Friday, 28 April 2023


 A long time ago, 2010 in fact, I started playing with the use of wikis to create live documents to develop and share ideas.

The whole idea was, that as wikis lend themselves to the creation of structured text, one could build out from series of basic dot points to create some more structured text, much as I do with notable when researching something.

Apparently this is called 'scaffolding'. I just call it fleshing out an idea.

Wiki's have the great advantage of being shareable, either with multiple editors, or simply by letting people read and review online and post comments, or even simply projected on a screen in a brainstorming session and edited during the session.

And as a live document, it's not immutable meaning  it can be used to reflect changes - such as for a project log to record who did what when.

And as always, I experimented on myself with some non critical bits and pieces.

The people I was working for at the time were not particularly keen (understandably so) on experimental servers mysteriously appearing on their network, so for my first experiments I used, which allowed you a free account with enough storage.

So I did my experiments, satisfied myself it was a good idea, but didn't take it further, for no other reason that the environment I was working in changed - the buzzword nowadays would be 'pivoting' - back then it was 'changing the focus'.

Basically the emphasis changed.

And I kind of forgot about my wikidot account, which left it kind of moribund. Not good practice, I should have closed it.

And so ten-plus years later, I had a little problem.

For years I've posted links to things I thought interesting to twitter. 

Originally, it was to share interesting technical stuff with my team. Gradually I started adding some things I found interesting, mostly about archaeology and archiving, and this got some interest, so I carried on even after I retired because people seemed to get some value from what I did, and I enjoyed doing it.

As we all know, Twitter is pivoting so much now it's more like an erratic tumbling cartwheel than anything else, and I finally got to the stage where I'd simply had enough and canned my account.

This left me with a problem. I was quite happy on Mastodon, but Mastodon has a different vibe, less tolerant of people simply retooting content, and some (actually quite a few) of the people who followed me for my Roman history and archaeology links, hadn't made the jump.

So, since I'd forgotten to get rid of my wikidot account, I resurrected it and started collating a list of the things I'd read each day that I found particularly interesting. I didn't bother about stuff like 'Roman burial possibly found in Nuneaton', unless there was something particularly interesting about the burial site or internment.

I reckoned that most people who were interested in that sort of thing could pick the news up elsewhere.

And I then created a live document that I updated as I went.

And it's surprisingly valuable as something to refer back to, something I always had trouble with with Twitter.

I'm doing it for fun and to keep my skills up, and I'm hoping it adds some value. For the moment I'm just strangely surprised in how a twelve year old idea has turned out to be useful.

Sunday, 23 April 2023

So, social media

 I'm an introvert.

Much happier to curl up with a book and a cup of tea than go and interact with people. I've never been good at small talk and am absolutely crap at maintaining friendships, even though I want to.

That's not to say I don't like talking to people, I do. I like a good conversation about history, nineteenth century communications, roman plumbing or whatever, I just don't do the social thing very well.

Probably these days they'd put me as being on the spectrum, but when I was young I was simply considered as a slightly odd loner, and I'll admit I quietly revelled in being a bit of an oddity.

And there were enough weirdos out there for me to find what human contact I needed.

During the pandemic, when we were all locked down I found social media invaluable in maintaining a sense that there were still kindred spirits out there.

Living in a rural area lockdowns were not as onerous as in the cities, but still with the pharmacy documentation project suspended I was isolated from the things I enjoyed.

Now, we've all moved on, and I've taken a long hard look at my social media use, in part because of the Twitter clusterfuck.

First to go was Pinterest,  which I'd been using to build a portfolio of images of the end of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires.

Pinterest had other ideas, and stopped being suitable as a visual diary type tool and turned into something to market cupcakes. Instagram started drowning in adverts and well Facebook - it was useful as a forum for community news, but after several years of stupid adverts and stupider friend suggestions - like do I really want to be friends with some sociopath in Texas? - that got the flick as well.

Which left twitter. Since the change of ownership, the content has changed. More people just posting images of  Alma Tadema's historical tableaus and less real Roman history and archaeology, not to mention the intrusion of stupid and irrelevant ads.

So, despite it having been my go to platform for fifteen years, I ditched it.

This leaves me with Mastodon as my only social media.

And there's benefits to doing this. 

I reckon I'm getting an extra hour in my day - more or less. And what I am reading in the way of blogs and online news I'm reading in greater detail.

So, let's agree there are benefits to ditching a lot of it. But only if you want to ditch it.

I'm reminded of the various stories about people who did a digital detox out in the bush somewhere and spent a month doing yoga and meditating and were straight back onto social media to tell their friends just how great the experience was.

No, it's about changing your life and how you feel about things. And, as an introvert, I guess I find it easier to say no once I've decided to move on ...

Wednesday, 5 April 2023

Green pharmacy bottles (again)

 It's all a bit of a puzzle.

I chanced across the following on Etsy (I did contact the guy selling the items and he's happy for me to copy and use the images)

which shows two rather battered green bottles dug from a bottle dump somewhere in the UK. Both look at first sight to be nineteenth century and still have their labels attached

Looking more closely, one label is illegible, but the other clearly lists Henry Sawyer, Chemist, Green market Carlisle. Trying to get a date I contacted Cumbria archives and the truly wonderful Helen Cunningham replied

Thank you for your enquiry.

Kelly's Directory 1873 James Sawyer Chemist 37 Fisher Street Carlisle
Kelly's Directory 1880 Henry Sawyer Chemist 35 & 37 Fisher Street (37 is on the corner of the Green Market)
Various Directories 1884, 1894, 1901, 1921 & 1925 similar entries
Kelly's Directory 1928 & 1938 Henry Sawyer Chemist 4 Green Market Carlisle
1952 Directory Henry Sawyer no longer listed

I hope this is of assistance.

which gives us quite a wide date range. However if you look closely at the bottle on the left you can see that not only does the label use a sans serif type font, which tends to be a post world war one thing, it lists a telephone number

which is certainly not nineteenth century.

Now I've been here before, bottles get reused, or else old stock is used, and label styles sometimes don't reflect the actual age of the contents. It's different with patent medicines where you can usually anchor the product a bit more firmly on the basis of newspaper advertising. 

However, if you search for 'green victorian medicine bottles' on Ebay or Etsy, almost all the items for sale are from the UK suggesting that the use of green bottles was a British thing

So, I think that all we can say is that green bottles were used as late as the 1920's and perhaps even later, and that sometimes older designs of bottles remained in use for decades.

Tuesday, 4 April 2023

Green nineteenth century pharmacy bottles

 I've been documenting the contents of Dow's pharmacy down in Chiltern since 2017 and I thought I'd more or less got my eye in as regards nineteenth century pharmacy bottles. The rules are (more or less):

  • Blue ones contain real nasties like strychnine
  • Brown ones are usually ribbed and sometimes embossed Not to be Taken as they contained preparations for external use
  • Clear ones contained medicines for internal use
Blue ones are often ribbed and embossed - the ribbing and embossing are because in the days before electricity, it made it easy to identify the ones not to be taken if you were fumbling about in candlelight for your medication.

But today, my boss pointed out that there was a green bottle among the undocumented items:


Definitely nineteenth century from its shape, and one shoulder side is ribbed and the other embossed Not to be Taken.

Most of the normal reference sites are vague on this but a little digging on Etsy and Ebay revealed that antique green pharmaceutical bottles do exist but are relatively uncommon. 

Green bottles seem to have been used as an alternative to blue sometimes to hold poisons. Most of the ones for sale online to bottle collectors seem to be located in the UK, so I'm going to wave my hands and say that it is mainly a UK thing, but of course occasionally imported bottles may turn up in Australia and New Zealand

Monday, 3 April 2023

Is nine million enough to fund Trove ?


Trove has recently announced new funding from the Australian government.

The funding works out at around $9 million Australian a year, which sounds good, but is possibly a bit on the mean side.

So why do I say that?

Trove is essentially a digital repository, which means it consists of a database containing all the metadata that is searchable and a data store that contains all the digital objects.

While it makes sense to use good quality hardware to run Trove, the hardware required is standard off the shelf stuff and not particularly exotic – commodity servers will do nicely.

The database needs to be backed up and have measures in place to ensure resilience, the object store less so as it is usually only added to. All that’s required is a periodic incremental backup in case some space junk lands in the car park, and measures to guard against disk failure.

Again, all very standard. While you need some resilience, we’re not talking about the measures the big banks deploy to ensure 24h availability of their online banking solutions.

So, the hardware part is not expensive, nor are the maintenance requirements. Electricity costs for running the servers and keeping them cool may be a constraint, but data centres usually have negotiated contracts for the supply of power, so the ongoing costs are predictable.

Likewise, the costs of periodic hardware expansion and replacement should be reasonably predictable and relatively easy to budget for.

Then there’s the costs of digitisation itself. Again, commodity hardware is now good enough for most purposes. Film scanners, microfilm scanners basically consist of standard digital camera in a housing that allows you to advance and photograph each frame.

It some cases it has to be a manual process because of the poor quality of the original film, sometimes it can be almost automated.

Scanning old fragile materials such as old newspapers, bound nineteenth century periodicals, etc is more fraught and needs both specialist skills and equipment, but I suspect that the bulk of digitisation work is the scanning of previously microfilmed material.

So, nine million should be able to cover the costs of both maintaining Trove and financing the ongoing digitisation programme as far as hardware goes.

But there’s the human factor.

Recruiting and retaining a team of computing technicians and engineers in Canberra is not cheap. I know this I’ve been there.

There's continual demand for good people and given they are all public servants or contractors, it's quite easy for people to change jobs, and of course some departments can pay more than others.

The last time I had to deal with such things was seven years ago, and the figures quoted are based on 2016 costs. Given that over the last few years wages growth has been fairly low, my costs are probably not too far out.

Once you’ve added in the costs of superannuation, long service leave, payroll tax, plus some contingency funding for sick leave, parental leave, maternity cover and the rest, a decent, competent computer technician who spends her days swapping dead disks, checking hardware status, dealing with fan failures and the like will cost around $80,000. A software engineer, between $100,000 and $120k. A service manager, at least $150k – basically your humans will cost you around a million to keep things working.

I have no idea what a competent digitisation technician costs, but I would be surprised if it was much less than a computer technician, and of course you have some more senior digitisation staff to do quality control.

I don’t know how the digitisation team is structured, but I would guess it would cost around $750k to $1million a year, meaning that overall, your human resources costs are around $2million per annum, meaning that your actual operating budget is around $7million.

That is of course in Australian dollars, and you need to maintain some wiggle room given that most serious infrastructure has a price that is tied to the US dollar price, and so even though you are paying in Australian dollars, you have to allow for drops in the value of our dollar against the greenback.

I don’t know the details of Trove’s hardware costs or data centre costs so I can’t guesstimate their annual costs. I’m guessing that the hardware consists of a few racks of servers and disk in some anonymous government data centre in Fyshwick or Hume.

So, is seven million enough?


The hardware and infrastructure running costs are essentially fixed costs - while its possible to lengthen replacement cycles you can only sensibly go so far, which means that your only way of reducing costs is paying people less (or paying fewer people). In Canberra you cannot really pay less than the going rate, meaning that if nine million is not enough, the headcount needs to be reduces, with consquent impacts on service and new initiatives.

I don’t know enough to say for sure. Past experience makes me feel the budget is a little tight, but not impossibly so.

However, the really good thing is that it has a recurrent and defined budget allocation. That can only be a good thing…