What to do with that old computer?

First off, if it's really, really old, you might need to recycle it.

if it has at least 256MB or 512MB of RAM (or could have, if you bought
more memory), there are a number of things you could do with it.

  1. Use it in front of the TV or in your kitchen. Install Linux on it.
    It will cost you nothing to try. You burn a Linux image onto a USB
    drive or a CD, put it in your old computer and install. You then have a
    working system. While it may not be fast, I bet it would still be good
    to look up recipes in the kitchen or movie actors in front of the tv.
    We have an old laptop that regularly overheats and has to be plugged in
    sitting on the coffee table in front of the TV just to answer random
    questions. (Or take a quick peak at email or Facebook.)
  2. Donate it. There are lots of places that will take a computer with enough working memory. Kids on Computers is one. Your local school system might be another. Your local user linux group may know of others.
  3. Give it to a kid. My 9 year old has a hand me down computer. As
    long as it runs some kind of flash player and can surf to lego.com,
    he's happy.

What else would you do with an old computer?

Changing the world

I really like how sometimes a small change, or a new technology meant to solve one problem, can end up making a huge difference in other ways.

For example, a service called M-PESA allows people in Africa to pay each other via text messages on their cell phones. Households using M-PESA in Kenya have increased their incomes by 5-30%! How? They are using the phone account as a bank account. It enables them to have emergency savings which means when something goes wrong they don't have to sell the cow or their livelihood. From the Economist:

the service is used by some people as a savings account. Having even a small cushion of savings to fall back on allows people to deal with unexpected expenses, such as medical treatment, without having to sell a cow or take a child out of school. Mobile banking is safer than storing wealth in the form of cattle (which can become diseased and die), gold (which can be stolen), in neighbourhood savings schemes (which may be fraudulent) or by stuffing banknotes into a mattress.

Do you have a similar story about how technology or free software has improved life in a developing country in unexpected ways?

Twitter’s friend strategy is not a popularity contest

One of the cooler things about Twitter is that friends are not necessarily mutual. You can listen to whomever you want and anyone can listen to you, and those lists aren't the same.

But I'm amazed at how many people want to keep it a mutual friends game. A game of tit for tat. And for me, that detracts from the power of Twitter. It's much more powerful when it's like blogs. I get to "listen" to people I think are interesting and pass on those things that I think are most interesting without a whole bunch of noise. I especially find Twitter useful at conferences.

Until recently, if someone followed me on twitter, I followed them back. (After making sure they weren't a spammer.)  However, I realized that following over 900 people meant that I didn't really hear anyone. So I created a quick policy.

If I know you (in person or online) or if I'd had interactions with you on twitter, I kept following you.

But if I didn't know the person, had never heard of them except through twitter and:

They follow more than a 1,000 people. (They obviously can't follow/talk to all of them. I know from personal experience.)


They only talked, never replied. (To me twitter is about a conversation and passing on good ideas, not about reading someone's timeline.)


They only talked about their product. (Surely life is more interesting than just that?)


They talked way, way too much. (Then it hides what everyone else is saying.)

Then I unfollowed them. (I made a few exceptions and I'm sure I made a few mistakes, but that was my general process.)

The surprising thing to me was the people that unfollowed me immediately. (It was actually a small percentage of the number of people I unfollowed.) However, it meant to me that they were only following me because I was following them. So obviously they weren't really interested in what I had to say.

So why were they following me in the first place? So they could look like a large number of people were following them? So that huge numbers of people would hear what they have to say? I don't know. It doesn't make sense to me.

Follow people you find interesting. Pass on interesting thoughts. Don't worry about how many people follow you back. It doesn't mean they don't like you! (Unless no one follows you. Then you might stop and consider how
interesting or useful you are being … but that's a different topic.) In the real world we can't have meaningful conversations with 1000+ people every day. The online world is no different. That doesn't mean you shouldn't listen to those you find interesting.

Twitter is an extremely useful tool. But it's not a good popularity contest!

Photo by fofurasfelinas.

Twittering from conferences

I like twittering at conferences. It's a way to take notes, share insights and start interesting conversations. However, I'm always forgetting to append the event hashtag and I eventually get tired of manually typing it, so I wrote a Greasemonkey script to automatically append a hashtag.

To use it, you have to:

  • install Greasemonkey,
  • install my script,
  • use Firefox as your browser,
  • set your hashtag with the Tools/Greasemonkey/UserScriptCommands/Set hashtag. (Note you have to be on Twitter.com to see the commands.)
  • tweet directly from Twitter.com.

Some notes:

  • Thanks to @marnanel for suggesting I use a Greasemonkey script.
  • I had much bigger plans and started out writing a Ruby program with the idea that I'd create a Ruby on Rails app but I soon realized that I didn't really want to write yet another Twitter client. If Gwibber, Tweetdeck or Twirl would add some nice hashtag support, that'd be great.
  • It's been a long time since I wrote code and I've never written any javascript so this took probably 10 times longer than I think it should have. And it doesn't have enough error checking or any number of cool features I would like but it does what I want it to.
  • While I was looking at Greasemonkey scripts for Twitter, I found a couple of other useful ones like updating your twitter home page without refreshing, endless tweets so you don't have to page, seeing @'s to another user, …

I'll be twittering this week at #osbc.

Why I know we need usability studies

I was talking to a friend today. A friend that emails, blogs and uses web tools like ebay and paypal. I said, "hmm, that's strange, my browser isn't working. Twhirl is working though." I meant to imply that since my browser was frozen, I was checking my internet connection to see if it was an internet or Firefox problem. To which he responded, "My Firefox at work is working." Sensing a fundamentally different understanding of how things worked I asked a bunch of questions. (From my viewpoint, I had already established the internet was working, so his Firefox could have no bearing on my Firefox, but obviously he saw things differently.)

Turns out, he views Firefox as an internet service, not as an application that displays web pages through an internet connection. The fact that twhirl had internet connectivity did not mean that my other services would work. And all my other services were Firefox services because they all ran in the browser. He saw those services as Firefox services, not web services.

He did not seem to think of Firefox as an application. It was a web service.

So I'm not saying his view is common. But I'm also guessing that if I polled 100 random people on the street, many would not see the world my way and a few might see it his way. As we figure out how the desktop, the browser and the internet work together to deliver a seamless user experience, we need to keep in mind that most of our users will not see those as three separate things. They may see them as one thing or ten things, but they are unlikely to understand how they all interconnect at the technical level.

(And I do think the desktop, the browser and the internet have a lot of work to do to deliver a good user experience. Keeping my mail in the cloud is awesome, using Gmail in a browser window is not so awesome. It should act more like a desktop app, allowing me to open up multiple windows without extra toolbars, stash things on the desktop, etc. But that's a topic for another post.)

So that is why I'm fundraising for a usability study.

Photo by Votemann.

What’s important to Nokia tablet users

At the Maemo Summit, Harri Kiljander shared a
list of the features that are important to Nokia tablet (N800) users.
Currrent users are developers who are very happy with their tablet.
(9 out of 10 of them would recommend it to someone else.) From what I
understood target tablet users are young, socially connected, into
technology fashion, and mostly from developed countries. (He broke it
down a bit more into several different types of users.) His list of
user interface features in order of importance:

  • stability
  • performance
  • ease of use
  • efficiency
  • consistency of user interface
  • personalization
  • usage with fingers
  • aesthetics: look of graphics
  • one hand usage
  • sound effects

People had lots of questions. In
particular a few people seemed surprised that sound was last. (I’m
not the target user, but for the record, I’ve turned off all sound in
my devices that I don’t use with headphones except my cell phone

Ubiquity: turning us all into power users

Ubiquity was officially announced this week. I installed it and I find myself using it all the time for really simple, but very useful, stuff. I use a calculator a lot. Now, when I’m in the middle of typing an email or reading a web page, I just hit two keys and type "calc 3256/3+2456" and there’s my answer. If I see a word I don’t know, I just hit two keys and type "define hello", read the answer and hit escape and go back to what I was doing. If I want to email something interesting that I’m looking at, two keys and "email this to mike" and it emails whatever’s on my web page to Mike. (Actually it gives me a choice as to what "this" is and then it brings up Gmail with an email all addressed to Mike and filled out with the information from the web page I was looking at.)

So easy, so fast.

Have you ever watched one of those power command line users? Or power emacs users? Or even people who use the keyboard exclusively? Their fingers just fly and magic comes out of their computer. I feel like Ubiquity brings that power to the average web user. With just a couple of keystrokes and intuitive commands, they can make the computer magically generate the answer they are looking for.

Ubiquity works in the web browser and can do most things I can do inside my web browser. Now wouldn’t it be cool if Ubiquity also knew about my computer and all the applications and data I have on my computer? So now I could also say "email myspreadsheet to mike" and it would find "myspreadsheet" and email it to Mike?

Luis pointed out that since Mozilla’s projects are all open, and the GNOME Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation work together, we should be able to do that with GNOME. And Abhijit Nadgouda’s post reminded me that we might not be the only ones who’d like Ubiquity to know about our desktop. Plus, GNOME already knows how to do task oriented commands – GNOME Do has provided Ubiquity like functions for a while now. (I’m a big GNOME Do fan as well.) Can we integrate those desktop tasks into Ubiquity?

It seems to me that since Ubiquity, Firefox and GNOME are all open source we should be able to make that happen. It’s a unique opportunity to integrate the web and the desktop. I shouldn’t have to remember what functionality is part of the desktop and what is part of my browser. If I say "add this to myspreadsheet", the data I selected on the webpage should just be added to "myspreadsheet" on my computer.

Email etiquette guides for online tourists

Email etiquette is like any other kind of etiquette – it depends on what culture you are visiting. Just like table manners vary from country to country, email etiquette varies from community to community.

For example, when I joined OpenLogic, I went home the first day and watched my inbox. I actually got quite worried that something was wrong with the email server – I wasn’t getting any email! After 200-300/day at HP, getting no email for an entire evening was a huge shock. It took me a while before I quit checking my inbox so frequently and figured out how I was supposed to be getting work done.

Likewise, mailing lists can be a huge shock to non-mailing list users. Jean Anderson gave a talk at the Women in Open Source Conference last year and she spent a good part of her talk explaining how mailing lists work. As she spoke, I realized how foreign and scary they must seem to people used to traditional email:

  • Hundreds if not thousands of people are going to read your email – your stupid question email!
  • Your email will live forever. In public.
  • You’re going to get 10s if not 100s of emails a day!
  • And if you don’t cc the whole list, you’ll be rude and things won’t work effectively. (I actually had to be reminded to cc the list last month. I had gotten used to immediately taking the issue offline!)

So I think email etiquette depends on what community you are part of. Instead of a single etiquette guide (Chris Brogan’s post is what prompted this post), we should have community email etiquette guides. I know I’ve been readjusting my behavior as I adjust to the GNOME community.

(For the record, I’m a huge email and mailing list fan. I think there are phone people, email people, txt people … I’m an email person.)

Your “home” on the web

Google just announced Lively, a virtual world for all social networking sites. It immediately struck me as really cool and pretty scary. Here’s my 10 minute analysis.

The idea is that you have a virtual room or home on the web with a virtual person. You can than decorate your room, hang out it in or go visit your friends. When people come to visit you, they can move your stuff around. Rumor has it that your friends will be your friends from all your existing networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

I think it will take off if:

  • It’s accessible via browser with no special hardware.
  • People can tweak and customize it both as a user and a developer, i.e. you can customize your room or you can write apps that interact with the room.

What’s scary?

  • Google’s stuff catches on quick. And if this catches on, they will be defining what our online world looks like. What our homes and cities look like. It’d be a good thing if Google made it all customizable. It’d be better if it was open source. But whether it’s open source or not, Google will own it.
  • It’s one thing to have ads in my email. They are easy to ignore. It’ll be another if my friend’s avatars are all wearing branded shirts or if my "home" has a banner ad in it. I’m not sure why, but it’ll feel different.

What’s cool?

  • It’ll bring virtual reality worlds to many more people. We’ll be that much closer to Neal Stephenson’s realities.
  • It might push virtual reality technology forward faster.


I love my Kindle

I did it. I broke down and bought a Kindle. I like it because:

  • It’s light – it really does weigh about the same as a paperback.
  • I can carry several books in a very small space. I always read at least one fiction and one non-fiction book at the same time and this way I can carry them both around.
  • I can really easily take notes by highlighting sections of text or typing in a note. I really like that. (I’d like it if I could use the Kindle a bit more like a journal – that’d be great.)
  • The screen works really well. It looks good.
  • I can really quickly look up any book on Amazon, see the ratings, read the reviews, download a sample. So no more writing down a title to look up later.
  • The wireless works really well. It works in my parents’ town in South Dakota where my cell phone won’t work!
  • It comes with a browser – I can check my gmail account (rather awkwardly.)
  • I can get any book I want (that’s available for the Kindle) instantly.
  • The battery lasts a long time.
  • I’ve been reading the newspaper again. The New York Times shows up every morning. (But I’m also on vacation which means I have more time to read the paper.)
  • The screen saver. They show covers of old books, pictures of authors, tips, … and for some reason I like them.

Things I’d improve on:

  • The keyboard is too small to work as a real keyboard, too big to use your thumbs.
  • The browser is really awkward.
  • I’d like to highlight a title in a book and search Amazon for the book. (One of the books I’m reading now constantly refers to other books.)
  • It takes a second to turn the page. (The Kindle 2 is much better.)
  • It takes a couple of seconds to unfreeze the screen. (Again, the Kindle 2 is better.)
  • The buttons for previous page and next page are too easy to hit accidentally. (Luckily you can freeze the screen.) The Kindle 2 solved this by changing the buttons. If you’ve used a Kindle 1, it takes a bit to get used to but it works better.
  • A journal function. Right now I just take a note in whatever book I happen to be reading but it shows up as a note in that book.
  • I want an easy way to view “My Clippings” (my highlights and notes) on my computer. Right now I have to sync my Kindle and manually copy the file over.
  • International wireless. I’m going to miss the daily paper when I travel internationally. (Which is now available! But it looks like they might charge an extra fee to download it when traveling internationally.)

Overall, I’m very happy with my Kindle. And Amazon is making a lot of money as I bought a lot of books for it!

You can also see my list of accessories you might want and my review of covers for the Kindle 2.