Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Looking for an E-Reader for Christmas?

For many of us in Montana library land this may be the Christmas of the E-Reader. There are new models out there and many of our libraries are participating in MontanaLibrary2Go, where their library patrons can download e-books with just their library card number.

So, what's the best choice? Let's look at this from a couple of different categories.

E-Ink Readers - These are the standard black and white or gray scale readers.

Amazon Kindle - This is the best known and probably best selling of the e-ink e-readers. And for good reason, its hardware and software are superior to its rivals. And the Amazon Kindle store is easy to use, has a great selection and good prices. Prices for the Kindle itself are also very competitive - $139 for wifi and $189 for 3G and wifi. They also have a larger model the DX which might be what you're looking for if you want to read textbooks or newspapers or PDFs. It sells for $379. Kindle has e-reader apps for most smart phones, iPad and computers. So you can read your Kindle books just about anywhere. They even sync across devices. The only drawback? It uses a proprietary format and won't work with MontanaLibrary2Go.

Barnes & Noble Nook - The e-ink version of the Nook falls into second place after the Kindle. It has color touch screen navigation in a little ribbon at the bottom of the device. But the navigation is somewhat clunky and not terribly intuitive. It can be a bit frustrating but you're probably going to spend more time reading than navigating if e-books are what you're after. It does work nicely with MontanaLibrary2Go. It would be my choice for those looking for a reader to use with library e-books. It sells for $149 for wifi and $199 for 3G and wifi. Barnes & Noble also has a good bookstore with competitive prices and apps that run across various devices and sync. A perfectly usable second choice. My only caution is that the technology is now a year old. Instead of updating and improving the e-ink Nook, Barnes & Noble chose to go in the direction of the NookColor. I suspect this is where they'll be putting their emphasis in the future.

Sony Readers - Sony has been making e-book readers for some time. Their main advantage seems to have been that they were available in a lot of different stores. So, if you were out shopping for an e-book reader, you probably ran across Sony. And that's the only reason I can see to buy one over Kindle or Nook. At this point, they're seriously under-featured and over-priced. And they haven't come up with anything new in about a year. If you've never used a Kindle or Nook, you might be satisfied with it. They do work with MontanaLibrary2Go books as well as public domain. But I found I couldn't enlarge the text on Google e-books. And navigation was difficult and cumbersome.

Other E-Ink Readers. There are a lot of other choices out there. If you think you might be interested in one of them, I'd suggest looking at reviews. CNET reviews just about all of them so that would be a good place to start. You just might run across the perfect e-book reader for your needs. One caution is to consider where you can get your e-books for this device. If it works with MontanaLibrary2Go and that's where you plan to get all of your reading material that's one thing. If you'd also like to buy books, consider what might be available to you in that area. Most of the booksellers copy protect their current bestsellers to run only on their devices. So Amazon Kindle books work only on Kindles and Kindle reader apps. Barnes & Noble Nook books work only on Nooks and Nook reader apps, etc. Independent online booksellers sometimes sell e-books and many are doing so now under the auspices of the Google e-Bookstore. But you might want to do some price comparisons.

LED Readers

Barnes & Noble NookColor - This is the newest kid on the e-reader block and it's creating quite a stir. You might want to read David Pogue's recent review in the NY Times. I got one about a week ago and haven't had enough time with it to form a strong opinion. As for now, I'm still keeping and using my Kindle 2. But the e-ink Nook may be on its way out if the NookColor proves a worthy replacement. On limited usage the screen seems easier to read than the iPad. Photos are beautiful so a magazine like National Geographic is pleasant to read. I'm not sure yet how it is for prolonged reading. I'll do a review later on after I've had more of a chance to run it through its paces. For now, I'll say that it's a first generation product so be prepared for some bugs and glitches particularly in its interactions with some other products. I think it shows promise and may be great in its second generation and/or with a software upgrade. The latest rumor is that they're going to upgrade its operating system to Android 2.2 so it will be able to use apps from the Marketplace and function as more of a tablet in addition to an e-book reader. NookColor sells for $249 in a wifi only version.


I'm pooling these two categories because right now iPad is really the only tablet in the game but there will probably be more coming out all the time. The iPad is not really an e-book reader even though many hailed its arrival as the Kindle killer. It's much larger and bulkier than dedicated e-book readers making it awkward to hold for long periods of time. The screen resolution is such that I see pixels both in the letters and the background. I find that distracting to say the least. And many people don't like reading on a backlit screen for long. That said, it's got e-reader apps from all the major players - Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Google, Apple iBooks. So you can use it to read books you buy from just about any bookseller. And there are some great children's books being developed just for the iPad. There are a number of interesting newspaper and magazine apps. But they have yet to work out reasonable pricing schemes. It also has a new Overdrive Media Console app which means you can download books from MontanaLibrary2Go directly to your iPad. That should help eliminate some of those Adobe Digital Edition incompatibility issues that create challenges for some of the other e-readers. If you want a tablet computer for video or games or internet and want to be able to read on it occasionally, iPad might be just what you're looking for. If you want something primarily for reading e-books you can find better and cheaper alternatives. The iPad starts at $499 for a 16 GB wifi version and goes up to $829 for a 64 GB 3G and wifi version.

MontanaLibrary2Go's mobile Overdrive Media Console also works with iPhone/iPod Touch and Android smart phones. These phones also have all the e-reader apps available. While I can't imagine anyone wanting to read an entire book on their phone, the option is available. And I find the Kindle app for my Droid to be a wonderful way to kill time when I'm stuck somewhere waiting. I can pick up where I left off reading a book on my Kindle. When I'm done on my phone, it will sync up again with my Kindle at home. Nook promises to do that as well but I haven't tried it. I expect it only works with books purchased from Barnes & Noble, however, not with MontanaLibrary2Go books.

3G or Wifi?

You've probably noticed by now that most of these devices come in two flavors - 3G or wifi. Wifi means you need to be on a wireless internet network to download data. Many people have wireless networks in their homes. All you need is a broadband internet connection and a wireless router. I suggest you secure your home wireless network with password protection. You've probably noticed that there are more and more public wifi hotspots available all the time. Many libraries offer free wifi as do coffee shops and other businesses. 3G means that you can download data from a cellular network. This can be a plus if you don't have wifi at home and/or if you travel a lot and want to be able to download newspapers, magazines and/or buy books without having to worry about finding a wifi hotspot. Unfortunately, AT&T is the cellular service provider chosen by all the big players - Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble. Given that AT&T does not yet provide service in Montana, it's probably not worth the extra cost at this point in time. That might all change in the next couple of months. The other option for getting content onto your device is to download the content onto your computer, attach the device with the provided cable and transfer the books to your e-book reader. That's the way you get MontanaLibrary2Go e-books onto your e-reader. So, if that's your primary aim, go with the cheaper wifi option.

Tech Reader Gadget Comparison Sheet - I created this for the staff at Bozeman Public Library and modified it for workshops at Parmly Billings Library. It may be helpful in comparing prices and features.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Apps for Android

First of all, if you're looking for a central clearinghouse of Android apps outside the Android Market, perhaps on your computer where you can browse without going blind, you'll definitely want to check out AppBrain

Library-Related Apps (pretty much all from Android Market)
  • AccessMyLibrary from Gale. The public edition finds your closest public library and allows you to search their InfoTrac databases from your phone.
  • Ebook Readers - Borders, Kindle and Nook all have their ebook readers available for Android devices. The only one I use on a regular basis is Kindle because the Whispersync with my Kindle make it easy to pick up where I left off.
  • Book scanners - Goggles will let you scan a book cover and will identify the book and tell you where it can be bought online and for how much. LibraryThing scanner will scan a book's barcode and give you information on that book and allow you to add the title to your LibraryThing account. Amazon also has an app where you can scan in a barcode or a photo and it will search for the book within its collection.
  • OverDrive Media Console has an Android app. You can download audiobooks from the MontanaLibrary2Go collection right to your phone.
  • WorldCat - you can search the OCLC WorldCat database. Librarians will think this is pretty neat - too many results in too many far away libraries.
  • ALA 2010 - a handy app for keeping track of sessions and vendors at conference. You'll find quite a few libraries using Boopsie for their library apps. You might want to download one or two to try out. I've got Seattle Public Library on my Android.
Information at your fingertips - what librarian can resist?
  • News - BBC, News Pro (Thomson Reuters), NPR News, NYTimes, TIME Mobile and more
  • Weather - The Weather Channel
  • Sports - ESPN Score Center covers all sports but there are also apps for individual sports, e.g., MLB.com At Bat (yes, there's a charge for this one but if you're a baseball fan, it's worth it).
  • Comic relief - ONN Onion News Network, The Word from Colbert Report - I just downloaded this one today and the video playback has some bugs which hopefully they'll work out.
  • Restaurants and more (particularly useful when you're on the road) - Urbanspoon, Yelp
  • IMDb (Internet Movie Database) - uses location information to give you showings, theaters and reviews of movies in your area.
  • Tech News - Mashable, Twit.tv, CNET, Engadget
Just fun and useful apps
  • Gesture search - allows you to search for contacts, apps, etc. with one letter
  • Google Sky Map - point at the sky and it shows you and identifies the constellations overhead
  • Google Translate
  • Maps and Navigation - some people have problems with Google maps and navigation. While it's directed me into some kind of interesting areas sometimes, I've never had any serious problems. Many times, I've found it extremely useful
  • Swype - instead of trying to type on the touch keyboard, you just move your finger from letter to letter to spell out words. Unless it's something obscure, it's usually pretty good at figuring out what you're trying to say.
  • Voice Search - you speak and it types out the words. It's pretty impressive really
Feel free to add some of your own favorites.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Protect Your Network Ports

I generally sleep pretty well, especially in a tent in a light rain. But one of the things that sometimes wakes me up and keeps me up in the middle of the night is the physical security of my network ports. The prospect of someone having their own piece of equipment, with their own tools, on my wired network is scary, especially in the dark.

What could happen? A user may simply plug their notebook into a port they find available, thinking it's OK to do so. They may be infected with malware clever enough to inspect the local LAN and infect whatever it may find there. But this isn't so bad. We already have to protect ourselves against ourselves getting infected, and infecting the rest of our LAN.

What if you have a malicious user? If the user is interested in getting information, then having access to your LAN is more than half the battle. Generally the information kept by libraries is boring and of little interest to others, but some of it is private and we are bound to protect it. The most obvious, easiest, and best way to keep curious hackers out of your data is simply to keep them physically away from your LAN.

Or if a user can get access to the back of one of your PCs they can put a key logger on. A key logger is a device about the size of a thumb drive (memory stick, USB drive, whatever you want to call it). It gets plugged into a USB port on the back of your PC when you aren't looking. It's small and innocuous and how often do you look back there anyway. It records every keystroke you make on that PC. They come back days later and remove it, when you aren't looking. They take it home and find all the passwords keyed in while it was attached. It takes 3 seconds to install and 3 more to remove.

It gets worse. What if the user is not interested in grabbing data, but instead is a simple vandal? They may wire together a power cord and a network cable, walk into the library, find a spot with a power outlet near a network drop, and game over! All of a sudden, all network devices and PCs, potentially everything on your wired network, needs to be replaced. How do you stop this? Not easily.

So what is the action plan to protect ourselves as best we can from these situations?

  • Leave no network port available for a patron to plug into. This is frequently much easier said than done. But it is important.
  • If your network uses patch panels, make sure that any unused drop is unplugged back at the patch panel.
  • If you have a particularly seculded PC and network drop, consider getting an RJ45 lock (Google "rj45 lock"), so that a user cannot unplug the PC and plug their own equipment into the port.
  • Make the back of a PC inconvenient for a patron to access and insert a key logger. Put the PC under a desk, or put some kind of cover over the back of the PC.
  • Be wary about your patron's behavior around your computers and network ports. Some patrons here seem to expect access to a network port. I know some places do provide that service. We may too someday, but only under carefully controlled conditions.
I hope your summer is going well, and I'm not disturbing your sleep patterns. And by the way, did you hear we were selected to receive the BTOP grant? The Montana State Library rocks!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Top Technology Trends 2010

Sean Fitzpatrick takes better notes than I do so I'll refer you to his blog postings about Top Technology Trends for American Libraries:
And you can watch a recording of the Top Technology Trends session:

What did I take away from this session? I think we're definitely on the right track with our focus on mobile computing. We need to keep the focus on our users and how to provide for their needs in a mobile environment.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

ipad - perhaps not a game changer but certainly handy

I've had my Apple iPad for a couple of weeks now, including taking it on a couple of trips, and people want to know what I think of it.

Friday's Buzz Out Loud featured a comment from a listener that seemed to sum it up fairly well. The iPad is really all about content consumption. If you need to spend time in content creation, iPad is not going to be the magical answer for you. These limitations are largely built into the operating system (iPhone 4.0 vs OS X).

I think the best way to look at it is as an addition to your desktop or laptop computer instead of as a replacement. Are you looking for a device you can use on the couch to check email or look for quick information on the web? If so, this might be just what you're looking for. And it's satisfactory as a travel email/web device. I love the long battery life and lack of a brick charger. I also bought the keyboard attachment so I found I could answer emails comfortably from my hotel room. I use my cell phone for quick email checks but I much prefer to answer them from a larger device.

The lack of multi-tasking and Flash are continual annoyances to me. I did a recent webinar on mobile devices. I'd thought it would've been good to be able to do the webinar via iPad. But while GoToMeeting does have an iPad app, you can't run both it and Keynote (Apple's presentation app) at the same time. So, once again, you can consume content, i.e., view a GoToMeeting presentation easily but you can't create/conduct one yourself. Very frustrating from a professional point of view. But then when I'm traveling, how often do I really have to create content in a major way? Mostly I'm just trying to stay on top of things/consuming information. And I'd be happier if it ran flash so I could watch Hulu or Comedy Central but that's not a deal breaker. I've managed to find workarounds.

As summer rolls in, hopefully, I think I'll like using it around the house. I have a hundred year old two story house without air conditioning. The upstairs where my office is gets really quite toasty on summer afternoons. I could always take my laptop out on the porch but the iPad is even more portable, and with its long battery life, it's a much more attractive portable option than my netbook where I have to look for an outlet after only an hour of wifi use.

The final point that I think you need to be aware of when considering whether or not to get an iPad or another similar tablet device is that it's all about the apps. The iPad does have a certain appeal as an internet access device. But I don't know that most people need it for that limited function. After all, many of us have laptops and/or desktops and/or cell phones that access the internet as well. Desktops and laptops have bigger screens and keyboards and cell phones are more portable. What really sets the iPad apart are its overwhelming number and variety of apps. Sure I can get baseball updates from mlb.com or a lot of other websites but their iPad app really brings it all together. This is something that libraries need to keep in mind if they're considering buying iPads for checkouts. What apps are you going to put on them?

Speaking of apps, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple iBooks all have ereader apps for iPad. This has led some to call iPad the ultimate ereader. While I like the fact that I can read books I've bought for other devices on iPad, I don't like it as an ereader. It's about twice as heavy as a Kindle, a lot more bulky and I don't like the backlit display. I still find the e-ink on Kindles, Nooks and Sony Readers a lot easier on my eyes. Still with 2 million sold, this could bring a lot of people around to ebooks who hadn't used them before.

I brought my iPad to a mobile computing workshop we held at MSL last week. So some of my colleagues got to try them out for the first time. I thought I'd include their first impressions here.

Lauren McMullen - It's not a mobile device in the same sense that a pocket-sized device is mobile. I've never used Macs before so the apps thing is new to me - apps replace programs on these devices, don't they? Apps are a nice way of customizing your device. It's a nice computer for travel but my eyes would probably go bad if I tried to do much work on it because it's small for showing web pages (although many younger people don't seem to have trouble with the size). As a computer user, I'm always plugging things into my computer, like external microphones, printers, monitors, keyboards, speakers, drives, etc. Maybe all these functions have wireless equivalents but I'm not aware of them - and I didn't see too many places to plug into the ipad. I think the iPad would be a great 2nd computer to have for taking with you on trips, but you really couldn't depend on it to be your computer for all purposes.

Jennie Stapp - I think the ipad is a wonderful compromise between the portability of a mobile device and the usability of a laptop. Since I don't use a mobile phone, the internet connectivity is all I need.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hold & Overdue Messages

Hi. We just started a new service for sending out holds and overdue notices and I thought you should hear about it.

We have been looking for ways to cut costs and have been discouraged about the costs associated with sending paper mailers for holds and overdues. I found about this service from the good folks at the North Valley Public Library in Stevensville and we thought we would give it a try. We have just finished our trial period and love it. There is no going back to mailers for us.

We started this service with OneCallNow (onecallnow.com). After speaking with NVPL, I called OCN and was directed to a nice, and very helpful, sales person. After asking a lot of questions about what we needed to accomplish, she got me started on how to setup what I need. She got us started with a 30 day trial of the service and pointed me to the website where I could our service configured. I was a little confused at first about how things would work, but the website is very helpful.

We use one of many features available called a “canned call”. Our patrons get a phone call with a generic prerecorded message stating they have a hold at our library. Or a different message that they have an overdue. Here is how it works.

I started by logging into their website and registering information about our institution and setting up the procedures for a canned call. Then I had one of our librarians with a beautiful, friendly voice record the two messages we would be sending. She did this just by calling a phone number and speaking the message into the phone.

Then the talented Mike Price at the state library was able to use the same criteria used to create our hold and overdue Workflows reports to create a document with the appropriate phone numbers formatted in a manner suitable for OneCallNow. We setup a procedure whereby the documents automatically find their way to the librarian’s computer, but this could also be done simply by creating an appropriate Workflows report.

So now, every day, an MPL librarian finds the new daily documents on her PC, opens them up to verify the correct formatting, sometimes making minor changes. Then she logs into the OCN website and uploads the documents. That’s it.

All the phone calls are made within minutes. If a person answers the call, they hear the message. If a machine answers, the message is left on the machine. If there is no answer, OCN will try 12 times over 12 hours before giving up. When the process is finished, we get an email with stats about how many calls succeeded and failed, and which numbers are which.

We used to spend 44 cents first class postage per mailer, taking about an hour of staff time daily, plus the cost of the paper mailers, and the expensive equipment, sometimes requiring maintenance. Now it is 8 cents per call, taking 15 minutes daily of staff time, utilizing no equipment or consumables. It’s a no- brainer.

We do get some complaints, but a very low percentage, and involving issues we are still tweaking and improving. We think it’s a great service. Feel free to call me or one of the folks in the circulation department if you want to find out more about this. Or call OneCallNow with your questions. That’s it for today.

Friday, April 23, 2010

container vs. content

Jason Griffey brought this up during a WebJunction/ALA webinar on gadgets and libraries yesterday. And I think it's a key question for libraries in this day and age. It used to be that the container and content were singular - books and periodicals. That made it pretty easy, you bought the container and got the content within it. This lasted as long as the container. You could extend the life with mending and/or binding but that was about it. Then we started microfilming, scanning, etc. putting the content into new containers to preserve. But there's always been the unanswered question of what happens to the content when the containers are no longer accessible or viable.

This has all gotten even more difficult of late with the advent of container-dependent ebooks, audiobooks, video, etc. Just a few years ago, librarians were complaining of having to buy the same content in multiple formats - hardcover, large print, audio... Now we're also worrying about multiple containers. And we don't even own the content anymore. Instead we're just buying licenses to access it under often restrictive conditions.

I came away from the webinar yesterday thinking that librarians can't afford to get distracted by the containers. These are bound to change all the time. This year is supposedly the year of the tablet and ebook reader. No library can reasonably be expected to provide all of these various devices to their patrons. Librarians are rightfully concerned about the cost of replacement of damaged devices. Do you charge a patron for the cracked screen on a $499 iPad? What if s/he can't afford to pay for it? Do you then send out a collection agency and/or cut off borrowing privileges? I can't see that this is a road we want to go down. Nor do we want to have to spend large portions of our budgets on expensive devices that will only work with a limited amount of content.

I feel very strongly that we need to be focusing on the content itself. We don't want to get into this DRM (Digital Rights Management) game where Barnes & Noble purchased ePub content will only work with B&N ebook readers. We need to be pushing for open standards and content that will work with as many containers as possible. We are not pirates if we want to to purchase one digital copy of a book and lend it to our patrons who use Kindles, iPads or netbooks. And once the dust settles a bit and there are some functional under $100 ebook readers, we need those to be able to support all of our digital content.

This is the fight we need to be leading right now - protecting access to intellectual content. It is about the content. We can't let all the shiny new containers get in the way of that access.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Spot and Earthmate Devices

This post doesn't really have any direct relevance to the library environment, but it does for montanans who like to enjoy the landscape. This is security for your person rather than your PC.

I have picked up a couple of interesting devices these past few months and I think it'll be useful to share what I've found out. These devices are the Earthmate PN-40 and the SPOT.

I first picked up the SPOT (http://www.findmespot.com/) several months ago. The idea with the Spot is simple. First, it knows where it is, because it is a GPS device. Second, it can send any of 3 types of messages. All the messages are pre-recorded. That's it. The device is a little bigger than a cell phone and it has 4 buttons: Power, OK, Help, and 911.

When you first get the device, you register it at the findmespot website. You assign emergency contact numbers, and other similar information. You also compose the text that is sent if you send a message. My "OK" message is "Everything is fine". My "Help" message is "Better send help".

I'm frequently out in the woods alone. When I'm out, I send "OK" messages every morning and evening. If a problem were to come up that my climbing or hiking buddies could help with, I would send a "Help" message. If a really serious problem were to come up, I would press the 911 button. The "OK" and "Help" messages go to whoever I configure them to go to when I regestered the device. So my wife gets both email and text messages twice a day letting her know that "Everything is fine".

The SPOT also has an add on tracking feature I use. I put the spot into this mode and it registers my location every 10 minutes and copies that location to a web site that my wife can logon to and see how things are going. At the web site she sees my location superimposed on a topographic map. This helps her sleep better at night. But it makes it harder for me to sneak off to Las Vegas for a few days when I tell her I'm going into the Bob Marshall. I find this feature useful because I can come back after a trip and see just where I was.

The other device I recently acquired is an Earthmate PN-40. This also is a little bigger than a cell phone. The purpose of this device is to get you information while you are on the trail or road trip. It is a GPS device and it has a small screen. It also has software that lets you download USGS quad maps to it.

The only thing I don't like about it is how fast it sucks batteries dry. It uses 2 AA batteries and will deplete those in a single long day of constant use. But I love everything else about it.

The screen is easy to read in direct sunlight. If you leave it on, it is recording your total distance traveled, or if you just turn it on occassionally, you can just use the waypoints feature to record specific locations.

For example, when we are on these long day hikes, my wife never has a clue about where she is or which way to go to get back to the car. We record the location of the car when we leave it in the morning and all day long we can see the distance to the car and a direction arrow pointing to it. Of course the straight line direction to the car is not necessarily the correct direction to go, but it is a start to know which way to go.

If you are using this in a car, you can plug it into a USB port and keep it powered on that way instead of using up the batteries.

Of course I love all these new devices, but I also note that my day pack now has a full complement of new devices to weigh it down. I have my digital watch and SLR camera, the cell phone, and now the SPOT and the the PN-40, extra batteries, and don't forget the manuals. It's a little different than the daypacks I was packing 35 years ago.

So this summer get away from your computer and enjoy the marvelous country we live in. And consider these devices to help make sure you are able to get back again. Be careful out there.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

mp3 player recommendations

I use a cheap little SanDisk and it works okay. Sometimes it has problems with putting the parts in the wrong order, but you reset it and it works fine.

Michelle Fenger


Creative Zen Mozaic works great for me.

Maggie Meredith


I'm using a Creative ZEN 8gig that I'm very happy with. (About $75.00 on sale from Costco online.) Easy to use. Can download both MP3 and MWA formats. Have enought space with 8gig that I have 7+ books at a time. I just delete when finished.

In my vehicle, I use a SoundFly FM thingy (can't remember what it's called) to broadcast the books to channel 100.1 on my car's FM radio so I can listen there. Plugs in to cigarette lighter -- OK, I know there's a better name for it than that, but what is it?

Oh, yes -- Even if ZEN is out of juice (battery charge) the SoundFly will power it so I can continue to listen until I can connect ZEN to a computer with USB and charge it up.

Diane Van Gorden


My daughter loves listening on her iPod. She loves her iPod for her music and not having to have something different is great. Before we could put WMA titles on the iPod, we had a different MP3 player just for audiobooks. It worked okay, but was a pain to have to have two devices.

Now, she can go from music to book to music when she is on a trip and she is just more comfortable using the device that she uses all the time for other things.

Susie McIntyre

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Troubleshoot Bandwidth Issues

Determining why your web application is slow can be difficult. Whether it is Workflows or Firefox or Quicktime, slow responsiveness can be annoying and so it grabs your attention. The fundamental problem, though, could be at your own PC, or the remote server, or any point in between, and any number of issues at any point. Even clever experienced network people can have trouble. You'll soon see why I had to include that last sentence.

The task can be daunting if you're not a network engineer, and I suspect many of you are not. But I just went through a "teachable moment" at one of my clients, and that, as well as Suzanne's excellent recent post about bandwidth, compells me to describe what happened and what it could mean for you.

The users at the site complained about slow Workflows responsiveness between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. Workflows was the only thing they complained about. I have some software tools to look at the circuit from the library to the Internet and that always looked good. It was always well below what the circuit could carry. The router at the edge of the state firewall was always very responsive (I've seen problems there in the past), so I did what I almost always do when I first look at a problem. I assume it's someone else's fault.

They continued to complain. It would sometimes be so bad their Workflows application would close. This makes it hard to run a library. So, the next time I was there, I downloaded and ran a free program called Ping Plotter (www.pingplotter.com/freeware.html). It is basically an enhanced traceroute program. If you don't know what traceroute is, you should probably give this post to your tech. I point it to any place out on the Internet and see how responsive the path is. When troubleshooting Workflows, I always point to because that is the last router I can see before the route goes inside the state firewall.

Within seconds after starting this tool I could see there was a problem, a big problem. Most of the packets our library was sending to the Internet were not being responded to. We were seeing frequently more than 70 % packet loss. It was amazing that any of our applications were working at all. The curious part though was that we were seeing packet loss at all hops, not just one bad spot having trouble. Sticking with my previous assumption, that its someone else's fault, I called Qwest. The Qwest guy was fantastic, but basically he proved to me that it wasn't his fault. And furthermore, he also proved that the problem was inside the building. Uh-oh, it looks like my fault.

This site has a CentreCOM 24-port switch they got from one of the early Gates hardware distributions in Montana. I think this came with the 2002 distribution. When I finally replaced it with a different switch the problem was gone. The switch had just gotten to the point where it could not reliably move packets through itself and it looked like the problem was a bad Internet connection. Or actually, it looked like a bad Internet connection, until I used the right tool to look at the problem.

So one moral of the story is try using ping plotter. Its free. Its easy to install. It might point you in the right direction if you are having a "slowness" problem, chronic or otherwise. It does require a little understanding to be able to use it.

Another is to be suspicious of these switches. Maybe this one had just been mistreated at some point, but maybe they are getting old as a group.

Another, possibly, is to not assume initially that it's someone else's fault. Naa... I think I'll continue to do that.

Friday, March 12, 2010

How much bandwidth is your library currently getting?

We frequently talk about bandwidth and broadband speeds. I've been asked how you know just how much bandwidth you're getting from your provider, especially as opposed to what they're telling you.

The answer is, you run a speed test. There are several out there. But I'd like to call your attention to this one because it's being conducted by the FCC. The data may go into the National Broadband plan.

You do need to have Java running on the computer you're testing.

If you want to share your results and see what other libraries are getting, you can enter comments to the post.

Montana is running its own speed test for broadband mapping. You probably want to participate in this one as well.

I've been asked by several people whether or not they should be concerned if they get different results from different tests. I don't think you should be concerned. Your speed can be greatly influenced by what tasks are being done by others on your network at the time the test is taken. As an example, I ran a speed test while I was downloading 2 200 MB podcasts. I got 3.44 Mbps. I ran the test again right after the podcasts had downloaded and got 5.1 Mbps. Audio or video downloads, streaming video, online games can all greatly affect your speed.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Web of Trust – A Useful Tool.

I have had a couple incidents recently that highlight the usefulness of a tool I have been using of late and I thought I would pass on the name. The tool is called “Web of Trust”. You can download and install it from www.mywot.com. It is a tool you would use on your own PC, either at home or work. I don’t think it’s worth the effort to put it on a public surfing PC.

It's an add-on for your browser and you can install it on IE, Firefox, or Chrome. If you run all three browsers, you will have to do an install for each one. Then, of course, you have your staff PC, your staff notebook, your home PC, your spouses’ PC, and so it goes. There could be a lot of installing.

The idea with the Web of Trust is that you and I and the other users of the web have opinions about the reliability of various sites. Sites are rated based on these opinions and your browser will show you the results of these combined opinions with a red, yellow, or green circle on a site.

For example, I did a Google search for free music. A portion of the results are posted below.There are two red circles, and two green circles. I wouldn't go to the sites indicated by the red circles but I would go to the sites indicated by the green circles. If there were any yellow circles, I may have a look at them, but I would be pretty wary.

There is more to the Web of Trust than just colored circles. It can pop up warnings for risky sites, and you can get more information on a given site by clicking on the circle associated with that site. It is a useful tool that can help you stay away from risky sites. This would not be useful on Public PC though because patrons on our PCs don't care whether a site is risky or not.

Let me give you a couple examples how this was useful for the two incidents I mentioned earlier.

One of the staff here received the email shown below. Now there are a lot of reasons why this would look suspicious at first glance, and so she got suspicious and asked me about it. Well the “click here” phrase is a link. You know that you can put your cursor over a link in your email program and it will show you the link before you click on it. When you’re doing this make sure you DO NOT CLICK on the link. So this link had a URL, the domain of which I Googled. The hits that came back had a lot of red circles, just confirming her suspicions.


From: Smith, John [mailto:john.smith@cspb.org]
Sent: Thursday, March 04, 2010 9:13 AM
To: webhelpdesk@admin.org
Subject: Your E-mailbox Has Exceeded Its storage Limit.

Your mailbox has exceeded the storage limit which is 20GB as set by your
administrator, you are currently running on 20.9GB, you may not be able to
send or receive new mail until you re-validate your mailbox.
To re-validate your mailbox please

Thank you for your cooperation.
Webmail Help Desk.
System Administrator.


Another user here had discovered a database on the web look at every driver’s license in the US. She was appalled by this and sent an incredulous email with the URL to me and some others. Well, I’m sad to say, I bit. But as soon as the site came up in my browser, along with the red circle, I knew it was bad and just closed out the browser. Then I Googled again and found a comment about the bad site at Snopes. The bad site is probably nothing more than a prank site, but we really don’t know.

Snopes keeps track of urban legends and rumors. Find out about the drivers license site by going to snopes and use their search tool for “driver’s license look-up”. I am not going to give you the link to the driver’s license site itself.

You should have a look at snopes if you haven’t yet. It’s at www.snopes.com and it gets a green circle. Also try out WOT. Be careful out there, and may all your hits be green.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Offline Links

Here's a list of the sessions from Offline 2010. If the presentation is available on the web, there is a link.

Feel free to keep the conversations going in the comments.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Nexus One - or the next new phone to disappoint us in Montana

I recently replaced my jailbroken unlocked iPhone with a brand new Google Nexus One. I got tired of fighting with Apple over updates. My iPhone is running OS 3.0.1 and several of the new apps I've wanted to download recently require 3.1 or newer. If I had unlimited time and patience, I could probably go through the jailbreaking process every time I needed to update, but it seemed time for a phone without all the hassles. At this point, I'm angry with Apple for putting me through this because they continue to go with AT&T as their sole service provider in the U.S.

Along came Google's unlocked Nexus One. So, I bought one, transferred my Cellular One SIM card from my iPhone, put in the data settings and it worked. Of course, we don't have 3G coverage over a GSM network in Montana so it has to run on the painfully slow Cellular One EDGE network, but that's good enough to check Facebook updates, email, do web searches, etc. And much of the time, I can find a wifi network to jump on.

As for features, this is the phone that Google put all of it's cool new toys into:
  • Google Goggles - you can take a photo with the phone and Google does a search on the object. If it's a well known piece of art, you can find out the name artist. If it's a building, it uses GIS and Google maps information to identify the business. If it's a book jacket, it will give you prices at nearby stores and/or the internet. I suggested to WorldCat that they should get library info in this.
  • Google voice recognition - I hate typing on touch pads. I love the fact that Google has voice recognition down well enough that I can usually just dictate into the phone.
  • Google translator - Not that I really have a need for this at present, but you can speak an English phrase into the phone and it will translate into another language. Right now you get a written translation. I tried the Polish version and it seemed pretty accurate. I understand that soon the phone will be able to speak the translated phrase. It's the babble fish.
  • It works great with just about all of the Google's products. So, if you use Gmail, Google calendar, etc., it seamlessly updates.
  • The recent update was wonderfully easy. It was just sent to the phone. I didn't have to do anything. You have to update iPhones through iTunes. So, Big Brother Apple can check on you and make your life difficult if you're not playing by their rules.
  • OverDrive has a media console for Android and Windows Mobile devices. You still have to use the clunky search interface in a separate browser. But if you can find an MP3 title you want to listen to, you can download it directly to your phone. Now that is the promise of mobile technology! Once again, this is something you'll want to take advantage of via wifi instead of EDGE, unless you're VERY patient. EDGE is like a dialup connection.
Now for the disappointments:
  • Many of the cool new features don't work over the EDGE network. You need a faster connection. So, I find myself looking for wifi connections. I have yet to try out the turn by turn navigation on Google Maps. But if it requires a fast connection, it's not going to do me much good in Montana. Rarely do I find myself in need of direction inside a wifi enabled building.
  • A lot of iPhone apps are not yet available on the Android platform. Amazon and B&N ebook readers, various news apps, Gale's Access My Library app... And some of them that do exist don't work as well on the Android, e.g., Facebook.
  • Like many open source software products, Android is not entirely user friendly, particularly when compared to Apple products. I think you have to be a person who likes to fiddle with things to figure them out. If you're someone who just wants it to work without fiddling, you'll prefer the iPhone. For example, it took some hunting in Google's help to figure out how to get photos off the phone. I never did figure out how to remove some of the bizarre things that showed up in my photo gallery on the phone. I finally realized it's pulling them off Picasa web so graphics from Blogger show up on my phone. Apparently my customization options are limited.
  • The battery life is pretty limited. All the updating from the Google cloud takes a toll. I'm not yet in the habit of recharging every night. So, it often happens that I pull my Nexus One out of my purse only to discover the battery's dead.
  • I haven't been able to figure out how to do a screen shot of my Nexus One without rooting the device. Apple forced me into jailbreaking my iPhone by bricking it when I did an update. I'm not yet willing to risk my new $500 phone.
I'm sure there are a lot more pros and cons. I just thought I'd share a few of my initial impressions. And for anyone who reads this before Offline, you'll have some background for the Mobile Computing session.

I'd love to hear comments from people using the Android on Verizon's network that actually does offer 3G. The Android 2.1 OS is supposed to be rolled out this week. What do you think?

Update 11Feb10 - Bad news for Montanans waiting for an iPhone on Verizon. Apple just extended their exclusive contract with AT&T into 2011. That and news about 4G network developments has led to speculation that iPhone won't unlock in the U.S. until 2012. At that point, AT&T and Verizon will probably be using the same LTE standard. I know a lot of this is gibberish. But the gist is, if you're looking for a smartphone on Verizon I'd be looking at Blackberries and Androids.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Windows 7

Have you used Windows 7 yet? Are you planning to soon?

I was hesitant to jump into Windows 7 early on. I didn’t want to get too involved with it if we were going to have another distribution like Vista. Early last fall I had seen some statistics that 80% of IT managers at large firms were planning on waiting for quite a while to see how the release of this OS was going to play out. I fell into that camp.

But I had some clients that wanted Windows 7 on some PCs right away, so I thought it would be a good start and get some experience on someone else’s dime. Thanks Renee. It went pretty well. It was a public surfing PC, actually four of them, and I was able to install it on two of the four. Here is how it went.

All four PCs were Dell Optiplexes. I forget the model numbers, but two a little newer and two a little older. I did a fresh install on one of the newer ones, then installed all the standard Public PC software, which for me is MS Office, Itunes/Quicktime, Google Earth, Adobe Reader/Flash/Shockwave, Java, Picasa, and probably some other things. I should also point out that Windows 7 recognized all the hardware in the PC. All of it. I didn’t have to go to Dell Support to get any drivers.

The first glitch was with Deep Freeze, which I use on all public PCs I manage. Windows 7 needed the most recent version which is 6.61. Our maintenance contract was still live so I just downloaded and upgraded Deep Freeze to 6.61.

Then I imaged the install on the first PC and copied that image to one of the two older Dells. This brought the second glitch. It did not recognize the audio hardware and Dell said they did not have a Windows 7 driver for that hardware yet, but she thought they would at some point. You need audio on public stations so I had to pass those two up. The other two have been working fine for a few months now.

I have done several other installs and, with one glaring exception, it has gone very well. I even have some staff members running Workflows on Windows 7 and have not heard any complaints yet. Keep in mind that Sirsi still does not support Windows 7.

The glaring exception is OCLC’s Connexion. Now this is not really a Windows 7 problem. It is a 64-bit OS problem. The latest version Connexion will not run natively on a 64-bit operating system. So when I bought a bunch of new “latest and greatest” hardware for our Tech Services department and started installing all the apps they need, I hit a roadblock with Connexion. They MUST have Connexion and I had already put a lot of effort into using the 64-bit version of Windows 7, so I had to accommodate somehow. Now Connexion would have worked fine (I’m told) if I had used the 32-but version of Windows 7, but that is the old and I’m bringing in the new.

I complained vociferously to a number of folks at OCLC but they have limited resources, and we all know about that, and they’ll get to it when they get to it. They have a solution which I won’t go into here, except to say that you have to install a guest operating system. So I will have Connexion and my 64-bit OS on these boxes.

The anticipated release date for Windows 7 Service Pack 1 is this September. It looks like it’s not going to bring any big changes because Windows 7, so far, seems to be a pretty solid release. That is not to say that everyone is satisfied with all of it. Search on “Windows 7 annoyances” to see a sampling of current grumbling.

I think Windows XP released in October of 2001. I’m hoping I’ll be able to stick with Windows 7 as long as we have been using Windows XP. If I do, I’ll only have to go through one more OS upgrade before I retire. That sounds pretty good to me.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

kindle wireless update

This ebook reader wireless business threatens to strip away the few remaining vestiges of sanity I have. And I'm convinced more and more that the AT&T logo is indeed the death star.

A quote from the Amazon web page:

"Due to strong customer demand for the newest Kindle, we are consolidating our family of 6" Kindles. The new Kindle has 3G wireless that works in the United States and also globally in over 100 countries. We will continue to fully support Whispernet for all U.S.-only Kindles. You can buy used and refurbished versions of the U.S.-only Kindle on this page."

My completely unfounded explanation is that the Kindle global has a different wireless chip set from the Kindle US - GSM vs. CDMA. AT&T is their primary GSM provider. Sprint was their primary CDMA provider. Never the twain shall meet.

This switch over is not good news for Montana customers. Sprint had wireless partners in Montana to extend their coverage. I've always presumed it was Verizon. Verizon has very good coverage in Montana and even 3G in spots.

AT&T provides NO 3G service in Montana. I continue to be mystified by the AT&T commercial where they cite Bozeman, MT as a spot with 3G service. But they do partner with other carriers to provide less than 3G service. For example my wireless provider, Cellular One, is an AT&T partner.

I don't think the 3G less than 3G is a huge issue. When you're downloading books, magazines, etc., they're pretty small files and you'll get them fairly quickly over any wireless connection. But I expect that the coverage map for Montana will show a lot more blank spots following their move to a new provider. Make sure to check the map and ask customer service for clarification.
Wireless coverage map.

Kindle 2 US wireless devices are still available used and refurbished. I find it interesting that almost all of them are more expensive than new.

And we can be hopeful that the Barnes & Noble Nook and Sony Reader Daily Edition, which both use AT&T wireless, will also have wireless partners within Montana. If so, I'd expect that their actual service map would resemble the Kindle's more than AT&T's 3G map.

We're just going to need some more first hand accounts. So, I want to hear from all of you with ebook readers. How's the wireless? How's the overall experience?

And if you're still procrastinating over purchasing an ebook reader, relax. There will probably be a lot of new devices unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show this week. So, we can all be even more confused!