Tuesday, 27 December 2022

Being a public library user after the pandemic

I am not a librarian. I have worked with librarians, but I am not a librarian.

What my competence is is difficult to explain, so I’ll start with a little autobiography.

My first post graduate job was working for a field research station in the mid eighties, where basically I helped people with no IT skills manage their data, run statistical analyses, and write reports.

Later I moved to work in a university where I had a serious job in a computer centre.

It was an old mainframe focused computer centre but they had realised change was coming and they wanted someone to help support these pesky users who increasingly wanted to use a desktop computer instead of the central timesharing system (and incidentally help people who wanted to get their data off their PC and run it through one of the mainframe statistics packages).

Initially my job was much the same as the job at the field station, but as the IT revolution gathered pace it mutated into buying computers for the university, helping people get off the ground with projects – I did a lot of talking with archaeologists and botanists about how to do field survey work and finds logging in wet and computer antithetical environments – and building and maintaining a student teaching network.

However, by the time I moved on elsewhere in the early 2000’s I’d come to realise that the old model of central provision was breaking down.

Everyone who wanted a computer could afford one – not true of the population generally, but certainly true of the student and academic population. There were companies, such as Microsoft, who would provide you with a small amount of online storage which was regularly backed up, and there were even companies that would rent you time to run a bigger compute job on a virtual machine.

Basically, I could see that I would be out of a job some time soon.

At the same time I’d spent increasing amount of time dealing with serious storage and backup – big tape libraries and the like – which coupled with a familiarity with OCR and scanning  allowed me to move into digitisation and digital archiving. A bit niche, but it kept me employed until I retired a few years ago.

During my digital archiving years I came into contact with librarians. Like computer centres, they felt threatened.

Computers are good at counting and keeping track of things. First it was the card catalogue, and then it was self service checkouts, and gradually all the mechanical parts of a librarian’s job started to disappear. After all you could even buy pre-rolled catalogue records to save having to manually catalogue books.

And of course there were e-books which somehow couldn’t be handled  as if they were simply digital version of a physical book, or something else tangible like a CD or a DVD.

Search engines and free online access to databases like Trove or Welsh Newspapers online, not to mention other more specialist resources also meant that libraries could no longer function as the exclusive gatekeepers to knowledge.

So they tried to get funky.

Not just the simple provision of somewhere with reliable wifi and places to work, we got beanbags, makerspaces, and in public libraries story sessions and reading groups.

Looking in from the outside, I’d say these have met with mixed success.

Over the years since I retired I’ve spent a fair amount of time using public libraries as places to work and do background research on my volunteer project documenting the contents of Dow’s Pharmacy in Chiltern.

First of all, I can do almost all the work from home, I don’t need to use a library. I choose to because I don’t have a permanent desk at the pharmacy, and when there’s some big tour groups it’s easier to decamp. Small tour groups are fine, in fact I enjoy talking to them about my work on a one to one basis.

And sometimes if J is going to an art workshop somewhere it makes sense to help her take her stuff to where the workshop is and then do some work from a local library for the two or three hours the workshop takes.

So, what do I value?

A desk, a chair that doesn’t induce numbness in my lower back and decent wifi, preferably without me having to fill out forms and turn three times anticlockwise to use it.

I don’t mind registering with the library as a user, but I don’t want to have to do a dance with some online portal every thirty minutes to renew my connection.

And no, I’m not going to look at dubious material online, but then one person’s nineteenth century art photography is another person’s pornography – for example one of Rejlander’s moral tableau images that Queen Victoria gifted to Albert would probably be considered NSFW these days.

Equally, when I look around me at other people using the library as a place to work it’s clear that some people find having access to a public computer useful, if only to complete online forms that don’t play well on an iPad, and quite a few people find access to a decent printer really valuable.

While public libraries undoubtedly do have a role in lending fiction to people who either do not want to or cannot afford to buy books, even second hand, it is often the case that their reference and non fiction sections have shrunk away.

Now, I’m the first to admit that some of my requirements are perhaps a little obscure, but even when I look at a mainstream topic such as World War I, outside of Gallipoli and the Australian experience of the Western front, there’s little available, and even inter Library loan searches fail to provide much in the way of results.

In fact I’ve basically given up on libraries for background material and often buy books second hand from overseas second hand booksellers – and perversely the reason for going to overseas booksellers is not only are they cheaper, but the cost to send a book economy from the UK is less than to have the same book sent via Australia Post.

I don’t have small children so I can’t comment on the value of story sessions, but some of the adult reading group sessions look fairly dire. I’ve never been to one, and none of the authors that they’ve had in locally to speak to readers have appealed to me.

As for the beanbags, well yes, having a nice comfy chair to flip through material on  a tablet is nice, but I wouldn’t say it was essential.

So where are we?

Libraries have undoubtedly lost their role as gatekeepers to knowledge.

They do have an important set of roles though:

A)      Teaching effective search strategies and how to assess the ‘worth’ of information sources, including Wikipedia

B)      The provision of internet access and places to work, be it for school students seeking somewhere away from the hurly burly of home, oddballs like me, or people who simply need to get something done and don’t have suitable access at home

C)      Educating people about the effective use of online resources be it Trove, Scotland’s People or Ancestry. Family history won’t save a library, but access will undoubtedly increase footfall and act as a springboard to other things

D)      Providing access to books, including publicising the availability of new and popular books and improving interlibrary loan services – which means revisiting holdings and acquisition policy

As such they remain valuable community resources. 

How well they fill that role is dependent on the front of house staff developing and keeping the necessary skills. 

Being funky is nice but not essential.




Monday, 19 December 2022

More retro technology - an MP3 player no less


Recently I invested in a very basic no name MP3 player sourced from ebay - which might seem a very strange and retro choice given nowadays one just uses one's phone - tellingly Apple ditched the ipod some years ago.

Well, I have a use case - gardening.

When you're grubbing about pulling out weeds and roots, wearing gardening gloves, touch screen devices are a pain - just as when I'm documenting down at the pharmacy.

And of course, it's a messy mucky environment out there.

For years I used an original Apple iPod - and it worked really well, until the rotary switch thingie died. 

I tried various cheapie MP3 players as a replacement, which were all crap and ending up buying myself a refurbished iPod back in 2018.

That also worked well, but the world has moved on. Not everything is available via iTunes, and sometimes you need to download audio direct from the producer's website, so something where you just download the file and copy it over seemed the best solution.

So I'm back with a noname MP3 player. I'm mostly listening to podcasts of talk radio so I don't need stellar quality.

The earphones that came with it were not particularly good quality, but swapping them for an old pair of Samsung earphones solved that little problem, and the user interface looks like it has been designed by a Fortran programmer - a maze of twisty little menus all different.

However if you get lost in the menu maze switching it off and on again is a surefire way back  to the main menu.

However, I didn't pay a lot for it and if a crap menu system is the price I have to pay for listening to an extended radio interview with Lucy Worsley while pulling weeds, so be it

Friday, 16 December 2022

Sometimes sneaker net is best ...

J has a pair of elderly aunties in England to whom she always sends a Christmas card.

As they're both nearly ninety it has to be snail mail.

Normally the cards would have gone off earlier this month but J has spent the last ten days laid low by a flu like illness - we did some RATs a couple of days apart and both came up negative  so we're guessing it's just some nasty that makes you feel rotten.

Anyway, she's recovering now and suddenly realised this morning that she'd never posted the cards. In fact she'd never got as far as writing them.

Well there's absolutely no point doing so now, as they wouldn't get there until some time in early January.

So the workaround was to create an account with a print on demand Christmas card company in England and get them to send the cards first class, and hope that strikes and snow  notwithstanding, they'd get there in time.

Now J keeps a day book with notes and addresses in it, and guess what, she'd misplaced the old one with her aunties' postal addresses.

Not a problem, it'll be in a file on OneDrive with the other documents transferred across when she changed from an iMac to a windows laptop.

Except it wasn't.

Fortunately her old iMac was still sitting on the studio floor - I'd been weighing up whether to install Linux on it so that I could use it to examine scanned historical documents on it.

Well procrastination has its uses - it was still as it was when unplugged. 

The batteries in its keyboard and mouse were flat, but I still had the wired keyboard from the old vintage 2008 iMac I'd been using as a document viewer, plus an old mouse from some other machine that had gone to e-waste centre, so daisychaining them together should work.

Well I connected everything together, powered it up, and it went 'bong' in the way that Macs do when they're happy.

It did seem to hang halfway through startup but just before I was going to powercycle the machine it came back to life.

Logged in, and there was the document, a Libre Office 6 ODT file.

At first we tried to be clever and open Libre Office and do a 'send document', but the mail system's OAuth login token had long since expired, and it didn't seem worth doing battle with the keychain tool, so we saved it as a word file to a USB stick, took the stick across to J's Windows 11 laptop and copied the file to OneDrive.

The current version of word opened it without problems, meaning we were home and dry.

The moral of course is, when switching machines, just copy everything, and this includes all documents stored on a cloud provider if you're changing, in this case from iCloud to OneDrive.  You can get rid of the junk later when you are really sure you don't need it.

Inevitably you'll have more storage than previously so you won't really have a problem keeping some seeming junk around for a bit ...

Monday, 12 December 2022

Technology and me 2022

 Every year around this time I do a little post on my personal use of technology - here's the one for 2022.

Compared to last year, we've had some changes, but nothing dramatic, more incremental change as machines come to the end of their working lives.

 My venerable MacBook Air finally curled up its electronic toes and I also took the opportunity to ditch the 2008 vintage iMac I kept around for viewing images on its large screen - it had simply got too old and the software too out of date to be usable any more.

At the same time my Dow's project laptop decided that it couldn't see its battery any more, leading to its replacement with a refurbished ThinkPad.

The project documenting Dow's pharmacy continues to inch closer to fruition, and after a couple of problems with wheelie boxes, I invested in a decent wheeled computer bag, which has proved the ideal solution.

Despite it's age, my old iPad Mini continues to be useful as a notetaker, as strangely enough is one of my old Handspring Visors that I resurrected as a way of being able to take notes while wearing my blue examination gloves - I favour the slightly thicker pathology style ones, one never quite knows what one's handling when it comes to nineteenth and early twentieth century patent medicines.

My Huawei MediaPad continues to give excellent service, but I'm becoming increasingly impressed with my ChromeBook Duet's abilities - fold out the keyboard it's a ChromeBook, fold back the keyboard it's a web tablet, albeit a rather heavy one, but close to the ideal as a travel computer.

The dogfood tablet continues to do its job, but this past year I've been trying to work my way through my 'to read' pile of second hand books, so it hasn't seen as much service as it might have

My four year old Lenovo laptop is still doing its job, and I see no reason to replace it for at least another year. Likewise the refurbished Thinkpad I bought back in 2018, albeit now with Kubuntu, continues to be incredibly useful, as does an old Dell laptop I acquired that now sits in the corner of Judi's studio (actually our garage) fitted out with Raspberry Pi desktop - incredibly useful for checking the weather, packing lists, or indeed updating lists of supplies that we need to order.

Still giving excellent service is the little Lenovo I bought as a travel computer, as is my old refurbished Yoga, as a second machine.

The little Lenovo came to my aid when I did a presentation for our local U3A group, as it turned out to be the only machine I had with a modern external HDMI interface - the curse of using refurbished machines I guess.

The one real failure has been the e-slate I bought out of curiosity - I still really havn't found a use for it.

But it's not all work here at Moncur towers - having discovered the Lenovo smart clock we've ended up with three scattered around the house, plus a Google assistant enabled speaker in the lounge room to play background jazz plus I bought myself a Google Hub really to use as a podcast player that sits on the shelf above my desk.

So, basically incremental change this year.

We've arguably still got too many computers between us - J ditched her iMac for a new HP windows laptop earlier this year, and I have my eye on the refurbished Dell latitude I bought her during the pandemic as a potential second kubuntu machine - however we do have a pile of older devices to go the the e-waste centre.

I'm expecting the Dow's pharmacy documentation project to draw to a close in 2023 (or at least my involvement in it) and that will probably mean some changes in our use of technology next year ...

Sunday, 4 December 2022

Escaping the family history Behemoths ..

 I started dabbling in family history back before the pandemic, but, like many people, I signed up to one of the mega family history companies during the pandemic. It was either that or sourdough.

And, I'm not going to be rude about the experience, it was actually quite valuable in building out the family tree, but there comes a point when it turns into stamp collecting with more and more distantly related ancestors.

Now there may be interesting stories out there, but about six months ago I came to feel that the way forward was to flesh out individual stories. And more, as an exercise to keep the grey cells ticking over it is more fun to do one's own searches, rather than simply rely on a set of algorithms.

So, I've made the decision not to renew my subscription to My Heritage, and to carry on dabbling myself.

The first thing, obviously, was to get my data out of My Heritage.

This is quite easy, if a little obscure. 

Using the web interface, there's an option to 'manage family trees', and in it is an option to export to Gedcom

Gedcom is a file format for the exchange of genealogical data between genealogy programs.

Gedcom has the advantage of being a text based format, meaning (a) files can be edited or examined with a decent text editor such as Kate, and (b) it's comparatively simple to write a script in perl, or anything else that is good at text manipulation and regular expressions, to extract and reformat data as required. 

Unfortunately as the Gedcom  format was not updated between 1999 and 2019, the various commercial genealogy companies have added their own extensions for extra functionality, making each of  their Gedcom exports slightly incompatible with each other - a bit like BibTex really, in that there are a whole set of minor an irritating differences between different vendors' implementations.

However Gedcom is what we have, and so Gedcom is what we have to work with.

As a local genealogy management tool I decided to use Gramps, a free open source package. I've used it before, and it does most of what I want.

I installed it on my Kubuntu linux laptop and imported my Gedcom exports. As you would expect there were various scary warnings about unrecognised attributes, almost certainly due to unrecognised extensions, but it basically worked:

Almost all the data seems to be there. (My MyHeritage subscription does not expire until the end of the year giving me a month to sanity check the data, but on a quick skim, everything important is there.)

Friday, 2 December 2022

So, twitter and mastodon

Clearly, twitter has not imploded, and at the same time there's been somewhat of a migration to mastodon.

I've made my own decision about twitter, but not yet about my use of mastodon.

They are currently very different environments.

Even before the change of ownership, twitter was changing and becoming increasingly a write only medium populated by press releases and reposts of nineteenth century orientalist paintings. 

All good in their own way, but not terribly conversational.

Mastodon, or at least the corner I'm in, is definitely more conversational, and is functioning more like an early eighties fidonet forum than twitter's tickertape.

Undoubtedly we're in a period of change. And of course that means we're on a journey with our use of these platforms.

At the moment there's little of the corporate presence on mastodon - it's a volunteer service being funded by the angels - which possibly has implications for long term sustainability; servers need to be maintained and the people that do the maintaining need to eat, and it's unrealistic to expect either to happen on a grace and favour basis.

And perhaps because of the lack of corporate stuff it's more conversational, more ruminative.

Twitter, on the other hand, lurches along much as it always did. I expect it to evolve and change rather than implode, but how, I'm unsure.

I don't see myself going back to twitter to the extent I was - I've decided to move on and do other things,

As far as social media goes, probably what I'll do is continue to blog - certainly I've found it enhances my writing skills (and I enjoy it), and perhaps post occasionally to mastodon and twitter about anything I find especially interesting ...

Saturday, 19 November 2022

Evernote has been sold

 In among all the news about the chaos at Twitter you might have missed the news that Evernote has been sold.

Evernote is, at heart a document management application that lets you organise a large amount of documentation thematically, be they pdf's of tax invoices, or web pages about the use of the long S ( ſ ) in early nineteenth century typography.

For a long time Evernote was the go to application to do this and even now, the only real alternative is OneNote (or else a shoebox full of notecards), so as someone who's been using Evernote extensively for over ten years, I was a little concerned.

However, I was not panicking as Microsoft had quite a nice little tool to import Evernote documents into OneNote.

However I'm saying had advisedly - if you go to Microsoft's web page on moving from Evernote to OneNote there's a disheartening bit of information in a rather small font

which is a trifle unfortunate. 

There is a commercial utility from Bitrecover, but that really only converts Evernote documents to word files or pdf's, meaning that you would then have to manually load in each note into OneNote.

Well, even though I've had a number of severe prunes of my Evernote notebooks over the years, I've still got over 500 notes, and the idea of manually recreating them doesn't immediately appeal ...

Monday, 14 November 2022

Notable and Markdown

 Having conducted a little experiment yesterday to assess the suitability of Notable to handle work in progress notes, I thought I'd better post a little more of a rationale.

Notable is a fairly simple application. Notes are stored in a notes subdirectory of whatever data directory you select. Each note is stored as a Markdown document in flat structure.

On my Linux machine the notes directory is in ~/Documents, on my windows machines I save it to OneDrive to ensure that I have a backup.

Notable will let you attach other files to notes - it's totally agnostic as to what you attach. When I do family history work usually the notes concern someone I'm working on and the attachments are typically jpeg files of old birth, marriage, death or census registers, and perhaps a pdf or two. These end up in the attachments directory which is created in the same directory that your notes directory is located in.

As the files are basically simple markdown files it's possible to use a service such as emailitin or sendtodropbox to email a copy of the note to a filesystem.

My Linux machine is not connected to any service such as OneDrive or Google Drive so that I can use it off line if necessary - typically I use emailitin to send a copy of  a note to OneDrive where I might do some more work on it.

As it's simply a markdown file, you can easily email a note to a colleague or indeed import it into word either by using a third party plugin such as Writeage or a conversion tool such as Pandoc. Cloudconvert will also let you convert Markdown to word.


The reasons why I like markdown for taking notes are fourfold

  1. It's human readable - you don't need to have a viewer installed to read markdown files
  2. You can use just about any editor out there to create a markdown document - I have, admittedly purely as a demo, used vi to create a markdown document 
  3. It's platform agnostic, the files are the same be they on Windows, Mac, Linux or Android
  4. The syntax is really easy - I've been using it for about ten years now to create notes, including notes of meetings and research notes. Most of the time I've just used a plain text editor, but there are plenty of special tools out there if you're uncomfortable with markup
Because of it's simplicity Markdown is really easy to learn but you don't need to learn every nook and cranny of the syntax. There's plenty of cheatsheets out there but you only really need two tags to create workable notes

# this is a heading
## this is a subheading
### this is a minor heading

Markdown allows three levels of nesting of headings - which is probably more than is required for any simple note. Notable uses the heading at the start of a file to make the note title

so basically the only other tags you need are 
- this is a dot point
     - this is a nested dot point

dot points are nested by prefixing them with blocks of four spaces. I've only had to nest to three levels, if you need more levels of nesting you possibly need to think about breaking your note up into separate notes.

The only other useful thing to know about Notable is that at the head of the markdown document it embeds information about any attached resources as a comment

which can be useful if you have multiple similarly named attachments. Personally, I always try and give attachments meaningful names - machine generated filenames like ScotlandsPeople_OPR282_000_0300Z.jpg and jol-files-2018-05-centaur2.jpg are pretty opaque, especially when you return to them after a few days away ...

Friday, 11 November 2022

Gold coin dating from before European contact found in Newfoundland

Earlier today I tweeted the following


The find's particularly interesting not just because of the age of the coin, but because of the value of the coin. 

In the late medieval period high value coins were a form of portable property and wealth. They were like €500 notes - too valuable to be too much use in ordinary purchases, but a supremely simple and lightweight way of transporting wealth. In a world without banks or credit cards, they were the only answer to moving substantial amounts of money. 

Previously some old low value coins have been found in Newfoundland, pennies, groats, that sort of thing - coins that people would use in ordinary transactions and while relative value is an elastic concept, losing a groat, worth 4d, would be like losing a $20 bill.

Annoying, but we've all done it. Losing a Quarter Noble would be more like losing a $100 note.

So the pennies and groats could have fallen out of someone's jerkin. They were loose change, probably left over from the last time they were on shore in England, and possibly forgotten about.

Such coins would probably keep circulating until they were so worn as to be unrecognisable. The other thing is that coins, which were made of silver and gold, had intrinsic value.

This means that if I was a late medieval sailor from England and walked into a bar in Santander in Spain and asked for a glass of wine, and paid for it with an English penny, the bar tender would have taken the coin, looked at it, weighed it in his palm, decided it was worth a couple of maravedis and smiled.

Later on, when he was short of change he may have given it to a Basque cod fisherman who'd paid for a meal with some higher value coins.

The point of this little fable is that coins are evidence of presence, but only that, they could have easily fallen from the jerkin of a Basque fisherman as an English one.

Gold coins are different. Nobody left them in a jerkin pocket. In fact it's unlikely that any ordinary person would have any. A ship's master might have had some locked away securely in a chest in case he was blown off course and needed to pay for new rigging or other supplies, but that's about the only people who would have had a need to have them on the wild coast of Newfoundland.

And of course there were no ship's chandlers in Newfoundland at the time.

At this point I'm going to wave my hands and fantasize. Perhaps sometime in the late medieval period there were two European ships off the coast of Newfoundland, one of which had lost a couple of its fishing nets. 

Because the fishing was good, the ship's master bought a spare net from the second boat rather than return home with a part load. And while counting out the coins on a shingle beach he dropped one and couldn't find it.

As I say, a fantasy, but possibly closer to the truth than you might first think ...

Being on Mastodon

 Well I've been on Mastadon a week or so now.

Mastadon is not twitter. It's more conversational and is more interaction oriented. So far there doesn't seem to be a lot of reposting of links, more original material and content, but perhaps that will change, but at the moment it's more like a bulletin board, or even usenet news.

I've found it a useful, even stimulating experience.

But because the platforms are so culturally different I'm still in a quandary as to what to do about twitter.

For the moment, I'm using twitter as I always have, but posting more original material to Mastadon as @moncur_d@ausglam.space.

I probably don't have the bandwidth to do both for a long period of time, but I'll wait until Mastadon settles down before deciding to jump ship ...

A windows 11 upgrade peeve

I was feeling crochety this morning.

I had planned an early morning bike ride but I woke to light drizzle, so, after I had fed the cats, I went back to bed with my little Lenovo laptop to read my email.

When I powered it up it greeted me with an invitation to upgrade to Windows 11. Fair enough.

I declined gracefully, only to get another nag screen about upgrading.

No, I'd said once I didn't want to run the upgrade, especially while sitting in bed with a cup of tea and two cats attempting to push their way in.

Now, I don't have a problem with upgrading to Windows 11. But not yet.

Both the machine on my desk and my fieldwork machine are stuck on Windows 10, and evermore will be so due to Microsoft's hardware requirements for Windows 11 - basically both predate the current version of the TPM security chip that Microsoft requires.

My fieldwork machine is a refurbished Thinkpad and a little over five years old and my desk laptop is not quite four years old. It still does everything I need it to do so I feel no need to go and buy a new machine.

My project documenting the contents of Dow's pharmacy will come to an end some time during the first quarter of 2023, basically I have a large glass fronted display cabinet and a pile of 1950's cardboard boxes still to do, and I'll be done.

And because of that I'd like to have all my windows machines Windows 10 to ensure compatability, especially as a lot of the documentation is stored in OneNote, and I don't want to risk the Windows 11 version silently changing functionality.

Much the same reason as while I'm totally convinced I could change my fieldwork machine to Kubuntu without problems, I won't. Not yet.

So until I'm done, I'd like to stay on Windows 10.

Microsoft don't seem to have a way of saying 'thank you for your interest, but I'm working on a project just now/I'm on a slow network link, etc'. The nag screens imply 'it's do it now or never' which is a bit of emotional blackmail - you can in fact run the upgrade procedure from Settings anytime you like.

Just like the emotional blackmail about using Edge, which is actually a fine browser and sometimes works better than Chrome, but of course Edge is not multiplatform, which is a problem if you also use a Chromebook/Mac/Chromium on linux.

Saturday, 5 November 2022

Getting rid of pinterest

I've been using pinterest to collect images, mostly of the Austro-Hungarian empire and nineteenth century Scotland, plus images of old medical products.

A few days ago I had an email from Pinterest telling me that one of the Egon Schiele images had been disallowed on grounds of fetishism - something which pissed me off royally, given the image had been up there for over seven years, and he's only like, one of greatest artists of the early twentieth century.

Put it this way, the Vienna School of Art let him in the year after they told a certain A. Hitler he wasn't a good enough artist for place in the art school. Equally, while I like Egon Schiele for his command of line,  I'm also the first to admit that a lot of his work has an uncomfortable edgy feel that's not for everyone, so fair enough, their site, their rules. 

(The Wikipedia article on Schiele has a decent gallery of his work, but some of it is NSFW - don't look if you're offended by raw earthiness.)

Now, I havn't used Pinterest seriously for three or four years, so I deleted my account.

I then realised that that was a stupid thing to do as there's material in there I might want in the future. Fortunately Pinterest have a cooling off period, whereby if you log back in within two weeks your account is reactivated..

Now I had a couple of thousand images in Pinterest, so no way was I going to download them manually. Fortunately, there's a Chrome plug in called Pindown that lets you bulk download contents from an individual Pinterest board.

So I ate humble pie, logged back into Pinterest to get my data back, used Pindown to download the collections I wanted, and then re-deleted my account and uninstalled Pindown. (Actually I did this twice as I realised I'd missed some stuff first time around.)

I'd been using Facebook to authenticate to Pinterest, so after I was really sure I'd got everything I wanted, as a final move I went to my Facebook settings and removed access.

Job done!

I've now got an extra quarter of gigabyte on OneDrive but given I've got over a terabyte, that's not a problem, and any extra data will be clipped to OneNote with a bit of cataloguing information ...

Thursday, 27 October 2022

Pharmacy and poisons talk online

 Recently our local U3A group asked me to give a talk on my work cataloguing the contents of Dow's.

If you are interested I've put the presentation online

as well as my speakers notes

Saturday, 15 October 2022

Linux, desktops and pervasive internet and offline documentation and research

 A week or so ago I blogged about how I believed that desktop linux was never going to be a thing.

Well, I still stand by that argument but this morning I read an article that made the argument that as windows becomes more and more reliant on the cloud, linux was the only way to go if you needed a standalone desktop operating system.

And that got me thinking. 

Over the five years I've worked on the Dow's documentation project there's been a bit of drift and increasing dependence on cloud based services, and while it's possible to revert to the original 2017 methodology when needed, it's definitely the case that it's easier to stick with the 2022 cloud based methodology if at all possible.

Let's say I was to start a new documentation and recording project, and it was based somewhere without good internet. And while it's true that the 2022 methodology can be run over a  decent 4G connection, it's certainly the case that there's plenty of places in rural and regional Australia where 4G coverage is less than stellar.

So, as a thought experiment, could you run the original 2017 methodology on Kubuntu?

  • Much of the recording is done via spreadsheets. Libre Office Calc is highly compatible with excel as I found when I had to use a machine without excel when I dropped coffee on my work machine
  • Firefox is perfectly compatible with OneDrive meaning that data can be uploaded at the end of the working day
  • The OneNote web clipper works well with Firefox, meaning that if one had minimal internet it would still be possible to research and document objects
  • And of course there is no problem saving a copy of the data to external drive of some sort as a work in progress backup during the working day.
The only real problem would be when one had to check against existing information held in OneNote or on OneDrive - if one really had minimal internet - it would probably be a case of accumulating notes, either on paper or a text files and then working through them, either at home, or perhaps at a local public library at the end of the day.

Applications like CherryTree or Notable, while not compatible with OneNote or Evernote mean that you could store your local notes in a structured manner making them easier to work through.

So. yes, if poor internet made using a Windows machine problematical, I reckon that one could run something very similar to the original 2017 methodology using Kubuntu (or indeed any other well provisioned Linux distribution.)

It's worth noting that when I started the project I basically made up the methodology myself in the absence of any documentation or guidance.

It's based in the main on the various conversations I've had with botanists and archaeologists over the years, not to mention my own rather dated experience in running botanical field surveys in Wales in the 1980's.

However, based on this instagram post from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Victoria, not a lot has changed

giving me confidence that the methodology could be applied to other quite different field recording projects, and probably also family history research.

As I have said elsewhere, I'm a great believer in eating one's own dogfood, and while I'm quietly confident it would be a viable solution I need to try it out for real on a little side project ...

Wednesday, 5 October 2022

Why we'll never see linux in common use on the desktop


Desktop linux.

Never really happened has it?

And while I’m an enthusiastic proponent of linux, I’ve got to admit I use a Windows PC most of the time these days.

And of course, the reason why I use a windows pc instead of a Linux based one is because something like 85-90% of the pc’s in daily use run windows in some form, which means a well supported range of robust software. Basically Windows works and it lets me do what I want to do. (And there’s no OneNote or Evernote client for linux).

The rest of the pc’s out there are either chromebooks or Macs.

And as we know there are 57 varieties of desktop linux, something that doesn’t help as it means there are 57 ways of doing something, like do I start a program via the launcher menu, or do I have to right click on the desktop. Basically it’s confusing.

It’s telling that those projects to deploy linux in education in Brazil and Argentina have standardized on a single distribution and in the case of Argentina, producing their own.

Standardize on a single distribution and documentation and support becomes easier, and you build a community of knowledge – and that’s important because people can then ask each other.

And even though actually most people’s interaction with computers is via the web these days there’s a hard nub of difficult problems.

Our local U3A runs a series of workshops for older citizens. Overwhelmingly the problems people have can be categorized as

  • How do I set up a Zoom session
  • How do I upload this photo of my drivers licence to the government services website
  • How do I download this pdf receipt and file it (or upload it to Medicare)

All simple tasks, and one that can be shown simply to people because we know they have chrome, they have acrobat, they have a standard mail client or use webmail.

Try it with linux? The 57 varieties problem will get you.

Yet there are advantages in using linux. It extends the life of hardware, and there are none of these pesky license costs – something which in these days of Google Workspace is less of an issue than it once was.

But basically apart from a few wierdos and enthusiasts like me it isn’t going to happen simply as the effort is simply too great in support time.


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 https://packagecloud.io/install/repositories/judd/jpilot/script.deb.sh | sudo bash
sudo apt install jpilot jpilot-plugins
For some reason the script installed the repository fine, but the app didn't install. (Probably incompetence or finger trouble on my part)
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.