Friday, December 31, 2010

Totally Awesome!

This week I got my first Android device, and it is truly awesome! With an absolute minimum of fuss, I downloaded and installed OverDrive Media Console, an MP3 audiobook, and an epub book. Adobe Digital Editions is not necessary, just an Adobe ID, which I already had, but which might be a small stumbling block for a few people. If OverDrive and Adobe could just connect those two data items (i.e. library card number and Adobe ID), that would eliminate most of the pain for new users, and borrowing ebooks would be just as slick as buying ebooks on a Kindle.

The device I bought is a 7" tablet from eLocity, a company that I had never heard of until last week. If this is typical of Android devices, and I don't know why it wouldn't be, it seems to me that this is the best of all possible worlds. With the Kindle app, I can buy from Amazon, and with the ODMC I can borrow books and audio. The "native" ereader is Aldiko, and it (or eLocity, I can't tell which) offers tons of free books. As far as I'm concerned, it's already paid for itself.

The next time anyone asks me which ereader to buy--if it's not already too late--I already had two calls from patrons who got Kindles for Christmas--I'm going to tell them to forget the readers and buy an Android tablet.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

NORAD tracks Santa

Today's word: firewall

Seems so obvious in hindsight. If two machines (in this case the PAC server and the data server) were talking to each other, and you install a new program (in this case Symantec antivirus) on one of them, and now the PAC server can't talk to the data server, and the Circ app can't talk to the data server, then maybe the problem has something to do with the program you just installed, right?

I made two mistakes--well, three.

(1) I decided to update our two servers the night before our last open day before the holiday weekend. Unbeknownst to me, our vendor was closing up shop at 5 pm (MST) instead of their usual 9 pm. They still have emergency coverage of course, but I'd hate to have to drag someone away from his or her family on a holiday weekend. Next time, I'm waiting until *after* the holiday, whatever holiday it may be.

(2) I changed more than one thing at a time. On the PAC server, there were updates for Windows 2003 server and for Symantec, which has been running fine for months. In another place and time, I would have updated one at a time, rebooted, and made sure that everything was still okay before moving on to the next thing. But I was in a hurry and I had a pretty high level of confidence in both apps. So I took care of that machine and moved on to the data server, which was also ready for a Windows update.

(3) I installed a new application without confirming that everything was still working okay. Like I said, I had a pretty high level of confidence in both programs, and Symantec isn't exactly new, except to this particular machine.

Long story short, Symantec has a lot of settings. And when you install it, you get whatever the default settings are, until you go to each one and set it or leave it alone. I assumed the default settings would work just fine on my machine. (Okay, four mistakes.) The default settings caused the communication between the PAC and the data server, and between the Circ app and the data server, to slow down dramatically. After over half an hour of deliberation with the vendor, I decided to uninstall Symantec and call it a night. Except that caused the communications to cease entirely. After following a few dead ends, the vendor asked me, "what about your firewall?"

What about it? It turns out that when Symantec is uninstalled, it turns your Windows firewall on. I guess that's sort of like locking all the doors and windows before leaving on a long trip. Once the Windows firewall on the data server was disabled, everything went back to normal.

Firewall. I won't forget that word any time soon. From now on, that will be the first thing I check.

Update: Everything seemed normal when I left, but now from home, the PAC is agonizingly slow again. Working, but slow. I have no way of knowing from here whether the Circ application is still working, but I'm sure I'll find out soon.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Speed up Firefox

Here are three tips for improving Firefox's performance: clear the downloads list, remove old Java Consoles, and switch to newly opened tabs immediately. Note that if your Windows account already has administrative privileges, you don't have to close and reopen Firefox as described in the tip on removing old versions of Java Console.

Friday, December 10, 2010

About data CDs and DVDs

It's the Christmas shopping/baking/traveling season. This week only one person showed up for the Thursday night tech talk, so it turned into a highly personalized one-on-one session. The patron had an interesting question, one I've only heard one other time. He wanted to learn how to write files to a CD, and he wanted the files to be written in a predetermined order. In particular, he talked about the requirement for chapters in a book in progress to be written to the CD such that, when it was opened, the recipient would see the files in the proper order, one chapter per file.

I had this question several months ago, in the context of files being prepared to send to an attorney, and the files had to be "written in order."

I didn't spend a lot of time questioning the patrons to find out how they arrived at this requirement. It may be that the attorney who was to receive the CD had communicated the requirement. It may have been the budding author who wanted to ensure that his first chapters were read in the right order. Most people have had quite a lot of experience with audio CDs, but may have little or none with data CDs, so it's understandable that they might think that the order of files on a data CD matters. But in fact, the contents of a data CD are going to be viewed by the recipient using Windows Explorer, and that's going to determine the recipient's view of the CD. The directory of the CD can be viewed in alphabetical order by the name of the file, in order of the size of the file, in order of the type of file, and in order of date last saved. Each of these can sorted in ascending or descending order. The view can be customized somewhat, in that columns can be added or subtracted, but there is no view that would allow the average Windows user to see the files in the order that they were written to the CD. (Open "My Documents" and select "View" > "Choose details..." from the menu bar to see all the fields that can be added.)

There are many formats of CDs and DVDs, and depending on how you are going to use the resulting disc, you may choose a different type of media. This table spells out the differences between various kinds of CDs and DVDs and how to use them when writing data files.

The patron who was preparing documents to send to an attorney was satisfied with my explanation that Windows Explorer controls the view of the directory of the CD's contents. I didn't get any feedback, so I assume the attorney was satisfied, too. The author was happy when I showed him how he could create folders on the CD, with names like "Chapter 1," "Chapter 2," and "Chapter 3." He was not as happy about my first suggestion, which was to prefix each file name with a chapter number. In Word, a new section can be defined for each chapter, so it's not really necessary to split up a book into separate files, unless it's more comfortable for the writer to work that way. But section headings, page numbering, tables of contents, and indexes are pretty advanced topics for someone who is just getting started with files and folders, so I didn't even mention them.

(flickr image by sun dazed)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Old habits die hard

Even after five years of working in libraries, three and a half of them with benefits, there are some things I still haven't gotten used to. This was the actual dialog I had recently with our assistant director:

AD: Oh my golly! You still have 3 personal days that you haven't used! You have to use them before the end of the year.

me: I thought personal days were for non-medical emergencies, like car problems, or taking the cat to the vet.

AD: They are, but we don't get paid enough anyway, so we have to use them up.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Is math necessary?

How much math do we really need to know, asked math professor G.V. Ramanathan last month in this Washington Post article.

This month, some engineers respond at EETimes.

As an undergraduate Applied Math major, and as someone who has a sister who occasionally tutors kids in math, I think we need to teach more, not less, math. The lottery, I like to say, is a tax on people who didn't take probability and statistics.

What do you think?

(Flickr photo)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Netflix introduces streaming-only option

This week Netflix raised the prices of its DVD options, but introduced a new, streaming-video-only option at $7.99. An earlier story this year revealed that Netflix will not be opening any more processing centers for DVDs.

DVDs account for a large part of our circulation, and a large portion of our visitors. How are we going to keep them coming in the doors four or five years from now when they can get movies at home any time they want?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It figures

I lived in Connecticut for over 30 years and was called for jury duty three times. Four times, actually, including one day of grand jury, but I think that was a day tacked onto the first stint of jury duty. The memory is a little fuzzy. Each time I had to report to Bridgeport, about an hour away.

The first time was in the late 70s, and under the old system, you reported for jury duty every morning, four days a week, for an entire month. If you were not called for voir dire, you spent the day reading, knitting, watching television, and talking with your fellow inmates citizens. I fell to talking with another woman, visibly pregnant, who was also from the Danbury area. She thought it would be a good idea if we car-pooled, and I agreed, so for the next four weeks I picked her up in the morning and dropped her off in the evening. At the end of the month she pocketed her mileage allowance. I know it's petty of me to remember that all these years later, but it made an impression on me. That and the grueling month of jury duty. I did get selected at least once that I recall, for a personal injury case resulting from a traffic accident, so it wasn't a total waste of time.

The second time I got called, the state had instituted a much more humane system, wherein you phoned in the night before, or early the morning of, to find out if you had to report. I did not have to report, and that was the end of it.

The third time, I did have to report. It was a gray December day, and the snow started coming down heavily just after we arrived at the courthouse. I was driving a Geo with front-wheel drive. It was usually pretty good in the snow, but this stuff was heavy and wet and slippery. I sat in the jury room watching it come down with dread.

Finally we were called into the jury room. In Connecticut State court, each potential juror is questioned individually, but in federal court they do it in gangs of about 20 at a time. Each of us was asked to stand and recite our answers to a set of written questions that we'd each been given. No problems until I got to the question of education. "B.S. in Applied Math from NYU, J.D. from the University of Connecticut..." "Your Honor!" calls out one of the attorneys. Both go up the judge's bench for a private conversation.

When they come back out, the judge asks me, "Have you ever practiced law?"

"No, Your Honor."

"If chosen for this jury, will you follow my instructions as to the law to be applied to this case?"

"Yes, Your Honor."

Voir dire ends, the attorneys confer, and I am excused. Big surprise. There's nothing wrong with being an attorney. There were at least two practicing attorneys in the group who were selected. The difference is that they all know each other but they don't know me, since I've never practiced law. I'm a loose cannon, and they don't know what I'll do when confronted with a real case.

And that was that. I was done with that round of jury duty. Somehow I thought that maybe I wouldn't even get called again, that I'd be on someone's do-not-call list somewhere. And if I did get called, I'd never be asked to serve on a jury, so it would all be over in one day at most.

I opened my mail tonight and guess what? I've been summoned for jury duty. In Connecticut. In Danbury. Just a little less than 2 miles from where I used to live. I could have easily walked there. So I have to send the form back and tell them that I can't report because I've moved out of state.

It figures.

*The first image is of the old court house at 71 Main Street. Beautiful, isn't it? I'm so glad they haven't torn it down yet. The second image is the new court house at 146 White Street, the one I would be reporting to if I still lived in Danbury. It's not bad, but it just doesn't have the character of the old court house. At least it still has a law library. Connecticut closed two of its other law libraries this year.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I Heart Dell

I just replaced the optical drive in the director's computer. The computer is brand new, just purchased late last year but, inexplicably, it was ordered with a DVD-ROM drive. (Yes, they still make those.) The old drive slid out, the replacement drive slid in, and I didn't even need a screwdriver; the new drive came with its own mounting/sliding hardware. It's a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pale Blue Dot

Today would have been astronomer Carl Sagan's 76th birthday. Here is my favorite Sagan quote from Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future In Space.

Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe:, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

At the Rally to Restore Sanity

I wasn't there, but someone from Woot! was, and captured an image of this sign. It's good to know that librarians were represented.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Unanswerable questions of the week

(1) Which e-reader should I buy? I'm going to Florida for the winter. [I launch into an explanation of the small Kindle, which is the only e-reader we have in-house today. Patron: Do I have to go to the Amazon store to buy books for the Kindle? Me: No, it's done wirelessly. You can do it here at the library, at Starbucks, at MacDonalds, ... Patron: So I have to go to MacDonalds to buy books for the Kindle? Me: No, you can do it anywhere you have a signal. Patron: I need something simpler. Me (silently): {Okay, you don't need an e-reader. You need to stick with the 500+ year old technology of the codex.}]

(2) How do I get my new wireless printer to work with my computer? [Me: Did it come with some instructions? Patron: I don't want to read the instructions.]

(3) I just bought a new computer. What do I have to do to get the upgrade? [Me: What are we talking about upgrading? Patron: I don't know. It just said "free upgrade."]

(4) Why isn't my computer receiving emails from the country club anymore? [Me: Are they in the junk mail folder? Patron: No, I looked there. Me: Did you accidentally put the sender's address on a "blacklist"? Patron: I don't know. Me: Are you getting email from other people? Patron: Yes. Me: I'm all out of ideas.]

There were more, from the two patrons who were using a flash drive for the first time (yay, I weaned two more people away from floppy disks!), from the woman who wanted some one-on-one time because her husband would not show her how to use his computer, from the patron who came for a Files & Folders class that turned into a Managing Your Digital Photos class, but I'm too tired to think about them right now.

On the plus side, our ILS is sending out courtesy notices again, and it's only been a month since we switched mail service providers. I don't know why this is always so difficult but, based on a sample of two, it is. And it's not something we're allowed to change ourselves--the vendor has to do it. The state library is starting up a project to develop an open source ILS that other libraries around the state can buy into. Maybe I'll be around to see that come to fruition, and then we can say goodbye to the hefty annual support bills. And maybe that'll save enough money to prevent salary cutbacks. Or maybe not.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Michael Faraday!

Today is the birthday of physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, born in Newington Butts, England in 1791. The Writer's Almanac says of him:

"He had almost no formal schooling, but he taught himself by reading books about chemistry and physics while he worked as a bookbinder's errand boy. Young Faraday got the chance to go and hear four lectures by the famous physicist Humphry Davy. Later, Davy hired him as his assistant.

"Eventually, he became one of the greatest scientists of his era, even though he never learned the complex mathematics that many people considered a necessary context for science. He made huge breakthroughs in the field of electromagnetism — he discovered magneto-electric induction, the law of electro-chemical decomposition, the magnetization of light, and diamagnetism; and he discovered benzene."

This seems like an appropriate day to repeat one of my favorite stories from Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor, in which Michael Faraday plays an important role.

Jones had died and gone to heaven and, as a reward for a most exemplary life, was given the grand tour. To his amazement he found that heaven was made up of many sectors, each utterly different.

He passed though the Jewish heaven where millions of people in prayer shawls sang exultantly before the Ark of the Covenant. Then there was the Catholic heaven filled with organ music and incense, where an eternal mass was celebrated in a star-high, skywide cathedral.

"Oh," said the archangelic guide, "we're ecumenical here; we have something for every taste. After all, a good man is a good man and deserves his reward whatever little difference in ritual may exist. Over there is the Moslem heaven with its houris; yonder the Buddhist heaven of contemplation and nirvana. And here -- here is rather a little curiosity."

They crossed a bridge of the firmament and entered into a scene of whitewashed simplicity in which a relatively small number of men and women were singing hymns.

The guide tiptoed past and whispered, "This is a small sect of Christians called Sandemanians. There were only a few thousand altogether. The great scientist Michael Faraday was one. You can see him there."

"Fascinating," whispered Jones. "But tell me, why are we whispering?"

"Because they mustn't hear us. They think they're the only ones here."

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Internet Safety

Here is most of the source material for two of the Internet Safety talks that I've given on Thursday nights. I love Leo Notenboom's articles and don't mind admitting that I shamelessly stole from him.

The first part is on keeping your computer safe on the Internet. You Mac users don't have to worry about malware as much as we PC users, but viruses can still find their way to a Mac via a Word document or Excel spreadsheet with embedded macros (small chunks of code).

The second part is on how to read a URL and figure out where it's really taking you.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Water under the bridge, and toolkits

I don't have my own toolkit at work. If I need a screwdriver, I borrow a big one from the custodian's toolkit. All the computers are either so old that they have honking big thumbscrews holding them together, or so new that they just pop and slide apart without any tools. So Tuesday when one of our "live-in" patrons, bless his heart, spilled his water bottle on a laptop, I didn't even have a single baby Phillips head to open it up with.

As soon as I got to the scene of the accident, I unplugged the power cord and the mouse, turned it over, and started shaking out as much water as I could. (Meanwhile the patron decamped and was not seen again that day, nor all of Wednesday.) Still keeping it upside-down, I used paper towels to try to wick out as much water as I could. Then I used a can of air to try to blow out more water. Finally I slid out the battery, which is removable without tools, and saw that it was dry, so I had reason to think that the disk drive, CD-ROM, and memory module were probably dry, too. If I'd had a hairdryer, this would have been the point at which I would have used it to try to dry up the last of the water. I left the laptop lying face down overnight.

Wednesday morning I came in with my own computer toolkit and removed the hard drive and CD-ROM. The hard drive felt vaguely damp, but not really wet. I replaced everything, turned it over, turned it on, and everything seemed normal. And if it hadn't been? Well, it's old as laptops go. Replacements are dirt cheap on eBay. Still, you don't like to lose a useful, working machine for something so preventable. Oh, well. It could have been worse. It could have been coffee or cola.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A year from now I won't remember what I did yesterday

At most every interview I've gone to in the last five years, I've been asked the same question: tell us an example of a problem you had to solve, and how you solved it. I'm always hard-pressed to answer this question, not because of a dearth of examples, but because of an overabundance. Solving problems is what I do on a daily basis, when I'm not actually trying to get ahead of the curve and forestall problems before they happen. Someone comes to me with what they think is a technical problem, I analyze it, I make a test plan for narrowing down the possible causes, I identify the cause and formulate a solution, I implement the solution, and I move on to the next problem. There's not always time allocated to documenting the problem and the solution, but I will frequently outline them on the staff wiki, so that someday when I'm not in the office, someone else can find my note and reproduce the solution for another patron. A good day is when all the problems get solved. A really good day is when everything goes smoothly because of something I did three months ago to prevent problems.

Yesterday was the first type of day. Before noon, I had:

  • Helped a patron print out a form he needed to apply for a job with the USPS.

The form is delivered to the applicant as an ASPX file, and the Windows XP laptop he was using did not have an application to open it. I only know about aspx as "active server page," a type of Web page, and I was surprised to find that Internet Explorer couldn't open it. Neither could Firefox. A quick Web search turned up the fact that a PDF reader will open it. Again, I was puzzled as to why the laptop wouldn't open it, but I directed the patron to email the form to a library account, opened it on my computer, printed it out, and gave it to him. Short-term problem solved. Long-term, I made sure the laptop had the latest version of Adobe Reader. I've been using Foxit Reader myself, but just in case there are any incompatibilities, I offer Adobe Reader on the public PCs.

  • Charged a co-worker's MP3 player.

Last year I gave each of my co-workers an MP3 player from the stash I had accumulated by becoming a devoted follower of One of my co-workers called to say that her Sansa Fuze wasn't charging anymore. A quick search of the Web told me that the problem could be the battery--bad, since it's not replaceable. I have had a couple of dozen of this brand of player pass through my hands, all refurbished units, and I've only had to return one of them. The problem could also be the USB mode. I could see how that would inhibit the transferring of files, but didn't see what it could have to do with charging.

I took it to my desk to observe its behavior. The charging icon acted like it was charging for about a minute, then went quiet. When it was unplugged from the USB cord, the player showed the "low battery" message and shut down. I have the same player, so I tried my known-good cord to see if that was the problem. No difference. A closer look at the player revealed that one bottom corner of the case, the end where the USB cord/charger cable plugs in, was loose. I snapped it shut and tried again, but no change.

Finally I decided to try changing the USB mode. There are three choices: MSC (Mass Storage Class), MTP (Media Transfer Protocol), and Auto Detect. The player is set to Auto Detect by default. I changed it to MSC and plugged it back in to my computer. This time the "what do you want to do with this device that I've detected?" Windows dialog box popped up, and I realized that I had overlooked the fact that it hadn't popped up the other times. So something is different with the way the computer now views the player. Sure enough, it started charging normally and didn't stop until it was finished.

Nothing about the player had changed. My co-worker has been using it for months now. But last week I replaced the computer at the public desk where she usually works. The new computer runs Windows XP, as did the old computer, but it's all new hardware; the old computer was at least 4 years old, possibly more. I still don't understand the details of USB 2.0, and I couldn't explain the difference between MSC and MTP in technical terms. I may dig into it again in more detail at a later date. But right now I know enough to get the job done. That's the idea I was trying to get across to my computer-illiterate patron late yesterday afternoon--learn what you need to know to do what you need to get done, and leave the gory details for later.

  • There was a third thing, and I've already forgotten what it was.

See what I mean?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How does a cellphone work?

I wish I'd had a voice recorder going on the last patron of the day: "What's an application?" "Why do they always explain complicated computer terms with more computer terms?" "What does 'Reload current page' mean?" "How do I get back to Google?" "What's 'word processing'?" "How can I get rid of the ads on a webpage?" (She found a dating service ad to be offensive.) She says she needs to learn enough to be employable, but she keeps getting bogged down in minutiae. I wonder if she can use a telephone or drive a car without being paralyzed by the realization that she can't explain how they work?

Then to find out, after 45 minutes of this, that she's not even a patron and can't check out the "Teach Yourself Visually" book I gave her. I showed her how she can type her question in the Google search box--exactly as she would ask it to me--and get some useful results. Yes, the results use words that are also not self-evident. What to do? Go back to the Google search box. Keep doing this until some of it starts to sink in. Just as in mathematics there are axioms that we don't have to prove, we each need to reach a point in the "how?" questions that we don't really need to answer right away in order to achieve useful results.

She threatened promised to come back Monday for Computer Tutor Drop-In time with some specific questions. We'll see.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Two more laptops rescued

Two more old laptops (IBM ThinkPad R40, Windows XP, 640MB RAM) were rescued today, thanks to Ubuntu 9.04. Instead of being discarded, they will serve us for at least another year or two as OPACs, express (15-minute) Internet computers to let the summer people check their email and then get back to the beach, or just general purpose public computers.

Why not Ubuntu 10.04, you may ask. These old machines can read CDs, but not DVDs, and Ubuntu Desktop 10.04 image appears to be too large to fit onto a CD, although the install instructions have not yet been updated to reflect that. Or maybe I just got a bad download. I'll try again next week.

Why not Ubuntu 9.10? The installation went all right, but the machine wouldn't reboot. It showed a GRUB Error and, while there were several solutions suggested on the Ubuntu forums, I don't yet know enough about the innards of Ubuntu to attempt them. So I punted to 9.04, which also displayed a GRUB error, but one that I could deal with. The simplest solution suggested on the forums was to make sure that the GRUB loader installs in the MBR (Master Boot Record). I didn't remember that being an option in the list of installation questions, but I started the install again and this time chose the advanced options when the question about disk partitioning came around. Sure enough, there were three options for where to put GRUB: hd0, sda, and sda1. A forum post told me that sda is equivalent to MBR, so that's what I selected, and this time the new installation rebooted just fine. All that was left to do was to get the Adobe Flash player, and I was in business. Rinse and repeat with the other laptop.

I would have liked to have installed Google Chrome for Linux, because it comes all packaged with a Flash player, but it doesn't seem to be compatible with 9.04 Desktop. Maybe Ubuntu 10.10 will install cleanly on these old machines, and be compatible with Chrome; we'll see.

Here's the clip I used to test whether Flash was correctly installed. This week I read that Louisiana passed a law that allows people to carry concealed handguns in places of worship, and this was the first thing I thought of.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Results of the Solo Car Commuter Satisfaction Survey

The last response to the survey was timestamped 6/23, so I decided it was time to look at the results.

There were 177 responses. While I did post this survey elsewhere, I believe that most of the responses probably came from Publibbers.

The averages were as follows:

one-way distance to commute: 11 to 15 miles
number of stop signs: 1 to 5
number of traffic lights: 6 to 10
average speed limit off the highway: 25 to 30
minutes willing to walk to public transportation: no more than 10
minutes willing to wait for a bus or train: 15 to 30

Satisfaction with commute: on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the
best and 10 the worst, the average is about a 4.

Correlations (-1.0 to +1.0) were as follows:

Our unhappiness with our commute correlates with the distance traveled by a factor of 0.6

The correlation with the number of stop signs was insignificant: 0.08

The number of traffic lights matters a little more, at 0.22

The higher the speed limit on the non-highway roads, the happier we are, with a correlation of -0.3, but there were many "does not apply" responses from the folks who spend more than half of their commute on the highway.

We're willing to wait for the next bus or train about 15 to 30 minutes on average, but that appears to be independent of how happy or unhappy we are with our present commute. Correlation: -0.09

The more unhappy we are with our current commute, the longer we'd be willing to walk to catch a bus or train. Correlation: 0.28

I had expected that the number of stop signs and traffic lights would matter more than they do, but I'm not surprised that the most significant factor is the distance. City planners are going to have to increase the frequency of those trains and buses if they want to get more people out of their cars, and this is something that I used to harp on in my previous hometown, where the buses run every hour, so I'm gratified to see those numbers.

The raw data can be seen here (and downloaded, too, I think).

Thank you to everyone who responded, and to everyone who caught the flaws, and to everyone who had suggestions for improving the questions--some I fixed, and some I'm saving for another time.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Windows XP Tuneup Guide

Many of us have older (3 or more years old) Windows XP computers that we're not ready to replace yet, for whatever reason. Here are some steps you can take to keep that machine running a little longer while you decide which new 17", Intel i7 core, 4GB laptop you're going to replace it with.

0. Make a copy of your My Documents folder and put it in a safe place. The copy can be to a flash drive, an external hard drive, CD-ROM, data DVD, or a networked drive.

1. Update your anti-virus software and do a complete scan of the C: drive. There are several good anti-virus programs that you can pay for--Symantec, McAfee, Kaspersky, etc.--and also a few good ones that are free. You only need one; if more than one anti-virus program is running at the same time, they are likely to fight each other. Choose one and keep it up-to-date. Schedule an update every week--every day if it's your only computer and it's mission-critical--and a full scan once a week or once a month. AVG is a free anti-virus program that can be obtained at

2. Do a Disk Cleanup and Disk Defrag. These two programs are at Start > Accessories > System Tools.

3. Download, install, and run CCleaner. This free program finds and cleans up problems in the Registry and deletes unneeded temp files.

4. Download, install, and run MalwareBytes. Keep it up-to-date and run a scan about once a month.

5. Download, install, and run SpyBot Search & Destroy. Keep it up-to-date.

6. Download, install, and run Spyware Blaster, and keep it up-to-date.

7. If you're using Internet Explorer, make sure it's up-to-date. In IE, go to Tools > Windows Update

8. Make sure Adobe Flash is up-to-date:

9. Make sure Adobe Reader is up-to-date.

10. If you're using Firefox (I highly recommend it over IE), make sure you have the latest version. In Firefox, select Help > Check For Updates.

11. If your computer is a laptop that you use on public networks--libraries, McDonalds, Borders, Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, airports, etc.--make sure the Windows Firewall is turned on. (At home, your router probably has a hardware firewall, but it doesn't hurt to have the Windows Firewall on all the time.) For extra security, download and install Zone Alarm. Be aware that if you use Zone Alarm on a home network with more than one computer, you may need to tweak some of the settings, especially if you have computers that are running different operating systems.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Science is once again vindicated!

It took almost two whole working days, but the most troublesome of the public desktop computers is whole, minus a functioning DVD drive. But that can wait; very few patrons use it, and I have an external USB drive on order in case someone does need it.

The computer is an IBM Lenovo, and it comes with an impressive suite of tools for diagnosing and recovering from problems, including a refresh function that clears the hard drive and reinstalls the operating system as it was when you first took the machine out of the box. It also comes with several levels of security and passwords, far more appropriate for a 100-computer enterprise installation than for a small public library. One of the passwords had been set, and I couldn't get past it to get to the refresh function. Over the years that the machine has been in service, it had acquired a lot of ...shall we say... quirks, and it had finally reached the point of being essentially unusable.

It took me all of Tuesday to figure out how to bypass or disable the password protection that was preventing me from initiating the refresh function, and it turned out to be relatively simple and obvious: uninstall and reinstall the program that uses the password. But first I made a set of six recovery CDs from another, identical machine, thinking that I would take them to the sick machine, boot off of them, and refresh Windows XP from the CDs, only to find out that the DVD/CD drive on the sick machine was no longer responsive. I know it used to work, because several months ago I had booted the same machine from a LiveCD for Ubuntu 9.04, and it ran like that for several days before one patron absolutely had to use MS Word.

In retrospect, even if the DVD drive were working, I probably would have found that the recovery CDs only worked in the machine that they were made on. So in the end, I reinstalled the password-protected program from a flash drive, and finally brought the machine back to its pristine "out of the box" condition. After many updates and reboots, it was back to XP Service Pack 3. And that was the end of Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning the machine was ready to be set up with our standard configuration of applications, printer drivers, and anti-virus programs, all of which are delivered on CD. And the optical drive wasn't working. I have a 4GB flash drive, so I copied the contents of each of the install CDs to separate folders on my flash drive and found, much to my surprise, the applications installed from the flash drive just as easily as they would have off the CDs, and probably much faster, even the installs that required a key. So my next question is, why don't vendors offer to deliver applications on flash drives? No CD or DVD to scratch, or break, or get dirty. It seems like the perfect delivery medium. Better still, let me download it from your website in a format that can go onto a flash drive, instead of making me burn a CD.

Many thanks to,, and The Lenovo and IBM websites tend to be a little dense, with long convoluted troubleshooting paths and nested dependencies, but no more so than Microsoft's online help. Bleeping Computer is an invaluable free resource, and many thanks to Bob, who told me about it when I first got into the computer technician game.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Solo Car Commuter Satisfaction

This is a little survey of no academic value whatsoever, but designed only to satisfy a long-standing curiosity on a subject that has been near and dear to my heart for many years. It may have just a tiny bit of social value. I would like to know how much various factors contribute to your satisfaction, or lack thereof, with your daily commute to work by car. If you already walk, ride a bike, car pool, or take public transportation, good on you! Right now I'm only interested in people who drive to and from work alone.

This survey is entirely anonymous. I will not ask for your name, your title, your place of work, or your IP address. A summary of the results and my random conclusions will be posted on my blog,, whenever I finally get around to it.

Thank you for you assistance!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Friday Music Video selection

Wireless networks not detected

Laptop23 was the last of the three laptops that the gaming teens screwed up. It would not connect to the wireless network, even though the bubble popped out of the system tray that says "one or more wireless networks are in range." When I clicked on the bubble, XP said no wireless networks were detected. The hardware was okay, because when I rebooted it with an Ubuntu LiveCD, it worked fine. After several dead ends, the search term "wireless networks not detected windows xp" turned up the following suggestion:

TCP/IP stack repair options for use with Windows XP with SP2.

Start, Run, CMD to open a command prompt.

Reset WINSOCK entries to installation defaults: netsh winsock reset catalog

Reset TCP/IP stack to installation defaults. netsh int ip reset reset.log

Reboot the machine.

And it worked!

Hooray for Teh Interwebs! Hooray for

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Last veteran of The Great Escape

Jack Harrison, thought to be the last survivor of Stalag Luft III, the home of one of the most audacious, ambitious P.O.W. escapes of World War II, has died at the age of 97. The Great Escape was immortalized in the book by Paul Brickhill and the movie starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, John Leyton, David McCallum, Richard Attenborough, Gordon Jackson, Donald Pleasance--and those are just the names I remember off the top of my head. Both the book and the movie made a huge impression on my young self. Although the accounts of forging papers and turning uniforms into civilian clothing were of great interest, I was most impressed with the manufacture of the tunnels and their infrastructure--the shoring up, the surveying, the trolley system, and the air circulating system. In hindsight I wonder if that's why I went to engineering school.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell (was: It's not my fault!)

I just had to explain to a patron why I couldn't give her detailed instructions on how to copy the music CD that she borrowed from us onto her iPod.

"But I read about the downloadable audiobooks. Isn't that the same thing?"

"No. There are a limited number of copies of each downloadable audiobook that the state library licenses from the publishers. It's just like checking out an audiobook on CD. If everyone made 1,000 copies of "The Help"--and there's no technical impediment to doing that--then the author and the publisher have lost 1,000 sales."

"Well, all I want to do is listen to it while I'm walking on the beach."

{Hmm. Well, get a Sony Walkman--I think they still sell those--or buy the album from iTunes. I didn't say that out loud, of course.}

I did give her broad general instructions--basically rip the CD, plug in the iPod, follow the prompts on the screen--but she still wanted to bring in her iPod so I could show her.


p.s. A different patron just came in and checked out a stack of 16 music CDs. I handed him the receipt and said, "Those are all due back on June 26."

"Oh," he says, "if all goes well I'll have them back tomorrow."

Monday, May 24, 2010

Meet Donna Freedman

She writes columns on living on a shoestring for for MSN Money, and she started her own blog last month. I'd like to have this particular article tattooed to my forehead, but I'll probably settle for printing it out and taping it to the bathroom mirror.

Turning invisibility into stealth

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

DVD troubleshooting

A few months ago we got a new DVD player for the library, courtesy of the Friends. New, not refurbished. Good brand. Blu-ray, although we don't carry any Blu-ray DVDs at present, as far as I know. I was at my desk, working on tomorrow's class on Windows Files & Folders, when a little after 1 PM one of my co-workers came in, obviously frantic. She had been trying to get the Wednesday afternoon movie started, and it refused to play. It played all the previews and other preliminary material, but when it got to the Play, Scene Select, etc., menu, it simply would not continue. The remote wasn't working, and apparently the controls on the player didn't work, either.

First I satisfied myself that all the connectors were still connecting, and the DVD was seated properly and not jammed, and didn't have any scratches. It's a brand new DVD, hardly been out yet except to staff, and we hold back any movies that are going to be shown at the Wednesday matinee for about 2 weeks beforehand, just to make sure we have it when the time comes. Everything looked okay. Why can't we get beyond the menu screen?

Next I tried playing it from our staff laptop. That should work, right? But it didn't. Windows Media Player complained about not having the rights to play it (? didn't write the error message down--no time--do it later) and threw the ball over to another DVD player application. That program complained, too, and exited. So I tried WMP again, which played after I acknowledged about half a dozen error messages as before.

Except there was no audio output. I think that something about the DVD was signaling Windows that maybe perhaps possibly the user was trying to copy this DVD, and a copy with a picture but no audio is pretty useless, so that's the defense against copying. Or maybe it was because I was using both the VGA output and the audio output on the computer? But I wasn't trying to copy it--I was just trying to play it. And there are a lot of people out there who are watching DVDs on their computers--either feeding the a/v out to a flat panel television, or just watching from the screen on the computer, with a couple of external speakers for better audio. I'm not quite there yet, but I moved in January and still haven't set up my little bookshelf stereo. I listen to radio via streaming audio--and am able to listen to stations that would be impossible to hear otherwise. And I listen to music CDs or download music from Amazon in the form of MP3 files. It's all converging, which is a story for another time.

By this time my co-worker who runs the Wednesday matinee had apologized, turned up the lights, and put the chairs back where they were. Most of the patrons had left. I took another look at the DVD--a closer look this time--and clearly saw a fingerprint on the outer edge. I took it over to the sink, moistened a paper towel, put a drop of dishwashing liquid on the towel, and carefully wiped the DVD from the center to the edge, all around, twice. Then I rinsed it off and blotted it dry with another paper towel, popped it into the DVD player, used the Play button on the player to advance it, and it went right into play mode. I ran upstairs and caught three of the matinee people who were still hanging around, and they were able to come back and enjoy the movie after all.

The remote control undoubtedly needs fresh batteries--I think it was sill running on the original batteries from when we got it, and it's been noticeably losing range the last few weeks. Unfortunately we didn't have any fresh AAAs handy--we will from now on. But I'm pretty sure that wasn't the only problem, because two other people before me had tried to operate the DVD player from the on-board controls. With two points of failure--the dying batteries and the dirty DVD--it took longer to isolate the real problem because there were more factors that had to be methodically eliminated. But, as Bill Landesberg, my boss at T-bar, used to say, "Science is once again vindicated!"

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Google celebrates 20th anniversary of Hubble

Google celebrates the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope this week.

I didn't work on the Hubble, but I did work on the mirrors for the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, made at the same company under a different name. Hughes-Danbury Optical Systems, and other NASA contractors, surely learned a lot of lessons after the error in the Hubble mirror was discovered. In true engineering fashion, they tracked down the root causes of the error and put into place procedures that would eliminate such errors in future products. Chandra, known during development as AXAF, was the best, most rational engineering project I ever worked on, before or since. No dramas, no crises, no heroics, just calm, methodical engineering design, development, and testing. Lots of testing. And lots of documentation. And it paid off.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Health Insurance Reform Quiz

Here's a feature of the New York Times that I never knew about until today. I'm not sure what grade level it's aimed at, but I guess junior high or high school. Here's a 10-question true/false quiz to test yourself on how well you know some of the key points in the bill that was signed on Tuesday.

Here's a lesson plan on ‘The Reality of Reform’: Understanding the Health Care Law:

Try the quiz first. When you're done, go back to the lesson plan, compare your answers with theirs, and look up the explanations.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

First class in downloadable audiobooks

Well, there's nothing like trying to teach a subject to learn more about it yourself. Monday I had my first class in downloadable audiobooks, trying to squeeze a 4-hour class into an hour and a half. (Actually it ran over another half an hour.) One of the attendees brought an iPod, which she has had for a year, and on which she already had many hours of music that she doesn't want to lose. She has a Windows PC at home. Is it safe to assume that the iPod is formatted for Windows, since she has been syncing it with a Windows PC? How would I/she find out for sure?

I'm thinking that going forward, I will alert iPod users when they sign up for the class, that if their iPod isn't already Windows-formatted, and if they don't want to have to reload all their music, they would be better off buying a cheap MP3 player for their audiobooks. Inconvenient, I know, but not as inconvenient as having to reload all their music.

The other thing I learned is that it's essential to have the latest version of Windows Media Player installed. I used to know this, but forgot it when I was planning the class. None of the laptops I used for the attendees was up to date, and didn't recognize the players when they were plugged in. Lucky for me, the other two attendees were both staff members, and thus more forgiving than a member of the public might have been.

Here's yet another thing I used to sort of know and already forgot. My Sansa Fuze was not being recognized by my computer here at the library. Well, it was, sort of, but then I'd get an error message that it might not be usable. Didn't have any trouble with any of the Sansa Clips I've used here. I've been playing with a USB camera, but I don't know if that's related, or just a coincidence.

The Fuze has three USB modes: MTP (Media Transfer protocol), MSC (Mass Storage Class), and Auto (try MTP and fall back to MSC if it doesn't work). Here's the best description of the problem and the solution that I found, and it did work. Except that I've left the Fuze in MTP mode.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

We're trying to help. Honest!

But sometimes it seems we're just making things more complicated for them. I had a visitor from out of town come in today to try to pay her bill (due in 2 days). She'd been in town much longer than she anticipated (maybe because of last week's storm?) and she needed to go in person to a branch of HSBC Bank. She usually pays by phone (or online, it wasn't clear). Except that she left her PIN at home. In Buffalo. And there are no branches of HSBC in NH. Or MA. But their website doesn't tell you that--half an hour wasted trying to find one that way. There is a physical branch in Buffalo--three, in fact--so I gave her the phone numbers of all 3 and suggested that she try to get a real person and [re]establish banking by phone with them. It was like the dreaded "what's my email password?" question, but worse.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fake AP Stylebook

Can you view that even if you're not logged in to Twitter? I hope so.

Amazing Libraries

Two sets of photos of Amazing, Beautiful Libraries from Huffington Post:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Thomas Friedman writes about "situational values" versus "sustainable values" in today's column, and summarizes them as follows. Someone who is acting on situational values thinks, "I'll be gone when the bill comes due." Someone acting on sustainable values thinks, "I will never be gone. I will always be here." He then goes on to point out the many ways our leaders, corporations, banks, and individuals have been acting as if they'll be gone when the bill comes due.

I like this description. Back when I was developing software, I ran into the same two kinds of programmers. There were those who wrote code as if they would be gone tomorrow, and there were those who wrote code as if they were also going to be the ones who would have to maintain it. I tried to write code as if the person who would have to maintain it were a homicidal maniac who knew where I lived.

If we're only living for the moment, if we are not thinking about the consequences of our actions today on the next generation, and the one after that, and the one after that, then what does that make us?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Extreme pricing

I've been aware for a while now that Amazon has a real-time pricing algorithm going on in the background, but I don't think I've ever seen prices change by a single penny before.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Socialism, Communism, or Co-Op?

Public schools?
Toll-free roads, bridges, tunnels?
City water?
Public hospitals?
Employee-owned company?
Neighbors and friends buying food in bulk and splitting it up?
Public libraries?
Public safety (police, firefighters)?
Interstate highways?
Electric company?

Friday, January 8, 2010

The missing manual for iPhoto

Apple makes beautiful products, no doubt about it. But they still can't read the user's mind.

A patron is using iPhoto to make a slideshow, and we weren't able to find a view or a menu option that would let us change the order of the photos. A little research and I learned that we first have to make an "Album" and then a "Library," and then we can order the photos in the Library Or was it the other way 'round? Library then Album? I'm still not too clear on that.

Here's Apple's explanation:

The patron will be back in today. Maybe we can figure this out. But it's slow going when the patron is at the keyboard/touchpad.