Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Complaining about the L-Space computer service.

You know, I’ve got admit, it’s been a while since I’ve actually sat myself down and done something that I may or may not be good at.

But do enjoy.

Put a post here that isn’t a Teaser or movie review.

Not that I don’t enjoy them, but sometimes, it’s nice to have a change of pace: happily burbling on about something else, every so often, does me the WORLD of good!

Not that I think I’m anything like a professional writer, and wouldn’t claim to be, but writing this is something I’ve come to enjoy.


Who knows …

But I’m digressing from the points I wanted to actually tell you about.

Let’s get the fun one out of the way, shall we?

FIRST off, I’m hoping to do something, this Saturday, that the Movie Night gang and I last did on New Years Day.

Get together for an episode of Doctor Who

Only this one will be the Series 5, Matt Smith/Karen Gillane opening episode, The Eleventh Hour.

Something I know I’m intent on watching, and then rabbiting on about for hours afterwards.

But I know that — in spite of misgivings some of my female friends have had* — that I’m looking forward to this. Matt Smithº — despite that big chin — does look like he could be intriguing. And different to his immediate predecessors.

After all, Christopher Ecclestone did moody, very well, David Tennant did bonkers and angry very well … !

Matt Smith … ?

I think might just do geeky and intense, but that’s on the strength of two trailers, and the couple of one-minute clips …

When I know more, on Saturday night, I’ll let you know … !!

Either way, if you’re near my place, 6 PM, this Saturday,you’d be welcome to join us for t!


Let’s move on, somewhat shall we?

Let’s …

Did I mention, a few day’s ago, that one of my followers on Twitter, is something a distant relative of Sir Walter Raleigh?

Now why we’d got talking, I really do wish I could remember … !

But I do know Angela had posted up the text of the letter Sir Walter had written to his wife, just before he’d been beheaded at the Tower of London, for me!

Bless her!

But she’d also mention a biography she’d read about the man: written, ironically, by a chap called Raleigh Trevelyan. Assuming I’ve got the spelling rightª …

So — on the money I’ve got — I figured that heading up to Brentwood Library to see if they had a copy would turn up anything … !

And saved the link to a USB memory stick, so I could check it out on their machines.

And got reminded exactly WHY I went and got me internet connection and a Mac, in the first place … !


Now Brentwood Library, in common with all libraries in Essex, runs PC’s.

Brentwood and Shenfield’s seem especially vintage … !

And definitely have trouble dealing with USB flash drives.

Wouldn’t think it, would you … ?

Well …

So I asked one of the staff if they could use one of their machines, just to check on the title, so I could look up the title and author.

And got told I couldn’t …

Security reasons …

Which I can understand, but still feel mildly irked about … !

So I did a little asking, to see who I should complain to.

Turns out that sending an email to Susan Carragher, the Director of Adult Learning and Libraries was the woman. Along with Chief Executive, Joanna Killian, and Jenny Owen, the Executive Director for Adults, Health and Community Wellbeing.

I LOVE those oh-so-wonderfully concise titles … !

Here’s what I told them, and the Enquiries sections email address …

Dear Sir or Ma’am.

I have a complaint about the computer services offered at both Brentwood and Shenfield library.

For some year’s now, I’ve made use of both library’s PC’s, and — while I’d prefer to be using the Mac I have, here at home — I find them handy whenever I have a need to print files.

However, the one flaw in this, is a minor — but important, I think — detail.

Whenever I need to print out a file, I usually save it as what’s called a .pdf file — easily read by a computer, regardless of the operating system used — and transfer it to one of my USB flash drives.

Something that is — again — easily read by any computer, regardless of whether it’s a Windows or Linux based PC, or a Mac.

However, a little something that took place at Brentwood Library, today, had me annoyed enough to mail you.

I’d saved the details — title, author and ISBN number — of a book that had been recommended to me, by a friend, to see if I could look the title, on Brentwood Library’s ELAN system.

And I saved those details — as ever — as a .pdf, to a USB drive.

Expecting to able to happily open the file, cut and paste the details into the ELAN search engine.

The Library PC — the terminal called Direct 2 — wouldn’t recognise the USB drive, nor the file, which would be easily opened by Adobe Reader.


Now, this is the first part of my complaint.

Both Brentwood and Shenfield Library computers are capable of recognising and opening USB flash drives.

But very erratically so.

To the point where — at a rough guess — they will only recognise these handy little devicesare there, some 50% of the time.

So my immediate thought was to get round this by asking one of the library staff if they could access the file on one of the Enquiry desk machines, and look the book up for me.

Which they happily admitted that — due to tightened security restrictions on staff terminals — they couldn’t.

I’m somehow not surprised.


The staff member concerned happily admitted that the security restrictions prevented them doing a major part of their job: looking up a book for a customer, to see if it was available in the county.


So here’s my point.

Granted that Essex County Council are concerned that about the security of the county’s computer network.

But — in this day and age — not being able to reliably handle a simple thing like a USB drive, as needed?

Is just plain silly.


Here’s another point.

Or questions, I should maybe say.

I know — having had several members of library staff say so — that, unlike only a few years ago, the Essex Libraries computer network is now part of of the Essex County Council network.

And, as such, cannot do simple things that it use to be able to handle with ease. Simple things like saving photo’s and .zip files friend had emailed to one.

Downloading small updates and applications.

Simple things like that are important to people who may have access to a computer, but don’t have ’net access.


Here, I think, is what I’m trying to say.

Granted Essex Council has a budget to keep to, and security issues they wish to make sure of.

But when and what will they — and you — be doing about this?

Here’s Susan Carragher’s reply …

Dear Mr Downie

Thank you for your comments regarding the computer services offered at Brentwood and Shenfield Libraries. I am sorry that you have found these to be unsatisfactory: we are certainly aware of the current limitations of the computer service, and - along with a major upgrade to the supporting network - are planning to introduce improved hardware as soon as we are able over the next few months.

This will address some of the problems that you have identified, such as the inconsistency in dealing with USB flash drives - this is caused by a bug in the security software which cannot, unfortunately, be fixed as the company that created it no longer exists. It is also, unfortunately,
not possible to replace the software within the current set-up, but this will be remedied in the new build using a different product.

The question of security on staff machines is a slightly different one, and it is certainly true that, as a result of installing encryption software on staff machines, staff are not able to insert equipment belonging to members of the public into them as the devices will then become encrypted themselves, and so unusable by their owners. There is a difficult balance to strike between security and providing support to customers, but in this particular instance, however, our Information Services team feel that the protection of the integrity of the council’s network should take precedence.

As far as downloading updates and applications is concerned, I think again that the danger of some people downloading viruses, hacking tools and other similar unwelcome malware means that it is unlikely that we will be in a position to enable this in the foreseeable future. Having said that, saving photos and zip files (as long as they don't contain executables)should become possible with the new build mentioned above.

So, in summary, we are confident that many of your concerns will be addressed by improvements to the service that we are planning to make over the next few months; there are, however, some elements in your suggestions that do conflict with the council's approach to IT security which we are not currently able to put into practice, although we will of course try to minimise any inconvenience that may result from this. I hope this covers the points you have raised satisfactorily, but please get back to me if you need any more information.

Susan Carragher
Director of Adult Learning and Libraries
Adults, Health and Community Wellbeing

Here’s what I sent back as a result …

Dear Ms Carragher,

Thank you for you speedy — and helpful — reply.

It’s one that’s both much appreciated.

And one I feel raises points that need addressing.

Now granted that malicious software may be downloaded — intentionally or otherwise — by someone downloading pictures, small applications or documents. But this can surely be remedied not by blocking the types of files downloaded.

But by blocking the websites that these files are downloaded from.

Just to give you an example or what I mean, the few bits of software I was downloading at the time, mostly came from Apple, and were for installation on the range of Mac’s I had at home.

And — as you may know — Apple’s Mac range of computers have not — for the 25 years or so of their existence — used any variation of Windows as their operating system. Something that makes them — and PCs running one of many forms of Linux — generally invulnerable to 99% of malicious code.

I’m also told — by friends, former workmates and customers in the IT business — that website blocking can be done through what’s called proxies.

Which raises a whole range of issues.

Firstly — from what I’ve learnt from talking to many of my fellow library users — I’ve found that many of us downloading small files made sure that we checked any media that we’d use to transfer files to our machines at home.

I’m sure that — on top of any security Essex County Council may feel needed — some form of basic training will be offered to customers using the libraries computer services.

Something on the lines of the government’s recent ‘Zip It, Block It, Flag It’ campaign.


Secondly … !

On the Customer services front, I personally feel — while I grant that media may become unusable if used in a staff machine — I believe that this is something that is again dealable with.

Again, by simple education.

The library staff at both Brentwood and Shenfield are excellent at their jobs.

And, while I realise that Essex County Council have to do their jobs, I feel that by not separating the library part of the network, Essex County Council is preventing its staff in their customer service role AND free access to knowledge.

Additionally, maintaining the library net as a separate network would prevent various malicious code hopping from the library network to the main part of the Essex County Council network, and vice versa.

While I understand that you — and your IT department — want to protect the Essex County Council network, I would counter-argue that serving the people of Essex is far more important …


Thirdly — THIRDLY — you mentioned in your reply that Essex County council will ‘introduce improved hardware as soon as we are able, over the next few months’.

Good to possibly know.

I have an issue or two I think I’d like to raise, here, as well.

Exactly what hardware — and software — are Essex County Council planning on using, at this stage?

As I think I mentioned earlier, I’m a happily contented Mac user, and have been for many years.

In the case of the libraries here in Essex, will the Council be authorising the purchasing and using of Macintosh computers for their use?

Now, while I realise that Apple do charge something of a premium for their range of computers, I’m also very aware that they offer a discount of up to 25% for educational establishments.

And if a clever purchaser can’t argue that a library is an educational establishment, I don’t know who can.

Now, I am also aware that this is a route that the council may not wish to go down.

I’m very aware of the fact that cost is a major influencing factor in Essex County Council’s purchasing decisions.

Now, on top of the fact that I’m a Mac fan, I’m also very aware of what’s called the Free Open Source software movement.

The aims of this movement can be summarised simply by saying that the movement believes everybody should have access to user-friendly software that is freely available, free from commercial charge AND can handle a wide range of everyday computing needs.

Let me give you an example, here.

Something I know I’ve done for some of my friends is install a GNU/Linux operating system called Ubuntu on various machines, ranging from PCs purchased at the start of this year, to an ageing ten year old iMac.

And most of the friends and neighbours I’ve done this for have found Ubuntu to be an easy to use alternative to whatever form of Windows they’d used previously, and one that handled their needs.

From writing books, letters, playing music and movies, playing online flash games, all the way to listening to online radio stations, and transcribing music.

The fact that Ubuntu is also free of charge — to both home and enterprise user — and supported by frequent security updates, only adds to the appeal.

In fact, you’ll probably find that the Essex County Council IT department is using the server version of Ubuntu linux, along with SQL, even as we speak, as the software that connects all of the ECC network together.

So here’s the question I’m going to ask.

Will Essex County Council be — as Bristol Council did, back in 2005 — be saving themselves some much needed cash, not by replacing the hardware in their network … but by simply replacing certain proprietary software on the current machines?

And here’s what she sent me this morning …

Dear Mr Downie

The issues you raise are not strictly matters within the control of the library service so I will be referring your enquiry to corporate IT colleagues and will respond when I have their views.

Susan Carragher

Hmmm …

I think as soon as I here anything back from her, I’ll let you know what happens … !!

* All of whom have turned ’round and frankly said David Tennant was one of the sexiest things they’d seen on TV. And, Cara, I’ve STILL not forgiven you for the Beanpole Sandwich comment. I mean, HONESTLY … !

º And, yes, I’ve had reservations, myself …

ª Cornish is a beautiful language to listen to … but a bugger to spell … … !!

The Daily Teaser …

Whoah! I am DEFINITELY up early, today … !

It’s that’s day of the week, again, for signing on at the local Job Centre. And as they’ve done their usual thing of changing the time I’ve got to go in, I’m up at Stupid O’Clock … !

I wouldn’t mind if I was actually working, and doing this everyday of the week, but … …

Oh well, cie la vie … !

Let’s get on with it!

Yesterday’s Teaser saw Trevor, Simon and Andrea all get 5 out of 5. Normally I’d also add — at this point — the Simon would be getting the Official First-In-Clap.

Which he did … !

And mention the quality of the quotes, yesterday.

Which was darn good. (Andrea, I loved that one from Ronald Reagan … ! There’s an old joke, that goes like this … “What to the USA and McDonalds have in common? They’ve both had a clown called Ronnie in charge … ”.)

But I’m also going to give a special mention to Angela — djalfy — who’s managed, after weeks of stumpedness, to put in her first answer!

Right, Andrea, Trevor, Simon … Let’s see if we can’t persuade her into putting up a quote, for today’s questions?

I’d better let everyone see them, hadn’t I?

Here they are, along with the ‘How To’ and License

Q1) 31st March, 1951, saw the first commercial computer delivered to the US Census Bureau: what was that computer called?

Q2) 31st March, 1889, saw the formal inauguration of which Parisian icon?

Q3) 31st March 1909 saw the start, and 31st March 1912 saw the completion, of the construction of which ship … ?

Q4) 31st March, 1989, saw the final abolition of which authority?

Q5) One year later, 31st March, 1990, saw a rally in central London into the worst violence seen in the city in over a century: which was the rally protesting against?

Q6) 31st March, 1993, saw the death of actor, Brandon Lee: Who was his famous father?

Q7) Finally, and more to the point … what film was Brandon Lee making, when he died?

And here’s yesterday’s questions and answers …

Q1) 30th March, 1981, saw the attempted assassination of which US political figure?
A1) President Ronald Reagan

Q2) Two years earlier, 30th March, 1979, saw the death - by car bomb - of which Conservative politician?
A2) Airey Neave, MP.

Q3) From the morbid to the ridiculous … 30th March, 1858, saw Hymen Lipman patent what?
A3) A pencil … with an attached eraser.

Q4) 30th March, 1842, saw the first use of what, during an operation?
A4) Anesthesia.

Q5) And finally … 30th March, 1930, saw the birth of Rolf Harris: what - in 1969 - was his biggest UK hit?
A5) Two Little Boys. (Which was also the last Xmas number one iof the 1960s.

Enjoy those, everyone, I’ll catch you later … !