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?

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