Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Buying a new PC for your library?

Some of you who've been around the Montana library community for a few years might recall fondly  when Montana State Library personnel would periodically post current recommended computer specifications for those looking to buy new PCs for their library. We stopped doing that several years ago, when Mike Price, our computer guru at the time, stated that just about any computer currently on the market would suffice for library usage. And I think he's right. But that still doesn't help much when you find yourself overwhelmed with all kinds of numbers and terms in a language that doesn't make any sense.

I've been asked for help by a couple of librarians lately so I thought I'd share what some of the terminology means and how I make my way through the jumble.

The key question to ask and answer is, what will you be using the computer for? If it's for office applications, browsing the web, answering emails, etc., you can get by with a fairly inexpensive computer with modest specifications. And by modest, I'm referring primarily to Processor and Memory or RAM. If you want a computer for graphics or video processing and/or especially for gaming, you're going to need much faster processing power, more memory and better graphics cards. All of that makes for a much more expensive computer.

My favorite place to start shopping for computers is the Costco website. I like it because they have a nice mix of higher and lower end computers without there being thousands to choose from. So, I can do some quick comparisons to get an idea of what's reasonable. So here I grabbed a quick comparison of the cheapest and most expensive models they had on their website:
Description Dell Inspiron Desktop - Intel Core i5 CyberPowerPC Supreme Liquid Cooled Gaming Desktop - 9th Gen Intel Core i9-9900K
Storage Type Disk Drive + Solid State Drive Disk Drive + Solid State Drive
SSD Size 128 GB 1 TB
RAM Included 12 GB 64 GB
Processor Intel Core i5 Intel Core i9
Optical Drive DVD±RW No Optical Drive
Hard Drive Size 1 TB 3 TB
Graphic Card Intel UHD 630 NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080Ti
Generation Intel 9th Generation Intel 9th Generation
Price $499.99 after $200 off $2,799.99

Keep in mind, these are ends of the spectrum. If you're looking for a PC to do office applications, you'll be looking more at computers on the Dell end. If you're looking at gaming PCs or high end graphics/video editing PCs, you'll be looking more to the CyberPowerPC end.

A few points to keep in mind. These two computers feature both hard disk and solid state drives. That seems to be increasingly common. You may also see just solid state drives or SSDs. You'll notice that these are generally smaller than the hard disks. They're also faster and more expensive. They give you a quicker start up for one thing. You'll note that the Dell has a DVD drive while the gaming PC has no optical drive. A DVD drive is handy if you have software or perhaps movies on DVD you'd like to run on the computer. Otherwise, everything must be downloaded from the Internet or added on with an external DVD drive.

The RAM varies considerably between these two computers. More RAM generally gives better performance. The processors are both Intel 9th generation. That can be helpful information if you're comparing computers and one has older components. These specs don't provide the number of cores or the speed in Mhz, but the i9 is a faster and more powerful CPU. Another big difference in performance and price comes with the graphics cards.

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If you want to see just what is needed to run the particular software you're looking at, you can always go to the requirements page for that software. As an example, here are the requirements listed for Office Professional 2019 from Microsoft as of 1/14/2020:

COMPONENT REQUIREMENT

Computer and processor
1.6 gigahertz (GHz) or faster, 2-core

Memory
4 GB RAM; 2 GB RAM (32-bit)

Hard disk
4.0 GB of available disk space

Display
1280 x 768 screen resolution

Graphics
Graphics hardware acceleration requires DirectX 9 or later, with WDDM 2.0 or higher for Windows 10 (or WDDM 1.3 or higher for Windows 10 Fall Creators Update).

You can see that the lower end Dell is probably sufficient, but you may want to get more details to make sure that the processor meets the specifications.

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If you want to run Adobe Photoshop on the PC, here are the specifications as of 1/14/2020:

Minimum Requirements

Processor
Intel® or AMD processor with 64-bit support*; 2 GHz or faster processor

Operating system
Microsoft Windows 7* with Service Pack 1 (64-bit)**,
Microsoft Windows 10*** October 2018 update (64-bit) version 1809 or later

RAM
2 GB or more of RAM (8 GB recommended)

Graphics card
nVidia GeForce GTX 1050 or equivalent; nVidia GeForce GTX 1660 or Quadro T1000 is recommended

Hard disk space
3.1 GB or more of available hard-disk space for 64-bit installation; additional free space required during installation (cannot install on a volume that uses a case-sensitive file system)

Monitor resolution
1280 x 800 display at 100% UI scaling with 16-bit color and 512 MB or more of dedicated VRAM; 2 GB is recommended †

The Dell is probably okay for everything but the graphics card. Photoshop requires a more advanced graphics card but not one as high end as in the gaming PC. You can either shop for another PC with better graphics capability or shop from a website that will allow you to customize certain features of your PC. The Adobe Photoshop system requirements page gives lots of information on compatible graphics cards.

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So, while there's a lot of information and the numbers and details can be confusing, there are really only a few that you really need to concern yourself with. And what you get in those depends on what you want to do with the PC. If you have that planned out ahead of time, you know what you have to look for as a minimum. Then, it's usually a good idea to get a bit more to allow for improvements and greater capabilities and demands over the next few years.

If you still have questions ask your tech support and/or contact us at the State Library.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

3 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Security on the Internet

I know it can feel like the only way to have any kind of security with Internet hacks and exploits these days is by going offline and heading to a cave. But there are a few relatively easy steps you can take that will make a big difference.

  1. Use a password manager. One of the worst things you can do is to use the same password over and over again. Another no no is to use passwords that are easy to guess, e.g., Password or 12345 or even something you think is clever like P@ssw0rd. I know a number of people who create good passwords and write them in a book. Okay, if that works for you. I exhausted my good passwords years ago and now suffer from password overload. One of the benefits of a password manager is that they create randomly generated secure passwords for you on demand. And they can be accessed wherever you are so you don't need to generate a new password when you're traveling and the app you need for your hotel reservations has mysteriously forgotten your password. Your trusty password book is a thousand miles away and seemingly your only option is to do a password reset and hope that all works out in a timely fashion.Of course, you will need a good strong password for your password manager - preferably a phrase you can remember.
  2. Use two factor authentication whenever possible. I know this one is a hassle. I frequently mutter unkind things under my breath when I need to log in again to LastPass (my password manager of choice), Google, Facebook, etc. Basically, if it's something that you REALLY don't want hacked, e.g., your password manager, two factor authentication is really important. Google is also very important as Gmail is a primary email for me and someone getting into that could do serious damage. Facebook is more to eliminate the worry that many have that they're getting hacked when it's an impostor. Consequently, I don't need to panic when I get those bizarre messages from friends telling me I've been hacked and to forward to everyone I know. I don't think so...
    Two factor authentication can take a number of different forms. The least secure is a text, phone or email message giving you a code you need to enter into a form as verification. The reason it's the least secure and effective is that if you're being targeted, there's a good chance the culprit trying to gain access to your accounts may have already accessed phone data and/or email. There are authenticator apps. I use one from Google. It continuously generates random number combinations. Of course, if you lose the device where the app is, or you don't have Internet access, you're out of luck. In addition there are physical devices or fobs. We have one for the state that works like my Google authenticator constantly generating random numbers. There are also fobs that act as keys. You plug them in and they unlock access to devices, apps, websites. The downside here is that you always have to have the fob with you.
  3. Keep software and firmware up to date. I know there have been some problems in the past with updates, particularly operating system updates for Windows or Mac which have made many people wary about updating software. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Some of those concerns are valid, particularly when we're talking about major features updates, e.g., from Windows 7 or 8 to 10 or one of the annual Apple Mac OS or iOS updates. It can happen that peripherals like printers need new drivers to operate and/or frequently used software or apps are not updated right away or at all and stop working. Yes, there are good reasons to wait at least a few weeks for some of the bugs to get worked out before jumping to the next shiny version.
    But one should make the leap eventually. Major releases often include major fixes for bugs and security flaws. And the more incremental periodic updates throughout the year should just be downloaded and installed automatically. These include patches to serious security vulnerabilities. You don't want to wait on these.
    Microsoft saves up most of their updates for a monthly "Patch Tuesday". This is generally on the second Tuesday of the month. This is when Microsoft rolls out updates for Windows, Office, Internet Explorer, etc. It is not a features update that one needs to be concerned about but rather important security updates and tested bug fixes. But you should also note that if the security update is important enough, Microsoft won't wait until the second Tuesday but will release it as soon as it becomes available.
    Automatic updates are the easiest way to make sure that your devices have the latest security and bug fixes for your computer, phone, tablet.
    But you may very well have other Internet connected devices that also need security and bug fixes. Your router is an important and vulnerable piece of hardware that is frequently overlooked. Be sure to change the default password and keep router firmware up to date. In fact, just about every IoT (Internet of Things) device is also subject to the threat of hacking and misuse: smart plugs, smart bulbs, smart TVs, smart thermostats, streaming devices (Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV), video doorbells (Ring, Nest), baby monitors, home security systems, voice assistant/speakers (Amazon Echo, Google Nest/Home, Apple Homepod), smart appliances (refrigerators, microwaves, crockpots controlled by apps via the Internet). Often times, brand names will update automatically. Or you can go into the app or visit the product website to download and install updates. Unfortunately, many of the bargain brands won't ever offer updates. Beware of those. As in many other situations, you get what you pay for.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Evaluating Tech Gifts

Are you looking for some assistance in determining whether or not a particular tech device might be an appropriate gift this holiday season? I'd like to recommend a couple of websites that can provide useful information for your decision making process.

Wirecutter https://thewirecutter.com/

Wirecutter is from the New York Times and provides reviews of a wide variety of items. They're also known for evaluating deals and recommending best deals on big shopping days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Mozilla *Privacy Not Included https://foundation.mozilla.org/en/privacynotincluded/

Mozilla, the people who brought us Firefox also bring us a website evaluating some of the latest tech devices in terms of privacy. The ratings range from Not creepy! to Super creepy! They rate in terms of what they deem Minimum Security Standards - Five basic steps every company should take to protect consumer privacy.

  • Encryption
  • Security updates
  • Strong password
  • Manages vulnerabilities
  • Privacy policy
As you might surmise, products rated Not creepy! pass these five standards. As they climb the creepy scale, you'll see where they come up short according to Mozilla's evaluation process. Good to be aware of. And even if you aren't concerned about privacy, you may want to keep in mind your potential gift recipient.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Advances in Accessibility

Both Google and Apple have had their developers' conferences for the year where they unveiled all kinds of new features. What stood out to me, in particular, however, were the advances in accessibility.

Let's start with Apple. This article from Tech Crunch goes into a lot of detail about the various accessibility advances coming up in Apple's various operating systems to be updated this fall: Apple’s global accessibility head on the company’s new features for iOS 13 and macOS Catalina.

Voice control is the first big advance discussed at the keynote. It purports to allow seamless movements between navigating, using apps and creating and sending content. The video shown at the keynote makes it all look quite usable.


And to learn more about other existing accessibility features in Apple software and devices, check out this article from iMore: Apple: Accessibility is a Human Right.

This CNET video from YouTube gives a good summary of Google's recent announcements at its annual I/O conference. The first part covers mostly accessibility features including text to speech using a phone's camera, AI assisted voice control, live captioning, etc.

Of course one of the downsides to Apple's offerings is that they're limited to Apple devices: iPhones, iPads, Macs, etc. As these devices tend to be more expensive, that can limit their reach. Google makes apps available on multiple platforms and the Android operating system runs on a wide variety of devices ranging from very cheap to high end. The problem is that Android Q may never run on most of the devices currently on the market. And, for now, some of the features are limited to Google's own Pixel devices.

Another major player in the accessibility arena is Microsoft. They produce apps like Seeing AI which is available for iOS (not yet for Android) and allows a user to point the device's camera at text and have it read aloud. It also attempts to identify objects in photos. When I tested it, it identified a red flower and my dog with a toy in his mouth as a brown dog with a frisbee - close enough. But when I asked it to identify a mountain range, it could only identify the clouds. It seems to default to grey a lot with colors and wanted to make my dog green. It was spot on with currency and identifying products by their barcode.

There's an entire section on the Microsoft website devoted to Accessibility In addition, they have a YouTube channel devoted to Accessibility Training called MSFTEnable which includes a number of training videos exploring how to use many of their accessibility features.

There is progress being made and tools we can all use to make our websites, trainings and resources more accessible to everyone.


Thursday, February 14, 2019

Testing Voice Assistants 2019

In Facebook memories today, I was reminded of a fun little test I ran 3 years ago comparing the responses of various voice assistants to some possible Valentine's Day queries and interactions. Here were the initial results:

Fun with AI on Valentine's Day: Pt. 2
1) What's a good gift for my boyfriend for Valentine's Day?
Alexa: no response
Siri and Google: list of websites with gift suggestions for guys on Valentine's Day.
2) Where's a good place for dinner on Valentine's Day?
Alexa: no response
Google: lists of websites with recommended restaurants for Valentine's Day in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, NYC, etc.
Siri: list of 12 restaurants in Billings with reviews on Yelp.
I'd have to say it's a tie between Siri and Google. Siri nailed the local and provided recommended restaurants within a mile of my location. But not all fit with the Valentine's Day theme. I wouldn't pick Pug Mahon's for a romantic dinner. It's not open today. 😉🍺
Google picked up on the romantic theme. If I were a Google exec with a private jet, I'd have a world of possibilities.

And here are the results from 2019:

Happy Valentine's Day
Alexa: Ah, that's sweeter than a box of chocolates. Happy Valentine's Day to you, too.
Google Assistant: Happy Valentine’s Day! If you want to say “I love you” to someone special, you can try saying it in Mandarin. It’s pronounced "wo ai ni" 💗
Siri: Happy Valentine's Day
Cortana: Happy Valentine's Day to you!

What's a good gift for Valentine's Day?
Alexa: Hmm, I don't know that.
Google Assistant: List of websites with gift ideas for Valentine's Day but also included some suggestions for possible search refinements, e.g., What do you get guys for Valentine's Day?
Siri: List of websites with gift ideas for Valentine's Day (those at the top for women. Apparently more people search the web for gifts for women than for men).
Cortana: I'm sorry I can't help out with that one, but I found this on the web. List of websites with one for her followed by one for him. Very egalitarian. 😄

Where should I have dinner on Valentine's Day?
Alexa on Echo Show: 10 Creative Valentine's Day Date Ideas video from USA Today
Google Assistant: Listed 3 nice restaurants within 6 miles.
Siri: List of 5 restaurants within one mile. One was fast food and another, Pug Mahon, was recently closed. 
Cortana: I'm sorry I can't help out with that one, but I found this on the web. List of websites mostly with recipes and a couple with reasons why you should never go out for dinner on Valentine's Day. I guess it answered the question.

Will you be my Valentine?
Alexa: That's sweet to ask but I already have a strong connection to your WiFi.
Google Assistant: I found a few places within 0.8 miles (??)
Siri: I don't have an answer for that
Cortana: Of course I can be your virtual Valentine. Would you like me to sing a love song to celebrate? 
(And goes on to sing, yes sing!)
Red is the rose in yonder garden grows, and fair is the lily of the valley, clear is the water that flows from the Boyne, but my love is fairer than any.

Conclusion: Google Assistant is probably the most efficient at answering questions and providing the kind of information one is looking for but it's lacking in fun.
Alexa is fun to interact with but results differ depending on whether you're interacting with just the voice assistant via Echo or a visual interface on an Echo Show or Spot. I think you'll often get more useful results with a visual interface.
Siri continues to be an also ran. The choice of genders and nationalities offers some personality but it continues to lack the ability to meet what I would consider basic expectations from a voice assistant.
I'd never used Cortana before and was surprised by both the natural voice and quality of responses. But singing a love song verged on creepy to my mind. Flashbacks to "Her".

One additional note: I tested Google Assistant, Siri and Cortana all on an iPad. So, while it is disappointing at first glance that Apple's entry into the AI/voice assistant race is rather lackluster, iOS users do have other options through apps. You can also access Alexa through an iOS app. I'm assuming most of these, aside from Siri, are also available to Android users through the Google Playstore. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Digital Assistants or AI Everywhere

One of the major topics of conversation coming out of this year's CES was that digital assistants seemed to be everywhere. Digital assistants are an example of artificial intelligence (AI) and are found in products like Amazon's Alexa, Google's Google Assistant, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana. The products most associated with these AI are Amazon Echo, Google Home, and just recently available for sale, Apple HomePod. They range in price from slightly under $50 for Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home Mini to $349 for Apple HomePod. There are also third party manufacturers creating devices for use with these AI, e.g., Harman Kardon makes a speaker for Cortana. Sonos makes a speaker that works with Alexa and promises to integrate eventually with Google Assistant.

Google Assistant, Siri and Cortana have all been around for several years and accessible via smartphone, tablet and/or computer. So, we've had a little while to get used to the pros and cons of interacting with voice activated digital assistants. But their move into the home started with Amazon's Echo, essentially a smart speaker, a couple of years ago.

Smart speakers coordinate with music streaming services so you can ask them to play a wide variety of music. The AI can look up information on the web so you can ask for weather or news updates. You can ask also ask for event information like movies and times near you. You can even ask for calculations and conversions, e.g., teaspoons to ounces for cooking, or Fahrenheit to Celsius. Smart speakers are often tied in with the Internet of Things and can work with various gadgets and appliances. As they tend to take answers off the top without scrutiny, they may not always be the best sources for reliable unbiased information. Alexa tends to over rely on Wikipedia, for example. So when people change the Wikipedia entries, answers can change. A recent article in Fortune: 'Who Is Jesus?' Google Home Couldn't Answer and People Weren't Happy  helps illustrate some of the potential problems in AIs remaining unbiased in a polarized information world. Amazon Echo, in particular, also has a large variety of third party skills available so it can be used for an ever growing number of games and various tasks.

Digital assistants are offering a lot of possibilities to people with visual and physical disabilities. They may prove particularly useful to our aging population. They offer quick information in response to verbal requests and can be asked repeatedly for the same information without ever showing signs of tiring or exasperation. As they can also be tied in to IoT hubs and devices, they can be used for routine tasks like turning on and off lights, locking doors, changing channels on TV, setting thermostats, as well as monitoring cameras and doors for security. People can use them to order groceries or other supplies as well as provide reminders of appointments or times to take medications. They can be linked to family members' devices for quick calling features. In short, they might make it easier for people to stay in their homes and for families to feel comfortable about it. There are many articles such as this one written on the topic: Amazon Echo for Dementia: Technology for Seniors

One of the downsides is privacy concerns over always on listening devices in the home. There are indications when they're actively listening. The Echo lights up blue as in the photo.
However, one does notice that they seem to turn on periodically for no apparent reason. This is particularly true if they're near a radio or TV. People seem to say the A-word setting off the Amazon Echo at an alarming frequency. There are other optional wake words for Amazon's product. You can change it in settings to: Amazon, Echo or Computer. But I doubt any of these will solve the problem especially if you watch or listen to tech podcasts like I do. It will still turn on at odd times. The phrase, "Hey Google" is probably a lot less likely to be uttered by accident. In the case of the Echo, you can go into the settings and see when it was activated and what were the triggers and responses. You can also delete any or all entries from your history. But many are uncomfortable that information is being collected and stored. And law enforcement has at least once that we know of asked for it. So, if you have privacy concerns, you might want to think twice about bringing listening devices into your home. But do keep in mind that most phones, particularly newer Android phones are also always on listening devices. They're just not quite so open about it.

There are some open source solutions.
Mycroft Mark 1 pictured here. As it's open source, it's designed to be modified and customized by users. But it will also provide basic AI functions like answering questions, controlling IoT devices, playing music, etc. From reading some of the information on their website, I think that the key difference they offer is that your voice information is aggregated so that it cannot be tracked back directly to you. This is different from Amazon which connects your queries to your Amazon account as one of the services offered is shopping via your Echo device. Google also offers shopping capabilities. As their main business is advertising, so you can assume that Google Assistant information goes into their aggregate database about you and your interests, all the better to direct ads at you. Apple offers a more privacy oriented service for those who are willing to shell out premium dollars. 

The allure of open source is its customization. For those who are so inclined, one can use the Mycroft software on a raspberry pi and enable a number of different devices and uses. The downside is that it might be a bit trickier for non-techies to set up and troubleshoot and it may not work with certain services. Digital assistants seem to be following the services silo model. Amazon products work best with Amazon services: Echo with Amazon Prime music and video, Fire TV, Google Home with Google Play and YouTube, Apple HomePod with Apple Music and iTunes. They all purport to work with major third party services like Spotify. But if you're tied to a particular service, it would be a good idea to make sure that it is supported by the device of your choice.

So, what does all of this mean for libraries? I think it will continue to be important for librarians to help educate the public about new products and how they can be used or possibly misused. It also seems very important to make people aware of the privacy implications of many of these devices and services. People should understand there's a trade off between convenience and giving up personal information and data so that they can make better informed decisions. 

But there are wider implications as well. What about the increasing reliance on voice control? It is convenient but it does limit the kind of information that is routinely accessible. There is no and evaluation of sources and perhaps not even a citation. But I have heard Alexa say a piece of information came from Wikipedia. There's also very little opportunity to drill deeper or question further. Part of the assistance offered might be to help people set up their own custom news briefings so that they can get news of interest to them from reliable sources.

Once again, librarians also have to ask how they can get their services on some of these devices. One of the features people love is the availability of audiobooks. Unfortunately, as far as I know, this only applies to purchased audiobooks. Wouldn't it be great if the libraries' offerings were available as well? And how about ordering library materials via digital assistants? Shouldn't our ILS be searchable as well? It goes back to the notion of meeting our patrons where they are. If they are spending more and more time with digital assistants, shouldn't we be there as well?

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Wifi networking options for your library

There is a lot to know about networking in general and wireless networking in particular. So, I've put together a bibliography with articles and videos you can watch to learn more about the overall topic and/or a few specifics.

From CNET: Home networking: Everything you need to know
From KnowHow on the TWIT Network:
Networking 101 The whole series is helpful, but the episode on
Router WiFi Setup may be particularly helpful as that's what I referred to when setting up mine.

There are some interesting alternatives for setting up subnetworks for trusted, untrusted and perhaps totally untrustworthy devices using old routers. You might want to check out the Know How episode:
Networking 102 - Part 4: 3 Dumb Routers