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A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

Oct 28, 2009

A New Window for Seniors

SAM LIU     (Photo Credit: Julian Tay for The Straits Times)
Source: The Straits Times, Digital Life, October 28, 2009


Windows 7 has elderly-friendly features, says an IT-savvy senior.
ALFRED SIEW reports.

BRIGHT blue lights peering through a plastic side window are not what you expect from a PC built by a 73-year-old.

Yet, Sam Liu, one of Singapore's most IT-savvy seniors, is not stopping at the geeky machines he already owns, which includes a Net telephony device for making online calls to his son in Washington, DC and two green light-emitting hard disks hidden neatly under a shelf to store data.

He is upgrading his PCs - a Dell laptop and his DIY desktop - to run Microsoft's latest operating system (OS), Windows 7, which hit the shelves last week.

A semi-retired former satellite company executive, Sam believes the OS has features that will help seniors overcome their fear of PCs.

He should know. Sam is a part-time volunteer and IT trainer at RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme Singapore), a non-profit agency that runs courses on health care, IT and education for seniors.

"With Windows 7, the battery life is better (for laptops) and it's also faster and more user-friendly," says Sam, who won Singapore's Active Agers Infocomm Champion Award earlier this month. The award recognises seniors who help other seniors bridge the technological divide.

"I feel that Windows 7 is designed for seniors," he says.

Two features stood out for him when he tried out the "release candidate" - or a pre-release version similar to the final product - over the past four months.

The first plus, simply called Snap, brings convenience. Clicking and pulling down a full-sized window from the top of the screen now brings it down, enabling users to see the rest of the desktop screen quickly.

Previously, you had to search a small "minimise" or "restore" button at the top right corner of the window - something that seniors often fail to find, he says.

The same drag-and-drop effect can be used to organise several windows on a busy desktop, say, when one has several browser pages to compare side by side.

Simply drag open windows to the left and right borders of the screen. They will snap into place and be automatically resized to share the screen space. This makes for easy comparison of documents.

The second big benefit for seniors has to do with touchscreens, says Sam.

The built-in multi-touch know-how of Windows 7 - called Windows Touch - would enable people who have not used PCs before to compute in a more natural way - by simply touching and moving objects on-screen instead of using a mouse.

Like many users who have tried the new OS, Sam has mostly good things to say about it. It is unlike Windows Vista, which drew complaints of buggy drivers and suggish performance when it was launched two years ago.

One big selling point for Windows 7, touted as an edition that is groundbreaking as Windows 95 and Windows XP, is that it may make existing PCs run faster.

The new kid on the block, say individuals and expert reviewers who have tried it, is better optimised, such that even modest netbooks could run it with all the eye candy - like semi-transparent windows and nifty animation turned on.

In contrast, previous versions typically required users to buy faster PCs to have all the features enabled.

As Sam points out, both his high-powered desktop PC and his dusty four-year-old Dell laptop ran Windows 7 smoothly.

He even plans to buy a new laptop to run with the new operating system.

The laptop will come in handy when he flies to the United States, where his son is a researcher and where he is still on the boards of two companies that make satellites.

Back in Singapore and facing a classroom of seniors at RSVP, the volunteer will share his knowledge of Windows 7 which he believes will lessen the "digital discomfort" for PC newbies.



Online Books

Following my previous blog on "We-Think", here's an update of the latest news about books online, featured in The Straits Times, Digital Life Section, Wednesday, October 28, 2009.


"Books held hostage - offline"

Putting books online will save the publishing industry, argues CLIVE THOMPSON.

WHEN McKenzie Wark wrote Gamer Theory - an analysis of why people enjoy playing video games - Harvard University Press published it as a conventional hardcover. However, McKensie also put it online using CommentPress. The free blog theme blew the book open into a series of conversations; every paragraph could spawn its own discussion forum for readers.

Sure enough, hundrecds dove in and, pretty soon, Gamer Theory sparked erudite exchanges on everything from Plato's cave to Schopenhaurer's ideas on boredom.

It felt as much like a rangy, excited Twitter conversation as it did a book. "It was all because we opened it up and gave readers a way to interact with each other," McKenzie says. "It changed the way they read the book."

Books are the last bastion of the old business model - the only major medium that still has not embraced the digital age.

Publishers and author advocates have generally refused to put books online for fear that the content will be Napsterised.

You can understand their terror because the publishing industry is in big financial trouble and rife with layoffs and restructuring. Literary pundits are fretting: Can books survive in this Facebooked, attention deficit disorder, multi-channel universe?

To which I reply: Sure they can - but only if publishers adopt McKenzie's perspective and provide new ways for people to encounter the written word.

We need to stop thinking about the future of publishing and think instead about the future of reading.

Every other form of media that has gone digital has been transformed by its audience.

Whenever a newspaper story, TV clip, blog post or white paper goes online, readers and viewers begin commenting about it on blogs, snipping their favourite sections and passing them along.

The only reason the same thing does not happen to books is that they are locked into ink on paper.

Release them and you release the crow.

BookGlutton, a site that was launched last year, has put 1,660 books online and created tools that let readers form groups to discuss their favourite titles.

Meanshile, Bob Stein, an e-publishing veteran from the CD-ROM days, put the Doris Lessing book "The Golden Notebook" online with an elegant commenting system and hired seven writers to collaboratively read it.

Neither move should come as a surprise.

Books have a centuries-old tradition of annotation and commentary, ranging from the Talmud and scholarly criticism to book clubs and marginalia.

Bob believes that if books were set free digitally, it could produce a class of "professional readers" - people so insightful that you would pay to download their footnotes.

Worldwide Web of nerds

Sounds unlikely? It already exists in the real world: Microsoft researcher Cathy Marshall has found that university students carefully study used textbooks before buying them because they want to acquire the smartest notes.

The technology is here. Book nerds are now working on XML-like markup languages that would allow for really terrific linking and mashups.

Imagine a world where there is a URL for everyd chapter and paragraph - every sentence, even - in a book.

Readers could point to their favourite sections in a MySpace update or instant message or respond to an argument by copiously linking to the smartest passages in a recent bestseller.

This would massively improve what bibliophiles call book discovery. You are far more likely to hear about a book if a friend has highlighted a couple of brilliant sentences in a Facebook update - and if you hear about it, you are far more likely to buy it in print.

Yes, in print. The few authors who have experimented with giving away digital copies (mostly in sci-fi) have found that they end up selling more copies because their books were discovered by more people.
I am not suggesting that books need always be social. One of the chief pleasures of a book is mental solitude, that deep, quiet focus on an auther's thoughts and your own. That is not going away.

However, books have been held hostage offline for far too long. Taking them digital will unlock their real hidden value: the readers.


Clive Thompson is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine



Oct 26, 2009

We Think

Whatever attracted me to want to read this book wasn't the cover.

I believe in the adage: "Never judge a book by its covers". Looks can be deceiving. The covers are but only two sides; the front and the back. What holds the complete story are the pages between them. So the story had to be read from the beginning to the fully comprehend. Else we could easily jump into the wrong conclusions.

How about the catchy, two-worded book title: "We-Think"?

I think....You think...."We Think"

So is this another "creative thinking book" to "brainwash" and change people's mind, to help readers to develop a mind as great as the writer?

Dr Edward de Bono has been decribed as "one of the very few people in history who can be said to have had a major impact on the way we think. In many ways he could be said to be the best known thinker internationally" (excerpt from the Edward De Bono Web).

He has written numerous books with translations into 34 languages (all the major languages plus Hebrew, Arabic, Bahasa, Urdu, Slovene, Turkish etc).

There are many other great thinkers in the world who have generously shared their secret formulae and concepts through books, training courses and other multi-media channels.

Charles Leadbeater, the author of "We-Think", is one of the world's leading authorities on innovation and creativity in organisations.

Matthew D' Ancona of Spectator described "We-Think" as "a riveting guide to a new world in which a whole series of core assumptions are being overturned by innovations on the web. Leadbeater draws a series of remarkable conclusions".

The marketing strategy adopted by Charles Leadbeater (and 257 other people) in publishing "We-Think" is unorthodox and revolutionary; and which I think is news-worthy to blog about here.

How is it "unorthodox and revolutionary"?

An excerpt from the Preface of the book here will give readers an idea how Charles Leadbeater is moving away from the traditional ways of marketing books:


I have tried, imperfectly, to write We-Think in the spirit of the argument, openly and collaboratively. The book draws on the ideas of many other people, who are noted in the acknowledgements. But about half-way through the writing it dawned on me that it would be odd to write about the growth of collaborative creativity in the traditional way: the writer at his desk, isolated from the world, alone with his thoughts. With the support of my publisher, Profile, I posted an early draft on my website so people could download it, print it, read it and comment on it. They could also go to a wiki version to change the text and distribute it to their friends and colleagues. And so I just let it go, bouncing along the links that make up the web like a skimming stone.

At first sight this is a very odd thing for a writer to do, on at least two counts. First, as several people pointed out, if I gave away the draft for free, would people want to buy the finished book? My hunch, confirmed by other experiments of this kind, is that sales will not suffer. The more the draft is downloaded, the more talked-about it will be and the more likely people are to buy the final work - all the more so as it includes Debbie Powell's great illustrations. The finished book version differs markedly from the first draft put on the web. Secondly, why wash my dirty linen in public? Showing a draft to anyone induces in me a deep insecurity and anxiety. There are bound to be errors, omissions, mistakes. That is why normally I show a draft only to my wife. Why on earth make it available to lots of people I do not know?

Since I put that early draft online in October 2006, the material has been downloaded 35 times a day: about 150 comments have been posted on the site about the text; it has been mentioned on more than 250 blogs; I have received about 200 emails from people wanting to point me in the direction of useful information; and by late 2007 a Google search for the book title and my name came back with 65,600 hits.

Did this little experiment in collaborative creativity work? Well, no one was horrible. There was neither vandalism nor abuse. Some of my early callers were pretty sceptical. The first post on the site, from an ardent Irish blogger, basically said, "Who the hell do you think you are? I've been blogging for years - what do you know about it?" One respondent said the idea was 'codswallop' and another that it was 'stale'. Some people wondered whether it was just a clever wheeze to get other people to write a book for me and so to make money out of their voluntary contributions. Later, another respondent suggested I put a 'Donate here' button on the text to make sure I got paid: he warned me that lots of fake books were circulating on the Internet and suggested that if I were not careful someone would run away with my ideas.


It is an experiment in collaborative creativity work: like Creative Commons in helping to increase the amount of creativity with cultural, educational and scientific content to reach out to the masses. It is also similar to the "shareware" or "freeware" concept, which allow users to try them free of charge for a limited period before they buy or obtain a registration code for a fee. The early adopters of the shareware programs were volunteer "guinea pigs" or "beta testers" (a more humanistic term). They submit bug reports, constructive feedbacks to the shareware developers to fix coding errors or Operating System incompatibility problems. Discussion boards were set up for users on multiple platforms to exchange and share their experience through these forum channels. It became a mutual help community which eventually resulted in the enhancement and refinement of the original shareware. It is a win-win situation for the shareware developers and the users. Else the bug-ridden shareware would become "junkware" or "abandonware" which nobody wants, even for free.

Daily Telegraph described the book as "A love letter to the web's emergent culture of sharing".

From the book blurb:

"You are what you share.

That is the ethic of the world being created by YouTube and MySpace, Wikipedia and Facebook. We-Think is a rallying call for the shared power of the web to make society more open and egalitarian.

We-Think reports on an unparalleled wave of collaborative creativity as people from California to China devise ways to work together that are more democratic, productive and creative. This guide to the new culture of mass participation and innovation is a book like no other: it started first online through a unique experiment in collaborative creativity involving hundreds of people across the globe.

Today's generation are not content to remain spectators, they are tomorrow's players. Their slogan: we think therefore we are".

The draft is available here

Order the book online at Amazon

The book is also available for loan from the National Library. Call No: 306 LEA

The following is another excerpt from the book (Page 23):


We-Think emerges when diverse groups of independent individuals collaborate effectively. It is not group-think: submersion in a homogeneous, unthinking mass. Crowds and mobs are stupid as often as they are wise. It all depends on how the individual members combine participation and collaboration, diversity and shared values, independence of thought and community. When the mix is right - as it seems to be in Wikipedia - the outcome is a powerful shared intelligence. When the mix is wrong it leads to cacophony or conformity.

How to get that mix right is a puzzle more organisations will have to address as the web's influence spreads. How do all these contributions, often made by strangers, fit together to create a single working computer program, a game or an encyclopaedia? Why do masses of people work for free, first to create these things and then to give away the fruits of their work? In We-Think innovators share their ideas quite freely and welcome others' borrowing of their work and improving on it. They put a lot of unpaid effort into their innovations and then do not seek to profit from them. This is behaviour we have learned to regard as bizarre and yet on the web it seems to be part of the new normal. Can We-Think sustain itself, it its collectives do not earn money to reinvest in their activities, let alone to pay the mortgages of their workers? And can traditional, top-down organisations find a way - given these contraints - to mobilise the power of We-Think?


The concept of sharing discussed here is somewhat similar to the objective of Creative Commons. You can find out more about Creative Commons here.   This is another "open resource" for knowledge and information mining.


Oct 23, 2009

Global Software Freedom Day 2009

I met Nitin Sharma at the "Global Software Freedom Day 2009" held at the National Library Building on 19 September, 2009.

Nitin sent me the following email and I am pleased to share his blog to express.

Please note that the opinions expressed are Nitin's own and does not represent those of any organisations or the blog owner.


Hi Mr James,

Since you have asked the questions below, I believe, it is worth having a discussion with other volunteers of FOSA, whether to have a page dedicated to the topic of benefits of OSS to the community.

For the questions below.

1: What prompted you to join FOSA?

I am a fan of open source. My career, though at this juncture is based on proprietary software, has been impacted in a very positive way by free and open software. To dig a bit deeper, my qualification from college is in Electronics. My career is primarily in software.To come to speed with the environment that is driven by computer science fundamentals, I needed an environment to learn. Of the many options that I had, the cheapest was to use open source product as my learning tools (I was not as well to do in those days).

And to my pleasure, the tools have served me very good. [As an example: I used Understand C++/ming(free) on Windows instead of Visual Studio which is expensive, to learn c++, that is my core skill now]. So in an attempt to pay it back, I wanted to join the local free and open source community and I came to know about FOSA getting formed.

2: How does it benefit you as a volunteer?

First and foremost, it gives me a satisfaction that i am trying to payback. Its good to be in touch with like-minded people.

If one tries to do something alone, one can go only so far. But joining hands with people, one can accomplish bigger things.

As an unexpected benefit, It is a good platform for meeting new people and to talk to them and broaden your perspective and knowledge.There is mutual fringe benefit as well.

I have observed a few examples, where people, who started as volunteers, did something novel, and now they have been employed by someone, for that very thing, which they have created and are interested in. Its like getting paid for following your passion. If I hit on something that is of this type, I believe, I will lead a happier life. So this is my platform for searching such a thing.This thing apart, there are so many, financially not so privileged souls around us.

By open source, we are creating an echo system,where, all those people can also benefit from the digital facilities, bridging the digital divide, and creating livelihood opportunities.

3: How would you encourage those interested in open source technologies to join as a volunteer?

I would like to give two different answers.

Answer (i) First would be my method. Set an example of sharing and be loud about it. Demonstrate the benefits and those who feel it is good,will spread the word. Once word is out, those who feel gratitude, will come back to contribute.

Answer (ii) Second would be on what they can do, and how will it benefit them.

This will have to be taken on a case to case basis. Lets look towards creating jobs from open source activities. e.g. A computer science student, who is learning and studying in college,will get an exposure to real world experience, while in college. This will be a big seller for fetching a good job.

A person without computer science background, but with multilingual capacity can create a name, by translating the open source softwarefrom one language to another (e.g I mean from English to Chinese or Thai or Malay or Bahasa Malaysia....).

This will be a ready experience proof to employers for translation activities.

So the activity can translate to job opportunities.A person, with creative skills can create digital art for open source applications.

The categories like icons, background images, etc...This can also create jobs.

A person can contribute some documentation about the application, one is using. This is a job capability, required by application development firms. Now lets look towards benifiting your current job and making sense about volunteering. An enterprenuer, who has a small shop can keep the IT infrastructure cost low by subscribing to open source. If the person finds an issue in the open source application and provides feedback to open source community. This will eventually make the life of enterprenuer better. Better still, if he/she shares one's work around, then the feedback from others might result in obtaining a better workaround and thus saving something, either on effort or money.Then there is the possibility of starting a business totally based on open source technologies. This way, you can beat your competition, on cost basis. There are benefits for educational institutes also. Free software means, better acceptance in parents for only hardware cost.

Best regards,

Nitin Sharma

Exhibitors and visitors at the "Global Software Freedom Day 2009"


Oct 19, 2009

Web surfing for brain exercise

Here's the latest news that Net search stimulates mind more strongly than reading. The research study also revealed that web surfing can help slow dementia.


LONDON: Surfing the Web can help slow the effects of age-related mental declines that can end dementia by boosting the brain activity of the elderly, new research has found.

Using brain scans, a team at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found thet using the Internet stimulated the mind more strongly than reading, with effects that continued long after an Internet session had ended, the Sunday Times of London reported.

"We found that for older people with minimal experience, performing Internet searches for even a relatively short period of time can change brain activity patterns and enhance function," Dr Gary Small, a professor of neuroscience at UCLA, told the newspaper.

The researcher used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, which determines the parts of the brain that are the most and least active based on changes in blood flow.

The subjects were initially asked to conduct a series of Internet searches while their brains were scanned.

They were then instructed to go home and carry out specified online tasks for an hour a day at least seven times in the next two weeks. Then, they had a second brain scan, again while searching the Internet.

The impact began immediately, the researchers found.

The first scan demonstrated brain activity in regions controlling language, reading, memory and vision. But by the time of the second scan, the activated areas had spread to include the frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus, areas known to be important in working memory and decision-making.

The researchers believe Internet searching stimulates brain cells and pathways, making them more active.

"Searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults," said Dr Teena Moody, a co-author of the report.

Dr Moody told the the Times that Internet searching challenges the brain more than reading because people need to perform several tasks at once.

These tasks include remembering important information while simultaneously assessing the information on screen.

Dr Small said: "Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading."

The reasearchers argue that brains are similar to muscles - the more they are exercised, the healthier they become.

Activities like surfing the Internet, reading and socialising can thus slow or reverse normal age-related declines.

Other neuroscientists support the idea of exercising the brain but are sceptical about the benefits of spending too much time online.


Source: The Straits Times, Monday, October 19, 2009

I hope this piece of comforting news may help to convince my contemporaries that the theory about web surfing and blogging as a form of brain exercise (I described it as "brain-oiling" in previous blogs) is an activity to prevent boredom.

A word of caution though. As with all human activities (brain exercise included), web surfing should be done with moderatation, as spending too much time on the web may also cause brain damage. I used to get "brain cramp" when I think too much. After some self-diagnosis, I have stopped thinking too much and the "brain cramp" miraculously disapppeared. Thank goodness!

Happy surfing and blogging...its good for keeping the brain active!