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6 things I learned from my new computer in 6 hours

6-things-i-learned-from-my-laptop-in-6-hoursThis was a birthday present from myself (following agent Cooper’s advice…) and it arrived last evening. What can you learn from switching to a new machine? As it turns out, there’s a lot to take in. See if this matches your experience.

1.Free Software needs more supporters

My new toy came recommended by the Free Software Foundation. The story and mission of this movement is too long to summarize it here: Richard Stallman, one of its key figures, does it well in this TED talk. All I want to say here is: it should matter to you, at least enough to consider switching some of your computing to such solutions.

2. First impressions are king, but kings can be dethroned

I’ve now had a good night’s sleep, and I’m coming back to do some more work on the laptop. Last night frustrated me a bit (more on that later) but this morning, I get to do what I need to do anyway: sit down with some tea and start writing.

The reason people fall in “love” with Apple products is the sexiness of their design. The first impression then leads to sticking with their gadgets. In my case, the fact that I get some quality time with my machine is more important – but it takes lots of mindful work to get over your first impression.

3. The death of the PC is not good news

Wired ran a good piece on the decline of PCs some time ago. And just a few days later, I got to buy me one.

It’s true that many modern tablets or smartphones have comparable specs to what I’m currently using. But the bad news as we switch to these devices is this: we’re not as free to modify, repair or service these hardware parts ourselves. I take comfort in fact that I can do some exploring / replacing on the inside of my laptop. And I’m going to miss that freedom when it’s gone.

4. Rejoice in the power of tinkering

For learners, there’s probably no greater way to get new skills. I wrote about it in the context of learning languages earlier. I’m sure this applies to more disciplines.

As you tinker – go ahead with something, research, read up, mess up, back up, try it again, make stuff happen – you take all your skills and smarts a little bit outside of your comfort zone. And you instantly apply some of it to a real-world task at hand. This is powerful: this is what point 3 above can deny you when PC dies.

5. “Intuitive” doesn’t (always) mean “simple enough for five-year-olds”

This one is probably the hardest lesson to explain. It’s do to with design, and with the way our machines let us do things.

For a long time, I’ve been in awe of how “intuitive” Macs were. The things you wanted to do were happening, just the way you wanted them to happen. The things you looked for were exactly where you went looking. The clicks did what you expected. The gestures were well understood.

But after a few years this changed. The interface was still pretty much the same, and the rules were basically not modified. It’s just that I didn’t feel so effortlessly successful when using my Mac – and the iPhone made it even more pronounced.

The question nobody asks when being sold “intuitive” design is, intuitive to whom?

What kind of user will feel comfortable with this gadget – and who will feel constrained? How long before I outgrow your interface and start looking for something you’re no longer willing to sell me? And when I do, what then – are you able to change the way I use your stuff, or do I have to look for another “intuitive?”

There are people out there for whom the “intuitive” thing to do with their laptops is to get rid of windows, icons and pop-ups, going for the command line instead. I’m not one of those people yet – but my “intuitive” at the moment consists of spending time on forums and help articles, learning a new command I can use to do one more thing a bit better.

Intuition, if it evolved with us at all, did not evolve around computers. So being sold “intuitive” software must lead to questions.

6. Everybody should learn code

I don’t care if you never do any programming, and I don’t mind if you give up after ten lessons. My belief is that it’s important to know what goes on inside the devices that command, store, share and organize your life for you.

Check out this video, sign on to Codecademy, look for a tutor. If someone tells you that “it’s not for you,” just give it a go without prejudice (if someone tells you “it’s not for girls,” read this and stop talking to them).

Every country in the world will need more people who can understand more machines. Soon. And we’re not getting them. The least you can do is learn enough about code to solve your tech problems yourselves, so your helpdesk engineers can help someone who is truly stuck 🙂

That’s all for now, folks, although I’m sure my new toy will keep giving me lessons for days to come. Keep your fingers crossed for me 🙂


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