Archive for the 'Technology and software' Category

Sometimes it’s the little things…

Posted in Technology and software on April 21st, 2011

I’m holding off on a downbeat post that I’ve been thinking about for a week or more, because, you know, I’m really an upbeat kind of guy, and…well, anyway. Instead, here are three reasons, all of them small in some ways, why I’m pretty happy with Windows7 and Office2010:

  1. I have Windows AutoUpdate on–I can’t imagine not having it on, frankly. In Vista and, I believe, XP, that meant that, once an update had hit my machine, any attempt to do a temporary partial shutdown (sleep or hibernate) would turn into a forced shutdown to allow the updates to be installed. You got the exclamation-point warning, but still… In Windows7, you still get the exclamation-point warning, but you can still go to Sleep or Hibernate without the update-and-shutdown taking precedence. There are times when I really want to leave some applications in “loaded” state while the machine’s on standby or powered down; this is a really nice, perhaps small, change.
  2. This becomes much more relevant if my proposed project on (mostly public) libraries as publishers/facilitators of low-cost, short-run publishing becomes a reality: Office2010 includes direct PDF support on Windows7 (that is, you don’t need to buy Acrobat or a competitor), but my sense was that it wouldn’t produce Lulu-compatible output because Arial wouldn’t get embedded (and some document templates will still have apparent Arial text even if there’s none that you can find–as a footnote separator, for example). BUT: I’ve just noticed that the PDF options include an ISO 9005-1-compliant option, that is, PDF/A (the standard, archival, PDF option. PDF/A embeds all typefaces in a document. It should be Lulu-compatible, albeit slightly larger. So, unless you need special capabilities (combining multiple PDFs, restricting accessibility, etc.), this should mean that Office2010 by itself is all you need.
  3. Windows7 made a generally-sensible change to the taskbar, combining multiple instances and windows of a given program into a single button that yields multiple views when you mouseover–good for many people in that it cleans up the taskbar. But for some people, including my wife (who, for certain projects, will have two or three Notepad windows and an IE window or two open) and, actually, me (frequently two Word windows), it’s a damn nuisance. And, as it turns out, an entirely optional one: Right-click on the taskbar, choose Properties, and on the Taskbar tab there’s “Toolbar buttons:” and a pull-down that defaults to the snazzy, clean & lean “Always combine, hide labels” option. Change that to “Never combine” and you’re back to multiple Word or Notepad or whatever elements that self-identify.

So there’s my upbeat Friday post.

LibreOffice Notes, 1

Posted in Technology and software on April 11th, 2011

For a project I hope to be taking on (for a real publisher, none of this “do all the work and see whether anybody wants it” stuff), I downloaded OpenOffice 3.3. Then, after being alerted to its existence and thinking about it, I got rid of that and downloaded LibreOffice 3.3 instead (version 3.3.2 at the moment)–all of the open source goodness, less of Larry Ellison (directly or indirectly), and presumably a more-or-less identical code base at the moment.

The idea was not to quit using Microsoft Office, especially since I’ve upgraded to Office2010 within the last three weeks. (Which, so far, I find a little cleaner than Office2007, and I was happy with that, so… A number of advantages, especially in the new “File” page, and so far only one minor annoyance.)

The idea was to offer an alternative, for book-level preparation, for those who couldn’t afford Word. I don’t think there’s much doubt that LibreOffice/OpenOffice is a reasonable alternative for most everyday Word uses and for most everyday Excel uses–but it doesn’t take all that much to move beyond “everyday.”

Heck, I even read a book on OpenOffice–after my attempts to open or import Access databases were, shall we say, less than optimal (yes, the tables opened…but with all table-to-table links gone, with all reports gone, and, in one case, with a fully-editable database turned read-only). That wasn’t helpful as regards the Database portion: I would up converting the databases into Excel spreadsheets, substituting page-to-page links for table-to-table links. But that’s a different matter…

Some Compatibility Testing

First, I tried LibreOffice as a truly compatible system, since it now claims to handle the “…x” formats (Office2007 native) as well as the old .doc and .xls and .ppt formats.

To wit, what would happen when I opened an existing document?

Trial 1: Current Cites & Insights

Yes, it opened. Yes, the typefaces were right. But…

  • The running footer disappeared entirely.
  • The issue was now 46 pages long rather than 44. Why? Because…
  • LibreOffice Writer turned off hyphenation. If you try to turn it back on, it hyphenates everything, including headings and subheadings. In other words, it’s simply ignoring style-level control of hyphenation.
  • LibreOffice Writer also lost all of the tightening I’d done, cases where I compressed a paragraph by 0.1 or 0.2 pts to pull a final word back up to the previous line. Oh, you can do that compression, but it’s much more laborious than in Word (partly because the default up/down step for compression is an absurd 1.0 points, not 0.1 points, yielding unreadable text)…and, of course, I’d have to go through and redo all of it.
  • Bizarrely, the Heading2 and Heading3 styles now assumed that all lines but the first should be indented 1.5 picas. This yields Heading2 (centered) that, if they run past one line, look absurd: Centered but with the second line offset enough to the right that it looks as though you simply don’t know what you’re doing. Similarly for Heading3.

On the other hand, kerning was fine and it seemed to retain bolding and italics. So it was ignoring some aspects of the original document–enough that it would have taken me at least 3-4 hours to get back to what I wanted.

Trial 2: Body Type Sampler

I put this document together to determine which serif typefaces on my system came with normal Microsoft software, so I’d have a set of possible alternatives to suggest (I have a couple of hundred typefaces that I’ve acquired in other entirely legal manners)…and how well each of them worked in terms of looks, kerning, etc.

I was using my default template, a very simple one, and using primarily four styles (but with typeface overrides on most paragraphs): Title, Heading3, First (first paragraph under any heading level, using 11-point type) and Quote (indented paragraph using 10-point type).

The good news: LibreOffice Writer picked up all the typeface and style overrides (each sampler paragraph includes normal, italic and boldface), and kerning was done as well as (I’d say identically to) Word2010.

The bad news:

  • Once again, the running footers were gone.
  • While the First paragraphs were still 11 point type, the Quote paragraphs–while properly indented–were now 12 points, which is bizarre.

Trial 3: Book with very little formatting

While disContent: The Complete Collection is no longer available as a book, I still have the .docx and .pdf files. This is a simple book, with the same running page headers throughout, but it does have a few typical book complexities–e.g., page numbering starts at the first chapter, there are lots of forced page breaks,

Let’s see…

  • Hyphenation disappeared.
  • So did running headers–to be replaced, on all pages, by a running footer that was only supposed to appear on the first page of the Preface, nowhere else.
  • The table of contents was a complete mess, as some lines were justified in a manner that made them unreadable (they shouldn’t have been justified at all).
  • The book was significantly shorter–because, as it turned out, Writer had dropped the gutter margin, so that the body text was now 4.7 inches rather than 4.4 inches.

Trial 4: Early C&I, using .doc (Word2000)

Just for fun, I opened Volume 2 Issue 1, which used .doc but also used drop caps at the start of each new story.

LibreOffice Writer did considerably better with this document–retaining the running footer, handling the drop caps, but still changing formatting in ways that made the whole text run a little longer.

Overall Conclusion

LibreOffice Writer is “compatible” with Word, where “compatible” is in scare quotes–because you have no way of knowing which aspects of a document Writer will choose to ignore and which it will handle correctly.

For the book-length projects I’m thinking of, I’m reluctant to consider it as an alternative, because it looks to be fairly cumbersome at pagefitting and at handling special aspects of a book. But, of course, 99.9% of documents prepared in Word aren’t books (I made that number up, of course)…and LibreOffice may be just fine for those and especially when you’re creating new documents.

I might give it a little more trial, using it to create new things, to see whether I can figure out how to have a Style palette display, whether its templates are robust, and other things that matter to me but maybe not to others.

And then there’s LibreOffice Calc…

Just as a side note, “Writer” and “Calc” are the program names–but if you open LibreOffice itself, they’ll appear as “Text Document” and “Spreadsheet.” Not sure whether that’s an advantage or a disadvantage. Also, LibreOffice uses Office2003-style menus and toolbars (no ribbon), which some people will find to be an advantage. Oh, and because LibreOffice will produce PDF/A, it’s a little better for cases where the PDF must embed all typefaces–I still don’t see how to do that in Office2010’s PDF save-as option. (Unfortunately, I can’t get rid of an Arial stub that doesn’t appear to actually be in my documents, but still registers as an unembedded typeface.)

I tried opening two mildly complex Excel2010 spreadsheets (or Excel2007–I’m not sure I’ve turned off Compatibility in either case). One is the Liblog2009 master spreadsheet, a biggie with thousands of page-to-page links and formulas. The other is simpler but uses a Vlookup to another page as a key element.

My first impression is that Calc is doing just fine with both of these, although it took a while to open the Liblog2009 one (it felt like more than a minute, but that might not be true). All the page-to-page references seem to be OK; all the formulas seem to be fine.

Will there be a ,2?

Unsure. I might experiment some more; I might not. I probably won’t play with Impress, because I so rarely use PowerPoint that I can’t really judge.

Overall? LibreOffice is one heck of a bargain, and it may be the only Office suite most people need (especially if you do more spreadsheets than template-based documents). But as a fully compatible Word equivalent…well, maybe that’s asking a lot, but the sheer unpredictability of what would and would not import correctly bothers me. A lot.

And if open source advocates say, “But that’s not it’s primary purpose!”…I’d agree. Note the first two sentences of the previous paragraph.

Fun with typography and Office2010

Posted in Technology and software on April 5th, 2011

Nothing earthshaking here, but a little fun for those who care about typefaces and typography and who don’t automatically sneer at me because I use Word instead of a Proper Desktop Publishing Program…

I knew Office2010 offered more sophisticated typographical options. At first, it seemed as though most of them (in Word2010) weren’t really available in any typeface I had; turns out I just needed to convert the documents from Word2007-compatible to native Word2010 (same .docx format, but more options). And, to be sure, needed appropriate typefaces.

For purposes that may eventually become obvious, I’ve been going through my collection of typefaces and identifying those that (a) are serif text faces that might be suitable for body text, (b) are likely to be on most computers with Windows7/Office2010 (and, for most of these, earlier Office and Windows versions as well). I determined (a) by inspection in the Word typeface (ok, sigh, “font”) pulldown and (b) by going to the Microsoft Typography site and seeing whether the typeface was in the list. (I still have a bunch of typefaces that came with Corel’s Bitstream-supplied 500-typeface CD, and the licensed copy of Berkeley that I paid for.)

I found 22 in all. Without arguing aesthetics (is Times New Roman too familiar? Are Georgia and Lucida Bright and Cambria too ‘screen-oriented’?), I divided them into five groups:

  1. Nine typeface families with good kerning (checking such pairs as To, Wa, Vo–“Vo” as in “Vortext” seems to be problematic in lots of cases) and complete families supplied (or at least Roman, Italic and Bold–you can bold an italic without too much damage, but slanting Roman is always strange).
  2. Two typeface families with somewhat inadequate kerning.
  3. Six typeface families with either no kerning or very inadequate kerning.
  4. Three singletons with good kerning.
  5. Two singletons with inadequate kerning or no kerning.

As I was preparing samples of each typeface, I decided to turn on many, if not all, of the advanced typography features, specifically all ligatures.


Oh, not most of the time–most of the typefaces didn’t show any ligatures in the sample I prepared.

But then there was Palatino Linotype (which, unfortunately, has incomplete kerning: specifically, the “Vo” combination in Roman and Bold has an awkwardly wide space, and the “To” isn’t great either).

But the ligatures…well, more than I’d really use in modern text (the Word Font/Advanced dialog box includes five choices for ligature usage, and “standard” is probably what you’d normally use, not “all”), but, well… And, for that matter, old-style numbers are available, although the default is lining numbers (unlike Constantia’s default old-style).

Here’s the paragraph I used. See what you get with your system. Apparently, Prof. Zapf had some fun when preparing this version. Now, if only the kerning was more complete…

The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over the Lazy Dog. 1&2#3$4%5 6?7 “89”. Kerning: Wasted Torpid Florid florid offensive Vortex. The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over the Lazy Dog. 1&2#3$4%5 6?7 “89”. Kerning: Wasted Torpid Florid Vortex. The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over the Lazy Dog. 1&2#3$4%5 6?7 “89”. Kerning: Wasted Torpid Florid Vortex. Ours is a noble old house, and stretches a long way back into antiquity. The earliest ancestor the Twains have any record of was a friend of the family by the name of Higgins. [Mark Twain’s (Burlesque) Auto-Biography via Project Gutenberg]


Added at 2:05 p.m. April 5, 2011: Just for fun, I opened the same paragraph in LibreOffice (OpenOffice, basically) in Palatino Linotype. As anticipated, the ligatures are all gone–LibreOffice Text doesn’t have any of those advanced typographical features. On the other hand, the most egregious kerning problem (Vo) seems to be at least partly fixed, that is, it’s at least reasonably kerned. I find that very strange…mysterious, even.

Only amateurs…

Posted in Technology and software on March 30th, 2011

…use a spreadsheet for a database.

As I recall, that was a pretty popular opinion among the digerati a while back (maybe a LONG while back), regarding those who built databases with spreadsheets with the same derision you’d use for someone who uses word processing software to do calculations.

I keep track of Cites & Insights general themes–how recently they’ve appeared–and current segments (how long, status, etc.) with a one-page Word table, which includes a bottom-of-page running total of current wordcount. Why Word, not Excel? Because it’s convenient and it works. And, y’know, I don’t have to leave the program to update an item; just open the document.

Are there still people who believe this–that any proper database is built and maintained using a database program, that only amateurs and other idiots use Excel for databases?

I wonder. If so, they can just call me another technophobic idiot.

I’ve used a number of different databases over the years at home (and, of course, at work–SPIRES was/is one damn powerful database management system, easy to build new databases and with nearly unlimited power for old ones: I was sorry when we made the, I suppose, inevitable switch to a Proper Relational Database.). Hell, I’ve written database management systems using high-level programming tools…

And, well, today I just shut down the last database I was using at home, converting it to an Excel spreadsheet. Partly because I couldn’t seem to do the data validation in the LibreOffice version of the Access database that I wanted (and it was truly trivial to recreate the same validation in Excel–two minutes work at most), partly because, after fighting with LibreOffice’s report writer long enough to get a semi-workable report, I realized that the equivalent report would take, oh, 30 seconds to create in Excel (it’s just a pivot table with a heading).

And, now that it’s in Excel, I don’t have the field length limitations I had in Access (once you’ve defined a field length, that’s pretty much it). Or other limitations.

Oh, sure, at some point I could exceed the limitations of a single spreadsheet. But after my experiences with the massively complex spreadsheets for my liblog projects, I don’t see that point happening any time soon.

This is just a musing, I suppose, having to do with how times change. Yes, there are almost certainly home databases that Excel just can’t handle–but for lots of databases, it now strikes me as the preferable tool. I’m guessing the same is true for LibreOffice Spreadsheet.

This is another random musing of no lasting significance…

Two steps forward, one step sideways?

Posted in Stuff, Technology and software on March 29th, 2011

I rely on computers. I used to make my living from computers–as a systems analyst/designer/programmer. I still rely on computers for whatever little earned income I do have: Sure, I could write with a pen and notepad, but I wouldn’t even be able to read some of what I’d written, much less make it readily available to others.

That said…

It’s been a more interesting week than I’d really hoped for; I hope it’s settling down. These are all trivial little upsets and very much firstworldissues, but hey, this is a random blog.

Scene 1: The Toshiba comes unhinged

My wife has a Toshiba notebook that’s about 3.5 years old. She likes it just fine. Even when the case stopped closing fully, she lived with it. Until last Thursday, when the left hinge broke–that is, the screen section came out of the hinge. No way to get it back in.

The notebook still worked (and works), but that was clearly not a good sign, and from what little we could figure out, a fix would cost a little more than a new notebook.

So, after a little checking, off we went to Office Depot–not nearly as convenient as OfficeMax, but after my experience with the local OM not living up to its own promises, I’m not shopping there–so my wife could try out various notebooks, keyboard feel & touchpad characteristics being very important to her. Oh, and since the old notebook had a 14″ 4×3 screen, she probably needed a 17″ screen to get the same vertical resolution (since nearly all contemporary notebooks have 16×9 screens).

She found a unit that was to her liking–another Toshiba, as it happens, on sale at a really excellent price. That solved one outstanding issue: When she’d move from Vista to Windows 7. And, since I’d been ready to move to Office2010 soon anyway, it made sense to get Office2010 for both of us at the same time–there’s a new-machine discount, and OD offered to load her copy as a free extra.

Scene 2: I decide to upgrade to Office2010

My wife still hasn’t actually moved to the new notebook–she spends a lot of time on her primary online interest (Unclaimed Persons, a closed volunteer group currently using Facebook that assists coroners in locating next of kin for those who die without someone to claim the body: a great pursuit for a retired librarian!), and the weekend had various other issues. Maybe today; maybe tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I upgraded to Office2010. Which brought me up short on one thing. I was using Office2007, but still using Access2003, since I didn’t lay out the big bucks for the full Professional version of Office2007. (Remember when Office Pro was bundled with computers?) And, unlike Office2007, Office2010 just won’t install when it sees what it considers a damaged version of an earlier Office.


Scene 3: Undoing Access and Finishing the Upgrade

I was really only using Access for two fairly simple little databases and one slightly more complex one–one for a summary budget of household expenses by major categories, one for a list of books & authors to use when getting books at the local PL (so I didn’t get the same title twice), and one–the slightly more complex one–a summary database of wines, helpful when shopping for new vintages.

None of these could possibly justify laying out the money for Access.

I exported the primary tables (two for Books, two for Expenses, three for Wines) as Excel spreadsheets, figuring I could work with those if necessary. And I thought OpenOffice–which I won’t use instead of Word, but which I had–might provide an acceptable substitute.

Then I deleted what was left of Office2003 and installed Office2010. (Unlike earlier versions, there’s no “upgrade version”–and, at some point, I think that’s sensible. When you’re upgrading from an upgraded version of an upgraded version…well, sooner or later, you’re not going to be able to prove you ever owned the original. I think my original was either Office2000 or OfficeXP.)

The install went fine. I haven’t explored the nuances of Word2010 and Excel2010 much yet; I do like the new File/Backstage replacement for the frankly failed “hide print & file options under an Office icon” button, and I’m aware that there are some interesting typographical options in Word if I actually had any OpenType typefaces with suitable extensions. (Oh, and having the Styles list display as a simple list instead of attempting to show the formatting: What a sensible step back!)

All in all, I think I’ll like it just fine. Later this week, maybe, I’ll explore a bit more to see what typefaces besides CalifornianFB have been added, whether I want to use them, and what else is new and interesting. (I accepted a default installation. I’m never sure whether that’s the right choice…)

Step 4: Trying to use OO Base as a Replacement for Access

Actually, that’s not quite right. I did do an initial attempt–creating .ODB files that link to the MSOffice .MDB files–and verified (a) that I could open all three databases, (b) that the reports had either disappeared or turned into tables, (c) that cross-table linkages had disappeared in the process.

Before attempting to resolve those issues, it was suggested that I switch from OpenOffice to LibreOffice. After discussing the reasoning, I concluded that just having less to do with Larry Ellison was reason enough, so I downloaded LibreOffice 3.3, deleted OpenOffice, and tried again.

Yesterday, despite some frustrations, I managed to build a report for the Expenses database that provides the same summary by category and grand total that’s the whole reason for having the database. It’s not as pretty and it was clunky to build, but it works. What I cannot get to work, so far at least: having the “category” column within the Expenses table limited to, and prompted by, values within the Expense Category table, a linkage that was in the Access database. Maybe it’s because this particular Base database is really acting as a connector to the .MDB database, but there seems to be no way to do this, at least within existing tables.

I can live with that, at least for this table.

Before lunch today, I made a typical every-three-weeks library run to take back three books and get three more–as usual, one non-genre fiction, one genre fiction (mystery this time, since it was SF/fantasy last), one nonfiction. For nonfiction, I’m cheating: the library had a book on OpenOffice 3. Aha! Maybe that will help.

Then came home and, after lunch, sat down to work on this. When I’d gone to put the computer in Sleep mode before running the errands and having lunch, I got a Windows Update, which meant shutting it down entirely. That’s OK.

Step 5: Something goes very wrong–fortunately, temporarily

Turned the computer back on. The background came up, as did all five items in the tray (W7 is much better than Vista in this regard), all six icons on the toolbar (some standard, some I’ve added), all 29 shortcuts and icons on the desktop (which I really should trim some day, but I guess 29 isn’t terrible).

Clicked on FireFox. The little circle spun for a couple of seconds. Then nothing. Did same for Windows2010. Same non-result. Well, let’s open TaskManager…whoops, same result.

Restarted the system. No luck.

Powered down. If it had come up one more time with the same results, I would have hit F10 during startup and gone to the previous restore point. Fortunately, the third time was the charm. Slowly, at first, programs came to life. Everything seems back to normal now. (Well, I haven’t tried *everything*–but if non-MS programs, MS contemporary programs, and 15-year old programs all work, chances are it’s good.)

So, then, taking the book in hand and trying to modify tables to use links…

No luck. Maybe I’m dense, maybe I’ll try again later, but so far, it looks as though compatibility with MSAccess databases is limited. That’s no great surprise.

In one case–the most complex database, probably not for very good reasons–it turned out to be most sensible to combine the exported Excel tables into a new and simpler Excel database, which–among other things–allows me to use typefaces I like while entering and updating data (I can’t see how to change LO Base’s table typography; again, maybe I’m missing something). In the case of the expense database, losing the category prompt list is a nuisance but not fatal. In the case of the books database–well, it never really amounted to anything anyway.

So there’s an afternoon pretty much shot, with no real progress…but hey, I could afford to waste an afternoon.

Step 6: Profit!

I know, that’s supposed to be Step 3 or Step 4, and in this case it’s nonsense–almost. If one proposed project is approved, I’ll need OpenOffice or LibreOffice, and I’m pleased to see that its import of Word files is a whole lot better than it used to be (last time I tried this, OO threw away major portions of style-based formatting).

Otherwise? Back to writing, browsing, being grumpy on FriendFeed, virtual slot poker, all that good stuff. And maybe reading the OO book in more detail and seeing what I’m missing. Which is probably that I can only *add* a new field that’s based on a set of values from another table, not *restore* a table linkage lost in the so-so “compatibility.”

Hmm. My Gateway notebook–my only computer, used as a two-screen setup with my old-but-beautiful Sony 19″ 4×3 LCD display–is probably 2.5 or 3 years old. Hope it holds up a little longer…

National Day of Unplugging: Count me out

Posted in Technology and software on March 4th, 2011

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle has a story on the National Day of Unplugging, which is from sundown today to sundown tomorrow (Saturday).

It’s in the Business section, with a big picture of Anne Wojcicki, cofounder of 23andme Inc. and Sergey Brin’s wife. Wojcicki “sometimes carries four cell phones, sleeps with a BlackBerry on her pillow and finds herself instant messaging people sitting next to her.”

The reporter seems to think that everyone is as addicted as she seems to be: “Consider how increasingly rare it is to get through a conversation or a meal without someone glancing at their phone.” Really? We took my brother & sister-in-law out to dinner last night (at a casual Italian place), the place was nearly full, and I don’t believe I saw one cell phone in use at any table in our vicinity–certainly not ours. Yes, I do see some people at some lunch places making a point of placing their phones on the table so they’re always in touch. I wouldn’t voluntarily dine or converse with these folks.

Wojcicki “hopes to institute the tradition weekly around the household” and says “It’s really about achieving balance and spending some time where you’re really just connected with the environment and the people around you.”

So during Sabbath (yes, the NDU was created by a group “focused on updating Jewish traditions to make them more relevant to modern life”) you’ll take 24 precious hours away from Your Precious in all its connecting glory. And think you’ve achieved balance?

I’m not having it. Oh, it’s quite likely that I won’t be on a cell phone between sundown tonight and sundown Saturday: That’s true most days. But I’ll almost certainly use email and FriendFeed and look at other online sources as appropriate. Never during a meal, to be sure, and never during a conversation, and not while we’re out enjoying the real world, and not when we’re watching TV, and not when I’m reading.

That’s called balance: making an appropriate place for interruptive technology and keeping it in its place. Period. Except for emergencies–and, you know, you’d be surprised how few true emergencies there are in most people’s lives.

Hey, if declaring a National Day gets that Blackberry off your pillow for one night, I guess that’s progress. But don’t tell me it’s balance, and don’t confuse taking an occasional timeout with achieving some form of sensible balance.

Real data on library use of social networks?

Posted in Libraries, Technology and software on January 18th, 2011

Here’s an honest question that may reflect my lack of intimate current knowledge of the formal library literature:

Has anyone studied the actual use of social networks by public libraries other than those with high-profile spokespeople/advocates? Better yet, has anyone done so on a scale broad enough to be anything more than anecdata?

I’m asking not because I assume the results would be “not much of any use” but, actually, the opposite: I’m beginning to suspect there’s a lot of real-world l0w-key adoption that we don’t hear about.

Why? Anecdata, of course. I was reducing the 16,000 words of Cites & Insights 11:2 to a 2,000-word Online column and found myself adding new material—and wondering what I’d find locally.

Just for fun, I thought I’d see what elements of 2.0 technologies I could locate at three well-used local public libraries—the one I use now and the two I used previously. None of these have high profiles nationally; all are reasonably but not lavishly funded; all are in a region where use of social networking and other “2.0” tools should be predictably high. All three communities are roughly the same size (70,000-75,000 population).

The library I use now, Livermore Public Library, has had the same director for more than two decades. She has a blog—but doesn’t use it all that often, with nine posts in the three years since it began. (One post speaks to the nonsense you hear sometimes from doomcryers about most people not wanting or using public library services: In a local survey, 81% of respondents reported using LPL—and they rated service quality at 79 on a 100-point scale, a very high result.) There’s also a teen blog—but it’s only had three posts in its one-year life. LPL also has a Facebook page with a fairly steady stream of updates on LPL programs (seven updates in the last two weeks) “liked” by 550 people and a Twitter feed with 172 followers, with 905 tweets to date. How many of those 172 followers are actual Livermore residents interested in library issues? That’s a tougher question. There’s also a mobile catalog, a version of LPL’s catalog stripped down to a bare all-text minimum. All in all, a reasonable showing for a library with high usage and budgetary problems that stem entirely from city budgetary problems.

Mountain View Public Library devotes most of a straightforward home page to a catalog search box and set of current events—but there’s also a “Social Networking” icon that leads to a surprising wealth of items, some oddly identified (e.g., the library’s blog is identified as Blogspot rather than by its name). The library blog appears to serve as the source of the home page’s center strip; it’s entirely official announcements and book reviews and has ten posts in the past 3.5 months. A Teen Blog began in April 2010 and had 45 posts during 2010. There’s also a Delicious page with the library’s bookmarks (189 in all), a Facebook page with 285 people Liking it and 15 items in the past month—and another TeenZone Facebook page with 37 people liking it, clear evidence of teen patron involvement but relatively few recent updates; a Flickr photostream with 93 photos; two Twitter streams, a general one having 311 followers (and itself following 169 other streams!) and a fairly steady stream of tweets and a much smaller teen stream (33 followers, 88 tweets); and—unusually—a Yelp link, where you’ll find 89 reviews for the library. (Based on those reviews, MVPL is doing quite a few things right!) All in all, an impressive showing.

Like Livermore, Redwood City Public Library has a slideshow current-even element on its home page which can be either great or annoying. The front page doesn’t link directly to any blogs—but does have Facebook and Twitter icons. The Facebook page has 295 people Liking it and four updates in the last two weeks; the Twitter stream has 124 followers and 123 tweets—four of them within the last two weeks. In fact, RCPL had one of the earliest public library blogs, Liblog, beginning in 2002—but its URL now links directly to the library’s home page.

Conclusion? All of these libraries are using social networks with varying effectiveness. None of them makes a big deal of their usage. That may be as it should be.

A little anecdote to close the year

Posted in Technology and software on December 31st, 2010

The story you are about to read is true. The names are not changed, since nobody here is guilty. This is a story about resourcefulness, panic and the little things the web really is good for–and that mean “death of the web” (as in “no searching, just destinations”) predictions are stupid.

The setup

As I’ve noted previously, when we bought our new/old house back in May 2009, we agreed to take the Samsung refrigerator that was already there and leave our not-very-old refrigerator in our old house, because the Samsung looked like it would meet our needs better and all three parties in the two transactions would win from this agreement.

The previous owners passed on most installation and user handbooks on most of the add-ons in the new house. The refrigerator was an exception: no manual.

The refrigerator–a bottom-freezer non-French-door unit–is reasonably basic: No water dispenser in the door, and if there is/was an icemaker, it’s not plumbed and doesn’t operate. That’s what we wanted. One high-tech feature: A panel on the freezer door that shows the temperature in the freezer and refrigerator and has some controls. We didn’t necessarily want that, but it couldn’t hurt. We left the settings at 2F freezer, 38F refrigerator.

One feature we didn’t realize at the time: The refrigerator was shallow by today’s standards, only about 27″ deep.

The panic

A couple of weeks ago, my wife heard a beeping from the refrigerator (two beeps, repeated every couple of minutes). I heard it too. She thought the refrigerator door might have been slightly ajar; we made sure it was fully closed.

The beeps continued. And there was no light when we opened the door.

Then we noticed that the refrigerator temperature was creeping up, to 39, then to 40, then to 41…

Arggh. We’d just bought $20 worth of organic chicken breasts, there was $35 worth of salmon in the freezer, plus all the usual refrigerated and frozen foods…

We called the local appliance store that we’ve already learned to trust. They said “Samsung? We don’t repair Samsung: It’s impossible to get parts.” They also gave us the 1-800 number for a national agency that does repair Samsung refrigerators. Called that number; they said it would be $75 to come out and provide an estimate, plus the actual cost of repair, and the earliest they could send somebody out was the following afternoon. We didn’t schedule an appointment…

Called my brother (who’s lived in our new hometown for 50+ years) to see whether he might have a dorm refrigerator he could lend us, which would let us keep the most vital stuff chilled while we worked out a replacement. Otherwise, we thought, we might have to go buy one… We thought the old one was about 8 years old, in which case a newer one might use less power…although the old one did have an EnergyStar mark, those standards change over time.

Turned out he actually had a brand-new 10cf. refrigerator/freezer, purchased for the expansion to his house that’s going on (which includes a kitchenette). He was able to bring it over (with help from a friend); we found a place for it and plugged it in to start chilling. By now, the refrigerator was up to 45 or higher (but the freezer was still at 2F, which told us *something*–namely, that the compressor was working, but the fan to distribute cold air to the refrigerator wasn’t).

We moved food into the smaller unit (after it was cold enough to do so) and went over to the appliance store to see what a new refrigerator/freezer would cost and how soon we could get one delivered. (We’d also seen the mfr. plate on the Samsung and realized it was six years old, not eight years–so it should have another 8-10 years ahead of it.) After some discussion (with great people at the store, who don’t work on commission), we found:

  • We’d have trouble buying a new unit that would fit: The unit’s in an open area that’s about 30″ deep–and with any of the regular new units, that would result in the door handle being at least 5″-8″ out from the framed area, so far out that it would impede traffic into the kitchen and look really terrible. We could go for a “cabinet unit,” but those cost a fortune ($2,500 and up), you’re pretty much obliged to get a side-by-side with the door icemaker/water dispenser we really don’t want, and the vegetable bins are relatively small–significant because my wife gets a large quantity of vegetables once a week at the farmer’s market.
  • The salesperson suggested unplugging the unit, letting it sit for 15-20 minutes, and plugging it back in, on the possibility that something in the electronics might be off and would reset itself.

The process

We went home and tried that. It didn’t work.

But my wife, the expert reference librarian (and former library director–unlike me, she does have an MLS), did some careful searching online, while I did some clumsy searching. I managed to find the manual for the Samsung (online), and found that the only alarm was an open-door alarm. Aha! Apparently the refrigerator was convinced that the refrigerator door was open–and possibly had stopped supplying cold air because, you know, what’s the point?

My wife found a chat room where, it turned out, a number of other people had had a similar problem–and one of them had found a possible solution. Namely, that the problem was the door sensor, one of two plunger switches on a little panel next to the hinges (one plunger for the refrigerator door, one for the freezer). This person also said how you could remove the panel–and that, with the switches unplugged, the Samsung would default to “doors are closed” instead of the “door is open” it was reading.

What could it hurt?

Before we called the national agency back, we tried it. A flathead screwdriver did pop off the little panel, and–with some strain–we could remove the little harness that plugged into the back of the panel. We did so, closed the doors again, plugged in the refrigerator, and…

It worked. Oh, no lights, to be sure, since those are turned on and off by the same door sensor, but the refrigerator started cooling back down.

The follow-up

OK, so we had it working, sort of…but it made sense to replace the door sensors, sooner or later. Would we have to pay $75+ to do that?

More searching…

Samsung doesn’t offer parts on its website, at least not the public-facing part. But there was another site,….

The part was $11.95. Including shipping and handling, it was about $21 total (the company has a physical presence in California, so 9.75% sales tax was part of the deal).

I ordered the part.

About a week later, I realized that I didn’t really know much about Oh, sure, the ordering process was over an https:// secure link, and they had credit-card authorization, but how much does that really tell you? We’d had one credit card replaced last year due to fraud (caught by the credit-card company), and changing the numbers on autopay setups is always a hassle…

I checked the credit card account online: Not only wasn’t there some big unexpected charge, the $21 or so hadn’t even been charged yet.

Perhaps another week later, I got email: The part had been backordered, but had now shipped. The email included a tracking number (USPS Priority Mail). The source address also included a parent company I thought I’d heard of (but I was probably wrong: it’s a very small company). The credit card charge showed up the next day: the company didn’t charge until the part was shipped. Score one.

Three-four days later, the box arrived. We rolled out the refrigerator, unplugged it, fished out the wiring harness, plugged it in to the new switch/sensor panel (which could only be done one way, fortunately), pushed the new panel into place, closed the door, waited 15 minutes, plugged it in…

And we once again have lights when the doors are open, along with proper refrigeration. For a total repair cost of $21, not, say, $95 or so…

The morals

  1. The web is a great place to find missing owner’s manuals. We already knew that.
  2. With a lot of luck and some skillful searching, the web can be a good place to diagnose and repair odd problems–although it can also be a dangerous place to do so. (In this case, there were enough people who’d had the same problem and found the same solution, or took the advice, that we were reasonably confident.)
  3. The web allows small companies to have big presences, and for third parties to step in when a manufacturer’s not willing to deal directly with consumers. (Samsung doesn’t appear to sell parts to individuals. The third-party company appears to be a tiny three-person operation, a true small business–but they’re a national supplier with a solid web presence.)
  4. On the other hand: If the refrigerator wasn’t too smart for its own good, we would have had a soft failure: Failure of a door sensor wouldn’t cause the refrigerator to stop operating. Funny thing: If your car’s “check for malfunction” light comes on, the engine doesn’t stop operating.
  5. On the other hand: There is no way in hell that a refrigerator door sensor should fail after six years. It’s a push-down switch, a trivially simple part, and given that the design makes it critical to the operation of the refrigerator…

Objectively, you could look at this and say “Why didn’t you find out about the problem before you went to all the trouble of finding a temporary refrigerator, two people having to bring it over, two people having to take it back…?”

Because the thought of spoiling food (did I mention that this happened within two hours after grocery shopping?) tends to push one towards immediate action, not screwing around on the web for a couple of hours.

Happy New Year’s, and may your refrigerator door sensors all work well.

Free as a cloud!

Posted in Technology and software on December 17th, 2010

Maybe we need blunt reminders from time to time of things we should know but some of us forget:

  • Free is a tricky business model: When you’re not paying for something directly, it’s useful to consider whether you see indirect means of support (Gmail’s ads, Google & Bing ads…actually, “ads” are going to be the most common answer). If not, best not to place too much faith in the ongoing existence of the wonderful thing you’re using for free.
  • Clouds dissipate: Sold on the cloud model of computing? Really? Do you actually know where your cloudy data is being stored–and who’s paying for that storage?
  • A name no more identifies a reality than a map always describes the territory: When services are sold or acquired, they can change realities suddenly and disconcertingly. The name may be the same, but the reality may be quite different.

Personal examples

I got hit with two reminders this week, which–taken in tandem–could be interpreted as a sign from The Internet Gods saying “Time to shut down Cites & Insights; the party’s over.” I’m not interpreting them that way, since neither reminder has anything to do with me personally. As for the “free” issue…well, you know, that’s a different discussion.

First example: Bloglines

Its owners told us a few months ago that they were planning to shut down Bloglines, which I’ve used for years as the way to keep up with 500 or so liblogs–which, along with a few dozen other blogs, serve as key sources for most of the stuff I write about.

I exported my feed list and imported it into Google Reader. I was not as happy with Google Reader as I had been with Bloglines.

Then the owners told us that somebody was buying Bloglines, and it would continue. Hooray! I went back to using Bloglines.

This week, the new owners forced us to migrate to The New and Improved Bloglines.


The new version has all the “ooh, let’s make this look very live” Java stuff that bothered me a little about Google Reader–but with some twists all its own:

  • It apparently stopped recognizing that you’d read things. Go back a day later, and it would start showing the same items. Over and over…and the numbers would keep mounting up as you tried to read them.
  • There seems to be no way to alphabetize or otherwise organize feeds–or at least none I could find.
  • About the third time I tried to clean things up, Bloglines just plain hung Firefox–so badly that I couldn’t even close the window without shutting down the system and doing a Forced Quit on Firefox. I have never had to do a Forced Quit in Windows 7, and maybe once in all the time I used Vista. Somehow, I don’t believe that Firefox has suddenly become unstable software.

So I’ve deleted the Bloglines bookmark in Firefox, restored Google Reader to its position (actually, I never took it away) and just finished going through the hundreds of unread posts (I didn’t just mark all read without glancing at them, as that would miss a day or so of posts). The minor infelicities of Google Reader are as nothing compared to the degraded nature of Bloglines.

Of course, it’s still a freebie…

Second example: Delicious

Most of Cites & Insights is based on synthesis and commentary, relying on posts and articles from other people. Until 2009, I just printed out posts and articles I thought I’d want to use later–and, at some point, changed to printing out “leadsheets” (just the first page).

After trying out Delicious, I decided to save some paper (and some money–paper’s cheap and recyclable, but inkjet ink is expensive) by tagging items in Delicious, using it as a virtual file cabinet. I’m a “bad user” of Delicious, since many of my tags are C&I-specific, not much use to other users (e.g., “miw,” “tqt,” “mbp,” “sn-twitter”). Delicious’ overview also helps me discover when I have more than enough items to consider a writeup, or so many that I need to subdivide them. As of now, I think I have around 1,200 items in Delicious.

As you may have heard, Yahoo! is shutting down Delicious. They haven’t said exactly when, and there’s always the possibility that it will be sold to some other company, but that’s the current state.

A number of sources have provided lists of Delicious alternatives. Phil Bradley’s done a fine writeup, and I’d suggest that post as a good starting point.

For now, I’ve started a Diigo account. Since I’d already exported my Delicious file (yesterday), the Diigo import-from-Delicious directions were easy (they basically boil down to: 1. Export the file in Delicious. 2. Import it here. 3. Wait for us to process it.) Since my library hasn’t been processed yet, I don’t know what it will look like and whether I’ll be happy with it. I have managed to move a Diigo bookmark button up to the single toolbar I prefer to have visible, although it appears that I need to click it twice to actually add tags to a bookmark (the whole point of bookmarking!). I may be missing a setting.

And, of course, I hope that I’ll remember to export the Diigo bookmarks once a quarter or once a month or so. Will I?

Ah, it’s so easy to trust the cloud and the wonders of freedom…

Not directly related, but…

At the moment, C&I has no direct or indirect support. I’m hoping that will change.

In addition to the Paypal donations that could be a direct form of support (total to date since providing that option: $240.00), indirect forms include buying the limited edition disContent: The Complete Collection or, if you think liblog studies are worthwhile, buying The Liblog Landscape 2007-2010.

You could also, to be sure, buy the 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, or 2006 paperback versions of C&I itself.

To date, three of the 100 potential copies of disContent: The Complete Collection have been sold–none in December.

To date, exactly one copy (a download, not a printed book) of The Liblog Landscape 2007-2010 has been sold–necessarily in December, since that’s when it appeared.

Or, you know, you could just tell me directly that you regard C&I and the liblog research as worthless, as in “not worth spending any money on.” Or, more optimistically, “it should all be free, it’s up to somebody else to pay for it.” For now, I’m not listening to indirect messages of this sort. It’s December, and things tend to look better in the new year.

Musing about hard disks

Posted in Technology and software on November 28th, 2010

The first time I held a hard disk in my hands–well, a removable device that contained a hard disk–was around 1977, when we installed a Datapoint multiterminal system in UC Berkeley’s serial processing department. (I wrote the timesharing monitor and data entry software and oversaw the system; that’s indirectly how I met my wife, so I count it among my greatest successes.) The removable disk was a 12″ round Winchester cartridge, maybe two inches tall (my memory is vague), and I believe each cartridge cost several hundred dollars. I believe it held 10 megabytes, but it might have been 40. It was a well-priced miracle, as was the Datapoint in general (running three terminals off a “minicomputer” that was a Z80 at 2MHz with 128K RAM, but also with Datapoint’s remarkable Databus operating system and ARCnet network).

If you had suggested to me at that point that I would some day not only use but own a one terabyte hard disk system, I would probably have laughed (you might have had to explain what a terabyte was first).

Coming forward to 1984-1986

I started writing what became “Common Sense Personal Computing” in Library Hi Tech in 1985, and published Common Sense Personal Computing: A Handbook for Professionals in 1986. In the first article in that extended series, I tried to suggest comparable system prices for a variety of personal computers, an interesting task since so many computers at the time were priced without needed peripherals. The article was based on June-July 1984 prices: that was when IBM dropped its prices by about 25% and Apple “finally dropped the IIe price to a plausible level.”

If you’ve forgotten or are too young to remember PCs in 1984, many of them didn’t have hard disks at all–including the IBM PC itself, which sold for $3,000 to $4,000 once you included a monochrome monitor and two 360K diskette drives (along with a 4.77mHz 8088, 128K RAM, a display adapter, and a dot matrix printer). That IBM PC ran “PC-DOS,” IBM’s version of MS-DOS–and cost just about the same as an Apple IIe + CP/M card ($3,000 to $3,600 with a 1.25mHz 6502, 128K RAM and two 140K diskette drives, an Apple monitor, Gemini dot matrix printer and some software–but a chunk of that money was for the “CP/M card,” a more powerful Z80A computer on a card with its own RAM). Remember the early Compaq “portable” computers? $3,500 to $4,000 for a 4.77mHz 8088 with 128K RAM and a built-in 9″ monochrome screen–and, yep, two 360K diskette drives.

Ah, but I did have two systems that make it possible to estimate what a hard disk actually cost. The Morrow MD2 with 4mHz Z80A, 64K RAM, two 184K diskette drives, 12″ display, the Star Gemini dot matrix printer I was quoting as part of most of these systems and a whole bunch of high-quality software (WordStar, LogiCalc, Correct-It [back then, spellcheckers were separate programs], Personal Pearl database, PILOT and two BASICs) cost $1,460 to $1.720. But there was also the Morrow MD11 (my second PC, actually), which differed in two ways: It had 128K RAM…and it had a huge 11MB hard disk (and a single 360K diskette). It also cost $3,300–at least $1,600 more. I’m guessing that at least $1,000 of that was for the hard disk. So let’s say $90/megabyte for a slow internal hard disk in 1984.

By 1986, you could buy an internal 20MB hard disk for as little as $600, although most name-brand drives went for $800 or more; an external 20MB drive would run around $900. So let’s say $30/megabyte for internal, $45/megabyte external. (At that point, ads for IBM PCs showed around a $400 differential between those with 10MB hard disks and those that had two diskette drives, or $40/megabyte.)

By 1989, you could buy a Seagate ST251-1 40MB drive for $439–internal disks were already down to $11/megabyte.

Remember, these are megabytes. A 1TB drive has the same capacity as 25,000–twenty-five thousand–40MB drives.

(Almost since the beginning, hard drive capacities have been quoted in decimal form. A 1TB drive is “actually” about 930 gigabytes, if by “gigabyte” you mean 1,024 megabytes, where a megabyte is 1,024 kilobytes and a kilobyte is 1,024 bytes. And of course there was at one point a class action lawsuit over the “missing” capacity in hard disks.)

Here it is almost 2011…

OK, admittedly this was a Black Friday price, but still: Western Digital WD Elements 1TB Portable Hard Disk, WDBABV001BBK. One terabyte of NTSF-formatted disk space with a USB 2.0 connector, powered by the USB port (no power cord or external power supply). 5400RPM. No bloatware, so you get the full 1TB.

At Target. $69.

The beast is 3″ wide, 4.4″ long, 0.7″deep. Amazon says it weighs 12oz; I’d have guessed a little lighter. It came in the best packaging I’ve seen for this kind of device: Cardboard box not much bigger than the drive, two tiny plastic protectors at either end, and a plastic bag–probably less than an ounce of packaging, and both the cardboard and the little protectors are recyclable. The high-security seal? A peel-off circle. No muss, no fuss, one minute to open and one more to install.

It’s sitting here on my desk (I did a full image backup yesterday: took maybe half an hour; Windows7 includes System Image Backup software in all versions; now I only have 850GB available). It’s a cute little box. And it has ONE TERABYTE of storage. Which cost me $0.0757 per gigabyte or .00757 cents per megabyte, if you include sales tax (9.75% here). Oh, and Target printed out a $10-off-on-$100-purchase coupon, good for the next couple of weeks, so you could say this only cost $65 including sales tax. That does include the case and the circuitry for USB-powered operation.

I dunno. Maybe I’m getting old. This seems like a miracle. It’s also, to be sure, a whole lot more disk space than I’m likely to need unless I start doing a lot of photography or video editing–I mean, if I wiped out all the Windows checkpoints, I’d probably have 175GB free on my 250GB notebook hard disk. (All of my data files, excluding the MP3 files I could always rerip from CD, fit quite nicely in a 3.7GB backup on an 8GB flash drive. Text and spreadsheets just don’t use much storage space.)

But there it is: in 21 years, the price for hard disk storage dropped from $11/megabyte to $0.000757/megabyte. Put another way, 11 years ago disk storage cost 145 thousand times as much as it does now.

But that’s wrong–in two ways

It’s wrong first because portable (USB-powered) hard disks are inherently more expensive than wall-powered external drives and internal drives.

My brother was at the same Target a couple of hours earlier. He picked up the last of 39 Western Digital 2TB external hard disks. For the same price: $69 (not $69.99, but $69). So he was getting storage, including tax, for less than four one-thousandths of a cent per megabyte.

Yes, those are Black Friday prices–but a quick look online shows that you can buy a WD external 2TB hard disk for as little as $89, or a higher-speed 1.5TB internal hard drive for $70 (all drives are Western Digital for consistency, and the $70 is from Amazon)–so that’s somewhere between 4.4 and 4.6 cents per gigabyte, or less than five one-thousandths of a cent per megabyte.

It’s also wrong, of course, because you can’t buy a one-megabyte drive for five one-thousandths of a cent or a one-gigabyte drive for a nickel. The cheapest hard disk I found at Amazon was $37, an 80GB 7200RPM Western Digital; Fry’s had nothing under $40. Basically, you’re still going to pay $30 or more for an internal drive and probably $40 or more for an external drive.

Still, it’s amazing to think of a price change of 140,000:1 in just over two decades–for a disk that’s probably quieter (it seems to be silent) and faster than that 40GB disk was in 1989.

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