Archive for February, 2016

Lee of Portrush: an introduction

Saturday, February 27th, 2016

One of the projects I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while is scanning and dating a boxful of old cabinet photographs and postcards produced by Lee of Portrush in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

At least five members and three generations of the Lee family worked as professional photographers in this small Northern Irish town – the last of them was my grandfather, William Lee, who carried the business on into the 1970s. Their later output doesn’t turn up much – I don’t think I’ve run across anything post-1920s – but a steady trickle of their older photographs appear on ebay and on family history sites. They produced a range of monochrome and coloured postcards of Portrush and the surrounding area, did a good trade in portrait photographs, and at one point ended up proprietors of (both temperance and non-temperance) hotels. Briefly, one brother decamped to South Africa (before deciding to come home again) and they proudly announced “Portrush, Coleraine, and Cape Town” – a combination rarely encountered. A more unusual line of work, however, was that they had a studio at the Giant’s Causeway.

The Causeway is the only World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland, and was as popular a tourist attraction then as now. A narrow-gauge electric tramline was built out from Portrush to Bushmills and then the Causeway in the 1880s, bringing in a sharp increase in visitors. And – because the Victorians were more or less the same people as we are now – they decided there was no better way to respond to a wonder of the natural world than to have your photograph taken while standing on it, so that you can show it to all your friends. Granted, you had to pay someone to take the photo, sit still with a rictus grin, then wait for them to faff around with wet plates and developer; not quite an iPhone selfie, but the spirit is the same even if the subjects were wearing crinolines. There is nothing new in this world.

The Lees responded cheerfully to this, and in addition to the profitable postcard trade, made a great deal of money by taking photographs of tourists up from Belfast or Dublin, or even further afield. (They then lost it again over the years; Portrush was not a great place for long-term investment once holidays to the Mediterranean became popular.)

Many of these are sat in shoeboxes; some turn up occasionally on eBay, where I buy them if they’re a few pounds. It’s a nice thing to have, since so little else survives of the business. One problem is that very few are clearly dated, and as all parts of the family seem to have used “Lees Studio”, or a variant, it’s not easy to put them in order, or to give a historical context. For the people who have these as genealogical artefacts, this is something of a problem – ideally, we’d be able to say that this particular card style was early, 1880-1890, that address was later, etc., to help give some clues as to when it was taken.

Fast forward a few years. Last November, I had an email from John Kavanaugh, who’d found a Lee photograph of his great-great-grandfather (John Kavanagh, 1822-1904), and managed to recreate the scene on a visit to the Causeway:

Family resemblance, 1895-2015
Courtesy John Kavanaugh/Efren Gonzalez

It’s quite striking how similar the two are. The stone the elder John was sat on has now crumbled, fallen, or been moved, but the rock formations behind him are unchanged. The original photo is dated c. 1895, so this covers a hundred and twenty years and five generations.

So, taking this as a good impetus to get around to the problem, I borrowed a scanner yesterday and set to. Fifty-odd photographs later, I’ve updated the collection on flickr, and over the next few posts I’ll try and draw together some notes on how to date them.

Android preinstalls – a ticking timebomb

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

So, I got a push notification on my phone today from “Peel Smart Remote”. Never heard of it. This turns out to be one of those applications for people who really need to use their phone as a TV remote; a bit pointless, but hey, I’m sure someone thinks it’s a great idea.

I don’t own a TV, so unsurprisingly, I’m not one of those people. The app turned out to be pre-installed on my phone (originally under a different name), and is undeleteable – but I can “disable” it and delete any data it had recorded. (Data they should, of course, not have, but trying to tell American startups about privacy is like trying to explain delayed gratification to a piranha, so let’s not even go there.)

I then went through my phone’s app list looking for the other junk like this. Four, all with pre-approved push applications, all of which now disabled. (I’m leaving aside the pre-installed ones which I might actually want to use…)

But when I removed them, I happened to scroll down and look at permissions. The Peel app, which has been running quietly in the background for about two years, has had an astonishing range of permissions.

* read contact data (giving the ability to know personal details of anyone stored as a contact – along with metadata about when and how I contact them)
* create calendar events and email guests without my awareness
* read and write anything stored on the SD card
* full internet access

Let’s not even ask why a TV remote would need the ability to find out who all my contacts are.

The others were not much better. Blurb (a small print-on-demand publishing firm) could read my data and find out who was calling me. Flipboard (a social-media aggregator) could read my data. And “ChatON“, which seems to be some kind of now-defunct messaging service run by Samsung; its app could call people, record audio, take pictures, find my location, read all my data (and my contact data), create accounts, shut down other applications, force the phone to remain active – basically every permission in the book. Again, that’s been burbling away for two years. Always on, starting on launch, and… what?.

Now, I’ll be fair here – it’s unlikely that a startup like Peel has a business plan that involves “gather a load of personal data and sell it”. But how could I know for sure? It’s hardly an unknown approach out there. And on reflection, maybe it’s not their business plan we need to worry about.

Let’s imagine a startup made something like ChatON. They get widespread ‘adoption’ (by paying for preinstalls), but ultimately it doesn’t take off. They fail – as ChatON did – but without the ability of a large corporation to write it off as a failure and file it away, the residue of the company and its assets are sold for some trivial sum to whoever turns up.

Their assets that include a hundred million always-on apps on phones worldwide, with security permissions to record everything and transmit, and preapproved automatic updates.

If you’re not grimacing at that, you haven’t thought about it enough.

This is one thing that Apple have got right – very little preinstalled that isn’t from the manufacturer directly. Maybe I could switch to an iPhone, or maybe it’s time to finally think about Cyanogen.

But that’d fix it for me. The underlying systemic risk is still there… and one day we’re all going to get burned. Preinstalled third party apps with broad permissions are a time-bomb and the phone manufactures should probably think hard about their (legal and reputational) liability.

Shifting of the megajournal market

Friday, February 5th, 2016

One of the most striking developments in the last ten years of scholarly publishing, outside of course open access, was the rise of the “megajournal” – an online-only journal with a very broad remit, no arbitrary size limits, and a low threshold for inclusion.

For many years, the megajournal was more or less synonymous with PLOS One, which peaked in 2013-14 with around 32,000 papers per year, an unprecedented number. The journal began to falter a little in early 2014, and showed a substantial decline in 2015, dropping to a mere (!) 26,000 papers.

One commentator highlighted a point I found very interesting: while PLOS One was shrinking, other megajournals were taking up the slack. The two highlighted here were Scientific Reports (Nature) and RSC Advances (Royal Society of Chemistry) – no others have grown to quite the same extent.

We’re now a month into 2016, and it looks like this trend has continued – and much more dramatically than I expected. Here’s the relative article numbers for the first five weeks of 2016, measured through three different sources – the journals own sites; Scopus; and Web of Science.


The journal sites are probably the most accurate measure for what’s been published as of today, and unsurprisingly has the largest number of papers (5965 total). Here we see three similar groups – PLOS One 38%, Scientific Reports 31%, and RSC Advances 31%. (The RSC Advances figure has been adjusted to remove about 450 “accepted manuscripts” nominally dated 2016 – while publicly available, these are simply posted earlier in the process than the other journals would do, and so including them would give an inflated estimate of the numbers actually being published)

Scopus and Web of Science return smaller numbers (2766 and 3499 papers respectively) and show quite divergent patterns – PLOS One is on 36% in Scopus and 52% in Web of Science, with Scientific Reports on 42% and 37%, and RSC Advances on 22% and 11%. It’s not much of a surprise that the major databases are relatively slow to update, though it’s interesting to see that they update different journals at different rates. Scopus is the only one of the three sources to suggest that PLOS One is no longer the largest journal – but for how long?

Whichever source we use, it seems clear that PLOS One is now no longer massively dominant. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – in many ways, having two or three competing but comparable large megajournals will be a much better situation than simply having one. And I won’t try and speculate on the reasons (changing impact factor? APC cost? Turnaround time? Shifting fashions?)

It will be very interesting to look at these numbers again in two or three months…