Archive for the 'Technology and software' Category

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, Samsungparts.com….

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 Samsungparts.com. 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.

Blecch.

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.

And we should trust…: An update

Posted in Technology and software on November 19th, 2010

If you didn’t read the original post, you should–if nothing else, for context.

Here’s what’s happened since then:

  • The autorenew clearly didn’t take.
  • Today, down to her last two days, she went through the Renew process this time–and managed to take the right set of links, yielding a $40 renewal rather than a $70 renewal.
  • She clicked on the “Download” link…

What should have happened

Given that she has an up-to-date subscription, the link should have updated some settings in her McAfee Internet Security, maybe taking 30 seconds tops.

What did happen

First we got a sizable download.

Then that download uninstalled all existing McAfee software. Slowly.

Then it started a 122MB download. With nothing else on our DSL, that took about 30 minutes…

Followed by various nonsense, followed by a Restart request.

After restarting, it started installing (I may have the order wrong here; let’s just say we’re at about the 1 hour 15 minute mark here…) with, of course, Windows Security popping up a warning about security setting issues.

Eventually–I’d say after about 90 minutes–there was a McAfee shortcut, the McAfee blob back in the tray, and a screen telling us it was starting various services. Until it got to “starting anti-spam”–which would seem somewhat useless since she doesn’t use Outlook or any PC-based mail system (and Gmail has its own excellent spam filter).

And the little animated swirl kept spinning. And spinning. For 10 minutes or more, there was disk activity–for what would seem to be at most a 1-minute job. Then the disk activity stopped, but the little swirl kept spinning.

Exit capabilities: None. Response to a right-click on the toolbar icon: None. Response to any keys or mouse clicks: None. The computer was apparently hung.

I logged on to McAfee on my system, brought up chat, and got into another fruitless session, with the bot (or, I suppose, conceivably person) on the other end telling me to forward her email (on her frozen system) to verify that she’d renewed and apparently ignoring any input from me.

At this point, we were well over two hours into a renewal update. Two hours, to do what should have been a code change at most.

What she finally did

A cold reboot–that is, forcing the computer to turn itself off (holding down the power switch–nothing else had any effect, given McAfee’s marvelous ability to take over the entire computer), turning it back on, letting Windows finish its “abnormal shutdown” routine…

After opening the Windows Security Manager and letting it fix settings, she seems to be fine. McAfee now gives the right termination date (a year from now). She’s fully protected (maybe over-protected: It’s possible that both McAfee and Windows firewalls, and McAfee antivirus and Windows Defender, are operating, but she knows what to do if she gets apparent slow downs).

And neither of us is, how you say, real happy with the competence shown in McAfee’s renewal operation, updating, or other indications of software excellence.

For me? I’ve turned off autorenew. Some time before my subscription expires, I’ll download Microsoft Security Essentials (and uninstall McAfee). If that turns out to be inadequate, I’ll buy something else…or, if I’m feeling masochistic, I can always add myself to her 3-user Internet Security subscription.

And we should trust our computer security to you?

Posted in Stuff, Technology and software on November 17th, 2010

I don’t know if this is a farce, a comedy, or a tragedy…

Background

When my wife purchased her Toshiba notebook (three years ago), it came with McAfee Internet Security preloaded.

When I purchased my Gateway notebook (two years ago), it came with McAfee Total Security preloaded.

We both auto-renewed for a year (I think). McAfee was obtrusive at times–the update process is the only thing I know that seems able to use 100% of both cores in my Core 2 Duo, hanging the machine until it finishes–but had, for a while, top ratings. More recently? Not so much.

Foreground

My wife’s one-user McAfee Internet Security license expires in a few days. She deliberately turned off autorenew. My three-user McAfee Total Security license expires in January. I had autorenew on.

But my wife’s doing volunteer work that requires her to visit sites that I might not choose to visit. She needs topnotch online security more than I do. So…

Well, I thought, there should be an easy way to add her to my Total Security license, so her software gets upgraded; I’ll pay the autorenew rate for both machines.

Not so easy, as it turns out. After struggling to make sense of McAfee’s online support, the only answer was for her to TOTALLY UNINSTALL her protection, leaving her computer wholly unprotected, then download Total Security after going to my McAfee page. Of course, if anything went wrong with the download, well, she’d be totally unprotected–the instructions required her to wholly remove the software before doing the new install. Provide a code so she could simply attach to my license? Nah, that would be too logical.

Well, OK. Thinking about it, and the likelihood that we’ll upgrade her notebook in the next year or so, maybe she should go ahead and renew her McAfee. I’d turn off my autorenewal and switch to Microsoft Security Essentials instead…and if that seemed inadequate, I’d definitely be able to buy a new copy of Norton, McAfee, AVG or something else for $40 or less (as opposed to the $80 McAfee wanted to autorenew my Total Security).

The chaos

My wife–who has two masters degrees, who taught computer programming at one point, who is a first-rate analyst–followed McAfee’s instructions for renewal. And wound up with an about-to-expire existing subscription and a new one-year/three-user subscription, which she’d need to download. For $70.

Huh?

So she went to technical support…an online chat, similar to the one I’d endured, but worse.

After wasting half an hour or so, she got the new subscription canceled and refunded (I’ll check the credit card account online to make sure that’s actually happened, and she does have a confirmation number).

She found a different “renewal” link on the account page. But, whoops, it seems to go to an order for a one-year subscription, not a renewal…although this time, it’s $40, not $70, and it’s a three-user subscription. Nahh…

Now, she’s turned autorenew back on. Will it actually autorenew, since she only has a few days? If not…well, if she does the renewal, it seems as though it requires her to download the product again. And avoiding all that hassle is the only reason she was willing to pay the higher price.

To sum up:

  • The link in McAfee’s email explicitly leads to the wrong place, adding a second subscription for the same software.
  • So far, we’ve been unable to find a route that actually allows you to do something that is, explicitly, continuing your subscription for another year…except by having a standing autorenew.
  • McAfee seems to want twice as much to renew a subscription as they do for a new one…maybe, or maybe not, depending on which set of links you follow.
  • Oh, did I mention that it seems to regard her fully valid Visa card has expired? It would take a new Mastercard number but not, apparently, a new Visa number.

The outcome

I don’t actually know yet. We’re hoping the autorenew takes. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure what to do. I know I can go buy an actual physical copy (CD and all) of Total Security for $40 if I do it by Saturday. I know she has a lot better things to do with her time.

And I know this: If McAfee has screwed up their renewal, pricing, link and other structures this badly, it leaves me in considerable doubt that their computer protection is as top-notch as they claim.

(I’ll add this: We used Norton for years, but at some point it became too intrusive. Norton never, never, ever had this kind of renewal incompetence associated with it.)

Postscript

If someone from McAfee feels offended by this, there’s a simple solution: You need to provide us–my wife, who I can put you in contact with–with a straightforward working procedure by which her subscription continues to be valid for another year, without having to download the whole damn package once again. Seems like that should be simple. It’s called renewal: You may have heard of the concept. Or not.

A random post about random accumulation

Posted in Stuff, Technology and software on August 23rd, 2010

For some reason, I woke up in the middle of the night wondering about this:

  • How many CD players do you have in your house/do you own?
  • How many FM radios do you have in your house/do you own?

Those are four questions, not two. Let me add definitions:

  • CD player: Device capable of playing a CDAD “Red Book” audio disc. (Thus includes PC CD drives, DVD drives, Blu-ray drives.)
  • FM radio: Device capable of receiving broadcast FM and making it audible in some form.

The second actually hit me first, because I was thinking “it’s odd that we don’t have a radio in our house”–then, when I did a quick mental inventory, came up with what I *think* is the answer(s): Five in the house, seven that we own.

Huh? Well, there’s a crank-powered emergency radio. That’s one. (That is: It has a hand crank for real emergencies, also a little LED flashlight. We don’t listen to cranks on it, unless you count the Tappit Brothers.) But there’s also a boombox in the garage. That’s two. (And it plays CDs as well.) Oh, but I also got a silly little radio as a premium with a magazine subscription–it’s tiny and tinny, but it works. That’s three.

Four and five? The 8GB Sansa Fuze that I use as an MP3 player these days has a great FM tuner–but then, so does the 2GB Sansa Express that I used to use, even though that one was clumsy to use.

Six and seven, probably obvious (and also constitute CD players two and three): Car radios.

Only noteworthy because I think most folks would regard us as having very little in the way of consumer electronics. One TV (technically, zero TVs at the moment), no iAnythings, a little tiny stereo system…oops, wait:

Make that six and eight. The Denon stereo (with a malfunctioning CD door) also includes an FM tuner. I’d forgotten that, since we never used it. And that’s a fourth CD player, even if it’s barely functional.

This is surprisingly difficult. Now, what about CD players. I think I count eight and ten, of which five are DVD-capable. (TEN optical drives in this low-tech household? Good Gaia!)

Besides the four already mentioned, there are DVD burners in each of our budget notebook computers (#5 and #6, also DVD #1 and #2). I had a neat little $15 CD portable that I used before getting a Sansa (#7). Because we love the Denon’s sound and fixing the door would cost $200, we’re using a cheap Sony DVD player as a CD front-end (try finding a non-DVD CD player that has a track display and costs less than $1,000…), so that’s #8 (and DVD #3). Oh, and the freebie DVD player we got during a Safeway post-remodeling grand opening and have been using as our only DVD player for a couple of years (#9, and DVD #4). And the big luxury–the $129 Blu-ray player we just picked up to go with the TV that will shortly replace our 13-year-old TV (which has been Freecycled to another household, not junked).

That’s us–and this really is a low-tech household…no teenagers, no DVR, no second TV in the bedroom, third in the kitchen, fourth in the…whatever.

How about you? Can you even count the number of optical drives you own? The number of FM tuners? (And now Big Media thinks your cell phone should have a mandatory FM tuner, ‘cuz, you know, otherwise there’s no way for you to listen to the radio…)

No big moral here. Just an oddity: Things do accumulate. Remember when household lasers were rare and expensive devices? Maybe not; most readers may not be that old.

Enough procrastination. Back to the OA project.

CD lifespan: A clarification

Posted in Stuff, Technology and software on June 10th, 2010

In the Interesting & Peculiar Products section of the new Cites & Insights, discussing the prospects for 500GB optical discs, I question an assertion that the real-world lifespan of optical media is “well under ten years” and note that “I have 25-year-old CDs that work perfectly.”

A reader says that her eight-year-old CD-Rs are unreadable and questions what I’m saying…and says industry estimates are about ten years.

So here’s a clarification:

  • The paragraph I was questioning specifically said “mass-market physical medium”–by which I assumed pressed/pre-recorded media, not recordable media.
  • My context was 25-year-old audio CDs (pressed audio CDs)–and every one of the (prerecorded) CDs I purchased two decades ago still works perfectly.
  • While there are special archival optical media, I can’t speak to life estimates for recordable media–although I do have (audio) CD-Rs that are still readable after eight years, that’s anecdata.
  • I would also note that the paragraph I questioned said people wanting long-term archiving would stick with magtape. Permanence of magtape ain’t so hot either…

Meanwhile: I am not an expert on archival media (and other than ink or properly-fused toner on acid-free paper and *maybe* high-quality microfilm, I don’t know of any), and my casual comment should under no circumstances be assumed to be a guarantee that the DVD-R you burn today will be readable in 25 years.

Bandwidth of Large Airplanes, Take 2

Posted in Stuff, Technology and software on June 9th, 2010

Peter Murray has a post this morning that updates an old conversation he and I had, one that Cliff Lynch also played an indirect part–all riffing off the old note,

When you think you have a really zippy network connection, someone will (should?) bring up an old internet adageL2 which says “Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes.”

…which, more recently had entailed versions such as “a truck full of CDs” or, what started this all, “a 747 full of Blu-ray Discs.”

Go read the post. I’ll wait.

In the spirit of scientific investigation (which you can translate as “Because I really should be doing the indexing for the new Cites & Insights, and indexing is really boring…”), I decided to check out a couple of things–e.g.,

  • Would 2TB internal hard disks provide even greater bandwidth?
  • Would cargo weight or bulk be the limiting factor?
  • Which provides greater bandwidth, a 747 full of double-density Blu-Ray discs or a 747 full of 2TB internal hard disks–and what is that capacity (from New York to LA)?

I also changed one thing: Realistically, even double-DVD slimpacks aren’t the way you’d ship all this stuff. You’d use 100 disc spindles, which result in less packaging overhead.

Here’s what I found

Table

Cargo capacity (cubic meters) 764
Cargo capacity (kg) 123,656
Volume of 100 BD spindle (cm) 0.00347
Weight of 100BD spindle (kg) 1.316
Max spindles (volume) 220,173
Max spindles (weight) 93,964
Data capacity at 40Tb/spindle 3,758,541
Bandwidth JFK-LAX, Gb/sec 232,009
Volume of 10 2TB HD (cm) 0.00390
Weight of 10 2TB HD (kg) 7.50
Max 10packs (volume) 195,998
Max 10packs (weight) 16,487
Data capacity at 160Tb/pack 2,637,995
Bandwidth JFK-LAX, Gb/s 162,839

Notes

I checked Boeing’s website for the maximum payload capacity of a Boeing 747 freighter (see Peter’s link, but go to other sublinks as needed). I did real-world measurements for the size and weight of a 100-disc spindle and used Western Digital’s own specs for their Caviar Black 2TB internal hard drive–and, to simplify calculations, I assumed “10packs” of the discs, wrapped 10 high in plastic wrap. (I assume plastic wrap throughout rather than boxes, again to simplify things.) The bandwidth calculations assume the 16,200 seconds in Peter’s post.

To explicate what’s here:

  • A spindle of 100 Blu-ray discs (total data capacity 5TB or 40Tb) occupies 0.00347 cubic meters (basically, 7.5×5.5×5.5 inches or 177.8×139.7×139.7 millimeters) and weighs 1.316 kilograms (2.9lb.) You could fit 220,173 spindles (in other words, just over 22 million discs) in the 747 freighter–but the plane couldn’t take off. By weight, it could hold 93,964 spindles (just under 9.4 million discs)–so the actual data capacity would be 3,758,541 Terabits, for a bandwidth of 232,009 Gb/s–just a little higher than Peter’s numbers, because spindles add so much less bulk than individual packages.
  • A stack of 2TB hard drives 10 high (total data capacity 20TB or 160Tb) occupies 0.003898 cubic meters (261 millimeters high, 147 millimeters wide, 101.6 millimeters deep) and weighs 7.5 kilograms. That’s the killer: While you could fit almost 1.96 million drives into the plane, you could only take off with 166,487 drives (16,487 tenpacks)–so the actual data capacity would be 2,637,995 Terabits for a bandwidth of 162,839 Gb/s.

Both are, to be sure, three orders of magnitude greater than the fastest reported network transmission. I was a little surprised to find that Blu-ray discs offered more bandwidth than hard disks–because a spindle of 100 Blu-ray discs with 5TB total capacity weighs less than two 2TB hard disks.

Another little table:

BD HD
Capacity (per cubic meter) 1441TB 5131TB
Weight (per cubic meter) 379kg 1924kg

Significance and omitted elements

  • None…except that the proverbial station wagon full of tapes still has some, erm, legs.
  • Many–some of them discussed in the original post and comments.

Now for that indexing…

Computer Basics for Librarians and Information Scientists

Posted in Books and publishing, Technology and software on May 11th, 2010

Catherine Pellegrino at Saint Mary’s College Library (in Notre Dame, Indiana) was weeding QA76 and weeded this book. She noted that on FriendFeed; I said “Might be interesting to read that book as early library automation history” and she sent it to me.

I finally got around to reading it. Well, reading part of it, skimming the rest. It’s from 1981. It’s by Howard Fosdick. It really doesn’t say much about library automation; it’s mostly a consideration of very basic aspects of computers–things that I really wouldn’t have thought most librarians needed to understand even in 1981. (Such as, for example, whether a language compiler is part of systems software and exactly how long it takes to read a record from a 1600bpi tape.)

And, after skimming it, I wondered: Was it really as primitive in 1981 as it seems, based on this book?

I was there

Not only was on involved in library automation in 1981, I’d already been involved in it for more than a decade. At that point, I’d been at RLG for two years; my possibly-flawed recollection is that by 1981 I’d just about finished (or fully finished) the design and programming of the product batch system supporting RLIN II, RLG’s full-fledged cataloging network system (based on SPIRES).

It strikes me that, by 1981, I didn’t really have to worry about whether or not I could use PL/I because it took a full 164K of RAM, where some less powerful languages only needed 120K. I know for sure I still spent a lot of time at that point optimizing program operation–but not, I think, at the levels suggested in this book.

OK, that’s probably not fair. RLG, and UC Berkeley before it, had much stronger computing environments than most libraries would have access to. Still…I developed the first working version of the Serials Key Word System in 1973, eight years before 1981, in PL/I (and wrote about it in my first published article, in the March 1976 Journal of Library Automation). And, you know, that Serials Key Word System used full MARC II as an input format.

Were computers still using core memory in 1981? I suppose it’s possible for mainframes; I’m certain the Datapoint multiterminal data entry system (based on a Z80 CPU with 128K RAM, developed in the mid-1970s; I wrote the time-sharing environment, but based on a highly sophisticated OS with direct database support built in) didn’t use core memory!

Not missing the good old days

Admittedly, I remember 1981 as being a little more advanced than this book seems to portray (although the author does view PL/I as the best language for library automation, which I’m pretty certain was true for the time). But that doesn’t mean I remember it with a lot of fondness.

Yes, it’s “wasteful” in some ways that today’s PCs spend 1GB+ of RAM just on the operating system–and probably most CPU cycles as well. But isn’t it wonderful that RAM and CPU power are both so cheap that we can afford to be “wasteful”? I’m guessing the 2-year-old, low-priced notebook I’m using to write this is sitting mostly idle (just opened Task Manager–yep, CPU usage is running 2% to 5% as I write this, occasionally spiking higher). And that’s fine with me. It means I can edit in high-res proportional type instead of 5×7-matrix fixed characters on an 80×25 green-on-black (or, if you’re lucky, amber-on-black) screen–and use about 1/3 the power for my whole two-screen system that the old CRT terminal used all by itself. All that waste CPU power is saving me time: Whoopee.

That Intel core 2 duo CPU in my notebook is a little underpowered by 2010 standards–only two threads and a mere 1.66GHz. By 1981 standards? Were there any mainframes with that much computing power?

And, if you really want silly-season numbers, the 1981 book devotes an appendix to the IBM 3330 Reference Card. That’s a disk drive, hot stuff for its day. The 3336 Model II disk pack had a total capacity of 200 million characters (200 megabytes). I know the drive itself was huge; I don’t know how much a pack cost, but I’m guessing it wasn’t cheap.

I also remember much later, when RLG needed to add a terabyte of disk storage (probably in the late 1990s). That procurement process was a big and expensive deal–but who could imagine adding a terabyte of disk storage to a library automation facility in 1981?

Now? I could go pick up a 2TB disk drive for about $180 if I had use for one. It would fit neatly next to my notebook. (I could probably get it cheaper than that by mail order.) Two terabytes. That’s how many 3336 Model II disk packs? Ten thousand of them, by my calculations.


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