Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “family history”

Yahoo! to close mailing lists?

I just saw this announcement today which, if true, will mean that thousands of mailing lists will be cut off with very little notice.There are lists that deal with various academic subjects and have been used for research. Some universities run listservers of their own and may be able to take some over, but that is almost impossible at such short notice.

There are others, like genealogy groups, which have a lot of family history information that was searchable on the Web, but that too will be gone.

Yahoo is shutting down its Groups website and deleting all content:

Yahoo (owned by Engadget’s parent company Verizon) is phasing out one its longest-standing features. The internet pioneer is closing the Yahoo Groups website in a two-phase process that will effectively see it disappear. You’ll lose the ability to post new content on October 21st, and Yahoo will delete all “previously posted” material on December 14th. Users can still connect to their groups through email, but the site will effectively be vacant. All groups will be made private and require an administrator’s approval.

If you’re at all interested in preserving your history on the site, you’ll want to download your data either directly from posts or through Yahoo’s Privacy Dashboard.

It should be borne in mind that Yahoo! got into the mailing list business when it took over something called E-Groups, which ran public mail servers.

If they were concerned about their customers they would give them enough notice and time to possibly arrange for alternative mail servers. As Yahoo! took over E-groups, so other servers could possibly take over some of the lists hosted by Yahoo!. But if they leave an impossibly short time, that will not work.

If they close it down with such short notice I will certainly be removing my Yahoo! Id, and will have nothing more to do with any of their services in future.Actually Yahoo! has hardly any services left. The mailing lists were one of the last.

Yahoo! developed a reputation for taking over flourishing web services, and wrecking and killing them off. The list is a long one — Geocities, Webring, MyBlogLog, and E-groups.. And now it seems that Yahoo! itself has been taken over by another company, which is shutting them down.

A few years ago there was a group that tried to  set up an alternative when some bright spark arrived and tried to change the way YahooGroups worked and almost wrecked it. I think it was called — you can find more about it here. If you know of any others, please tell about them in the comments.

I suggest that while you still have the opportunity you will not the e-mail addresses and other contact information of people on mailing lists that you would like to stay in touch with while you still have the chance.

I’ve been involved with about 50 mailing lists that deal with a great variety of topics, including:

  • Missiology
  • New Religious Movements
  • Books and Literature
  • Genealogy and family history groups (including several dealing with Single family name)

I suppose we can put it down to entropy on the Internet — if there is anything useful there, it will die.


Friendship and kinship in the age of social media

Last Sunday was our 45th wedding anniversary.

It’s not a major anniversary like the 25th or 50th. but it seemed worth remembering, and remembering some of the people we have known, both before we were married and in our 45 years together. We didn’t have a big celebration — a cheap cake from the supermarket at teatime sufficed. And we did a few things on social media.

The response to the photo album on Facebook was:

Likes etc from Jethro Hayes, Jenny Aitchison and 46 others

The response on Facebook to the link to the blog post was:

Likes from Jethro Hayes, Jenny Aitchison and 72 others

And the response to the blog post itself was:

I also posted “then and now” photos in a photo album on Facebook, but one cannot tell much from responses to those because most people responded to the album itself rather than those particular pictures.

But it was interesting to see who responded and who didn’t, and to think of what it might have been like without social media.

Responses on the blog link on Facebook:

  • 9 from people we have seen face to face within the last 3 years
  • 18 from people we have never met, but have only interacted with on line
  • 5 from close family (2nd cousin or closer)
  • 9 from extended family (more distant than 2nd cousin)

What conclusions can one draw from this?

  • absence makes the heart grow fonder
  • familiarity breeds contempt

The more you see people and the closer you get to them, the less they like you.

Of course this has to be balanced against how many people the social media platforms’ algorithms actually showed them to. I have 926 followers on Twitter, of whom 2 responded. I have 591 “friends” on Facebook, with responses as indicated above, and I suppose 315 views of the blog post isn’t a bad response.

What it seems to show is what most of us already knew — social media, and the Internet generally enable us to keep in touch with friends, family and acquaintances whom we haven’t seen for a long time and who live far away. Quite a lot of the people who responded were actually at our wedding, though we haven’t seen several of them for 40 years or more. Social media have enabled us to reestablish and maintain contact with them.

Facebook seems to do it a lot better than Twitter. In fact Twitter seems to be pretty useless as a social medium. In spite of having nearly twice as many Twitter followers as Facebook friends, the response from Twitter was minimal.

But it also leaves a niggling thought — what about the closer family and the people we’ve seen recently who didn’t respond? Is their lack of response due to social media algorithms or because they are offended with us in some way? So social media can bring people can bring people closer together, but can also sow suspicion and mistrust.

Steve & Val Hayes, 29 September 1974, Durban North

Here, for what it’s worth, are the “then” and “now” photos.

The first was on our wedding day 45 years ago, wearing the wedding garments that Val made (they no longer fit).

Other observations … Val’s hair was wavy then, perhaps because we were living at the coast, and humidity makes for wavy hair. We’ve been living inland for more than 35 years, and that seems to make for straighter hair. .

Steve & Val Hayes, 29 September 2019, Kilner Park, Tshwane

Now, of course, our hair is also grey.

And the cap is in honour of our Subaru station wagon, the best car I ever owned.

And so we carry on, much along the lines of the theme song of the BBC’s New Tricks TV programme:

It’s all right, it’s OK
Doesn’t really matter if you’re old and grey.
It’s all right, it’s OK
Listen to what I say.
It’s all right, doing fine.
Doesn’t really matter if the sun don’t shine.
It’s all right, it’s OK.
Getting to the end of the day.

In and around Cape Town

Continued from Vause family in Robertson

We travelled from Robertson to Cape Town and stayed in the Sun 1 Hotel on the Foreshore. We had stayed there before, when it was known as the Formula 1 Hotel. We like it because it is cheap, clean, and within easy reach of the Cape Archives. The main disadvantage is that it is in an area surrounded by office blocks and industrial buildings, so there is nowhere to eat nearby, though it is close to the Artscape Treatre.

Sun 1 Hotel, Cape Town Foreshore

Sun 1 Hotel, Cape Town Foreshore

During our stay in Cape Town last week we spent each moring doing research in the archives in Roeland Street, which is only a short drive from the hotel. The building used to be a jail, so it has a very high wall around it. We were mostly doing research into our family history. When the archives closed at 4:00 pm, we went to visit family and friends who had said they would like to see us.

The Cape Archives Depot, formerly the Roeland Street Jail.

The Cape Archives Depot, formerly the Roeland Street Jail.

Most places in Cape Town have good views, and the archive depot is no exception. On Tuesday when we came out we found the car battery was dead, and had time to take a couple of pictures while waiting for the AA to bring a new battery. We were glad that it decided to die in the middle of Cape Town and not on the road from Hondeklip Bay to Soebatfonteirn or somewhere equally inaccessible. It died with no warning. When we set off for the archives in the morning the car started fine, but it died as 1:08 pm, at least according to the dashboard clcok.

Devil's Peak, from outside the Cape Archives depot.

Devil’s Peak, from outside the Cape Archives depot.

One of the old friends I visitewd was Mike Preston, now living in a nursing home at Tokai. I had met him when I did a three months’ vac job as a student, with the audit firm of E.R. Syfret & Co, where Mike was an articled clerk. Mike was a car enthusiast, and one day after work we went for a test drive in an Austin Mini, then new of the market, and the salesman drove it on and off the kerb to show us the superiority of its rubber suspension. Mike remarked that it made every other small car look obsolete. Now we ourselves are obsolete superannuated has-beens.

Steve Hayes and Mike Preston

Steve Hayes and Mike Preston, Tokai, Western Cape

Walter and Albertina Sisulu biography

Walter & Albertina SisuluWalter & Albertina Sisulu by Elinor Sisulu

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the things that I like about biographies of political figures is that you get a more personal view of the times they lived in. Here one gets two for the price of one — Walter and Albertina Sisulu were a married couple forced to live much of their life apart, and for several decades it was rare that there would be a time when there wasn’t at least one member of the Sisulu family in jail or banned.

Walter Sisulu was Secretary Gerneral of the African National Congress (ANC) at the time it was banned in 1960, and resumed his organising activities when he emerged from prison and it was unbanned 30 years later. Albertina was a leader of the ANC Women’s League, and was in jail, detained without trial, and banned for many years.

They belonged to my parents’ generation, but the second half of their life story was about times that I myself have lived through, and so casts new light on those times for me. It was written by their daughter-in-law, Elinor Sisulu, who knew them personally, and so they come alive in a way that is not possible in biographies written by impersonal outsiders. And perhaps because Walter was a political prisoner, the securocrats kept much of his correspondence from jail, and so, even though what he wrote was censored, there is something very warm and human that comes across in his letters to family and friends.

On reading the story of the Sisulus, I am acutely aware of how the leadership of the ANC, and of the country, has deteriorated since then. We will not see the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu again, more’s the pity. The time that Albertina Sisulu was a Member of Parliament, from 1994-1999, was a high point in our country’s history, though we did not realise it at the time. It is sad to see how much things have declined.

But the Sisulus would be the last to claim the credit for that. They believed in party discipline, and collective leadership. They believed that leaders must be responsible to the community, and this comes out in the sharp contrast between the disciplined and humble Albertina Sisulu and the publicity-seeking loose cannon Winnie Mandela. There were events involving Winnie Mandela that received a great deal of publicity at the time, such as her notorious football club. One did not know what to believe in the media reports, so I held my own counsel at the time, because judgements based on incomplete reports are usually wrong. Albertina Sisulu held her own counsel too, but now the story can be told.

One of the things that struck me was that in a sense people like Nelson Mandela, the Sisulus and the Tambos were larger than life, and this seemed to contrast with the idea of collective leadership and being responsible to the community, in fact collective leadership works best with people who stand out from the crowd, yet see themselves as part of it.

One small point that shows how far the ANC has fallen is that when Walter Sisulu was invited to visit the People’s Republic of China, and the latter asked him not to visit Taiwan, he refused, saying that he went where he was sent by the ANC, and not by the hosts of one of the places he was visiting. The contrast between that and the present ANC government’s refusal to give visas to the Dalai Lama could not be more stark.

In some ways the book is also a family history, and here there is a shortcoming. There are pedigree charts showing the ancestry of Walter and Albertina Sisulu (though not of Walter’s father, who played little part in his life), but there is no chart of their descendants, and as they had numerous grandchildren a family tree chart (or even several) showing them and their relationships would also have been useful.

It is also a love story. One of the lasting effects of apartheid was to destroy family life, especially for black people. But in spite of having to live almost half of their married life apart, Walter and Albertina Sisulu were an outstanding example of family life, and life as a married couple.

It is, however, a readable and well-researched book, and for anyone interested in South African history from 1940-2000, it’s a must read.

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UK trip 17 May 2005 London: Newspapers and Books

Continued from UK trip 16 May 2005: Brightlingsea to Twickenham | Notes from underground

We left the cottage at about 8:00, took the bus to Richmond underground station, and then the underground to Colindale, to visit the newspaper library, and spend several hours there looking at newspaper death announcements and obituaries, though the obituaries did not seem to begin in earnest until the early 20th century.

At Colindale Underground station on the Northern Line.

At Colindale Underground station on the Northern Line.

Then we went down to Tottenham Court Road, and walked down Charing Cross Road, where we looked at Foyle’s bookshop, but bought nothing, partly because of the overwhelming choice available, and partly because Val was worried about the extra weight if we tried to carry too much back on the plane.

No South African account ofn being a tourist in the UK would be complete without a picture of Travalgar Square, with South Africa House in the background, so here's the obligatory shot.

No South African account of being a tourist in the UK would be complete without a picture of Trafalgar Square, with South Africa House in the background, so here’s the obligatory shot.

We wandered down to Trafalgar Square, and then got a bus to Aldwych, and another to Waterloo, where we discovered that our visitors travel passes were also valid on Southwest Trains, part of the old southern region of British Rail, now privatised. The trains were modern, and came in a variety of bright livery, in contrast to the dull green of the Southern Region of British Rail in the 1960s, though the one we rode on to Strawberry Hill had graffiti scratched on the windows. We picked up several abandoned newspapers on the train, so we didn’t have to buy one.

On a London bus.

On a London bus.

We got off at Strawberry Hill station and were back at the cottage about 8:00 pm, and walked up to a neighbourhood pub, the Prince Blucher. On the way we passed the green, where a neighbourhood cricket game was in progress. Such scenes always call to mind the song by The Who:

I want to play cricket on the green
Ride my bike across the stream
Cut myself and see my blood
I want to come home all covered in mud
I’m a boy, I’m a boy
But my Ma won’t admit it.

We had bangers and mash for supper at the pub, which was very good, though it cost twice what a similar meal would have cost in South Africa — about 6 pounds, equivalent to about R70.00. I had a pint of bitter and Val had a lager shandy, which she has been drinking ever since the day we arrived, when Richard Wood had one.

Cricket on the green at Twickenham. 17 May 2005

Cricket on the green at Twickenham. 17 May 2005

We walked round the block, down Second Cross Road, and there were three pubs in that block alone. It makes a difference in the way one lives, that one can go walking to a local pub in an evening. In South Africa there is no real equivalent, though possibly the Dros chain of restaurants perform the same function, but one cannot afford them for family meals, and would only go for special occasions, and not just for a drink. But one cannot just walk down the road to them, it means getting in the car and making a special outing. In the townships there are shebeens within walking distance for many, but they are for serious drinkers, and don’t usually serve food.

Continued at UK trip 18 May 2005: a day in Oxford | Notes from underground.

Index to all posts on our UK trip here UK Holiday May 2005


UK trip 10 May 2005: Whitehaven to Girvan

Continued from UK trip 9 May 2005: Gobowen to Whitehaven | Hayes & Greene family history

We woke up to a beautiful view over the sea, with the village of Lowca in the foreground, and St Bees Head in the distance.

Lowca, Cumbria, with Whitehaven harbour and St Bees Head in the distance. 10 May 2005

Lowca, Cumbria, with Whitehaven harbour and St Bees Head in the distance. 10 May 2005

After breakfast we drove back through Whitehaven to Wasdale Head, where Val’s grandmother, Mattie Pearson, had told her was the highest mountain, the deepest lake, the smallest church, and the biggest liar, but he’s dead.


Wastwater, Cumbria, 10 May 2005

The highest mountain in England is Scafell Pike, and and Wastwater is the deepest Lake. We went to see the smallest church, St Olaf’s, but we could not see a tombstone for the biggest liar.

St Olaf's Church at Wasdale Head -- said to be the smallest church in England 10 May 2005

St Olaf’s Church at Wasdale Head — said to be the smallest church in England 10 May 2005

We returned to Whitehaven, passing the nuclear power station at Sellafield, which looked rather ominous, like the one in Wales we had seen, which had been two concrete cubes. We drove through St Bees, and took photos of a statue of St Bega.

St Bega.

St Bega.

According to legend, St Bega was the daughter of an Irish king, living some time between AD 600 and 900. She refused to marry the man of her father’s choice and fled in a small boat. She landed at the place now named St Bees after her, and lived as a hermit, caring for the local people. When she moved on, she left behind her arm ring. A few centuries later a male monastery was built there, and the monks kept her arm ring as a relic, which was lost when English monasteries were closed at the order of King Henry VIII.

St Bees, Cumbria

St Bees, Cumbria

After the closing of the monastery the story became more garbled, and more details were added, including the story that when she landed she approached the Lord of Egremont, asking for land to build a monastery. He promised her as much land as was covered by snow the next day. The next day was midsummer, but it snowed.

Whitehaven, from St Bees Head

Whitehaven, from St Bees Head

We stopped above Whitehaven and took photos over the town and the harbour, which had once been the third port of England, but now no longer even runs ferries to the Isle of Man, which could be seen on the western horizon. We went to Michael Moon’s book shop, and bought a Whitehaven guide and directory for 1901, which was quite expensive, but also had quite a lot of information in it. Val sent an SMS on her cell phone to Jethro to wish him happy birthday. We took photos of Scotch and Irish streets, where the Ellwood and Pearson families had lived at various times.



We went on our way, driving through winding country lanes to Keswick, where we had lunch at an Indian restaurant, the Royal Bengal, which was the closest one to the car park. They did a good lamb breyani, and had a chatty waiter from Goa.

From Keswick we headed north again, past Lake Bassenthwaite, though we only caught glimpses of it through the trees, and went through Mealsgate, where another of Val’s ancestors, Isabella Carr, had been born, and then drove through Carlisle, where we got a bit lost as the signposting was bad, and we kept getting in the wrong traffic lanes. We drove past Wigtown Bay, and up to Girvan, with its astonishing Ailsa Craig, a round mound over 1000 feet high sticking out of the sea, which I did not remember from my previous visit in 1967. If anything deserved to be called a “mump”, that did.

Ailsa Craig, off the coast of Ayrshire, Scotland, near Girvan. 10 May 2005

Ailsa Craig, off the coast of Ayrshire, Scotland, near Girvan. 10 May 2005

We looked for a place to stay, and found one a little way out of town on the way we had come
in, a bed and breakfast in a farmhouse, which was rather more expensive than some of the others we had been in, at £30 per person per night. It also turned out to offer less, as there was no tea and coffee making equipment. And, like most of the bead and breakfast places we had stayed at, there was no table where one could write, or put a laptop computer.

We went back down to the town and looked at the cemetery near the beach, where I found the graves of Thomas and Stanley Hannan without difficulty, and took photos of them with the digital camera. The inscriptions were a little more difficult to read than they had been on my last visit 38 years ago, when Willie Hannan had brought us down from Glasgow. We looked at some of the other graves, and found one more recent one of McCartneys, then went to the harbour, and took photos of the town from the jetty.

Girvan harbour, Ayrshire, Scotland

Girvan harbour, Ayrshire, Scotland

At the harbour we also watched a swan swimming in the sea, and gradually paddling into the harbour entrance.

Swan swimming from the open sea into Girvan harbour 10 May 2005

Swan swimming from the open sea into Girvan harbour 10 May 2005

We drove round the town and found Duff Street, where the Hannans had lived, but the house they had lived in had been demolished and turned into a builders yard or something similar. We then looked for something to eat, most most of the places were closed, and it was deceptively light, with summer time, and the sun setting only at about 9:00 pm, so it felt much earlier than it actually was. But there was a kebab and pizza place, so we got kebabs, and took them back to the guesthouse and ate them in the bedroom.

Continued at UK trip 11 May 2005: Girvan to Edinburgh | Hayes & Greene family history.

Index to all posts on our UK trip here UK Holiday May 2005

Thunder on the Blaauwberg

Thunder on the BlaauwbergThunder on the Blaauwberg by Lawrence G. Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We first heard of this book from a relative who told us that it documented the royal descent of the Green family (my wife Val is a member of this family), and indeed chapter 3, with the title “Blood Royal”, is all about Edward, Duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria, and his lover Julie de St Laurent, whom he had to give up when he needed to make a suitable marriage tio produce an heir to the throne.

So far, so good. But the story is that the prince and Julie had a son, William Goodall Gteen, who was the ancestor of the Green family in South Africa. Unfortunately that is not so. The full story is told by Mollie Gillen in her book The Prince and his Lady. William Goodall Green was born in 1790 in Quebec, a year before Edward and Julie had ever set foot in Canada; his father was William Goodall, a London businessman, and his mother was Eliza Green, the daughter of a Quebec butcher. Green tells some fascinating stories, but at the most significant points this one is untrue. I’ve covered this in more detail here: Mystery cousins and royal legends | Hayes & Greene family history.

Another chapter, about a British spy in German South West Africa, mentions another mystery of our family history. The spy was Alexander Patterson Scotland, manager of a store on the border between the Cape Colony and German South West Africa. The Namas and Hereros rebelled against the Germans, and one of the leaders of the rebels was Abraham Morris, who was known to Scotland, and Lawrence G. Green tells something of his story in in chapter 6, “Hauptmann Schottland”. Abraham Morris was also related though we are not sure how yet, and that is one of the problems we are working on in our current family history research.

I’ve read several of Lawrence G. Green’s books, and most of them deal with stories of interesting characters or places, many of whom featured in news stories of their day, or sometimes rumours — stories of outlaws like Scotty Smith, guerrilla fighters like Abraham Morris, spies like Alexander Scotland and many more. This one includes a diamond prospector, Solomon Rabinowitz, a visionary theorist of time, John William Dunne, a legenderay escaper and others. But the second half ofr the book was rather disappointing, where Green doesn’t focus of people and places, and goes into themes, like tastes, sounds and smells of Africa, where he jumps from one place to another, and the story becomes rather fragmented.

As I said at the beginning, some of Green’s stories, like the “Blood Royal” one, have been debunked, and most need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but he is a marvellous raconteur, and they are enjoyable reads, even if the history is sometimes doubtful.

View all my reviews

Where have all the computer magazines gone?

Yesterday I walked into a news agency (CNA) and looked to see if there were any computer magazines on the shelves. There were none. In the same shopping centre I went to the local branch of Exclus1ve Books, which has taken to stocking magazines, but again there were none.

It’s been like that for about three months now.

A few months ago there used to be a fair selection of magazines with titles like PC Format, PC User, Linux Format, Computer Shopper, and the like. Most of them came with a disc with free or shareware or trial programs, and I used to get most of my software that way. I’d have a look through the magazines on offer, seeing which ones had the most interestingt articles (or the most interesting software on the disc), and buy it. So I usually did not buy the same magazine every month.

But now they’re gone. I don’t know whether they stopped publoishing them all simultaneously, or whether the local shops decided to stop stocking them, or perhaps the South African distributors decided to stop importing them.

If they are still being published I suppose I could subscribe to one or other of them, but I can’t afford to subscribe to all of them, and that means there would be no choice. There is also the hassle of organising it, and the exorbitant bank charges one has to pay, and the possibility that it may be held for customs inspection at the post office, where, even if it is found not to be dutiable, a “handling fee” is charged which is usually more than the cover price of the magazine (as are the bank charges).

If this is a new policy of the news agencies and book shops, it is a rather short-sighted one. Perhaps they weren’t making enough profit on those magazines, because they only sold 5-10 copies of each a month. What they do not take into account is that the people who bought them went into the shop, and, while there, often bought other things as well — things like stationery, books, newspapers and the like.

A few years ago the same thing happened with genealogy and family history magazines. I used to have a standing order for Family Tree Magazine, and that got me into their shop at least once a month. I’d sometimes buy another one they used to stock, called Your Family Tree if it had articles of special interest, or interesting software on the disc.

But no more.

Where the computer magazines used to be, there are now only magazines about digital photography, and magazine-type books about apps to use on your cell phone, most of which don’t work anyway — my cell phone won’t even update the apps that it does have, or even its own operating system, because it doesn’t have enough memory.

So yesterday I got home and realised that I’d intended to buy a road map, but I’d forgotten to do so because when I saw the shop had no computer magazines I walked out without buying anything.

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.

Genealogists await outcome of Manto health records case

If the Sunday Times is taken to court over the matter of the health minister’s hospital records, genealogists will be watching the case with a keen interest in the outcome, since it may clarify questions about who owns documents generated by government departments, and who holds the copyright, if anyone.

Genealogists are up in arms over a ban on using digital cameras in the Cape Archives. No reason has been given for the ban, but there are rumours that the Department of Education, Arts and Culture, which controls the archives, is being sued over copies of divorce records that are said to have appeared on a web site. There are also rumours that otgher archives depots may also ban the use of digital cameras.

Divorce records are part of the records of the courts, and so are public documents, though there are restrictions on the media reporting of divorce cases. Until recently genealogical researchers used digital cameras to copy archival documents, and study them at their leisure when they got home, and there had been no objections to this practice.

The outcome of a court case about the publication of the contents of a person’s medical recordfs could clarify some of the wider issues, even if it does not resolve them.

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