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.