Archive for November, 2006

The mad christmas rush…

I’m not sure exactly what it is, but the christmas rush seems to start earlier and earlier every year. The lights go up all over London, the streets become congested with pedestrians and my workload at the shop suddenly seems to treble and then gets incrementally worse with each day that we draw closer to closing time. Still, I have a few minutes spare right now, so I’ll try to get down a couple of words before I get back to work.

Firstly, we recieved our usual pre-order form from Bancroft-Parkman Inc for next year’s copy of ABPC on CD-ROM. This was somewhat disappointing, as earlier in the year we had got an email from Kathy Leab suggesting that an online version would be forthcoming in the new year. Now, we don’t particularly want to commit to buying into another copy of the CD-ROM version, only to find that we have to pay some upgrade fee later to move to the online version. But then, we don’t really want to miss out on the savings that we could make by submitting the pre-order form. Unfortunately, the letter gives no indication of any development on the web front-end, and neither does the ABPC website. What to do?

A couple of interesting news items from the past few days:

OSS4Lib, the Open Source Software community for libraries, had a press release announcing that LibLime had announced that the Nelsonville Public Library System in Athens Ohio has just gone live with Koha ZOOM. Koha ZOOM is an open source web-based ILS that includes a powerful, full-featured search engine based on Zebra, a high-performance indexing and retrieval engine. Maybe not exciting news to booksellers and buyers, but certainly of interest to techno-bibliophiles. The interface looks pretty nifty and may see some changes to established OPAC type resources on the net.

A blogger pointed out that the University of London will be running its first London Rare Book School, which will consist of a series of four-day, intensive courses on a variety of book-related subjects in July 2007. More information can be found here.

And finally, I will try to post a few more entries to my blog before christmas swallows me whole, but please bear with me as I navigate my way through the labyrinth of IT requests that seem to pour in at this time of year.

November 29, 2006 at 6:04 pm Leave a comment

Disk failure! Wow, I love linux.

Hmmm, yesterday one of our users complained that they were having trouble with email. A little while later, another user complained that they couldn’t connect to the Internet. Then a whole lot of things started to go wrong. So I hopped onto the server in question and started to tail the logs to try to determine what was going on… Oh oh…

Nov 19 06:33:15 horatio kernel: end_request: I/O error, dev 03:01 (hda), sector 140290664
Nov 19 06:33:38 horatio kernel: hda: dma_intr: status=0x51 { DriveReady SeekComplete Error }
Nov 19 06:33:38 horatio kernel: hda: dma_intr: error=0x40 { UncorrectableError }, LBAsect=140290727, sector=140290664

Yaaaargh. Looks like that’s one hard disk failure taking place and its on our primary master disk. Time to stop a whole bunch of services and see what we can salvage. I ran up to one of the high-street computer shops and quickly bought a new hard disk (not bad, you can pick up a 300GB disk for £80 at the moment). We shutdown the server installed the blank disk and did a Debian linux base install on the new disk. Then I set the new disk to slave and rebooted on the old disk to see what we could recover.

Fortunately, the disk was not too far gone and the server came up with little trouble. We quickly installed smartctl which is a nifty tool to do SMART analysis on your disks. Although the disk was reporting healthy in smart, there were I/O errors, which suggested that its lifetime was well nigh at an end. Time to start building the replacement system.

I mounted the new disk and chrooted to the mountpoint. In a separate terminal window, I could access the current version of the server and view a list of all of the applications that had been installed. On the new chrooted disk, I could install the equivalent applications and start to configure the new server. I copied across configuration files from the old server disk, including password databases and email aliases. And finally copied across each user’s home folder with all of their email.

Once I was confident that I had everything I needed, I rebooted the server for a second time. I removed the original disk and watched the new install boot up. In no time, I was able to confirm that all of the services were working and that our users were able to access the fileshares and their email. Nothing lost.

The entire downtime during the disk-switching operation was minimal. And we literally rebuilt the server while it was running. Our users were hardly aware of the switchover and can now be confident that their data is safely on a new disk.

A couple of things came to light in this experience:

  • Its useful to run smartctl on your mission critical boxes to help catch disk failure before it becomes serious
  • We would never have got the level of detail in our logs to help us solve the problem if we had been running Windows servers
  • It would have been near impossible to rebuild your server on a new disk from within a live environment on a Windows server
  • Linux rocks!

November 21, 2006 at 2:47 pm Leave a comment

My magickal hangover…

When I was a student I had a massive leaning towards things occult and mysterious. I don’t suppose this is anything new in any sense of the word. Kids all over the world find themselves drawn to these things at some stage or another. Many years on, I have been transformed into a hard rationalist and a deep skeptic. In some senses I find this almost ironic, because that process was almost alchemical in nature. To me, it was something like turning lead into gold. And my good philosopher’s stone… turned out to be philosophy itself. Immersed in books during my university years, and long after, I gradually found myself led down the pathways of the entire western tradition of rationalism and logic. I guess this is how I found my way into technology, where these paths all seem to tangle together.

Still, frequently I find myself suffering from the hangover of my fascination with occult knowledge and secret societies and certainly all of the time that I devoted to reading up on this stuff has made the reading of many a fiction since a lot more pleasurable. And now and then I find myself retrospective in a sentimental sort of way, and I keep my eyes peeled for some other mysterious gem of occult knowledge that might pass my way.

And so, I was glad to see that the University of Wisconsin has taken the effort to scan and share every single page of an eighteenth century book that describes the symbols of the Rosicrucians in beautiful detail. With the massive correlations of symbolism and general historical associations, this book of rosicrucian symbology ties together wonderfully with the imagery and mythology that has grown up around the Knights Templar. For fans of Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, this is a really enticing find. Sadly, since I have found myself in the rare book trade, I have had little chance to page through very similar works.

November 14, 2006 at 1:42 pm Leave a comment

Posting, packaging and selling online

A fiery debate is raging in the rare book world, thanks to an article posted on the Fine Books Blog. The staff at Fine Books put out a fantastic magazine on the trade and I am an avid follower of their blog postings as they have a lot to share with dealers and collectors alike. However, this post has stirred up the boiling pot with dealers all over the world, and it seems that this issue has been simmering for some time now. Ian Kahn at Lux Mentis, posted a very legitimate response to the article on his own blog, which spoke out for many dealers who face the same problem. And the post was echoed again at Book Patrol.

So why the hullaballoo? Fine Books has pointed out something that has bothered me for a long time. It does seem somewhat counter-intuitive and possibly unprofessional when you try to buy something online only to discover that the price that you were quoted doesn’t include a bunch of extra costs, and that instead of your online purchase being a seamless and relatively straightforward process, you find yourself being contacted by people requesting further input and agreement from your own side. You don’t expect this sort of thing to happen when you buy a book from Amazon! So why is it so prevalent in the rare book trade.

There are a number of obvious responses to this and most of them have been covered very well by Ian in his post on Lux Mentis, and by others in their commentary on the Fine Books post. On the whole, it is difficult in practice to implement a price matrix that adequately covers the shipping charges on a book or collection of books in one go. To begin with, very few dealers have the time or resource to measure and weigh each book at the time that the book is catalogued. And costing in insurance and different shipping options complicates matters even further. But the final straw on the camel’s back is that the large majority of dealers do most of their selling through online aggregators such as ABE. Most of these aggregators don’t facilitate to adequately cover shipping costs, and for them to do so would require an agreed method of calculating this cost. Since the companies are aggregators, they cannot afford to make these decisions on behalf of all of the dealers that make use of them.

Is there a way out of this quagmire? Of course there are a number of options. The first and most obvious one is to set a standard shipping rate for all your books, but the downside to this is that on some of your more expensive or bulky items you’re going to have to bear the extra cost (and oftentimes this is quite significant). You could attempt to calculate a rough estimate shipping cost at the time of cataloguing and work off this for each item, but your still going to be eating extra cost for some orders. You’re also going to need your cataloguing software to cater for this, and many applications do not really facilitate this very well. On top of that, you would need all of your exports to include this field and for each portal that you upload to, to facilitate it. On top of this, you would need to go through your already catalogued items to update them to reflect this new shipping system. When you’ve got an inventory of around 5000 items or more, this is a pretty daunting task.

But the real question to ask is does this issue matter as much as we think it does? Rare book collecting is a very niche market and most people in the trade are aware of the way that things work and why they work like this. Frequently, although we have listings online, customers will still approach us directly before a sale is made, so that the online listing is really only used by many of our customers not for the buying, but more to track our stock. Sure, we do get a fair number of online sales, and often we get new customers online, who may not be familiar with all of the processes involved in the trade. But a few kind words in explanation are generally enough to appease most people.

From my position in the company, dealing with online processing etc, I would love to be able to work with shipping costs and insurance data to make the online sale process more seamless. But realistically, its unlikely to happen, and I don’t believe that we would suddenly get a mass of online orders if we resolved this. I guess, we’ve just decided to let sleeping dogs lie.

November 13, 2006 at 1:02 pm 88 comments

Net Stupidity

In the paper this morning, there was an article headlined “Hacker is jailed for ‘Net rape’ campaign”. The article described how a 36-year old man named Adrian Ringland had blackmailed teenage girls into performing various sex acts either on screen or with him physically by installing viruses on their computers and then telling them that he would delete all of their files if they did not comply with his requests. Most of this was done by masquerading on MSN as a younger man and then sending girls a file which they would open and the virus would be unleashed.

Now, in no way do I condone Adrian Ringland’s behaviour. In fact, in every sense, I think that what he was doing was deplorable. But, at the same time I am amazed at the sheer stupidity and lack of savvy that people have when they get onto the Internet these days. Firstly, what the hell is anyone doing on the net without a decent antivirus application installed. And generally a good firewall would make a little sense as well. This, at least, would be the most basic step to protecting your data (and children) from net-nasties.

But this all aside. If you’re gonna let your children chat on the net, there are some most basic rules that you can set to avoid this kind of crap. To begin with, help them set up their MSN (or whatever IM application they use) to include their friends in their contact list. Then disable the option for anybody else to message them. If they want to add somebody else that they know, they can do so quite easily from their own side (or with your own supervision). A frequent response to this approach that I get from people, is that often parents don’t know much about these applications and can’t be expected to know how to set them up so that they’re safe for their kids to use. Well, that’s fair enough. I don’t know anything about guns, but I sure as hell wouldn’t hand a gun to my kid without spending a whole lot of time learning about the things. If you’re not going to find out the basics about the tools that you use, sooner or later you’re going to run into trouble.

But let’s assume that in this particular case you just haven’t got around to these basic security steps. And you were foolish enough to run an application sent to you by a complete stranger out there on the net. Which has now installed a virus to your system. And that person is threating to use that virus to delete files on your hard disk. What is the most sensible course of action? How is this person able to access your system? How did this person have any way of knowing that your computer even existed? You’re connected to the Internet. All you need to do is disconnect. Then the person has no way of accessing your computer. The person has no way of connecting to your computer. This is basic common sense. And if children (and parents) are not grasping it, they really shouldn’t be on the Internet at all. Its like handing your kids your car keys without teaching them the basic controls of your car. Its just plain stupid.

In the case mentioned in the newspaper article I read, the girl actually knew a virus had been installed. By disconnecting from the Internet, she would have prevented the ‘hacker’ from taking control of her computer. She could then approach her parents and suggest that she believes there is a virus on the computer and that they need to install antivirus software or take steps to erradicate the problem.

So, while I’ve gone on a bit of a rant, way off my rare book trade topic, I’d like to bring this all back to some very basic points. No matter who you are, whether child or parent or rare book dealer, keep these basic things in mind:

  • The Internet can be a dangerous place
  • If you are going to use it, understand the tools that you use and the different settings that these tools have to make them safer to use.
  • Install antivirus and firewall software (Windows XP has a firewall built in nowadays).
  • Don’t install software sent to you across the internet by strangers unless you are absolutely certain that the software is safe and does something that you need it to do.
  • If something goes wrong while connected to the Net, the first thing to do is get off the road! Disconnect. You will be safer, and so will everybody else.

And here ends the sermon. 😉

November 10, 2006 at 10:26 am Leave a comment

More about RSS

The Bookselling Online Blog has just recently posted a neat little article on RSS feeds. Of course, I’m pretty elated about this, because whenever I mention RSS to anybody around me in the industry I look into vacant eyes and glazed expressions that suggest that the mention of the acronymn has somehow already transformed itself into a huge gumption trap. For some reason, people stop thinking or listening as soon as they hear the slightest hint of techno-jargon. So I always feel some encouragement when I read somebody else pushing forward on the technology front.

Nonetheless, I want to clear up a misconception that the BOB perpetuates in its article about feeds. The gist of the matter is the implication that you need to have an account with one of the newsreader services. This is just plain wrong. While using a newsreader service such as bloglines, or something similar, may give you a nice space to read your feeds. I prefer to use an application to do this. I run some software known as Akregator, which sits in the equivalent of my sytem tray all day and goes off to fetch feeds for me all the time. New articles are displayed briefly in a (generally unobtrusive) notification bubble and can be viewed directly in the application without me having to login to a particular site. Of course Akregator is linux software that is not available for Windows or Mac users, but there is a wealth of alternative software for users of other platforms. To begin with, both Firefox and IE7 have feed readers built into them. And I believe that the Thunderbird mail client by Mozilla is quite capable of subscribing to RSS feeds as well. So that your latest news will appear in a Folder group with your email. And if that doesn’t quite suit you, check out SharpReader for Windows, and NetNewsWire for Mac (as usual anything that works in an Apple environment will cost you something).

While this point may seem somewhat silly, I mention it for a number of reasons. Firstly, many people are very private about their browsing habits and the idea that in order to use RSS you need to hand over some personal details to a company that will monitor your interests for “free” (while handing over information to interested 3rd parties), puts a lot of people off the technology. Another point about this is the idea that you have to keep checking my feed site every day just to click on a bunch of links to other sites. This seems a bit silly, since the whole point of subscribing to a feed is that I am actually notified of changes to the sites I am interested. I don’t want to have to keep firing up my browser to check that something interesting has suddenly been posted online. And finally, I get a bunch of people asking if they can get emailed updates about our stock. Hell, you can use a decent email client and subscribe to a feed. It works better than email! 😉

Anyway, I don’t mean to rant about this stuff. Its excellent to discover that there are other people out there interested in this sort of technology. So well done to the Bookselling Online Blog for posting the article. And for the rest of you still confused about RSS… please go to wikipedia and read about Web Feeds and RSS.

November 6, 2006 at 4:43 pm Leave a comment

Rarebookreview joins the blogosphere

Rare Book Review contacted me and asked for help setting up their own blog and it looks like they’ve finally got it live! The staff complained that they were not happy with the way the news stories on their previous site were working, and that they did not have many facilities to promote their news articles. As a result, they asked how I would go about fixing this. My approach was to make use of the WordPress software to run a blog which could be easily updated with newsitems. Using a small PHP script to parse the RSS feed from their blog, it was fairly trivial to create a replacement block which could be used on their website to update the news section with newly posted articles on the blog.

Overall, I like the look of their new blog, I hope they go far with it. Meanwhile, Rare Book Review’s shift to the blogosphere means that we’re now all capable of commenting on their news articles. I wonder how many other changes they plan down this line!

November 2, 2006 at 6:17 pm Leave a comment

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