or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk



Archives for Technology:


Take-Home Tech Support, or, Why Second Thoughts Are Important

   October 29th, 2014 Brian Herzog

tabletphoneLast week, a patron came in and asked for help using the scanner. No problem.

But while I was helping her, she explained that she has an all-in-one copier/printer/scanner that used to work great but is now giving her trouble, hence the trip to the library. She tried describing to me what the problem was, and it seemed like it should be diagnosable and solvable, but I was just not getting it.

One great thing about the emergence of mobile devices, and increasing prevalence of laptops, is that people can bring them into the library for tech support. But with desktops, and in this case copier/printer/scanners, even something that would be simple to correct continues to plague them because it's too difficult to communicate either the problem or the solution remotely.

So, the idea struck me - why not start a program offering in-home tech support? I think it would be unrealistic to send library staff out to patrons' homes, but how about this: we have a special "tech support tablet" that patrons can check out, and then when they get home, use Skype or some other video chat service. That way, I could actually see what the problem was, read the error messages on their screen, see what lights were flashing, tell them which menus to click, etc.

Really, it'd be offering the same service we currently provide to patrons who can bring their devices to the library, so why not offer it remotely too?

Well, any number of reasons, if you think about it. First, this would still be difficult, and not like being there in person. Second, and maybe more frighteningly, who knows what else might show up on the screen besides tech problems. This was basically the reason this idea went no further.

I mean, I still like this idea, and think it could help people. But it would be tricky, and has a lot of downside potential, so for the time being this is just going to be filed under "maybe someday."



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Why Your Privacy Matters, Even If You’re Not “Doing Anything Wrong”

   October 15th, 2014 Brian Herzog

One of the anti-privacy arguments that I hate - hate - is the idea that people who are not doing anything wrong shouldn't mind pervasive surveillance.

The video below is Glenn Greenwald's TED talk on why that is complete crap, and on the larger issue of why privacy is vital to normal human life. It's a 20 minute video, with Greenwald's talk the first 15 minutes and then some question and answer afterward. It is 20 minutes well-spent.

Privacy is of course paramount in libraries, and this talk clearly parallels why librarians care so much about it.



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A Couple of Minor Interesting Things

   October 9th, 2014 Brian Herzog

magnifying glassI know there are significant issues coming to light this week regarding security and privacy, but this post highlights two far less consequential items. Both are search tips from Lifehacker.

1. Searching for Lyrics
The first is that Bing Now Shows Lyrics at the Top of Your Search Results. This will actually be extremely useful, because I haven't felt comfortable about visiting a lyrics website since about 2000. I don't know why those always seem to be the most virus- and crap-prone websites, but they are.

Of course this doesn't work for every song. In fact, quite literally while I still had the Lifehacker post open, a patron walked up and asked me to print the lyrics for Anything Goes. I was librarian-excited to try out a new tool to answer a question, but this Bing trick didn't work for that song. That's a fairly well-known song - and so are God Bless America and Born In The USA. I don't know what makes Man In The Mirror special, but something apparently. Maybe it's a copyright thing, or maybe the Bing developers are just starting with their favorite artists. But it's still worth trying out when the moment arises. And, it'd good to see Bing being innovative.

2. Searching Individual Websites
The second item is how you can Search Individual Sites on Google by Searching For Their Name. This is something I've been noticing for years, but also not something I've ever really counted on. But if it's planned to be a deliberate feature, I'll try to use it more. At least, it's sure easier that using the "site:" limiter.

Again, it doesn't work for every website. It seems like mainly just big, popular, and news websites have this available, but I also found some notable exceptions.

So that's it - now back to more important things.



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Creating Better Passwords By Knowing How They’re Cracked

   October 1st, 2014 Brian Herzog

password are like pants signThis weekend on Twitter, @itsokayihaveabook linked to a great article on the current thinking for choosing a secure password. I don't keep up with this stuff all the time, but every so often I will check in to see what the developments are. If you only read one password security article this year, this is a good candidate.

I liked this one because it wasn't just preachy-talky on why good passwords are important - he explains how password hacking works, and gives advice based on that to create better passwords.

Some things not to do:

  • don't use words: password guessing software crunches through multiple dictionaries at unbelievable speeds, so even nonsensical word combinations will eventually be guessed
  • don't use personally-identifiable information: many aspects of our lives are online, and hackers will use everything they know about us when guessing passwords - so don't use addresses, phone numbers, birthdates, schools, mascots, relatives' names, etc
  • don't be common: there's lots of standard passwords (like pa$$w0rd, temp1234, i<3book$, etc) that are incorporated into password-guessing - even though it looks tricky to the eye, if other people are using it, chances are the hackers will try it
  • don't reuse passwords: with corporate-level security breaches, even a good password might be compromised through no fault of your own. But if you use the same good password for all your accounts, once the hackers get it from Home Depot or Target or where ever, then it's much easier for them to get into your PayPal and Amazon and bank accounts

So here's what he feels you can do - the "Schneier scheme":

So if you want your password to be hard to guess, you should choose something that this process will miss. My advice is to take a sentence and turn it into a password. Something like "This little piggy went to market" might become "tlpWENT2m". That nine-character password won't be in anyone's dictionary. Of course, don't use this one, because I've written about it. Choose your own sentence -- something personal.

The entire article is worth reading. But his bottom-line takeaway is kind of scary: "Pretty much anything that can be remembered can be cracked."

I'm going to start recommending this technique when helping patrons set up email accounts. Thanks Jenny!

Update 10/3/14:

A reader sent me a link to another article, Why you don't need long, complex passwords. I sort of referenced the gist above, but it does a much better job of spelling out another major vulnerability. Thanks R. E.!

The bottom line of all of this seems to be that living is inherently dangerous, so live well and don't worry too much about it.



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Another Great Feature for a Library App

   September 10th, 2014 Brian Herzog

mute buttonAt the risk of this blog becoming a list of things only interesting to me, here's another cool new-to-me app I just recently learned about.

It's called Mr. Silent, and it lets you auto-mute your phone based on time, location, or contact. It seems like a fairly obvious idea, but apparently this one works better than most - it integrates with your phone's calendar, contacts list, and GPS, and has a nice interface.

So now see, if I were designing the perfect library app, this feature would definitely be in there. As an opt-in thing, of course, but how nice would it be if people could set their phones to automatically go to vibrate when they were at the library? You could even gamify it by rewarding people by moving them up higher on wait lists for every time their phone ringer gets turned off by this app. Or something. I would trade all the hot dogs in the world for this to be a universal thing.

Plus, combine it with the location-based notes feature from a couple weeks ago, and you'd really have something.

Existing library apps are pretty good at covering the basics of catalog search, events calendar, and static information like hours and stuff. And Boopsie's self-check feature is also pretty awesome.

One other feature I'd like to integrate into a library app is an updatable resource map - one that library staff (or anyone I suppose) could add information to. For instance, local points of interest for a walking tour, where public bathrooms are, pay phones, free wifi, etc. Although I guess if you're already using your phone, looking for a pay phone or wifi might be irrelevant. Hmm, one of these days I'll get the hang of cell phones.



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Reference Question of the Week – 8/17/14

   August 23rd, 2014 Brian Herzog

velocarYou know that saying about teaching a man to fish? Well, in this case, it was more like just having to point out to him that he had a big plate of fish sitting right in front of him.

A patron walked up and said this to me:

Can you request a book for me? I think it's a French book, I mean a book from France. I don't know the title or the author though. But it's got instructions for a velocar inside. On second thought, it might not be a book, it might be a magazine, but in French. Can you get that for me?

Well that's all fine, but what's a velocar? Apparently, it's a type of bicycle that's more like a pedal-powered three-wheeled car, and indeed from France.

After talking to the patron a bit, what I learned was that he was interested in building one of these for himself, and found some plans online. Except, the plans were pages from a book (or magazine) that someone posted on a forum - except, they were too small to read, so he wanted to find the original book (or magazine) so he could see the instructions. He said he'd already tried printing what he'd found, and indeed showed me the pages, which indeed were just too low-quality to read.

I told him the only place I could even think of to begin with this was the website where he found them - maybe, I hoped, the book (or magazine) pages would have the title and author on them which would give us a lead. But failing that, it seemed like all we could would be to try to email whoever posted them to the forum and hopefully find out the original source that way.

So we walked back to his computer so I could see the forum he was on. And sure enough, multiple pages were posted there, and the thumbnail images looked more or less like instructions for building a velocar. And of course, being thumbnails, they were too small to read, so I naturally clicked the first one in the hopes of finding information about the source.

A larger image of the page popped up, and the patron immediately stopped me by saying, in a somewhat shocked voice, "what did you just do?"

I explained that the thumbnails like this are usually linked to larger versions, and clicking them will bring up a version you can read or print. I figured he had tried this, because he had the large printed version which were poor quality.

But no, he had no idea you could click the thumbnails. What he did know how to do was right-click on the thumbnail, copy/paste it into Word, expand the image to make it fill the whole page, and print it. Of course, expanding a small thumbnail to fit a whole page will look terrible, which accounted for the low-quality prints he had.

He knew how to do all of that, but didn't know you could just click the thumbnail and see a higher-quality version.

So I showed him how to get from the forum post with the thumbnail to the larger, print-ready version, and he was happy. Sort of befuddled that it was right there in front of him the whole time, but definitely happy that he would so easily get the plans for the velocar.

I always like showing patrons new tricks and things that make their life easier, but holy smokes I didn't expect it in this case. Not only was this a new skill for a patron, but I didn't end up having to try to track down a mysterious book from France.



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