Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “database”

Stuff you don’t see any more: 3×5 index cards and the metrication blues

The other day I wandered into the CNA (a local newsagent/bookseller/stationery chain) in search of 3×5 index cards, and a couple of other things. There were no index cards there. A sign of changing times, perhaps — people use computers for that sort of stuff nowadays.  But I’ve been using computers to store data for more than 30 years, and I’ve still been able to buy index cards.

Talking of computers reminds me of something else you don’t see any more — computer magazines. I started buying those 35 years ago, before I even had computer. At one time there used to be a large selection, and I would browse through them to see which had the most interesting articles that month, and buy that. Then they started to come with disks (and later discs) with free or shareware software and other good stuff. I then started buying the ones for the most interesting software selection, rather than the most interesting articles. But there was only one in the CNA this month — Linux Format.

This morning I went to a different branch of the CNA hoping to find index cards. I couldn’t see any. They did have the same computer magazine, so, rather rashly, I bought it. I do have Linux on my computer, but I don’t use it much, mainly because it doesn’t run the software I use most of the time (and please don’t tell me, as some people are wont to do, that I could find another program that does something similar and use that and “move on”. Thinking that having your programs in one operating system and your data in another is a good idea is really not a sign of intelligence).

But this other CNA branch did have index cards — in A6 and A7 sizes.

Just think of it — 47 years after South Africa switched to the metric system, and it was illegal to sell rulers marked in inches or milk measured in pints, they suddenly decide it’s time to switch index cards to metric sizes. For 47 years we’ve being buying cards (and boxes to store them in) that are 3×5 inches (76.2 by 127.0 mm), and now we need to replace them by “metric” cards that are 74 by 105 mm. They can’t easily be stored together, so it would mean you can’t easily add new cards to an existing file — you’d have to copy all the existing cards to the new size.

But why use index cards when you can use a computer?

Computers are much more efficient at searching and sorting information than a card system. You can search and sort in different ways and on different fields, while cards can only be sorted one way, and searched on one field. It’s a no brainer, isn’t it?

Well, not quite.

Computers are very good at storing, searching and sorting information, What they are not so good at is displaying it in a way that makes it easy for human beings to interpret it.

When you have index cards, you can lay them out on a table cloth (or even a carpet or bedspread), move them around, lay them out in patterns and change the patterns to look at the information in different ways. Two or three people can look at the information and discuss it while they are doing so. One of my mentors, Professor David Bosch, used to recommend this as a research method for masters and doctoral students.

There was a time when computer programmers used to think that everyone knew about index cards, and used icons of card indexes on their screens, and some programmers even used to make their input screens look like index cards. But they had grasped the wrong end of the stick. Index cards were useless at the input end, but very few programmers grasped that that they might be very useful at the output end. Very few wrote their programs with the option of producing index cards as printed output, yet that would have been a far better use of computing power.

There were a few exceptions.

There used to be a genealogy program called Personal Ancestral File (PAF). It stored genealogical information, and produced reports. In the 1990s various people produced supplementary programs that accessed the PAF database and did more things with it. I have two of those supplementary programs on my computer. One prints reports on 3×5 index cards, and the other produces them on 6×4 index cards. The down side is that the PAF program they work with was not Y2K compatible, and so does not accept dates after 31 December 1999. And no one else has seen fit to include such reporting facilities in more up-to-date programs (or apps, as people like to call them nowadays).

My main use for index cards now is as bookmarks. While I’m reading a book, I record significant passages, and then later use them to find the places in the book and make notes on the computer. I don’t usually read books while sitting at the computer so I can make notes as I go along. When used as bookmarks, I use one card per book, but if the computer could spit out one card per note it might improve considerably on David Bosch’s research method.

But at least part of this story ends well — after failing to find 3×5 index cards at the CNA I went round the corner to Archneer Stationers, and they had 3×5 and 6×4 index cards in stock. And no A6 and A7 ones at all.

There are lots of other things you don’t see any more, like gooseberry jam, quince jelly, tinned mutton breyani, real peanut butter, 8mm film projectors, Beta video tape players, and many more.

But 3×5 index cards are the ones I’d really miss.

 

 

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Thirty years ago: entering the computer age

Thirty years ago I got my first computer.

It was a NewBrain, which I had seen demonstrated at an exhibition of educational technology, Instructa 82, in Johannesburg. Quite a lot of microcomputers were on show there, and the most popular micro computers in those days were the Sinclair ZX 81, Atari, and the Commodore VIC 20, which I’d also read about in computer magazines.

I’d never heard of the NewBrain before I saw it demonstrated, but it seemed to have a better specification than most of the other computers at the show, and also claimed to be expandable.

It had 32k of RAM, which was enormous for those days, and a built in one-line display. It could also be connected to a TV, for a full-screen display, and programs and data could be stored using an ordinary cassette tape recorder.

The guy from the agents who sold them in South Africa delivered it to our house in Melmoth, Zululand, and we began to play with it, and so entered the computer age, and a different way of doing things.

I was interested in computers mainly because I thought they had potential for recording family history. We’d been interested in family history and genealogy for about 8 years, and had accumulated enough material in files to make it difficult to remember what we had and where we had found it. It seemed to me that computers would be ideal for keeping track of such things, but until the advent of microcomputers such things were only available to medium and large businesses. I began reading computer magazines to see what was possbible. And the NewBrain, with its capacity for expansion, seemed to be the best starting point. It had lots of ways of connecting to other computers.

To begin with we just tried to learn how it worked, using its built-in BASIC programming language. There were a couple of elementary game programs listed in the manual, and we invented a few more. One of the things we did was to do random PEEKs and POKEs to different memory locations, and then ran the program to see how long it ran before it crashed, and what appeared on the screen in the meantime. I suppose it was the equivalent of giving the computer an epileptic fit. Since the BASIC was in ROM it could not harm the machine, and all one needed to do was to switch it off and on again to start again. But that is not something to try on a computer with a hard disk — it might do permanent damage.

The expanded NewBrain, with disk controler and memory expansion sitting behind the main box, a proper monitor (not just a TV screen) and the two floppy-disk enclosures on the right.

Eventually we expanded the NewBrain — there were two other boxes, about the same size as the original box, which plugged into the back of it, and sat on top of each other — a memory expansion module and a disk drive controller. The memory expansion module expanded the memory to about 128k, and the disk drive controller enabled us to connect two 180k mini-floppy disk drives. It used the CP/M DOS, which was quite popular in those days.

The main problem was that just about every brand of micro-computer had its own way of formatting floppy disks, and so disks that were formatted in one make of machine could not be read or written to in another. I read in computer magazines about a genealgy program for microcomputers, called Roots/M, but one could not get it on NewBrain format disks.

Eventually I got a database program called Superfile which ran on the NewBrain, which was quite versatile, and enabled me to do some useful work. For me, databases are the most useful app, and the ability to put information into the computer and get it to spit it out again has been the thing that has made the biggest difference in my life.

The trouble with the NewBrain was that it was expensive. The two floppy disk drives cost over R1000 each, which is about R10000 in today’s money. Now you can get a couple of 2 Terabyte drives for the same price, in today’s money.

But the NewBrain got us started, and long after we had replaced it with more powerful computers our children asked if we could get it out of the cupboard so they could play with it, and learn BASIC programming. So it was an aid to computer literacy as well. And there is something sad about the progress that has been made, too. Nowadays, with GUIs like Windows, Gnome and KDE, there is virtually nothing useful that one can accomplish by tinkering around with amateur programming. Except that I think it might be worthwhile trying to learn to do something with AWK. It might just be possible to have some fun and do something useful with it as we did with BASIC thirty years ago.

One other thing astounded me.

We still have our NewBrain. It’s stashed away in a cupboard somewhere, but it would be a bit of a schlepp to get it out to take a photo of it to illustrate this post. So I took a chance and did a Google search for a picture of a NewBrain, without much hope of finding one. But it popped up immediately, and I found that not only are there pictures of them on the web, but some people actually still use the things, and write software for them, and there is even a NewBrain emulator for running on other computers. So if you want to know more about the NewBrain, you can look here and here.

There was also a rather nice game for the NewBrain. It was written by the South African distributors, Avisa, and they spent almost as much time writing the copy protection module as they did on the game itself. The game was called Mazeland and it came on a copy-protected cassette tape. One had to travel down a maze through various levels battling ever more powerful monsters. There was a similar game for MS DOS computers, called Rogue, but Mazeland was better. We never actually finished it, because someone nicked our tape recorder with the cassette still in it. One of the most powerful monsters we encountered was called a Nothingness, and it would say things like, “The Nothingness has hit you 238.984506 times”. It needed more imagination than the graphics-intensive games of today.

askSam 6.1

I’ve been using the askSam database software for 17 years, and this year my wife bought me an upgrade to the latest version for Christmas, and I’ve been playing with some of the new features.

If you are doing any kind of research, askSam is one of the best tools for keeping your notes and documents in order. It’s a freeform text database that lets you find anything you put into it, and also allows you to have fixed fields for sorting.

I started using it when I persuaded the university departments I was working in to use it for journal abstracts and a terminology database. I’d read reviews of it in computer magazines, and it sounded as though it would be one of the best tools for the job. It was.

Back then it was the DOS version.

It was easy to get started using it — you simply tossed information in and it would fish it out again. But to get the best out of it required quite a lot of learning, and to learn to use it I tried it out on different kinds of applications — making notes from books, genealogical research, keeping track of correspondence, keeping a log of various activities. For all of these things, it worked very well.

Back then we also used the XyWrite word processor, and XyWrite’s formatting was done using codes similar to HTML markup, so it was easy to produce askSam reports that were fully-formatted XyWrite documents. Reports could be imported into e-mail for sharing information. It worked just as well for exporting data to web pages.

For a long time I resisted the Windows version, but the new version has several features that older ones did not. One of them is the ability to import, link to and attach documents. So you can use it to keep track of word processor documents, PDF files and the like. It handles MS Word documents, pdf files (text only) and RTF files as well. It is somewhat limited in not handling Open Office files, for example, though those can be exported to rtf of pdf format.

If you do any kind of research, especially in the humanities, and want to keep your research notes in order, I definitely recommend askSam. I’ve found it useful for genealogy research, theological research and articles (keeping notes for my MTh dissertation and DTh thesis) and much more.

If this sounds like the sort of program you could use, you can read more about it (and download a 30-day trial version) at the askSam web site.

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