Friday, 22 September 2023

Not posting links anymore ...

 For years, since 2007 in fact. I used to post links of things I found interesting to a certain microblogging site now known as X.

Well, as we know, there's been some changes with X, so on the back of them I took the opportunity not only to quit twitter, but also to abandon all the socials except for Mastodon, and even though I could have started using Mastodon in the same way as I did twitter, I decided to dial it down and post rarely.

That left me with a little problem - my loyal ex followers.

Amazingly, well to me anyway, some people actively followed my feed and used it as an information source, so to provide a bridge I started accumulating links and posting them to a wiki.

This wasn't terribly arduous - it probably took about an extra fifteen minutes out of my day to save the copied URL's to a text document, add required markup and copy and paste them into my wiki's edit window.

But it did demand that I had time every day to do this.

Well in the old days, when the internet was a plaything of academia, and before everything was always on 24/7 you could leave a .vacation message along the lines of 

I am gone from my desk and may be away for a few weeks

and then disappear to the wilds of Anatolia or the rain forests of Laos and no one would care that much.

Well, we're going travelling again for the first time in ages - nowhere terribly exotic - and as I might not have time to post regularly, I decided to can the wiki posting experiment.

How much use it was to people I don't know, as I deliberately didn't turn on many metrics.

Personally, I found it a useful exercise to revisit my  wiki editing skills, and certainly I'll be adding pages to my wiki site in the future.

It also helped me in the process of disengaging from social media by giving me a mechanism to withdraw from compulsively posting anything I found interesting rather than reading it analytically, something I think everyone is guilty of sometimes.

So it's been valuable - hopefully some other people have also got some value from it.

I'm not going totally silent - being a bit of an internet chatterbox I will be posting the odd thing to Mastodon but I'm going to try and keep it dialed down ...

Tuesday, 19 September 2023

Field Notes

 A few days ago I posted a link about field notes from Christchurch archaeology to my links page for this week.

Personally I find field notes and how people use them fascinating, ever since I first managed botanists.

 Full of scribbles, marginal notes and the rest they record the progress of a survey, or an archaeological dig in the raw, with all the gritty details, mistakes, corrections and the rest.

And there is still a role for the field notebook/workbook/lab notebook in research, even if the final version ends up written up a little more formally and these days electronically.

And it’s the immediacy aspect that governs the use of notebooks.

For example, even when putting together a set of notes for family history research, I find there’s an intermediate stage when one writes down some rough notes and then writes them up in a more coherent manner – probably I ought to maintain a genealogy workbook, but I’m afraid I tend to use scrap paper and photograph any of my scrawls that are potentially useful.

So while the lightweight research machine is excellent for writing things up and putting things together systematically as one goes, I find I need a rough book.

And it is the immediacy factor – it doesn’t matter too much about the weather, one can simply pull out the rough book to write something down.

I’ve tried using an iPad, and while they’re great for a lot of desk based work – recording references and the like – they do need an internet connection for a lot of applications to work.

Paper is immediate.

So, when I was documenting Dow’s, a rough book formed part of the process.

As the various bottles and boxes contained god knows what, and possibly in a dubious condition the use of nitrile gloves to protect one’s hands was a given. Personally, I find it almost impossible to type even on a full size keyboard wearing nitrile gloves, and on a smaller size keyboard well, it just doesn’t work.

So, when examining the artefact I would write a basic description in my rough book

An example rough book pge

My workbook was more than usually illegible, but as I was the only one reading it that didn’t really matter. Sometimes there were crossings out and correction, but as the object descriptions were fairly well structured, pages tended to follow the same layout: object: separator: object and with aspects listed line by line.

After I’d examined and photographed the object I would upload, review, and edit the object photographs, and then add the image names to my rough book, before adding the object to the cataloguing spreadsheet.

This method is fairly generic, and having a rough book like this allows you to check back on your work to make sure you havn’t miskeyed something or missed something….

Wednesday, 13 September 2023

House and garden archaeology

 We live in an old wooden house, the core of which probably dates to the 1880's.

Exactly when I'm not sure, but like all wooden houses it has been extended and changed over the years, and while the front of the house looks authentic (but isn't, for example our front door and the Victorian etched glass in the door case dates to 1860 and came from a completely different house) the rear of the house most definitely is not, with multiple extensions over the years, most recently by ourselves in 2016.

I could, I suppose, research the date the house was originally built, but certainly, in 1856, while the block had been surveyed when the town was laid out, the town plan does not show a house on the block,

I've been told that at one time our block formed part of an orchard, and that the brewery sometimes stabled dray horses on it.

Certainly I've found an old horseshoe and a broken set of nineteenth century farriers' pliers, so perhaps there's some truth in the story.

In the course of gardening I've turned up old ceramic electrical fittings, the neck of a nineteenth century bottle, an old flat iron, a couple of 1920's medicine bottles, and a lot of broken glass, mostly from nineteenth and early twentieth century beer bottles.

So turning up bits and pieces isn't that unusual.

Today's finds consisted of a little glass object that looked a little like a glass chocolate button, and what at first sight  looked like the base of a nineteenth century medicine bottle, except that

the glass is very clear and transparent and lacks the thickness and also the little bubbles and inclusions typically found in nineteenth century glass. My guess is that it's a bit of a relatively modern, say post war, bottle that was made in the style of an earlier bottle.

The other find is a little more interesting, a little glass object around 15mm in diameter and shaped a little like a chocolate button

The glass is almost certainly nineteenth century with a greenish hue and little air bubbles trapped in it

My guess is that it is a skirt weight from the hem of a woman's dress in the nineteenth century.

Skirt weights were sewn into the hems of skirts and dresses to stop them blowing about and to help them hang properly.

Unfortunately, while the internet provides plenty of examples of metal nineteenth century hem weights, I've been unable to turn up any images of glass hem weights.

Tuesday, 5 September 2023

The end of wordpad


I recently tooted an article from The Register that Microsoft was killing off WordPad.

To be honest I'd forgotten that WordPad existed, but its demise is symptomatic of the move to cloud centric computing.

Now sometimes you need to produce some minimally formatted text.

Focuswriter, while great as a distraction free editor, doesn't let you structure text. You could, of course, use Markdown and do the whole Pandoc thing, but realistically you wouldn't - we're visual beings, and  sometimes you need something simple to organise your thoughts with.

Solutions that hark back to the days of green on black VT100's and LaTeX really don't fly.

On the lightweight research machine, I must admit to using AbiWord simply because it's not particularly CPU intensive, and despite a few idiosyncrasies it works well enough for making a document with headers, bullet points and a bit of text with inline formatting, and you can save the document in a format something else can read, such as .odt .

This of course doesn't help you if you're on Windows.

Usually I use GoogleDocs, but that, of course, assumes an internet connection, which is not always the case - V/line trains for example, which don't have wifi, making offline working the default. (It's of course possible to use Google Docs offline, but you first need to be online to make the document available offline - not ideal.)

To do most of what you need you probably only need an rtf capable editor that doesn't need an internet connection. Googling suggests a number of  alternative, but I'm hesitant about recommending one until I've tried them ...

Monday, 28 August 2023

So how did I document the contents of Dow's?


The actual procedure was pretty straightforward – basically the pharmacy contents consisted of carboard boxes and glass bottles.

The bottles, especially after the consolidation of the Australian glass industry  in the 1920s, were all pretty similar, and the cardboard boxes, were, well cardboard boxes.

Some were interesting in terms of their design


But all were much of a muchness.

What it comes down to is that bottles are on the whole pretty boring, but the stories they can tell are interesting such as what the distribution of bottles of Owbridge’s lung tonic tells us about trade in the nineteenth century.

So, the procedure was fairly simple:

The pharmacy was divided into a set of areas, and a thematically named directory was created for each area.

Photographs were taken of each area and a Markdown document was created for each area as a finding aid, listing the locations of the objects.

Markdown was chosen as it is a well known structured text format and can be read without special software.  Filenames were of the format

An excel spreadsheet was created for each area. Each spreadsheet has four columns, a sequence number, an object description an image column and a comments field. Filenames are of the format area_name.xslx.

Description fields contain the following, the object type, eg a glass bottle or a cardboard box, the label contents if present and whether the contents are present. If the contents are liquid this is noted as an aid to future conservation work. Colons are used to delimit the individual parts of the entry as an aid to converting and manipulating the data for ingest into some long term preservation solution.

An example entry may read

hexagonal blue glass bottle ~100mm: cork stopper: no label: contents not present

The second image column contains filename of a digital image of the object. Images are always stored in a sub directory named Reference Pictures

If the object is a cardboard box the image will be of the box and any contents, such as a metal ointment tube.

The final column is a freeform colon delimited text field.

If the object is a bottle and has a label, typically the first entry will the filename of an image of the label followed by an image of the rear label if present, then any embossing on the bottle. If a manufacturer is known the manufacturer will always be the last entry.

Information about manufacturers and individual products was researched and saved in a OneNote notebook to assist with the creation of detailed catalogue entries where required.

If the item is a cardboard box, the first four entries will be photographs of the faces of the box, followed by a description of the contents and one or more photographs of the box contents. As before, the final entry will be the manufacturers name if known.

Each object was examined and photographed and the basic parameters recorded. If leakage or damage was noticed, this was recorded in the comments section.

In the case of a cardboard box, it will be noted if the box was judged too fragile to be opened and the contents examined. Likewise it will be recorded if the box was sealed, preventing further examination.

At no time was any container opened due to the risks associated with exposure to the contents.

A variation in this methodology was used in documenting the contents of drawers in the shop area of the pharmacy.

·    Drawers were documented in sequence starting at the top left and finishing at the bottom right

·    Each drawer is to have its label and contents photographed in situ

·    Each drawer is to be treated as an individual artefact and the contents are to be documented as a set of contents within the artefact

o   Each separate artefact’s description is to be added to the comments field and  is to be prefaced with the word contains

o   Where an artefact itself contains multiple objects each component object is to be recorded in the comments field and prefaced with the string item_contains

·       Contents may then be removed, photographed and documented in the standard manner

·       Each drawer label is to be recorded.

·     If the label is damaged or missing that is to be recorded along with the position of the drawer in sequence

So essentially one ends up with a directory with a human readable name that contains a finding aid in markdown format, an excel spreadsheet and a subdirectory containing all the reference pictures.




Sunday, 27 August 2023

Standardising my Linux machines

 I'm well pleased with my latest iteration of a lightweight research machine, that I decided that I would rebuild the old Dell 6320 that I used in the earlier Xubuntu based iteration.

This machine sits in a corner of the outdoor studio, really a converted garage, and has been running the Raspberry Pi X86 desktop.

The machine doesn't need to do much - really all it does is let me look at the weather forecast when I'm working outside in the garden, and perhaps write up the odd gardening note.

In part, this is because the outdoor studio is currently a giant junk pile, but we have plans to clean it out this summer to provide a large painting space for J and provide me with a project bench for playing with old cameras etc.

And that of course means I'll need a machine in there to look up old camera manuals etc.

Even though the Dell's battery is not in the best of health the machine has a decent sized screen and a keyboard that is reasonably nice to type on.

So this afternoon I installed crunchbang linux. The network connection in the studio isn't quite as robust as it could be, and my first attempt at an install failed when the wifi repeater reset itself, but the second time installation just worked giving me a usable machine.

As the machine's not going to see serious use in the first instance it's not quite the same as my more serious lightweight machine -  I decided not to set up deja dup, or add my extra applications (kate, ristretto, notable etc - these can be installed later if need be) as for the moment all I really need is a web browser and a text editor for writing raw markdown if required ...

Friday, 25 August 2023

Why a folksonomy?

 When I was cataloguing the contents of Dow’s pharmacy I used a folksonomy rather than a formal controlled vocabulary.

A folksonomy is of course simply an informal controlled vocabulary that is readily extensible, which is a good thing where, as in Dows, there was no clear understanding of what exactly the contents of the pharmacy might be.

So, and object at Dows can be

  • a glass jar – jars have wide openings
  • a glass bottle – bottles are taller than they are wide and have narrow openings
  • a cardboard box
  • something else such as a metal or plastic tube

a glass bottle can be

  • clear – contents for internal use
  • brown – contents for external use
  • blue – contains something very nasty

except in very early bottles, blue and brown bottles are usually embossed Not to be Taken, and ribbed to aid identification in poor light. (incidentally it’s because of this ribbing we could say with some degree of plausibility that green pharmacy bottles are an alternative to brown bottles)

So, you get the idea, it’s quite simple to build up a classification model, and because we’re not encumbered by any previous sets of terms used, make up something that is human readable as well as machine readable.

The point about it being machine readable is that the standardisation of terms makes it easy to import and convert object descriptions into a more complex schema (as well as auto generate catalogue entries in the standard house style.)

So why did I use a folksonomy rather than pillaging an existing controlled vocabulary?

Well, folksonomies are simple, make sense to the humans doing the cataloguing – in this case it was only me, but if someone else had joined me on the project it would have been fairly simple to write down a set of definitions so that everything was classified the same way.

I’ve found in the past that using a controlled vocabulary doesn’t really work – the people actually doing the cataloguing tend to find them too complex to work with, and as a consequence you tend to find one person’s bottle is another person’s jar.

So, in cataloguing as in so much else in life, keeping things simple pays dividends...

Monday, 14 August 2023

The costs of citizen science (part ii)

Until very recently I've been volunteering as, what I'm not sure - something between a cataloguer and a curator - to document the contents of Dow's pharmacy in Chiltern.

Back in 2020 I blogged about the costs of being a volunteer.

While they're not substantial, they do exist, but equally I've spent just as much money on my other interests - researching Victorian murderers, old cameras and family history, so I can't really complain.

However, coincident with finishing up on Dow's I filled in this year's tax return. 

I don't work, I'm retired and we live on our superannuation and aged pension payments, but I also get a small pension from the UK Department of Work and Pensions.

The fiction is that this is treated as if it was earned  income and taken into account by both Centrelink and the Australian Tax Office. It normally sits comfortably below the thresholds for tax or being penalised for working while claiming Centrelink benefits, but recently our dollar has not being doing that well against the pound,  its value has increased.

So, I wondered if there was a way of offsetting expenses incurred as a volunteer against tax, just as I did when I was working.

The answer's utterly unambiguous. 


The ATO has the perfectly reasonable viewpoint that if you are a volunteer, you are donating your time freely, and cannot be deemed an employee or self-employed. Interestingly the ATO do recognise that you may have out of pocket expenses as a volunteer and that rather than reclaiming petty cash payments for things like rubber gloves and notebooks, it's perfectly acceptable to be paid as small honorarium, ie an ex gratia lump sum payment in lieu of any petty cash expenses incurred.

In fact it's a pretty sensible approach.

However, we have a little problem here. In both the ATO's view, and  organisation such as Volunteering Victoria, a volunteer is a volunteer, no matter what they do. 

So, if you go along to an archaeological project, say, and wash pottery fragments, you'll have a great time and probably won't have much in the way of out of pocket expenses. If you volunteer as a finds officer on the same project, collecting and documenting these fragments, you'll need gloves, tweezers, magnifying glasses and access to a computer, and perhaps some cloud storage for data backup.

Again the costs are minimal, but may be a barrier to some people lending their expertise.

Having done the whole volunteer thing I think there regrettably needs to be a bit more formality about the process of becoming a volunteer with some sort of dummy contract that as well as rights and responsibilities, covers how minor expenses will be handled, hopefully in a way that does not cause a bureaucratic overhead.

Saturday, 12 August 2023

Digitisation - what is it good for?

I'm sure everybody who works on digitisation projects has at some point worked with material so obscure that you wondered 'what's the bloody point?'

I certainly have. Not the big ticket stuff like Trove, but boring stuff like the correspondence of an obscure, and clearly personality challenged Victorian botanist whose private diary includes such gems as 

'Matilda came to tea today and we discussed saxifrages'

Yeah, exactly.

However, I have a personal story to show that all data is valuable.

Twenty years ago, when  I was (just) still living in England, I had an operation for varicose veins.

It's something that runs in my family, like my having slightly high blood pressure, my brother had them, my father had them, I had them.

And it wasn't due to lifestyle. My father swam, went walking, rode his bike well into his seventies and played golf as long as he was able to. My brother played cricket well into his forties. I went bushwalking and rode my bike, as well as running a decent distance three or four times a week.

As I say it's genetics, and unfortunately the cards you're dealt aren't always the best.

So, shortly before I moved permanently to Australia I had quite a radical procedure to strip out the damaged veins. Given the genetic component, it wasn't a guaranteed fix, and there was a 10-20% risk of recurrent varicosities associated with the procedure.

Well, for about fifteen years everything was fine, but one day when were at the beach J noticed a knotty purple patch behind my left knee. It wasn't painful, and if I rode my bike a bit more than usual it seemed to diminish, but it was clear that it wasn't going to go away.

So, I arranged to go and see a specialist. 

Didn't happen, the pandemic intervened and all treatment for non life threatening conditions was postponed.

Now I couldn't remember the precise details of the procedure, or the date. But I had read that you could ask the NHS in Britain for a copy of your case notes as a freedom of information thing.

So I emailed the hospital where I was treated and asked them if they still had my case notes as I wished to pass them to my specialist in Australia.

I fully expected that they would say no, they had long since been pulped, but to my great surprise, they said yes, they still had some of my records and even better, they had been digitised.

So after some to and fro over how I was to prove I was me - we settled on a scan of my passport and my UK national insurance number - they packaged up what they had for me to download as a password protected zip file.

They didn't have everything, but they had the details of the procedure, the results of the pre operation diagnostic tests, and the post operative assessment, which is probably all my Australian specialist will need when I see her next week.

So, key takeaway, digitisation and digital archiving is a good thing - it might just save you some pain and discomfort down the track...

Thursday, 10 August 2023

Well we've finally got an FTTP connection ...


Well, we've finally got a working FTTP connection.

The NBN technicians came and installed our FTTP box yesterday - unfortunately they couldn't put it where we wanted it so it ended up under one of the study windows on the wall without power sockets and is currently connected to power via an extension lead and to the modem via a 10m cat5e cable I just happened to have.

Ideally this should probably be a cat6 cable, but being country, you can't just nip out and buy a 10m network cable, you need to order one and wait for it to come in the mail. However swapping the cable is incredibly straight forward and the NBN people even give you a little guide as to how to pop the top of the FTTP box to swap the cable, so I don't think it's going to be a drama.

Apart from having to end up on the 'wrong' wall the physical installation was fine. Any confusion in the process came from the NBN and Telstra people using different scripts.

For example, Telstra called me the day before and checked if we were ready to go ahead (we were), and explicitly said that after the physical installation, I should keep everything connected to the (old) FTTC connection.

The NBN people of course swapped everything to the new FTTP connection, which even though physically connected didn't work as there has to be a migration process by Telstra.

Our modem, which has automatic failover to 5G, did exactly that, much to my surprise.

Normally it just complains about a poor signal - I'm guessing we must have finally have got coverage, even if it's not officially in production yet.

Anyway, I swapped it back to the old FTTC wiring for the afternoon and was duly rewarded with a working connection.

In their usual helpful way, Telstra then sent me an email to say that they were going to transfer the service from FTTC to FTTP, but to stay connected to FTTC, closely followed by one say they couldn't see the modem on the FTTP service.

I'd already got the cables in place to swap over between the connections and plugged in the FTTP connection, and hey presto!, it worked.

There's still a few minor details to be sorted out, including what to do with the old NBN FTTC box that has a sticker on it saying it belongs to NBNco and should not be removed from the premises, but we'll get there ...

Friday, 4 August 2023

I might actually have finished ...

 If you've been following this blog, you'll be aware that I've spent the last six years documenting  the contents of Dow's Pharmacy in Chiltern for the National Trust.

Due to the pandemic, the whole exercise has taken longer than it should, but even so, four and a bit years of work has gone into it.

Well I'm finished now. Possibly not finished finished, as there were a couple of ambiguities in the brief that might see me back to document some unprovenanced material, but even so, it's more or less done.

I've had a lot of fun doing it, but now that it's over, I'm strangely relieved ...

An unexpected plus with the lightweight machine

 As I'm sure you're all to aware, a lot of modern software tends to assume the presence of an internet link, if only to sync local filestore contents to a cloud service in real time.

The prime example is Apple's Pages, especially when used on an iPad, but a lot of Microsoft office products are heading that way as well

On the whole this is a plus, but sometimes it can be a pain if you are working somewhere with poor connectivity, such as a hole in a paddock, otherwise known as an archaeological dig.

One unexpected benefit of my current iteration of the lightweight research machine is that it doen't require an internet connection to do its stuff.

Sure it's useful, but not necessary.

I'd like to say that this was a deliberate design feature, but I didn't really think about the zero connectivity scenario, I'd become so used to having connectivity, if only over a 4G modem link.

Dumping everything in ~/documents and then running deja dup when one gets back to base, or even a coffee shop with decent wifi, meets the requirements to back up work in progress, but allows you to work offline when required.

For the really paranoid, or really remote, work in progress data can be written to a usb stick as a backup.

Simples really. 

Tuesday, 25 July 2023

Hardware reuse and recycling

 I recently boosted a post about how some US school systems have come up against a problem with Chromebooks - the fact they fall off the supported hardware list after about five or six years.

This is a problem.

Often the hardware has more life left in it that the artificial cut off date, and while in the past I've used a chromebook well past its use by date, this is not something that you would want to do in a production environment where you need everything to be kept at (more or less) the same release level.

Now, you might think I would go all precious and point to how I turned a 10 year old refurbished machine into a decent little research workhorse, but I won't.

It's one thing for me to do this, it's another thing to do  this at scale and provide a supported environment, simply because to do it at scale would need technicians to do the installation and troubleshooting, some user training, and a little helpdesk team to support the user community. And that of course costs - human beings are incredibly expensive to employ compared with the other costs involved.

I'm not saying it couldn't be done, but to quote a former colleague 'yes, but you're you', ie I have the experience, expertise and technical skills to put together a solution that works for me.

Not everyone does so, nor should we expect them to.

What one of course needs is an easy to install, easy to maintain, Chromebook like environment with some user support behind it.

Given that most educational services have a set of preferred hardware this ought to be possible to deliver, but other than a few experiments in Latin America, such as Huayra, I'm damned if I can think of one ...

[update 04/08/2023]

One of the problems with the longterm support of Chromebooks is that often they use weird processors rather than the standard Intel range, which complicates the problem of updating them to an alternate operating system for long term support.

However, I've just learned of a new project, LaCros, that aims to allow you to install an updated browser on top of the old ChromeOS monolithic operating system and browser binary.

As the browser component is updated more frequently than the operating system on Chromebooks this potentially provides a way of running a more recent and secure browser on an older version of the underlying operating system.

Wednesday, 19 July 2023

Some FTTP progress ...

 We've recently moved back to Telstra in order to get our link upgraded to FTTP.

Well we've had some progress, and I'm quietly impressed. 

The Monday after I made the upgrade request Telstra texted me an install date, which is rather sooner than they first said - which is good, and about ten minutes later I had a second text to tell me not to be alarmed if a strange man in orange hi-vis gear came into our yard - it was a pre installation survey so that they could check how to route the cable.

They also sent me a link to an amazingly sensible little video about what happens during the installation to help us prepare.

Clearly, they've done this before ...

[update 20/07/2023]

Well, we got rather more than a single man in hi-vis - we got a truck full of Bengali speaking cable guys. 

I was down at Chiltern working on the Dow's documentation project, but they phoned me as they'd arrived while J had nipped out to the supermarket, to ask if it was ok if they dug a trench, and MMS's me a couple of pictures of the front yard and the wall of our house showing where they were going to dig the trench and bring the cable up.

J talked to them when she got home and double checked what they were doing - they didn't  have particularly good English - with the result that we now have a fibre optic cable and NBN Fibre Optic termination point on the wall of the house - all we need now is for Telstra to install our fibre optic connection module ...

Tuesday, 18 July 2023

Another iteration of the lightweight research machine

 A couple of weeks ago I put together a post about how you could use an old laptop to make a distraction free writing machine.

That was in part informed by my experience documenting at Dow's and also various attempts to make a lightweight linux machine for research, first with an old Eee PC, and later on an old Dell laptop.

Well, the Eee has long since gone to the recyclers, and the old Dell laptop now sits in the outside studio as a general purpose machine - in practice it proved a little too bulky to carry about.

So, for this exercise I picked up an old Lenovo Edge 11 for around a hundred bucks, which when it booted up showed its origins:

but the screen was nice and clear, the keyboard clean and fully functional, as was the trackpad.The only problem is the battery, which is obviously in need of replacement - basically it gives a bare 30minutes of power, which really isn't enough.

However, that's an exercise for another day - new compatible batteries are around $40-45, so it's not a stretch.

The machine had come with Windows 10 professional but I decided that I didn't need another windows machine in my life and installed the Debian 12 Crunchbang plus plus linux distro in its place.

(I'm a quiet fan of this distro due to its incredibly small footprint and the fact it runs well on older machines. It's derived from Philip Newborough's original Crunchbang linux, which I've used on and off over the years.)

Installation just worked and in an hour or so I had a working machine

Crunchbang comes with a decent set of preconfigured software, including LibreOffice and Gnumeric, to which I added

  • Focuswriter for distraction free writing
  • Notable for building up little collections of notes
  • Ristretto, purely because it's my preferred image viewer,
  • Kate, my preferred editor
  • Ghostwriter for when I don't want to write raw markdown
  • Deja-Dup to back up to cloud storage
My plan basically is to dump all the created content, including Notable's .notes in ~/documents and then use Deja-Dup to back it up to my OneDrive account.

Stuff I've been working on and want to move elsewhere can simply be uploaded via the web or emailed using a service like EmailItin.

There's no mail client installed, deliberately, and nothing that will beep or bong in the background, meaning that it can be treated as a distraction free machine but the browser is there to check email, or indeed anything else. As always, the key is discipline, and for this to work as a distraction free work machine you do need a bit of commitment to avoid sliding into aimless surfing as a displacement activity.

The desktop is OpenBox and satisfyingly minimalist, with little or nothing in the way of annoying widgets. I, of course did have the fun of editing the XML configuration file for the Window manager to add my extra applications to the menu - being old school I edited the raw XML rather than the funky menu editor I've never quite got to grips with.

All in all it probably took a couple of hours, and I'm pleasantly pleased with the result ...

[update 25/07/2023]

Well I cracked and bought a replacement battery - a new one rather than a reconditioned one - for about $45 - fully charged it gives me a nominal two and three quarter hours which is enough for most desk use where there's no access to power, such as on the train or some public libraries.

Well pleased.

Saturday, 15 July 2023

Moving back to Telstra ...

A long time ago, just before last Christmas in fact, I had an email from NBNco saying that we could have an upgrade to a pure fibre optic connection, rather than our current FTTC connection.

The only problem was that our current ISP wasn’t part of the upgrade scheme.

I emailed them and asked them if they were going to participate. Naturally, they said yes, and even emailed me a link to an online form to register my interest.

Several months went by, during which time our FTTC connection started having more frequent minor dropouts, culminating in a complete failure one Sunday morning.

I phoned our ISP, who did some tests, agreed the link was dead, and said that they would refer it to NBNco as it looked like infrastructure.

In the meantime our link started working, but nevertheless, a couple of days later we had three NBN trucks outside our house. They poked, they fiddled, they repatched our connection, and it did seem to work better, but we were still getting short duration dropouts.

Clearly our current ISP, iiNet, wasn’t coming to the party, so it was time to change ISPs.

Now, we live in a rural area. While there’s a whole lot of participating ISPs listed on the fibre upgrade website, most of the smaller ones don’t have much of a presence outside of the cities, and will understandably use subcontractors to do all their installation and configuration work.

I’m personally very conservative about infrastructure. Of the three players with a significant local presence, only Telstra has boots on the ground.

So, while it’s more expensive, Telstra seemed to be the logical choice.

So, I contacted them.

You would think it would be a simple thing to change ISPs.

Not with Telstra.

Despite the fact I already have a mobile phone account with them (the joys of rural life) I had to go through Passport, Drivers Licence, credit and income checks.

Then, they found they couldn’t actually order a fibre optic upgrade without me being an established customer, so the solution was that we change to Telstra, and I then request an upgrade, which apparently you can do once every billing cycle – or month as we normally call them.

All in all, it took over two hours to actually sign up with them

Telstra insisted on supplying me with their own modem rather than have me simply reconfigure our existing device.

Now we have been having some very wet weather recently, and I was understandably concerned that it would be delivered and left out in the weather.

They assured me that they would use StarTrack to deliver the unit, and that it would be taken to the post office if there was no one home to sign for it. That didn’t quite go as planned – only when I got a text message from Telstra saying the unit had been delivered did I discover that StarTrack had left it on the mat.

The other problem about changing ISPs is that we have FetchTV service through iiNet.

We wanted to keep our Fetch service, and I needed to find out if we could migrate it successfully.

No one at Telstra knew, and they only wanted to sell us some expensive monolithic FoxTel subscription.

iiNet clearly wasn’t going to tell us, and FetchTV’s own website was singularly unhelpful.

I eventually found a technical support email for Fetch, so I contacted them and asked the question. A very helpful person at Fetch asked me to email them the box serial number, which brought the bad news that it was locked to iiNet, and we would need a new box, which given that the unit is five years old is not a drama. We of course need to configure the box before we can get new subscriptions, and before then we need to get our Telstra link working.

As luck would have it was Judi’s birthday that week, and we’d arranged to go to Melbourne for a couple of nights  to see the  Paul Bonnard exhibition and have dinner out in the city, and she had to moderate a Zoom conference when we got back, so no way was I going to do any installation work until after that was done.

I had told Telstra this at the time of ordering, but of course I got a scad of no-reply text messages asking why I hadn’t plugged the Telstra modem in yet.

I decided that the best thing to do was ignore them unless I got an email or call I could reply to.

Telstra ignored all of this and remotely reconfigured our existing modem, which was not a problem, it meant we had working internet when we came home.

Disconnecting the old modem and plugging in our new Telstra modem took all of five minutes – in fact the modem took longer to boot than it took to swap over.

It was then a case of swapping out our old locked to iiNet fetch box. Again the physical swap took less than five minutes followed  by twenty minutes sat on the lounge room floor with a laptop registering with Fetch and getting various magic activation codes.

In fact the longest part of the exercise was waiting for the box to run various firmware and software upgrades.

We then left things for twenty four hours to make sure that our connection was stable (it was) and then called the number Telstra had given me to call to request an FTTP upgrade.

It was a Saturday, and the call centre that dealt with FTTP upgrades was closed.

However, there’s always an alternative route with Telstra – I used the technical support chat service they provide to ask if they could process an upgrade request.

They could, and after twenty minutes or so of confirming details and agreeing that Telstra could seize and resell various body parts if we did not follow through we had a fibre upgrade request.

In fact, I need to compliment Telstra on their officiousness and thoroughness, they checked about home alarms, medical equipment monitors, if we had a panic alarm, warned us that things might be disconnected and not work during the upgrade process. They even asked if we needed (for a price) a technician to help swap cables. Totally unnecessary, but I can imagine various elderly relatives who might benefit from a service like that.

At the end of it I had a job reference number and we were set.

Apparently, someone from Telstra will call me later in the week to get things scheduled, they say it will take six to eight weeks, but living in a rural area I know that the timescales can be different from those stated, and if they have a crew in the area they might piggy back our job onto one they scheduled earlier.

Here’s hoping …

Friday, 7 July 2023


 Today the internet and all the various news sites around the world are awash with comment and discussion around Threads, Meta's  (nee Facebook's) twitter killer.

I'm not tempted.

Leaving aside my personal distaste for Meta and all their works, I successfully ditched social media a couple of months ago, and I'm not tempted to go back.

Yes, there are some things I miss about social media, and some of the accounts I followed, but I don't feel that my life is impoverished by bowing out of the booming buzzing confusion of the socials.

I'm happy to sit in my corner  ...

Friday, 30 June 2023

Distraction free writing

 Since I first played with it a few years ago, I've become a quiet fan of Focuswriter, a distraction free writing tool.

Determinedly minimalist, it's best suited to the 'get it all down and edit later' approach. No structuring of the text, no inline formatting, no links, no images, it basically has the functionality of an old school mechanical typewriter.

Limited, yes, but it gives you a way either or recording verbatim notes or clattering out a first draft. Available for Windows, Linux, or the Mac it does exactly what it says. It even runs nicely in a linux container on a modern chromebook.

Now, I was idly surfing the web a few days ago looking for an old mechanical typewriter - more as an ornament than a functional device - and my search also brought up the Freewrite Traveller, a device touted as a distraction free writing device, and pretty expensive for that.

Given that you can pick up an old Thinkpad 11e with Windows 10 installed for a tad over $100 from a refurbisher, and a $10 donation to the people who produce Focuswriter, you can basically put together a distraction free writing solution for a quarter of the price of the Freewrite device.

And, of course with Windows 10 and Microsoft OneDrive you can save and backup your work to a secure location.

Of course the Thinkpad will be old and slow compared to a modern machine, but if you are using it as a minimal writing device to take anywhere, its compute power or lack of it isn't an issue - Focuswriter does not really need much in the way of compute resources.

What personally I find important is that these old Thinkpads have keyboards that are quite nice to type on and the screens are pretty reasonable, And because education authorities bought scads of them, replacement chargers and batteries are pretty cheap and easy to find - something to bear in mind when buying an old machine.

Coupled with Notable, and perhaps a markdown editor such as Ghostwriter, you also have the basics for a basic machine for research and documentation - the only real gap is the lack of a decent basic lightweight spreadsheet application to help tabulate artefacts, but Google sheets will do most of the work for you assuming a network connection, which is pretty much a universal these days.

And of course, the other thing about these machines is that they are cheap enough to be disposable. It really doesn't matter is you drop it or leave it on the bus.

I know I'm a bit odd in having multiple machines, instead of just one that you take everywhere, but I find it works for me - having an old machine that is equipped to do the task lets me focus on the task itself. What I wouldn't do is use such and old an underpowered machine (by today's standards) as general purpose machine.

Sunday, 25 June 2023

Two months on from abandoning the socials ...

A couple of months ago I decided to abandon social media

No Insta, no Facebook, no Twitter, and none of the things like Tumblr and Pinterest that sneaked in as part of an experiment and decided to stay for lunch.

It’s true that I’m still on Mastodon where basically I’m a lurker. While I do post and comment occasionally on more serious things, in the main I’m just there for the train porn.

It’s also true that I still blog - my three blogs are really three parallel themed diaries with a bit of crossover, and of course I’m still putting together my wiki of newsworthy history and archaeology links, but as much for my own benefit as anything.

So, how’s it going?

Pretty good, actually. I have no temptation to go back and am happy enough to squat in my corner. I’m reading more, which is good, and I think I’m possibly less of a grasshopper than I was and able to focus more.

The only real problem is these idle ten minutes when you’re waiting for a bus, or in a doctor’s, when one might normally scroll through the socials for something to do, I do get a little twitchy - almost like when I kicked my Gauloise habit over 40 years ago, and even when the cravings had  gone I didn’t quite know what to do with my hands.

In the old days of course one would have read the paper or one of these tatty five year old National Geographics that you find in doctor’s waiting rooms. Actually you don’t any more - they banished the magazines as an infection risk at the start of the pandemic, and they havn’t come back.

Newspapers are of course largely a thing of the past since we gave up having a paper halfway through the pandemic, but as a substitute I do have a couple of news apps on my phone, pocket for saved articles, and if I know its going to be a day with a lot of hanging around I take the dogfood tablet with me with some stuff to read. 

(It’s a valid question, given both the Oppo’s excellent battery life, and that the Oppo’s screen is only about 10% smaller than the dogfood tablet’s whether, if I was to ditch my iPhone in favour of using the Oppo as my full time phone I’d need to take the dogfood tablet with me as an extra device)

But, basically, it’s working for me, and I see no need to go back the socials, I just need to master the twitches a little better ...

Friday, 23 June 2023


 Well, I did go and order an Oppo phone and it arrived a few days ago.

Next to my existing iPhone 8 it's bigger, heavier than I expected, and a perfectly competent Android phone.


It makes calls, it lets you install apps on it, and it didn't come with a pile of pre-installed apps that you can't remove, something, which having sworn off social media, I was kind of dreading having to deal with, but the only pre-installed social media app was Facebook, and it was readily uninstallable.

Compared to my iPhone, what's impressive is how quickly it charges, and how long the battery lasts.

The weather's been singularly appalling recently so I haven't taken it for a walk to test out its capabilities, but it's looking good.

As always, when I look at mid range Android phones, I wonder if Apple is really worth the money - there are other just as capable phones out there that do the job ...

Friday, 16 June 2023

A phone to go travelling with

 Some time ago I wrote about the travails I had getting a replacement phone at the tail end of the pandemic before things began to become normal (well, normalish).

I still have that phone, and I really don’t have a reason to upgrade it - it works well enough and we still don’t have a rural 5G service, so having a 4G only phone isn’t a big problem. 

All good, but I’m going overseas later this year, and let’s just say that Telstra’s international roaming options are, well, pricy.

I’m going to Europe and the UK, with stopovers both ways, which makes the whole business messy.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

When I’ve been to Sri Lanka or Malaysia, the solution was simple, just take a second phone, either your old phone or one bought cheaply from one of the big box stores, and buy a sim from one of the airport phone shops. 

In Sri Lanka, it was incredibly easy, Dialog, one of the big networks there, allowed you to pre-order your SIM, and do your security verification online. In Malaysia, you had to show your passport, but basically the phone shop people just took your money and gave you a SIM that was good for 30 days - absolutely essential for getting rideshare cars to and from hotels and restaurants.

Europe, well, Europe has always been messy with lots of different countries  and phone companies. For a long time Jersey Telecom used to sell you a cheap deal allowing you to roam seamlessly across Europe. What’s more it never expired as long as you sent a text from your phone once a month, meaning that you could keep your number between trips.

Well they canned that deal during the pandemic, meaning it’s either back to Telstra’s pricy roaming or SIM swapping.

SIM swapping’s probably the most effective solution, but I didn’t want to swap the SIM out of my day to day phone, because banks do have a habit of sending you verification codes for transactions by text. As Telstra let you use wifi calling from overseas this shouldn’t be a problem,  all I would need would be to ensure I was connected to a decent local wifi network when doing something that might need a verification code.

But that’s not going to solve the problem of needing a phone overseas.

And that’s a problem in two parts - firstly I don’t have a decent spare phone anymore. Any old phone I have is years out of date as I traded in my old iPhone a couple of years ago meaning that my old Samsung Galaxy I found in a drawer is getting on for seven years old - hilariously out of date and definitely due for  a one way trip to the recycler.

The obvious solution was to buy one. Hunting around, I found I could get a 5G capable dual SIM phone from Oppo for a tad over $400, or a single SIM Google Pixel6a for a little under $500. (Other cheaper and slower options are available but I was looking for a reasonably well specified device.)

I’ll be honest. My first thought was OPPO???

But doing some checking the phones seem to be well made and have a decent enough reputation - yes there are always scare reviews about how they’re the spawn of the devil, but they’re outnumbered by decent, sensible,  positive reviews.

Even so, if I’d been buying it for use at home I’d have gone for the Pixel, but the dual SIM option was attractive as Belong, Telstra’s low cost operation, does a cheap roaming option that covered the UK, France and Singapore, but not Italy, which is a bit of a pain, as I’m spending 10 or so days there.

However, if I had a dual SIM phone, I could use Belong’s roaming in Singapore and the UK, giving me time to sort out a suitable SIM for the rest of Europe while I’m there - basically one with enough data to use comfortably with Google Maps.

Buying a second phone in advance also means that I can set it up in advance, stripping out the irrelevant and adding in the extra apps required.

I’ve never had an Oppo phone, or indeed a dual SIM phone, but they have decent reviews, and who knows, it might end up replacing one or other of our phones in time ...

Sunday, 21 May 2023

Literature searches in the time of Chat-GPT

 I have never been convinced by bibliometrics, viewing it as something between black magic and a shell game. The fact that Scopus is owned by Elsevier didn’t exactly help either.

It’s been my view that all these attempts to measure impact are flawed and incorporate unconscious bias against researchers who work at less prestigious institutions an perhaps do not publish mainly in English.

The reasons for this are complex, but I suspect it is in part because the reviewers and editorial boards tend to be drawn from a small number of anglophone institutions who tend to favour researchers working in institutions known to them.

And twenty years ago, they might have had a point. Computing resources were expensive and access to libraries and journals was difficult outside of institutions that did not take a full range of journals. (When I was a researcher forty years or more ago, I had an Inter Library Loan allowance to cover gaps in my home institution’s journal collection, but it did mean the process of reviewing the literature on a topic could be tedious as one waited for the loan article to arrive and then inevitably had to request another two.)

Nowadays it’s easier. Most laptops are powerful enough to run quite complex data analyses, R is public domain and a cornucopia of tools and techniques, online access to journals is relatively easy, and if there’s a problem getting hold of something, you can always hope the lead author is on Researchgate or and amenable to providing an electronic offprint.

But searching the literature is still much the same. One starts with a search engine and a query, 

Usually it’s Google, but it could be Bing or Kagi, all of which  make use of large language models, with Bing being the most reliant on a large language model.

Let’s say I was doing some fecal analysis at an archaeological site - old latrines and their deposits provide a host of information about what people ate, even if the contents are not the nicest to work with, and I had discovered a lot of raspberry seeds.

Raspberries do grow wild in Europe, so I might wish to know if they were cultivated, or gathered wild.

So a reasonable first query would be ‘when were raspberries first cultivated in Europe

I’d expect then to search for sources for the results, perhaps the results of other fecal analyses, but as part of the search process, the first results would be crucial. I ran the same query on the AI Enabled Bing, Google, Kagi, and as a control on the old school Yandex search engine.

The results are, shall we say, inconsistent.





Bing, even though it quotes a less reliable source is possibly the most accurate. There’s a lot of evidence for fruit cultivation starting in monastery gardens across Europe from the 12th century onwards.

Kagi is helpful, Google less so and Yandex simply goes for wikipedia, whch is as good a solution as any. 

None of them mentioned cesspits, so I reran the exercise specifically mentioning cesspits in the hope of getting more focused results.

When asked about raspberry seeds being found in cesspits most of the found the same content although only Kagi found detailed research, although Bing made a creditable attempt.





And what does this mean for research citation?

I’m not sure, but the differences suggest that the various large language models have biases, and probably it’s best at the moment to run literature searches on multiple search engines ...

Wikis (again)

 Earlier today I read a mastodon post about how someone had upgraded their personal website to a different static site generator, a topic about which I am woefully ignorant, although I can immediately see the value.

It may seem strange, despite having been a computer fiddler since Algol W was trendy, I don't run my own website.

I have my blogs and my wiki of interesting links, but I don't have my very own server. 

Even though there are occasions where it might have been useful (and I admit to in the past having instances of Dspace and Omeka running on a machine under my desk - purely for test and evaluation your honour).

And the reason is very simple. Having once managed a content management system based web site, I'm acutely aware of the sheer amount of work required to keep things patched and secure. If you're into that sort of thing, that's great, but I've always felt that dealing with system internals is like dealing with waste water systems - you do it if you have to, but on the whole it's better to get someone else to do it.

And so it is with my links wiki.

The web view is boringly simple, nothing flash.

And that's because of one of the superpowers of a wiki - creating simple content is quick. I actually use Notepad as a simple text editor to write the text, markup and all, and then paste it into the wiki page editor and do a validation.

And because there's no complicated design or web wiggling, I can concentrate purely on the content rather than worry about the HTML or the page appearance, making page editing and updating pretty trivial.  

Trivial,  because it's been separated from the furniture, the stuff that web designers and implementers do to make a site look both consistent and nice.

It's interesting that the Zola static site generator takes a similar approach, where you generate some very simple furniture  - actually it can be as simple or as complex as you want, and then add content, with the content being written in markdown, something which simplifies content creation.

Thursday, 18 May 2023

History links (plus some other stuff)

 As anyone who has been following along at home will know, I've largely abandoned social media, deleting my accounts to avoid any temptation to go back.

At the same time I've started collecting the links I might otherwise have posted to twitter in a wiki, starting a new page every Friday.

This week's links are at

(and there's a link back to the previous week's links at the top of the page.)

It's mostly about Roman history and archaeology with a smattering of nineteenth century stuff.

I don't collect usage data, I'm purely doing this for fun, and the links are simply things that floated my boat ...