Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “research”

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.




Alarm as Dutch lab creates highly contagious killer flu

The most alarming thing I found about this article was this paragraph, where the irony appears to be quite unconscious: Alarm as Dutch lab creates highly contagious killer flu – Science – News – The Independent:

Some scientists are questioning whether the research should ever have been undertaken in a university laboratory, instead of at a military facility.

It really worries me that “some scientists” appear to put their trust in “military facilities” rather than universities, which are. at least in theory, dedicated to more independent research.

It reminded me of the Cold War parody of a Western hymn:

The day God gave thee, man, is ending
The darkness falls at thy behest
who spent thy little life defending
from conquest by the East, the West.

The sun that bids us live is waking
behind the cloud that bids us die
And in the murk fresh minds are making
new plans to blow us all sky-high.

It worries me that “some scientists” seem to have a preference for operating in that murk.

But never mind:

Bombs shall dig our sepulchre
Bigger bombs exhume us.
Gaudeamus igitur
Juvenes dum sumus.[1]

Or, as Jeremy Taylor used to sing:

Three cheers for the army, and all the boys in blue
Three cheers for the scientists, and politicians too
Three cheers for the future years, when we shall surely reap
All the joys of living on a nuclear rubbish heap.

But since they tell us that “science” has won the battle of “science versus religion” we ought to forget all our outdated superstitions about human sinfulness, and rather put our trust in “some scientists” and their “military facilities”.


Notes and references

[1] Both verses from Quake, quake, quake: a leaden treasury of English verse, by Paul Dehn.

Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian

Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian: Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the western world? Whose monopolistic practices make Walmart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch a socialist? You won’t guess the answer in a month of Sundays. While there are plenty of candidates, my vote goes not to the banks, the oil companies or the health insurers, but – wait for it – to academic publishers. Theirs might sound like a fusty and insignificant sector. It is anything but. Of all corporate scams, the racket they run is most urgently in need of referral to the competition authorities.

Smelly socks to prevent malaria?

Malaria and Aids are probably two of the biggest killer diseases in Africa.

I wonder what the pharmaceutical industry will think about this?

Smelly socks tested in Tanzania as way to prevent malaria – The Washington Post:

In global public health, disease-fighting tools that are cheap, available and sustainable are the Holy Grail. It might be hard to top the one being tested in Tanzania as a way to prevent malaria: smelly socks.

Experiments in three villages where people get about 350 bites a year from malaria-infected mosquitoes are using dirty socks to lure the insects into traps, where they become contaminated with poisons and ultimately die.

There used to be a pop group called Toxic Socks. I wonder if they are still around? Their time may have come.

Search engines for genealogy and family history research

Over the last ten years or so Google has become the most popular web search engine — to much so that “to google” has become synonymous with searching the web. It’s become a generic term.

When Jackie Seaman announced her Growden reunion, I thought I’d do a web search for Growden, and started with Google because Firefox puts it so conveniently in the toolbar. Growden (or Growdon) is one of the less common surnames I’m researching, and we have a web page just for Growdon family researchers. But Google didn’t find it — at least not in the first 17 mages of results.

I tried another search engine, Altavista, and our Growdon page came up on the first page of results.

I tried another search engine, Dogpile, which is an aggregator of results from several different search engines, and our Growdon page was also on the first page of results, but further down.

It seems that Google is definitely not the best search engine for genealogical and family history research. Altavista ( was better by a long way, and its first page of results was far more relevant to genealogy researchers.

The first page of results on Google produced a bunch of generic surname search sites, many of them commercial. This means that they show up on search results for anyone looking for any surname at all. If you try some of them you might find they have no information at all on Growdon (or whatever surname you are looking for), but then invite you to look for other surnames. And quite often, if they do have information, they ask you to pay upfront before you can see it.

Dogpile also came up with quite few of those generic surname sites, but did have more relevant sites on the first page of search results as well.

But Altavista came up with “real” Growdon/Growden sites first — people who were actually interested in Growden family history, and had information or were looking for information, rather than generic surname search sites.

So if you are looking for family history information on the web, don’t just “google” for it — try other search engines as well. You may be pleasantly surprised.

(Originally posted in my family history blog, but copied here as it may be of wider interest).

Research: charismatic renewal movement in South Africa

After reading Charles Villa-Vicencio’s book Trapped in apartheid (see Notes from underground: Trapped in apartheid – South African churches) I became aware that very little has been written on the charismatic renewal movement in South Africa, and its effects on church and society. There are occasional references in passing, which very often assume that the reader knows all about it. I discussed this with a few other people, and began to look at the possibility of writing a book on the subject.

The “charismatic renewal movement” was a rediscovery of the gifts of the Holy Spirit among non-Pentecostal Christian bodies. Pentecostal groups had flourished since the late 19th century, and they emphasised the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which became one of their distinctive doctrines. In the second half of the 20th century pentecostal experiences appeared with increasing frequency in non-Pentecostal Christian denominations. Some of those affected adopted the classical Pentecostal pneumatology, while others began to re-examine, and sometimes reinterpret, the pneumatology of their own tradition.

The focus of such a study would be on the charismatic renewal in non-Pentecostal bodies in South Africa the period 1960-1995. It could not be contained strictly within those limits, however, because there were similar renewal movements in other countries, both in southern Africa and overseas. There was also considerable interaction with Pentecostal groups, but others have written about those. The dating is bounded by secular events; 1960 was the year in which many secular political groups, such as the ANC and PAC were banned, a republican referendum held, and the implementation of the apartheid policy and civil repression intensified. Apartheid ended in 1994, with the first democratic elections. This was also the period in which the charismatic renewal movement flourished.

The story is complicated by the fact that the charismatic renewal seemed to spring up in many different places independently. It began differently in different denominations and spread in the 1960s. In the 1970s it drew people together, across denominational, racial and class boundaries, somewhat to the consternation of the National Party government. In the 1980s, however, it began to disintegrate, and the new-found unity proved short lived, and several new denominations took root, sometimes emphasising distinctive doctrines. People began to speak of “charismatic burnout”.

It would be impossible for one person to write a detailed history of such a variegated movement, and it is probably too soon even to make a preliminary evaluation. But something needs to be done to at least provide a full picture. No one did much to record the history of the movement as it was happening; they were too busy making history to record it. There were lots of ephemeral publications, newsletters and magazines, but most of them were concerned with teaching and doctrine rather than events. Where they did record events, they were often like the gospel pericopes — testimonies of healing and the like where the details of time and place got worn away, recounted for spiritual edification.

Indeed, trying to write the story now is in some ways a challenge similar to that faced by the gospel writers, trying to collect and recall memories of events that had taken place 30-50 years previously. Perhaps they were concerned, as I am, to interview living witness of those events before they have all died. And how, after such an interval, does one find such witnesses, and persuade them to tell their stories?

One way, which was not available to the gospel writers, is to post an appeal in a blog, as I am doing now, and that someone who knows something about it may read it. Or even that someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows may read it.

So I’ve drawn up a preliminary survey, to try to get some of the people who might be able to provide information. If you were in South Africa at any time in the period 1960-1995, and had any encounter with the charismatic renewal movement, and are willing to share information about it, please

Click here to take survey

It won’t take long, though since it is a historical survey rather than a sociological one, it isn’t anonymous, it does ask for your name and contact information, so that I can ask you for more detailed information if necessary.

If you are willing to provide information, or can suggest people or publications who could provide more, please write them in a comment here, or get in touch with me by e-mail.

Post Navigation