My life in computing – the early days

Nowadays computers are ubiquitous, but when I was a spotty teenager in the seventies they were rare and unusual beasts, often locked away in air conditioned vaults and ministered to by priesthood of strange specialists who  got the beast to do things by typing strange incantations on keyboards.

Machines on the whole ran in batch mode running one job after another – multiuser multitasking environments were a rarity.

There were few books about computers, and no one really knew anything, but universities were starting to produce graduates who had written code in a high level language such as Fortran or Algol, and the powers that were were beginning to think that programming might be a useful skill of sorts.

Nothing about hardware, architectures, databases (which hadn’t been invented) but programming.

So, in my final year of school I learned to write code on coding sheets (by hand, one character per square, each line a maximum of 72 characters).

These coding sheets were then taken to the local technical college, where they were typed onto punched cards by data processing operatives, run in batch mode, and the output and card deck sent back to you – if you were lucky it worked, if not it was another week to debug the code and try again.

All pretty crude, and involving delayed gratification, but I did learn enough to write some simple code in Algol and Fortran to read some numbers, add them up, average them and print the result.

A year later, at university, this turned out to be really useful. As part of mathematical methods they taught us Algol W. Again no interactive terminal time, but you could type your own cards on an IBM 029 card punch and submit your job.

If you timed it right, you could submit your job in the early afternoon and pick up your output around ten o’clock in the evening – actually the John Honey building doors closed at ten, and there was a bit of furious bike riding to get there from wherever by 9.55.

After then I didn’t touch a computer for around three years. Didn’t need to.

No such things as word processors or personal computers, essays were written on a typewriter, and a scientific calculator was good enough for data analysis, that was of course until my final year project which generated data, and data needed to be analysed.

Things had moved on – there were now these things called packages – we’d call them programs and applications that did all the grunt work for you, all you had to do was type in your data, write a control file for the package (read this file, run this analysis, print these results), and what’s more sometimes you could use an interactive terminal to submit and kick your job off. Luxury!

After uni, I was stupid enough to try a PhD. I could be cynical and claim that in the first year of Margaret Thatcher’s social revolution it was probably the best option for a newly minted psychology graduate with a specialism in psychophysiology and ethology, but I’d be lying.

I was in love with my subject, a complete and utter psychology geek, and I did it all for love.

Now psychophysiolgy includes data collection, such as heart rate and oxygen consumption.

Today a $40 no name fitness tracker will record most of the data required – I know, I’ve got one – but then it involved individual instruments. At the time most instruments had an analogue output to drive a pen recorder. If instead you had a compute read the output voltage once a second say, you could get some automated data capture going.

Put an individual in an experiment, you could see how stressed they got doing a stressful task, like press a combination of switches in response to a sequence of lights. Loud noise if you got wrong.

And as you would expect, people got better over time at the task, and their stress indicators would go down – they felt more in control.

Then of course you could be naughty, and because life isn’t predictable, sometimes tell them they had pressed the wrong sequence even when they hadn’t. Very effective way of inducing stress, and you could show that they were stressed by not getting accurate feedback – the less accurate the feedback, the more stressed.

All sorts of implications, including things like how best to design feedback systems – one of the things that went wrong at Three Mile Island was that there were too many flashing lights and sirens that went off confusing the operators, such that they didn’t realise that they might well be having a meltdown.

Well, after a few years my scholarship ended, and I didn’t finish my PhD. In retrospect I should have, but I needed to do some revisions to my thesis, and I couldn’t afford to pay the fees for an extension.

By that time I was working for a different university doing computer support for a field station, as well as managing survey teams.

Computer support was fun, everything from helping people with wordstar, writing programs to process and munge data – such as taking species count data and plot the diversity of the data on a 1km square grid – simple now, but in 1984 a blocky colour coded map was something else, and of course for bid data sets, uploading the data very slowly over a dialup modem and then logging in and running one of these dreaded batch jobs.

And then I got a proper job …

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Something that I didn’t know about Gateshead …

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere we’ve been watching Unorthodox on Netflix. I won’t rehearse the story here, but watching reminded me of something that I used to find  fascinating.

I used to live in York in England, and in the mid eighties and early nineties I used to travel back and forth to London to see friends or to go to business meetings.

I almost always used to go by train, and that meant going through King’s Cross station in London.

It got better in time, but in the mid eighties King’s cross railway station was distinctly seedy, dirty and decrepit, with prostitutes and drug addicts hanging around, propositioning you, asking for money, as well as other lost souls, who were simply the economic collateral in Margaret Thatcher’s social revolution.

Now I don’t know how it is now, I havn’t been through King’s Cross in twenty years, but then there used to be a row of big brick pillars at the end of the concourse before you went through to the train platforms.

For some reason, even if you had a reservation, they would never let you onto the train until about five minutes before it was due to leave, which meant that you had to queue if you were early.

It was quite organised, there was a separate queue for each train, and the queues were announced by them putting up big signboards on the pillars that from memory would read something like ‘Queue A 1800 York and Newcastle Platform 7’ .

Sometimes of course, if everything had gone to hell, and the trains were all hopelessly late, you would have to stand about in the concourse until they announced your queue, usually twenty minutes or so before departure.

Making you stand in a line of course made you a target for beggars and other miscreants such as pickpockets, but there was usually just enough in the way of security to keep things under control.

What used to fascinate me was that you would invariably see groups of young orthodox Jewish men – some really only teenagers – lining up with me for the York and Newcastle train – not the Leeds train – that was a different queue – and certainly not going to the orthodox communities in Manchester – that would of course mean a train from Euston.

I never knew where they went, except that it must have been somewhere north of York as I never saw any of them get off. I recognised them as members of one of the stricter orthodox sects as my friends lived between Upper Holloway and Tufnell Park stations in London and we would often see groups of orthodox men, identifiable with their furry hats, going to and from the synagogue on a Saturday – in fact we used to refer to them as the ‘furry hat sect’ to distinguish them from the older less strict Jewish men you saw who usually wore and old fashioned suit and a homburg hat on a Saturday for the synagogue.

Nowadays, when we stay overnight in Melbourne, we usually stay in a small hotel in the Jewish area around Balaclava Road – it’s cheap, it has free parking and it’s close to the train and tram, giving you the advantages of a central hotel without the cost. Sure in might take another ten minutes to get somewhere, but what’s the problem.

And despite being a Jewish area with Yeshivas and Synagogues, one never sees any of the furry hat sect – yes you see plenty of the less strict orthodox in their homburgs and black suits, but none of the ultra orthodox.

So, I had kind of forgotten about the ultra orthodox Jewish boys in King’s Cross station, puzzledly trying to respond to the prostitutes and beggars while waiting for the train.

That is, until we watched ‘Unorthodox’, and I was reminded of them.

Wikipedia is of course your friend, and it only took a few clicks to discover that as well as London and Greater Manchester, not to mention a shrinking orthodox community in Leeds, there is a large orthodox community in Gateshead, outside of Newcastle, which hosts an important orthodox yeshiva.

And immediately the mystery was solved – these young men were doubtless on their way to or from the yeshiva – and of course the reason I saw them was because my meetings in London were invariably on Thursdays – and of course as Sabbath begins at sunset on a Friday, in winter in England that would have meant them travelling on Thursday evening or Friday morning to reach their destination before sunset, the journey to Gateshead from London probably taking around four hours end to end …

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Tennessee Fried Megapode?

megapode socks

Being a slightly silly person at heart, I recently bought myself some socks featuring Australian Bush Turkeys.

The designs not quite right – while admittedly I have what J once described as ‘short fat feet’ – the bush turkeys look well, a little too turkey like.

Bush turkeys are megapodes, and related (distantly) to jungle fowl. They are also both protected and a pest, with their habit of scratching up large incubation mounds of rotting vegetation, often these days in someone’s vegetable garden.

They are reasonably common down the east coast of Australia, but in the 1930’s they had been hunted almost to extinction, in part because they are pests.

Now it’s known that the first peoples of Australia enjoyed Bush Turkey – NITV’s food page still features a recipe for Bush Turkey and Mussel stew – albeit made with standard turkey these days, so did the early European settlers also try bush turkey?

In a word, yes.

Hannah Maclurcan, who published an Australian cookery book at the end of the nineteenth century, includes a recipe for bush turkey with that Victorian classic, bread sauce, so clearly people ate them.

Probably, since I’ve never tried eating one, the birds would be scrawny and tough and would ideally need to be hung first, or else chopped up and marinaded.

While it’s been said ‘when you cook a bush turkey in a pot, throw away the bush turkey and eat the pot’, I suspect that refers to a tough old bird put straight into the pot with no preparation.

So how did Hannah Maclurcan’s bush turkey taste?

She claimed:

 ‘a small bird, not much larger than a wild duck, with a breast like a pheasant and flesh as white. I have often served it as pheasant and people have not known the difference’

and that I think is the clue – treat it like a pheasant – hang it well,which would probably make it taste too strong for the twentyfirst century palate and smother it in a fairly well flavoured sauce, and that will render it edible – to a hungry nineteenth century traveller at least …

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Chartists and millenarians

A long time ago, like almost fifty years ago, I read Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millenium, which introduced me to the ranters and other European millenarian cults, which I found so weird it was fascinating.

Around the same time, I was in Oxford for the weekend and I saw a poster for a SWP organised commemoration of the Banbury Mutineers (this was the seventies after all when such things were more common) which introduced me to the primitive anarcho-communism of the Levellers, which of course appealed to my young and idealistic self.

Well, as one grows older, one leaves such things behind, but as part of my lockdown reading I’ve just finished Christopher Hill’s The world turned upside down, which I should probably have read forty years ago.

In this book, Christopher Hill discusses the growth of radical religious groups under the English Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth, and their influence on the more radical elements in the New Model Army, and the clawing back of power by the parliamentarian establishment.

A good read if you are interested in that sort of thing, and probably as boring as batshit if you aren’t.

One thing though that interested me was a comment in Hill’s concluding remarks that even as late as the early nineteenth century, the period of religious dissent under Cromwell, was celebrated as Oliver’s days in the area around Haworth, and that this may have influenced Charlotte Bronte.

The source for this was given as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte.

Now Elizabeth Gaskell’s father was a Unitarian minister, and in England at least, Unitarianism, like the Quakers, was a set of beliefs and practices that can trace their beginnings back to the period of religious dissent under Cromwell.

In other words, Elizabeth Gaskell was well placed to assess if there was a legacy of religious radicalism in the area.

The other thing which is interesting (to me ast least) was that this area was also known for several significant Chartist demonstrations in the 1840’s, and of course the British government shipped a good many of the Chartists off to Australia for riot, insurrection, machine breaking and other such crimes, some of whom ended up working in the goldfields and were involved in the fight for miners rights including not only the Eureka Stockade but also the Ovens Petitions, as well as the monster meeting at Madman’s Gully in August 1853.

It may seem a stretch to link seventeenth century religious dissenters to gold miners in 1850’s Beechworth, but it’s possily less of a stretch than it first seems …

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Plagues, pandemics and narrative …

Like much of the world we are in lockdown due to Covid-19. Fortunately we have a garden, and we live in a small town with a reasonably stocked supermarket, and a populace, who, on the whole, observe social distancing measures.

However, autumn is here, and has brought days of lashing rain interspersed with the occasional fine clear  day.

Lockdown of course means no going out to meet with friends for a coffee or a drink, so I’ve been catching up on my reading backlog.

By coincidence a two or three of the books in my backlog are about either the Black Death or the Great Plague in London. The internet is of course full of articles drawing parallels between those times and the current pandemic.

I’m not going to rehash them, but I’ve found a couple or three things quietly fascinating about the Black Death in particular.

Firstly, that once it had began to spread in Europe the bishops of the English church realised that it would inevitably come to England – after all the church hierarchy maintained a pan European network of correspondence – and took the extraordinary step of sending out a letter warning of the plague to all parish priests to be read out in English, not Latin, so that their congregations were aware.

They also advised the laity that in times of plague, if no cleric was available, any man or woman could hear the victim’s final confession, something extraordinary in those pious times.

Secondly, once the pandemic passed, in many places there was an attempt to transfer land and other property to the survivors in an orderly manner by the normal rules of inheritance.

Of course, with up to half the population in their graves, it was impossible to go back to the old ways. Peasants had more land than they had ever had before, and with fewer people to work the land, were reluctant to spend time discharging their feudal obligations by working their feudal superiors’ land, something that led to the rise of the medieval English wool trade – marginal land ceased to be intensively farmed and was turned into pasture used to raise sheep. And in a game of consequences, indirectly to  the Peasant’s revolt of 1381 – the tax base had shrunk and there were fewer people to pay the poll tax to fund the King’s household and wars in France.

And of course it wasn’t only peasants who died. Skilled craftsmen also died meaning that those that survived could name their price, increasing the prosperity of what remained of urban society.

The third thing that I found fascinating, or perhaps the most fascinating, was that many writers of contemporary accounts of the plague used Thucydides’ account of the plague of Athens as a model.

Not having ever had to compose a history of a pandemic, they fell back on the only model that they had.

They had no ready access to accounts of the plague of Justinian, which were mostly written in Byzantine Greek, and even if they had access to the best known account (Procopius’ s Secret History – with its well known passages about the Empress Theodora that might well have excited the scriptoria – I have this fanciful vision of monks reading the dirty bits out to each other – they would have found that Procopius had also used Thucydides as a template)

This shouldn’t surprise us – for example, the monks who wrote down the story of Fergus Mor Mac Erc and the Gaelic invasion of Dalriada in the sixth century clearly knew of the Aeneid and the Iliad and used these as templates  to give some form and shape to a perhaps rambling and repetitive oral history.

Of course, in using Thucydides as a template they missed out information that we might find interesting. It also shows that Thucydides must have been known to educated men, and like other parts of classical canon as known in the Middle Ages, provided a lens through which they saw and understood the world …



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The decline and fall of the Australian pharmaceutical industry

Needless to say, the project’s currently on hold due to Covid-19 restrictions, so this is perhaps a time to take stock, given that I’m now about three quarters through documenting the contents of the pharmacy.

Back in August 2018 I wrote about the change in the nature of the stock over time based on what we hold.

Any analysis based on the current contents of the pharmacy is inevitably hand wavy – while we know what we have, and can say with some authority that it includes some early pre world war I items and definitely contains items from between the first and second world wars, we can’t say what else they might have stocked at these times.

This is because, while they didn’t, or seem not to have thrown anything out, we don’t know what they originally had and had  sold out of. You could argue that the older items are those that didn’t sell because they were either too expensive or not particularly popular.

So, the consequence of this is that most of the shelf stock dates from the very late 1940’s through to the mid sixties when they closed the pharmacy.

If one looks at the over the counter medicines, cough medicines for example, most of them are made in Australia, and by Australian owned companies that were gradually taken over and absorbed by multinational manufacturers, many of whom continued to manufacture in Australia.

Offshoring of manufacture happened later – in the sixties Australia was one of the few relatively developed economies in the region.

The other interesting thing is, when looking at those items from the 1940’s, import substitution had clearly taken place with locally made products, such as Happy Jack liver salts in place of the previous imported brand


And the case of Happy Jack is quite interesting – the product was made by a small company – Alpha laboratories of Woolhara who clearly saw a gap in the market

happy jack liver salts

I’ve not been able to trace Alpha laboratories – like many of these small pharmaceutical companies they appear and then disappear – but their existence shows that there must have been a number of small, now vanished, patent medicine manufacturers who had the capacity to step up …

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Wiping your bottom in bygone times

Let’s be honest here – almost everyone is secretly fascinated by the question as how people wiped their bottoms in times past, and the recent world wide burst of pandemic inspired panic buying of toilet paper has inspired lots of articles along the lines of this one from Country Life in the UK.

These articles all cover some fairly standard material – the Roman sponge stick, Gayetty’s invention of toilet paper in the mid 1800’s, and how people were originally resistant to the idea of spending good money to wipe your bum, when cheap disposable printed material was readily available.


Gayetty claimed (falsely) that printers ink gave you haemorrhoids and that using his medicated paper lubricated with aloe would avoid the problem.

Most people ignored him and continued to use newspapers and the like – the invention of cheap wood pulp based paper by Charles Fenerty in the mid nineteenth century led to a vast expansion of paper production and cheap printed material, meaning that most people had easy access to scrap paper to use in the toilet.

And of course the toilet would have most likely been a cess pit or bucket type arrangement than a flushing toilet – as in this example in an officer’s house on Norfolk Island


Prior to then most paper was relatively expensive rag based paper (which is why the paper in pre-1860 books and documents is less prone to decay and brittleness and lasts better than many post 1860 papers), and too expensive to be used for such a mundane purpose as cleaning one’s bottom.

Stories from the English Civil War and elsewhere about soldiers profaning prayerbooks and psalters by ripping them up and using them as toilet paper are most likely propaganda from one side or the other – in a religious age the idea of someone using the Book of Common Prayer for such a practice would have seemed sacriligeous in the extreme.

I’ve no doubt that it may have happened – I’m sure that most people would have simply used what was to hand and prayerbooks might have been it – but on the whole most people would have used leaves or bits of rag and moss, and perhaps occasionally bits of scrap paper, but on the whole there wasn’t that much paper around.

The elite might have had access to paper, and scholars might have repurposed used bits of scrap paper, but on the whole most people would simply have used scrap material or leaves.

I suspect, but have no proof, that is one was to compare rural seventeenth and eighteenth century cesspits between those in towns and those in the country one would find more use of scrap material in urban contexts and of organic material such as leaves in rural contexts.

Given the stiffness of most early rag papers, paper in the seventeenth century might not  have been as effective as you might hope and  like Izal and other early hard toilet papers – more suited to scraping than wiping.

Izal of course, horrible hard paper as it was, had the advantage over newsprint that it did not block drains, so it and other similar products gradually took over as people moved from having pit toilets to flushing toilets, even if they were still outside in the back yard and was still in common use until the 1960s and beyond.

Forestry Commission toilets in Scotland well into the seventies used to have this Izal look alike that was printed Government Property – Now wash your hands, and public toilets in England retained Izal style paper for a long time – basically it was thought that it was so unpleasant to use that no one would steal it.

So what we see is a union of two technologies – woodpulp paper to make paper cheap enough to be treated as a disposable product, and flush toilets which required the use of something that could be flushed down the drain without causing a blockage …



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PTSD in the Crimean War ?

I’ve been looking at the fallout from the Madeleine Smith trial and had come across this summary of the annual report of the Royal Edinburgh Asylum from the Scotsman of 24 February 1858:

Annotation 2020-03-01 105359

which is interesting – unfortunately the reports don’t give the gender of the afflicted individuals, so I can’t say if the first person mentioned was a member of the legal profession (presumably male) who was stressed by the (for 1857) extremely salacious nature of the trial and depositions and suffered from stress akin to facebook content moderators dealing with confronting content.

However there was another interesting part of the report. Unfortunately it’s spread over two columns

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which sounds rather as if there was a recognition that not only could serious injuries to the head result in changes in behaviour, but also that the stress of combat could result in mental disturbance.

It would be interesting to look into this further, but while the records are available, they have not yet been digitised, and are inconveniently on the other side of the planet …


I was sufficiently intrigued by this to do a little more digging.

The topic has been under researched, but it looks as if a number of Crimean War soldiers we diagnosed as having an irritable heart – perhaps the same as was later described as Da Costa Syndrome during the American Civil War.

Other than a paper researching the occurrence of suicide in Crimean war veterans, I’ve been unable to find other substantial research into the effects of traumatic stress on Crimean war soldiers, although I did find a paper detailing a case of stress related chronic fatiguein a single Chelsea pensioner after service both in Crimea and the 1857 Indian rebellion…




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Another Moncur bad boy

I probably need to get out more, but a few days ago, I ran my surname through querypic, looking to see if there were any reports relating to George or Thomas Moncur.

I didn’t turn up anything relating to them but I did turn up this notice about an absconding Moncur in 1828:

Annotation 2020-02-23 153653

As a notice it’s quite informative – it tells us that John Moncur, who was transported on the Minstrel – which sailed and arrived in 1825, and that when he absconded from the road gang he was 21 years old, making him seventeen or eighteen when he arrived in 1825.

Well our old friend the Scots Magazine with its record of court proceedings helps tie this down:

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but as you can see, it’s one of these cases where digitisation went a little askew.

A bit of hunting showed that there was also a report of court proceedings in the Scotsman, but the Scotsman digital archive wants to charge you eight quid for two days access, which I thought was a little excessive for a couple of column inches.

Fortunately the Scotsman is included in the State Library’s Proquest subscription, so after a few minutes scratching about to find my login details I had my report:

Annotation 2020-02-23 161215

The Scotsman described him as fifteen or sixteen, assume he was sixteen when convicted in December 1824, he could plausibly be seventeen when he arrived in August 1825.

Given that a lot of poorer classes – labourers, farmworkers etc, – in the Georgian era were a bit vague about their age and date of birth, it’s quite possible that he didn’t know his birthday and was judged to be sixteen.

So, he should have been easy to find. But he isn’t. No John Moncur shows up in the convict register.

It’s another good old transcription error – he’s listed as John Mancor

Annotation 2020-02-23 163610

on the convict records website, albeit with Moncure being given as an alias.

His conviction record ties in with the report in the Scotsman

Annotation 2020-02-23 163651

so we can be reasonably certain it’s him.

Unfortunately I can’t trace him beyond 1828 – none of the newspapers report him (as Moncur, Mancor, or Moncure) as being recaptured – it’s possible he’s in the convict records somewhere, but I havn’t looked very hard.

There’s a takeaway to this – be aware of aliases, different spellings and just plain old transcription errors, especially when searching old records …

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Chinese Herbalist advertising in 1924

Came across this little curiousity in the West Gippsland times of 1924:

chinese herbalists in 1924

two Chinese herbalists (they probably couldn’t call themselves apothecaries) advertising to the white anglo population in rural Victoria.

And of course the obvious question is how much use was made of Chinese medicine as opposed to western medicine in the 1920’s ?

This is quite an interesting question because in the nineteenth century, the reliance of western pharmacy on herbal based cures was marked, and many of the common patent medicines sold were essentially packaged versions of traditional herbal cures.

A little digging suggests that in the 1870’s some Chines practitioners in Ballarat sought to have their Chinese qualifications recognised, but the was rejected by the Medical Board at the time meaning they had to describe themselves as herbalists.

There’s also some evidence that this refusal was as a result of racism and a failure of the western practitioners to recognise that Chinese practitioners had undertaken a rigorous course of study.

However, most people couldn’t afford doctors.

They would often buy a preparation, or a patent medicine, based on a recommendation by the pharmacist as still happens in some countries today.

And having seen Chinese miners go to a Chinese herbalist when they were sick (distrust goes both ways) they seem to have been happy to try Chinese medicine if all else failed.

And the adoption of Chinese medicine seems a reasonably widespread phenomenon in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Australia – a search of the digitised newspaper collection on Trove turns up over a hundred thousand references.

Using querypic shows a sustianed interest over our period with a peak in the second decade of the twentieth century:

chart (1)

perhaps as a result of a reduced availability of western preparations during the first world war …

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