between, not as many formats but more open than the Scribe.

But all have a drawback – no OneNote or Evernote integration.

If you work with a lot of material, such as family history, you probably already have a lot of information like birth certificates, church registers etc stored and filed away (shades of Nennius and his great heap ). 

I do, and I have even more in connection with the Dow’s documentation project, not to mention various little side projects of my own.

And I use Evernote and OneNote. Why I use both is a valid question – basically Dow’s is Microsoft only, hence OneNote.

I used only to use Evernote, but I must admit I have warmed to OneNote over the years, and it's possibly slightly better as a research tool.

So what one would really like would be the capability to both extract and save notes to both.

Neither seem to do this. OneNote is notoriously uncommunicative, Evernote lets you save notes and documents via email and email notes to co-workers, meaning that you could at least use this feature to send notes to the Scribe via ‘send to Kindle’.

With the Remarkable and the Elipsa you are probably looking with saving a copy to a supported file service such as Dropbox or OneDrive, and saving your back to the file service and then manually back into Evernote or OneDrive. Clumsy, but doable.

The Scribe seems to lock you into Amazon which is going to make life problematic, which is a pity as it seems to be potentially a very useful device.

So, if I was buying one tomorrow it would be a toss up between the Elipsa and the Remarkable.

However, I’m not buying one tomorrow and things will change and we might see an improvement in integration capabilities ..

Thursday, 22 September 2022

House cleaning

 Earlier today I posted the following thread on twitter

The backstory is that when we were working on the ANDS funded MS03 metadata stores project we started looking for examples, especially we were also working on the related Data Commons project at the time.

So I signed up for these services (I think I also signed up for Mendeley, but if I did I've lost my account details) to see what they actually gave you.

I've always thought that, as well as eating one's own dogfood, ie using one's own systems and software for real, it's important to experiment with alternative solutions and products - after all they might provide something better.

At the end of the project I should have got rid of the accounts, but who does?

And I did actually use them to find some research on something I was looking at later on, but to be honest they weren't really that useful.

Well, I've been gone from the wonderful world of work for nearly seven years now, so I decided that it was time for a Mari Kondo moment and get rid of things that no longer sparked joy.

So I had a search through my Google password manager list and found quite a few sites I had accounts on I'd completely forgotten about (like Xing? Really?) and I made the effort to go and login to the site, delete my account, and then delete it out of the password manager.

Probably something worth doing every so often ...

Saturday, 17 September 2022

The end of cursive and the end of history ...

 I've just tweeted a link to an article  from the Atlantic bemoaning how, in the USA at least, university students can't read cursive handwriting

That gave me some pause. A generation who can't read cursive?

More importantly a generation to whom notes are written on a phone, an iPad, or a laptop, something that makes them automatically ephemeral, just as emails are fundamentally ephemeral.

In fact all electronic records are ephemeral. 

Having spent a good few years of my life dealing with digital archiving of data, code, software, digitised data etc, I can tell you that digital records are ephemeral. 

Left to themselves they die. The hardware they are stored on fails. The format of the files can no longer be read. The storage  media is out of date and can no longer be read by modern devices. All these things.

Left to themselves digital doesn't last, and it takes considerable effort to make it last in terms of personnel, equipment and cash.

So, we face a world in which there will be no records, well other than the official ones that someone at the time thought worth preserving, and other people have continued to think worth preserving.

We face a world with no diary entries, no notes about off the record conversations, no letters between friends and lovers, no trial transcripts, nothing.

All gone.

And we will be impoverished for that.

And it's not as unlikely as it sounds.

Shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a Kuwaiti refugee turned up at the university computer centre I was working at. He had heard that we offered a best efforts data recovery and conversion service, and he had this very battered DAT tape that contained a backup of his work that had been stored on a server in Kuwait University.

The Iraqis had been going to steal the server, but when they got it outside, they decided to use it for target practice. End of server.

Fortunately tape turned out to be readable and in a fairly standard format and we got most of the man's data and paper drafts back for him. If we hadn't, he'd have lost it all.

Most hardware failures are not so dramatic, but the consequences would be the same - any content management solution represents a single point of failure - and in my experience most in house solutions are exactly that - despite paying lip service to resilience in practice there is never enough funding to do more than a periodic backup. 

Paper is different. 

Paper records tend to survive, It's difficult to burn large quantities of paper tightly packed together. Likewise, tightly packed together they'll survive a soaking. 

This is why we know (among other things) about the Nazi atrocities in eastern Europe. Consummate bureaucrats  they filed paperwork and reports meticulously until the very end, meaning there was simply too much to be destroyed. If they'd used a content management system there's a lot that we simply wouldn't know.

Now I'm not saying we shouldn't digitise records. I for one enjoy working with digitised sources, and without them would not have been able to have done my family history stuff, and I do get a buzz from reading 250 year old parish records while sitting at my desk on the other side of the planet, and almost as far away from the records original location as possible. 

However, let's be clear, digitisation is not the same as preservation - without measures to ensure resilience and continuity, at best it's a method to widen access. 

As for an inability to read cursive? I'm less worried about that - people can learn.

I know this from personal experience as I did a short course on eighteenth century Scottish handwriting during the first year of the pandemic to better read church registers and records when, during lockdown, I turned to family history to keep my brain active.

Just as when, all these years ago, I learned some Russian and learned to read and write Russian cursive script. 

And a few years ago, in the middle of frenzied traffic in roadworks at  a Greek freeway intersection I made an important discovery, I'd assumed J could read Greek road signs because she could read Byzantine text on mosaics etc,

At a critical moment while trying to work out what exit lane we should be in, I discovered that while art history had given her the ability to read upper case Byzantine inscriptions,  J couldn't read lower case Greek letters meaning she couldn't read a temporary diversion sign that was only in Greek, but then, hey,  it was Greece and abrupt changes of lane are the norm ...

It's just simply a case of no longer assuming familiarity with cursive script and making the ability to do so a prerequisite ...

Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Documentation methodology drift and robustness

 Back in February, I blogged about how I was now saving data directly to OneDrive rather than backing it up and uploading it at the end of the day.

And this certainly has proven to be a robust solution, except last week when the internet was off again.

Like last time, the router was in a locked room to which I didn't have a key, which meant I couldn't intervene. Just to make matters worse the router said that it was there, but refused to connect to the NBN.

My solution, after trying to use my phone as a router (bad idea, OneDrive synchronisation chews batteries) was to turn off synchronisation and revert to the original methodology of saving copies to both my computer and a USB stick.

That worked well, and all I had to do when I got home was power up my documentation laptop and restore synchronisation, and a gigabyte or so of data later we were all good.

Today, when I came in, the router was still being stupid and was still inaccessible. However I'd come prepared, and brought my little 4G travel modem in as a backup.

That just worked - apart from a little bit of a lag (and only sometimes) when saving a document you couldn't tell I was running over a 4G connection rather than a standard NBN connection.

As for data usage, I've gone through a Gigabyte this morning, and I'll guesstimate that I'll use the same this afternoon, which is not too bad at all

which rather neatly proves it would be possible to do documentation in the field using my methodology relying on a 4G modem alone

Friday, 2 September 2022


 Having gone on about e-paper devices earlier, I finally cracked and bought myself an e-slate.

The sticker price in Australia is around $50, but I found an online grey market retailer who had the same device for $25

When it arrived, one of the hazards of buying from grey market importers became apparent - this was the Chinese domestic market model, not the export version and the packaging and manual was only in Chinese.

For a more complex device this might be a problem, but the device is so simple you really don't need a manual.

You just pick up the stylus and write on it, doodle on it, draw pictures, wipe the screen when done

It's incredibly nice to write on and the whole cursive writing process flows evenly, which seems to have the strange side effect of making my usually illegible handwriting less like the work of a drunken baboon and more like something that might actually have been produced by a human being.

How useful it will be in the long term I have no idea, but it's certainly an interesting device ...

Friday, 26 August 2022

Lenovo Ideapad Duet


For our Kimberley trip, I treated myself to a Lenovo Ideapad Duet Chromebook in an end of financial year sale. 

Ignore the pricing, mine cost me less that three hundred bucks, and I'm sure you can find an equally good deal if you shop around.

Despite having bought myself a lightweight computer last year as a travel computer, I felt that for this trip I needed something even more minimal. My old chromebook, which died last year, was basically a 13" laptop as far as form factor goes.

The Duet is small - basically the same format as a 10" tablet but a bit thicker due to the keypad and stand, and  it's telling that the travel sleeve off of J's 2011 vintage ideapad K1 fitted just right.

The design is clearly inspired by the Surface Go, but not quite so nicely executed. The stand is a little fiddly to use, but the keyboard is nice to type on and the trackpad is responsive. 

Unlike the Go, the keyboard is included and not an optional extra, and like the Go, the screen is touch enabled.

Like all chromebooks it is essentially stateless, which of course mean that you really do need a network connection to use it effectively.

That said it worked well over various public wifi services in airports, coped well with a captive portal hotel wifi system - one of these ones that asks you for your name and room number before letting you connect, and even over a 4G modem connection.

I didn't try it on either of two wifi enabled Qantas flights we took as both were too crowded to make getting it out of my bag a straightforward proposition. (And as Chromebooks don't really do flight mode - you have to turn off wifi and bluetooth manually - it was probably a non starter anyway)

As for sockets it has a single USB C socket to both connect peripherals and charge the device, so if you need to load pictures from an external SD Card reader you'll need a suitable conversion cable.

Otherwise, in use it's fine. It makes an ideal low cost lightweight internet device - like my old ipad mini and keyboard combo it's supremely portable, but with a slightly larger screen and keyboard it can be used in place of a 'proper' computer for all these mundane activities that are part of travel these days - online check in, car hire, covid status declarations etc etc ...

You can of course run all your standard android apps (more or less) on it and it comes with an option for a linux partition, something that makes the device far more versatile than older chromebooks.

Kate and Libre Office running on my chromebook

Like all chromebooks you are locked into the Google ecology, but for me, given I sold my soul to Google workspace a long time ago that's not a problem. If you are primarily an Apple or Microsoft person you might feel different about things.

Sunday, 31 July 2022

e-paper devices (part 92)

 It's been a cold blustery day here on the edge of the Alps, so in between catching up on a couple of podcasts I've been researching where we are with e-paper devices.

At the bottom of the market there's a whole slew of slate like devices, mostly from east Asian manufacturers, and some of which have been repackaged as home note pads - put it on the fridge to tell the kids you've run away to Guatemala to run a taco stand - that sort of thing.

Practically their real usefulness is as a scrap paper replacement - instead of endless scribbles on bits of scrap paper, scribble on an e-slate and wipe it when you are done.

Looking at the pile of paper scraps on my desk, perhaps not such a bad idea, although both my cats would be upset - one of their favourite games is to get scrap paper out of the bin and bring it to me to screw up into a ball and throw  down the hallway for them.

At the top end you could have an iPad with an apple pencil, a remarkable, which looks to be really well thought out, and one or two other devices which allow annotation etc. I suspect that by next year we'll see some competition in this space and the reason for Remarkable's advertising blitz is to establish market share before the competition arrives.

And the middle?

There's a number of products based around reusable notebooks, which you wite on with a special pen, scan, and then wipe clean to reuse. Some, like Rocketbook, seem really well thought out, others perhaps less so. One of the selling propositions of these reusable notebooks is that they save paper by being reusable.

As I've argued elsewhere, you can buy a hell of a lot of recycled paper notebooks for the cost of a Rocketbook (something between fifty and sixty dollars, not to mention the special erasable pens at between $10 and $12).

And of course paper is eminently recyclable (and scannable) - I've been scanning my diaries and notebooks for over ten years now, so I'd describe them as an interesting bit of technology, but really as a solution in search of a problem ...

Thursday, 28 July 2022

e-paper devices

 I don't know about you, but every time I look at Facebook I get adverts for the remarkable-2 an e-paper tablet that lets you take notes, save them as pdf's to a range of cloud services, and even does handwriting recognition on them. (Given I have the handwriting of a drunken ape, I have my doubts about the latter.)

I've never played with one of them, but I did see a colleague's yesterday and it looks like a pretty good device. Does what it says and does it well. 

It's also horrendously expensive.

If I was still going to meetings and able to claim tax offsets for work related items I might crack and jump for it, but I'm retired, don't go to meetings that much, so I can't really justify the cost at around $500.

There are other devices out there that do similar things, but they are all pretty pricy. I'm sure they're good but I can't afford them.

On the other hand at the bottom end of the market, there are a whole range of electronic memo pads that don't talk to anything useful, like the XiaoMi Mija electronic writing pad. Basically it's a slate.

It doesn't talk to anything, and you can't really store content on it. If you need to get content off it you'll need to take a picture, just as you do with a white board.

It's fairly difficult to see a use case for it, and $50 will buy you around 20 A4 recycled paper notepads from one of the big box stores, which is equivalent to something between 1500 and 2000 pages of notes.

However, the one use case I can see is for work in progress notes. 

When I dug out my old palm pilot and put it back into use, one of the use cases was for work in progress notes - these scribbled post its and marginal notes that everyone makes.

And for that I can see a use for a basic electronic scribble pad, because, even though some basic connectivity would be nice, the notes are only there to remind you to do something - they have only transient value.

My real complication is being able to write on something while wearing examination gloves - the palm pilot's hunt and peck keyboard does work well, but it's slow, and you can't do diagrams or special symbols.

So I guess I'm looking like for a poor mans remarkable ...

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Building the Raspberry Pi x86 desktop ...


Well, in the end, I couldn’t resist trying the Raspberry Pi desktop.

There’s not a lot of information on the Raspberry Pi website about installation, so I went for it and downloaded the ISO image and used Rufus to build me a bootable installer on a USB stick. 

The download’s around 3.4GB, so I’d use an 8GB stick at a minimum.

I chose the dd option when making the bootable USB - I've always found the dd version more reliable.

First time around I chose my very elderly (like about 12 years old ⚠️) Celeron based Dell Inspiron 1545 as an install target as it was the oldest and slowest machine that I had around

Originally, it was my main machine, but as with all things it became too old, too slow. I moved it over to Xubuntu, used it a bit for a couple of projects and then stopped using it.

Despite the machine being 12 years old, installation just worked.

Booting off the USB, you first of all get presented by a slightly bizarre menu which gives you options about persistence etc, which I didn’t understand, so I picked the graphical install option, which put me into a very standard Debian 11 installer.

I didn't try anything clever and just followed the bouncing ball as far as install questions went - the whole disk for the operating system, etc.

The only oddity was when it asked me if I had the proprietary Broadcom drivers on removable media - I of course didn’t, but answering no didn’t cause a problem - it silently used the open source alternative drivers anyway. (This is only be a problem on some machines with Broadcom adapters - on machines with adapters from other manufacturers the installation program makes use of the default public domain driver for the adapter)

Installation is a two stage process and on first boot it takes you through a set of configuration options as to location, keyboard layout and so on, plus network setup and creating a default user. (Incidentally the system by default logs you in as the default user)

After configuration it was a case of rebooting into the standard environment.

The standard environment was pretty minimal, the browser was chromium, which is a plus and the default email client was claws which has never been my favourite.

However, Thunderbird installs fine, as does my favourite editor, kate. Just for fun I installed ristretto and abiword (not that there’s any need to - Libre Office is preinstalled) to prove that most things worked - which of course they would, it’s debian after all.

So, after ten or so minutes playing with it, what do I think?

It’s good, it’s got definite potential. Whether or not I keep it installed and use it, only time will tell. But it’s certainly one of the better lightweight distros I’ve come across …

[Update 17/07/2022]

I decided yesterday that I had too many old laptops - my old Dell Inspiron, J's old HP Beats audio laptop, and of course the old laptop that I bought at the start of lockdown in 2020. As it is that still leaves me with more machines than rationally anyone really needs ...

No one needs that many machines, so I wiped them prior to going to the recycler - and they now have the Raspberry Pi desktop on them as a sort of subversive present. I've taken advantage of the two stage install process to leave them ready to boot into the configuration menu, so that if anyone wants to play with them they have to configure both their own default user and wifi settings.

another 32 bit OS to run on an old netbook

 Back in the early days of the pandemic I put together a post on which linux could be run on an old 32bit pc, the problem then being that all sorts of old machines were being pressed back into service just as a lot of the major distros had dropped 32 bit support.

All of the ones I surveyed and tried then were competent but not mainstream, and that could be a problem.

Smaller linux distros  are almost always reliant on a very small team of people, all of whom have lives to lead and and are often working on a distro as a hobby.

They often produce great code and a nice distro, but then, after a few years, the team go their separate ways, and that's that. A bit like rock bands really.

So I was interested to read a review in The Register of the X86 Raspberry Pi desktop  - basically a port of the Raspberry Pi environment to a 32 bit X86 computer - otherwise a netbook.

The distro sounds good, is debian based,  and crucially is well supported by the Raspberry Pi foundation.

Unfortunately I took my old netbooks to the recycler last year when my chromebook died, otherwise I'd do  a test install on real hardware and a review - running it in a VM isn't quite the same, and I do like to eat my own dogfood.

However, that said, it sounds interesting and might be something to go for is you're still trying to get an old netbook to be useful for a data collection project ...

Wednesday, 6 July 2022

Documenting drawers


At Dow's we have an old fashioned built in cabinet behind the counter. The drawers are mostly labelled. Some of the drawers contain things - I've done a quick eyeball check and while mostly each drawer contains several of the same - eg ointment tins, aspirin packets - the drawer labels bear no relation to the contents. And of course some of the drawers are empty.

So obviously we need a standard procedure for documenting them. Up to now in the documentation methodology, we've mostly had to deal with individual items, but where the item has been a container of some sort I've usually used contains <individual item description> in the comments field, the idea of prefacing the individual item description with contains is that this would make it easier to programmatically break it down to a set of standard item descriptions at some point in the future if required.

This is quite extensible - if there are multiple and different items in the container, one simply has multiple contains statements.

This procedure was made up on the fly to solve a problem of cardboard boxes full of empty medicine bottles but it's worked quite well for a range of multi object contents description including a display of 1950's lipsticks.

So, given it works as a solution it seems sensible to use it to document the drawers - but rather than continuing as an ad hoc tweak to the methodology I've decided to document it more formally so that we (a) have a record of the procedure and (b) something to work to, because, as we know, in documentation - especially where it may end up being processed programmatically - consistency is king

So this is what we have:

Simple, but hopefully robust.


First couple of drawers in I hit a problem as to what to do when an item contains another item - such as a tube of ointment in a cardboard box

My slightly inelegant workaround is to use the string item_contains to describe the contents of an artefact. ( I originally was going to use the phrase box_contains but item_contains is more general and does not assume a particular container type. I also did not at first use an underscore in the string, but using one instead of a space makes life easier for a program to parse the description while maintaining readability for humans). So our procedure now looks like

Monday, 4 July 2022

A portable documentation success

 Six months or so ago I started using a wheeled computer bag for transporting my field documentation kit.

Despite my previous unhappy experiences with wheeled bags the use of a three compartment bag works and works well.

So what do I have in it?

Compartment 1

  • laptop (currently a 14" refurbished thinkpad)
  • box of blue examination gloves
  • field kit : pens, pencils, spare usb sticks and sd cards, and bits and pieces
  • plastic documentation wallet holding my A4 day book and a 12" ruler
Compartment 2
Compartment 3
  • notebooks ( 2 of them, both A5 - one for general notes, one for project notes and drawings)
  • paper diary
  • ipad mini
  • keys
all of this fits in - but only just. I usually have a couple of plastic rubbish bags in a side pocket for dead gloves etc, and I guess I could fit in a box of ziploc bags if required. The camera is good quality point and shoot Nikon, but any decent little camera would do.

My A4 day book consists of rough handwritten descriptions of artefacts before their final transcription to an excel spreadsheet, plus various crossings out and corrections. I'm not fanatical about these, they're basically whatever's the cheapest spiral bound A4 notebook I can pick up.

The Spirax 240 page ones are probably the nicest to use (slightly better quality paper, but in truth I usually use the Officeworks own brand 120 page ones you can pick up in a multi pack for five or six dollars).

I used to just use standard nitrile gloves that you can get from a hardware store or  big supermarket - after all they only need to act as a barrier between you and the artefact so that a 120 year old packet doesn't leak anything nasty on to you, and vice versa that you don't deposit any skin oils or grease on 120 year old packages. They don't need to be clinical grade - the ones used by plumbers when handling soil pipes are fine, and actually fit slightly better.

During the pandemic suitable gloves almost completely disappeared with manufacturing capacity being diverted to producing medical grade items. They havn't made it back reliably onto supermarket shelves so last time I was running low I bought myself half a dozen boxes from a veterinary supplies company which should last me to the end of the project.

My paper diary is of course a Moleskine planning diary, but my two A5 notebooks are simple spiral bound notebooks with rigid covers that came from one of the big box stationery stores - probably Officeworks. 

I'm not fanatical about these, as long as the paper is decent quality and they can be opened flat to scan if required, any brand will do.

We have a reasonable NBN connection at the pharmacy, otherwise I'd probably have to add my travel modem to the mix. It has an internal battery so there's no need for a power supply, but for extended periods of work I'd add a small USB charger to my bag. 

There's also a message here - over the life of the project I've (mostly) paid for all these items myself - some I had already, some were bought for other reasons - for example the ruggedised Nikon was originally bought for our Covid-aborted trip to South Africa - and the Trust did give me an old laptop, which I've since replaced with a more modern refurbished Thinkpad, which of course can be reused in a subsequent project.

Probably my participation in the project has cost me around $1500, which to put it in proportion is probably about the same as I've spent on my other recreations of cycling and walking over the same amount of time. 

I have been happy to bear the costs because I have enjoyed the project and  it has been fun, even if it might be a slightly odd idea of fun. However it's important to realise that citizen science, community history projects and the rest all involve costs for the participants, and this should be borne in mind when designing community or volunteer projects... 

Friday, 17 June 2022

My MacBook Air has gone and died on me

 My MacBook Air died today.

I’d just finished using it to read my email and had plugged it in to the wall to recharge.

I noticed that the light on the MagSafe connector was staying green, which I didn't think looked good, so I opened the lid and tried to power it up.

Not a sausage. It was most definitely not going to come on. Dead as a very dead thing. 

Now, this is a 2011 vintage Air that I’d bought second hand in 2015. By any measure I’d got my money’s worth out of it, and I’d already started planning for its demise by buying myself a little lightweight Lenovo to take travelling last year, after I’d had a crash course in Apple chargers after the one the Air came with had died.

That said it was Apple, and even though it had long ago dropped off of OS support updates, I expected to be able to keep on using it until the day Chrome said ‘Nah, too old’.

The last few months I’ve been using it in place of my Chromebook to read my email in bed in the morning – I could use my tablet but I prefer doing it with a computer with a keyboard, and it’s been filling that role admirably.

But obviously not any longer.

And that left me with a problem.

When I get rid of old computers I usually wipe them because there is a whole lot of personal information on local storage. If I couldn’t get it to boot I obviously couldn’t wipe it, and that meant it couldn't go to the recyclers. 

So I did what everyone else would do, and asked Google how to get it to boot. Usefully, Google came up with the CTRL-Shift-OPT while holding down the power button trick.

That worked, and what’s more showed me the source of the problem – no battery. The Air was no longer recognising the battery.

I’d had the battery replaced about two and a half years ago, and that had cost me $150 at the time – call it $180 today, and of course there was no guarantee that it was the battery – it could be something on the motherboard.

At the same time, some google searching showed I could get a freshly refurbished 2011 vintage Air for around $350, about the same as a decent refurbished Thinkpad.

Basically a repair wasn’t going to be worth it, especially as I’ve ended up with more windows laptops than I really need, so the obvious answer is to wipe the Mac and take it to the e-waste people for disposal (Just for fun I checked on Apple's website to see if they would give me anything for it against a new MacBook Air, and the answer was most definitely no, but as you'd expect with Apple, they were very nice about it and told me that recycling it would be a win for the planet ...).

Friday, 3 June 2022

And did it work

 Well today I tried using the revived Palm Pilot for real work, and I've got to say that it worked for me, especially given that it was barely 5C and I was wearing fingerless gloves to type on my regular computer all day, as well as the usual blue gloves when handling artifacts:

And of course the whole glove/conductive screen problem is one of the reasons I use a little Nikon point and shoot to take documentation pictures, even though the camera in most recent mobile phones is more than adequate for the task - I did after all use my old Samsung Galaxy until a couple of years ago, even though it was bit of a pfaff with one hand gloved and the other ungloved.

So given that it seems to be a success, how did I do it?

As I said before I used one of my original Palm Pilots - I was actually lying when I said this, I actually have 2 Handspring Visors, which are Palm Pilot clones,

The model I used was the Visor Solo (my other model is a Visor deluxe - more memory, translucent case, same black and white screen and OS version).

The key fact is that both run PalmOs 3.1 and are effectively clones of the Palm III. I bought mine back at the start of the century when they were new and shiny things. If  you want to pick one up second hand there's still a healthy trade in them on ebay with ones in good condition going for between $100 and $150.

If you do buy one, make sure it comes with its USB sync cradle - basically you plug the cradle into your computer and put the pilot or visor in the sync cradle, which gives you a setup something like this:

For a host, I used my old Thinkpad which runs Ubuntu 20.04 LTS these days. To install jPilot I downloaded the and scripts from,and then ran the download script, and then used sudo to run the install script.

In the course of doing this I discovered that the libcanberra-gtk-module was missing from my Ubuntu install, but there is an easy fix using sudo apt install libcanberra-gtk-module.

Once you've got the software installed and the devices connected up you will need to create a pilot user id from the file menu in the app prior to doing your first sync or backup. After that it's a case of simply doing a sync. 

As I've said before, you need to run jpilot from a privileged account - sudo jpilot from a terminal command line should do the job ...

[update 16/09/2022]

Battery life is also incredibly good - despite being in weekly use I've only just changed the batteries ...

Thursday, 2 June 2022

Retro computing with a purpose

 When I'm documenting the contents of Dow's Pharmacy I sometimes need to make little work in progress notes, and sometimes notes to myself to check something out.

And to do this it's basically either a post-it in my day to day workbook, or else a note on my little 7" ipad mini and keyboard combo.

But I have a problem - I'm invariably wearing my blue examination gloves when doing so, and let's just say that has some problems

  • handwriting is scrawlier than usual, which given that my handwriting is an appalling scrawl to begin with, means that sometimes I actually can't read my own writing
  • typing on a 7" keyboard with rubber gloves on is a bit hit and miss (literally) for much the same reason that handwriting is worse than usual - diminished sensitivity
  • conductive displays, be they ipad, phone or tablet displays don't work very well if you're wearing rubber gloves
so basically to make a note of more than two or three words I have to deglove, which slows everything down.

And then I had an idea, inspired by my recent post about still using paper diaries. I still have both my old palm pilots, and they of course use a stylus with a 'hunt and peck' keyboard to enter text.

So first of all I dug out my original old black pilot, stuck a couple of AAA batteries in it, and it woke up just like that

Half the problem solved - I had a working device. 

I reckoned that most of the work in progress notes wouldn't need to be saved, but there would be some that did.

There is no real viable working solution for Windows, but there is for Linux, jPilot, which I first played with back in 2017

It's recently been updated, but it's still a little bit fragile, and needs to be run as sudo, but it does work

so I've now got a viable solution to get data off the device if required.

Of course, none of this means that this is a sensible or workable solution, but a bit of testing in the field should prove that either way ...

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 ...