Archive for the ‘computers’ Category.

Copyright and disruptive technology

What if you could give a book to everyone on earth? Get an ebook and read it on any device, in any format, forever? Give an ebook to your library, for them to share? Own DRM-free ebooks, legally? Read free ebooks, and know their creators had been fairly paid?  –From About,

Copyright is a round hole.  Paper publications are nice, round pegs.  Electronic items are square pegs.  Hard copies can be passed around, shared from person to person across time and space.  A copyright holder’s distribution rights are curtailed by the physical transfer of the copyrighted item (by purchase or gift) to another.

Electronic items can be similarly shared. Maybe.  Because they are square pegs, a new way to control distribution was needed, so a square hole called “licensing” was carved into the copyright landscape.  This pretty much upsets the shaky balance between the public right to knowledge and a creator’s right to profit from the work.

Enter the crowdfunding concept, which takes advantage of the ubiquitousness of the Interwebs and the ability to use that to more easily raise money for relatively small scale projects.  Kickstarter is a fairly well known example of a crowdfunding conduit.  And now comes Eric Hellman, using the crowdfunding idea to harmonize the ideals of copyright and licensing, to make that square peg fit in the round hole.

Welcome to  I love it.  Where else can you find the possibility of getting your favorite book released into the electronic domain?  I’m hoping when this catches on, I’ll see In the Night Kitchen moved into an active campaign by the time my new grandson is ready to read!

Google, tech support, and your parents

Google has entered the tech support arena: The short help videos are slick, and they’re appealing, at least to the target audience: a younger generation that is very tech savvy with parents or grandparents who are not.  One of my sons came across them and asked if I thought they would be helpful for his grandparents, who are in their 80’s.  I went to investigate.

The Tech Support care package is a set of quick videos intended to make using Google products easier.  It makes sense.  You have a product.  You do a market analysis.  Where can you expand? In technology, an obvious place to expand your market is the older adult population, which is the fastest growing segment of the population.  But there are problems with that market segment (see my Connecting the Disconnected series of posts, as well as the Computers, Older Adults, and Libraries page).  So Google, in a style very reminiscent of Apple, has created some help videos for basic computer tasks as well as for using Google products.  They are short (good idea), to the point (good idea), and friendly (good idea).  Some are good, some are fails.

The first issue is: how basic is “Basic”?  On the assumption that this is intended for someone who at least uses email (after all, the front page of the site is an invitation to email these helpful videos to the one you think needs them), how much existing knowledge does that presume?  Looking at the set of 6 basic videos, the following knowledge and skills are expected:

  • How to use the mouse, including the right and left buttons (or right and left side of the mouse).
  • How to click and drag
  • What the various special function keys are (such as the Control Key or Command Key) and where they are .
  • How to browse a computer’s file structure.
  • What a computer file is, and what the different types of computer files are (such as jpg, pdf, docx)
  • How to use email, including attaching files.

How reasonable are these expectations?  I fall back on the standard evasive answer:  That depends. 🙂  I have developed a lot of computer training and taught a lot of people how to use computers.  They have ranged in age from thirties to nineties.  They have had varying levels of computer skills across all ages (although, in general, the older they are, the less computer skills they have).  For those who had no experience with computers, my goal was to teach them how to use the internet, and how to use email.  Once they reached that level, I could teach them more advanced things like bookmarking web sites, basic computer skills and file structure, and sharing photos.  Some of these videos presume more skills than I did even for the next step beyond the new user level.  For example, files and file structure, and email attachments were elements in our more advanced user classes.

As an aside, Gmail was one of the email services we tested on the new user groups.  It did not work out well, because (1) Google kept changing the service and interface, and (2) it was too confusing for a typical older user to figure out.  I tried to contact Google about creating a user interface that would work for older adults.  Obviously, I didn’t get their attention.

So the videos really aren’t all that basic, except to technologists who find the featured tasks unbelievably mundane.  But how useful are they to their intended audience (the older adult who already has some computer skills)?  Again, it depends:

  • How old is the recipient of the “Care” package?  The older the person is (generally, 55+), the more they need explicit instructions, using discete steps. The visuals are nice, but sometimes they move too fast and skip over steps.  Also, the language is often not explicit enough for an older adult.
  • How experienced is that person with computers?  This question is actually tied to the next one.  Older adults do not tend to keep up with changes in technology as much as their children/grandchildren.  But generally, the more experience they have, the less difficulty they have learning new, related skills.
  • What operating system, and what version of the operating system, is that person using?  Because older adults tend to not update their skills (learn why here), they are usually using an old computer and operating system (it was not uncommon to have students in my classes who were using Windows 98).  The changes from Windows 98/2000/xp to Win7 or OSX Snow Leopard are intimidating to an older adult (again, generally, 55+).  These videos assume the recipient will be comfortable using one of those operating systems.  That is a big assumption.

Bottom line: If the intended recipient of these cute care packages is under 55, and has some experience using a recent operating system, the videos will likely be both handy and useful. If the recipient is over 55 and/or is not using a recent operating system, a few of the videos would be useful:  How to Create a Strong Password, How to Know if an Email is Real, and most of the Search Information videos.  Also note, there are a lot more Mac-centric videos than Windows.

Would it work for my parents, in their 80’s, who have been using computers since the first Apples came out, and currently have Snow Leopard?  Actually, no.  They would have difficulty following most of them, and for the rest, they wouldn’t see the point.

I’d be happy to take that off your hands

In the not too distant past, I was manning the reference desk, listening to a man say he had to come to the library to use the computers because his laptop was so badly infested with viruses that he had to throw it away.

“You threw it away?” I asked, incredulously.

“Yeah, it’s worthless now.  I can’t use it.  I’m just going to throw it away.”

Realizing he hadn’t actually thrown it away yet, but was willing to, I glibly asked if he’d throw it my way.  He looked at me incredulously at the same time I realized there was probably some intervening ethics involved.  So I said, “Or, I could show you how to make it usable again so there will never be another virus on it.”

He was still incredulous.  I assured him it can be done.  He wanted to know what he could do for me.  I told him “Never tell anyone about this,” forming a mental image of what would happen if he went out and told all his friends, or worse, wrote to the director about what I’d done for him.

He came back a couple days later, but didn’t have the laptop with him.  I hooked him up with a copy of Keir Thomas’ Beginning Ubuntu Linux, and a newer version of the CD included in the book.  He was still somewhat incredulous.  He left the book, but promised to come back the next day with the laptop.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see him again after that. I’m still wondering whether the original story was true, or if my comments prompted him to find someone to clean up the laptop for him.

I’ve since left that job.  Sometimes I miss the interesting world of public libraries.

The Digital Age, Books, and Libraries

There’s a lot of flag waving (especially by alarmed librarians) about the imminent demise of the book and libraries.  Actually, that’s not true.  The librarians are trying to fend off those who are buying into the idea that printed books, and libraries as we used to know them, are pointless vestiges of a prior era.  The debate has been picked up by the New York Times, which is getting a lot of press (sorry) lately.

The biggest issue, which is only obliquely hinted at in the arguments floating around, especially those in the Times opinion piece, is accessibility. I have a book. No one anywhere can prevent me from sharing that book with you. No one anywhere can prevent you from sharing that book with someone else (once it’s in your possession). Granted, this is a single item, with geospatial limitations which can be transcended by electronic networks. But “electronic” has its own, more restrictive limitations. Does one have access to the electronic network? Does one have the equipment to access the electronic network? Is there a power source to enable access to the equipment (or network)? Does one have permission to access the electronic device/network/item?

Librarianship has always been about finding and gaining access to books/information. The interesting twist today is the gaining access part, which involves navigating rights and permissions, as well as delivery options: both print (is there a printer?) and electronic (does the recipient even have the means to access an electronic version?).

The discussion in the NYTimes column (and others) focuses on universities and private schools, essentially ignoring that part of the population that is (a) less educated, (b) less affluent, (c) less technologically savvy, and (d) any combination of the above. My guesstimate, from experience and prior research, is that those categories make up a significant minority of the US population (maybe up to 40%), and likely always will.

So to the issue of accessibility, add disenfranchisement.  Where will the have-nots get what the haves are being taught to take for granted?  Those “pointless” vestiges of a prior era really aren’t so pointless after all.

Computer Classes for Libraries and others

I promised this long ago, so it’s way past time to get these posted.

Feel free to modify and reuse these.  They are provided under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-commercial 3.0 license.  If you require other terms, leave a comment with your contact information, and I will get back to you.  Please note the powerpoint files are rather large (>4MB).

portablesoftware This is a powerpoint program covering Portable Software:  what it is, how to install it, where to get it, and how to use it.  There are two handouts that go with the program: Install Portable Software and Start Portable Apps Handout, both Open Document Text (.odt) documents.

eBooks and Audiobooks This is a powerpoint program I created for the Palm Beach County Library System, so there are still some vestiges within the show. The handouts for this were specific to that library, so I have not included them.  Contact me via the comment form below if you want them.

Beginning Internet This is a powerpoint program on Internet Basics for beginners.

I will post more as I get them cleaned up.

The harsh reality about aging computers

In preparing for Software Freedom Day (September 19, more details in this post), my dad and I began evaluating the stash of donated computers he has (he’s waiting on a call from the local Computers for Kids program donee), and installing Ubuntu on them to be demo machines.  As we began installing Ubuntu, we hit a snag:  Ubuntu 9.04 will not install on pre-2000 computers.  Version 8.10 wouldn’t install either.  There were only three, and one of them was only 366 MHz, but I figured I’d give it a try anyway since they each had at least 256 MB of RAM.

I have a friend with a warehouse full of computers that he donates to another giveaway program.  He gets donations, like my dad, evaluates them, categorizes the parts, etc, and puts together systems with Windows XP on them (from TechSoup).    He told me last year he isn’t accepting any more computers with less than 1.0 GHz processors, because current software has too many problems with slower computers.

Well, yeah, you can get software to run on the older machines (see some previous posts), but increasingly, it’s a question of why?  I did it for the challenge.  But for machines going to others to use, why make it a challenge for them (unless, of course, they want that)?  For the Ubuntu folks, anything older than 2000 just isn’t worth the effort anymore.  For my warehouse friend, 1 GHz is the cutoff (which is post 2000).

On one hand, culling the older ones makes it easier for us.  On the other, my conscience cringes at adding to the number of computers and parts to be recycled (and the decidedly un-green effect most of those recycling shops have).  But that’s the reality: software installation and maintenance on dinosaur machines is a beast few are willing to wrangle with.

Frankenfest followup

We sorted a lot of stuff that day. A lot of people unloaded a lot of electronics.  About a third of it went to recycling (there is a recycling station near us that takes electronics).  We built three awesome systems, and the rest was divvied up among whoever wanted it.  Most of it ended up in my Mom’s garage.  She had been ecstatic as we hauled things out of her garage that morning.  We brought back about 2 to 3 times as much as we took.

She only said, “That’s going to be gone when the guests arrive (for Christmas)?”  We nodded solemnly.

The next day and over the next couple weekends, my Dad and I tested parts, sorted the box of RAM chips a friend donated to the cause, and put together another 6 working systems.  He got pretty good at installing Linux on them.  We used LinuxMint until we got down to the really low resource systems (Pentium II’s).  We put 20+GB hard drives on those, upped the RAM as much as we could (usually 256+MB), and put MacPup on them.  They were beautiful. 🙂

My brother arrived for Christmas, and during one of my days off, we put together another 4 systems, all with MacPup on them.  Unfortunately, my brother couldn’t get the case back on the last system, so it’s still waiting for me. 😉  After Christmas, my dad took them all to a local school, to eventually be given to students and families in need.  The teacher in charge of it had never heard of Linux and was eager to see it and learn more about it.  My dad, of course, was eager to tell her about it.  It sounds like another Linux fan has been born.

My mom is happier:  the garage only has as much computer parts in it now as it did before the Frankenfest. My dad collected a few more computers, waiting for the next call from the local school.  One of them is a laptop.  He installed Ubuntu on it and showed it off to me.  We decided to upgrade the RAM to 1GB and put Ubuntu 8.04 on it instead of the older version he had.  He spends as much time on it now, learning about Ubuntu, as he does on his Mac.  He is so happy with it he decided to put Ubuntu on another machine to give to a 90 year old friend in need of a computer.  So I helped him customize it to make it easier for his friend, and to strip out all the things that a novice is better off not messing around with.

I’m thinking Linux advocates should consider Frankenfests: get the cast off machines, put together working systems with Linux on them, and give them away!  If you have an idea of who it’s going to, you can customize it to be as full or as stripped as it needs to be.  I think most people will be like my dad, and become fans, too!


CPU's and Monitors, lined up for Frankenfest

CPUs and Monitors for the Frankenfest

It was Kevin’s idea.

At a PBLUG meeting held at Nova Southeastern’s North County campus in Palm Beach Gardens, he suggested it. Frankenfest?  What’s a Frankenfest?  Kevin explained it’s when people bring whatever computers or computer parts they have laying around to an event where you (those attending the event) build whatever you can from what you have.

Kevin had a motive.  He had a garage full of computers and parts, and his wife was not happy about it, but he couldn’t bring himself to just pitch them.

Of course we were intrigued by the idea.  Especially me.  I kept the idea alive by continually bringing it up to the group.  They, of course, took the bait, being Linux geeks.  We ended up with a plan, of sorts. We needed to do something with all the computers we were sure to build.  Laura came up with a group that would like to give away the computer systems to needy families for Christmas.  We needed a place to do it.  My library had fortuitously cancelled all programming for December, under the impression they would be closing, so a very large meeting room was available to us almost any Saturday that month (actually, almost any day in December would have been available, but Saturdays worked best for everyone).  We needed a Linux distro to install.  I suggested Kubuntu because I like KDE and Ubuntu seemed mainstream enough to be easy for the ultimate recipients to find books or help.

Resource: cables

Cables, anyone?

So we did it.  The Frankenfest was today.  We spent two hours sorting and testing what we had. We spent the next 4 hours trying to load Kubuntu on the best machines we had, since I had created a Kubuntu cheatsheet to give to the ultimate recipients.  We started with 7 candidates, from Pentium III’s to a 2.16 MHz box.  We ended up with three successful installs, two with Linux Mint on them, and one with Kubuntu.  Travelin’ Rob had brought the Linux Mint because it runs on anything, and he likes it.  He also promised to do a Linux Mint cheat sheet to give to the foundation to include with these systems they will be distributing.

We almost had one more Linux Mint box, but the install ultimately failed, probably because we tried to put a 160GB hard drive on an older machine that couldn’t recognize bigger hard drives.  One of the better machines we had didn’t like our RAM upgrade attempt, and didn’t seem to know how to operate without the three centuries worth of dust we removed.  As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as computer geeks, we’re really just linux geeks, and have lapses in hardware sense from time to time.  I had spent most of the last week getting screenshots of Kubuntu on my virtual machine, thinking that it would work exactly the same on a real machine.

Resource line 2: speakers and keyboards

Speakers, keyboards, and mice

But ultimately, I guess it was a “success.”  Three families will be getting awesome computer systems. Kevin cleared out his garage. We got everything cleared out by the time the library closed.  I finally learned everyone’s names.

Someone (Travelin’ Rob?) suggested we do it again.  I said, “Yeah, once a year wouldn’t be too painful.”  Someone else suggested we let one of the local stations know, because they would cover it and advertise it if they just knew in advance.  We actually had people walking in and asking if we were taking computer donations.  I looked around at the 20+ computers in various stages of usability, and said “No, thanks.”  I can imagine what a little advance advertising would do.  Of course, since Kevin’s now got his garage cleaned out, it might be interesting to see what we’d get from people dropping by to drop off their computers.

Yeah, I guess I’m hopeless.

The perfect absurdity of it all

Patron:  Where is computer number 37?

Librarian:  Between numbers 19 and 21, of course!

But of course!  It made perfect sense to us because we weren’t thinking of the numbers as being sequential.  They were simply labels.  But the hapless patron had looked around and seen computers numbered in what seemed to be a sequential order, quickly scanned for numbers in the 30’s, and found 34, 35, 36, and no 37.  There was a reason computer number 37 was put where it is, which made sense at the time, and its location has just been accepted matter of factly by everyone working at the library.

But the quick exchange caught me unexpectedly and I laughed at the perfect absurdity of it.  People come into a library expecting things to be nicely ordered so they will be easy to find.  But in this case our nicely ordered system made no sense at all.  We won’t change it, of course.  Changing the computer numbers on the computers themselves and within the local network will never make it even to the bottom of the short list of things to fix here.  Besides, it looks perfectly normal to us – 37 has been between 19 and 21 for so long it’s practically ingrained in our vision.

So I wonder and ponder what else we do achieves that perfect absurdity, where the obvious eludes us, or it would take too much time or effort to change.

Digital natives, digital immigrants, and digital refugees

I have been hearing the terms digital native and digital immigrant for quite a while.  Digital native, of course, refers to those who have grown up with digital technology (generally those born after computers and cell phones became mainstream), and digital immigrants would be those who had to learn the technology as an adult. But there are a lot of people that don’t nicely fit into those categories, there are also the “bridges” (somewhere between digital native and digital immigrant) and the refugees (those who have fled the onslaught).  I teach the digital refugees, of course.

In an effort to get a better picture of these distinctions, I started questioning my kids about the ways they use technology and why.  I don’t think my kids are particularly typical (after all, they are mine), but their responses were interesting, nonetheless, since they affirm, for the most part, what others (mostly digital immigrants) are saying about digital natives.  My kids range in age from 17 to 28.  I questioned the 17 year old first.  His answers were pretty much the same as his 22 year old sibling who is still in college.  His 26 year old sibling, out in the work force, had only slightly different answers.  All of them (even the oldest ones) grew up with computers both at home and at school, although for the older ones, computer technology was not as widespread and integrated as it is today.

They all have cell phones.  They all use the phones to send text messages.  The youngest says he uses text much more than voice (verified by the phone bill).  For the 22 year old it’s about a 50-50 split, and for the 26 year old, it’s mostly voice.

Why do they text instead of use voice?

  1. It’s more private, or, to put it in the words of the youngest, “texting is less obnoxious.”  He used an example of someone in a public place like a grocery store talking loudly on a cell phone so everyone can hear all the gory details that they would rather not. Texting doesn’t disturb anyone.
  2. In many cases it’s quicker and easier than dialing a number and waiting for the other person to answer just to say something like “I’m on my way, I’ll be a few minutes late” or “are you going to Fred’s this evening?”
  3. You can send the message to multiple recipients rather than making multiple phone calls.
  4. Sometimes it’s the only way you can communicate.  The youngest used the example of being in class, where phones are not allowed, and texting surreptitiously.  The 22 year old used an example of being at a loud party where you wouldn’t be able to carry on a phone conversation.

In most cases the texting is short, quick messages.  The 22 year old will switch to a phone call if the messages are getting long, since it’s easier to talk.

They all have MySpace and Facebook accounts.  Which one they use depends on which friends they want to communicate with. The 26 year old is in the process of resurrecting his Facebook and MySpace accounts, because that’s where all his friends are.  They all prefer Facebook:

  1. MySpace has too many ads that are in your face. As one of them put it, “Where would you rather talk to your friends: in the Mall, or in Radio Shack?”
  2. Facebook is more streamlined
  3. Facebook is more user friendly
  4. Facebook gives you a targeted list (“Here’s a list of others from your school who are on Facebook”) making it easier to find your real-life friends.
  5. Facebook has more games and applications.
  6. You have more freedom to change around your Facebook page since it’s HTML based (but this can be a bad thing when you go to page to leave a comment and there’s a big flash application that slows down your computer and an annoying song you can’t turn off because the flash app is in the way).

What do they think of MySpace and Facebook?  Generally, it’s a time waster.  They get on one of them when they have nothing else to do, or they have time to waste.  Both MySpace and Facebook are used to communicate with their friends, when the communication does not need an instant response.  But all of them know people who are “addicted” to MySpace or Facebook, spending every waking second trying to find out what everyone else is doing, or checking to see if there are any new comments.

What about e-mail?  For all of them e-mail is snail mail.  They use it for:

  1. formal communication
  2. sending attachments (it’s easier than IM, with less problems)
  3. staying in touch with distant friends or friends in foreign countries (where it’s too expensive to text or phone).

What is the real snail mail for?  Packages.

What about blogs? There was a disinterested “no” from all of them.  They don’t have one, don’t want one, and don’t read them.  When I pressed the 26 year old, he thought about it and admitted he does visit a couple technology news sites that are actually blogs.

E-readers have gotten such hype I couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out what they thought about them. They were puzzled:  “Why wouldn’t you just get the book?”  When I pointed out you could put hundreds of books on them, they were still puzzled:  “Isn’t that what a library is for?”  They conceded they might read an electronic version of a book, but couldn’t fathom having a specialized device to read it:  “Why would you get something that can only do one thing?”

Finally, I asked what they would do if there were no cell phones or computers.  The 17 year old wasn’t fazed: “Find something else to do, like read a book or ride over to my friend’s house.”  The 22 year old was a bit more concerned:  “You mean, like a day or two, or forever?”  (clearly not liking the “forever” option).  The 26 year old didn’t like the forever option either since he works in the technology field.

I think they all have a very different concept of technology than my generation does, even those of us who have embraced computer technology since its inception.  It really is an everyday occurrance for them, no more special than a toothbrush. And I guess that is what makes them “natives.”  It is hard for them to understand not being intimately connected to technology.  My 17 year old found it too painful to watch me figuring out how to navigate around a new cell phone last year, that had a totally different interface from the last one (and a few more features).  He finally took it from me and set it up in a matter of seconds, complete with a picture of him as the background.   On the other hand, his brother only two years older reacted to the new release of World of Warcraft much the same as a digital immigrant:  he wasn’t so sure he wanted to take the time to relearn how to play the game with all its new features and content.  He wanted to stick with what he was comfortable with.  In the end, for them, it is just another tool.