wikiHow delivers (a baby)

Two stories from recent years got me thinking. (If you know the stories, you’re allowed to skip to the last paragraph.)

1. A British father helped his wife give birth at home. He’s not the first, and won’t be the last, but there’s a lot that can go wrong. You really want to get it right, and if you don’t have a midwife or doctor handy, and you (and the woman giving birth) never happened to learn how to deliver a baby, what do you do? Leroy Smith turned to the web, via his mobile phone. He found a wikiHow article, and by following the 10 steps, he did his part well.

2. Surgeon David Nott had a more complex challenge. A hippo had bitten off a boy’s arm, and faced death within days from infection. An amputation of his shoulder blade and collar bone would save him – but the doctor didn’t have any experience of this unusual and complex procedure, and no one he knew in the Democratic Republic of Congo could help. But a colleague in the UK could help – and did so via SMS. In two very long text messages he explained the procedure, and wished Dr Nott luck. The operation – carried out in a basic operating theater, without the equipment and support the doctor would have expected back home in the UK – was a success, and the boy’s life was saved.

In the appropriate technology for solving a problem, the key component is often information. Whether we’re talking about health services or development, the right information can be the difference between a good outcome and a failure.

I’m inspired to see wikiHow used in this way – as I am with the stories I hear of Appropedia being used in the field. It’s also true that making the best use of expert knowledge, as Dr Nott was able to do, supports good outcomes. Combining these ideas – enhancing ways of accessing knowledge, and making available the best knowledge – continue to guide our mission.

Geek Moment: Shiny New CrunchBang Linux

CrunchBang Linux is an operating system based ona philosophy of lean code and usability. It doesn’t aim to be the easiest version of Linux, but for someone with a moderate amount of computer ability it’s straightforward and not bloated.

The upcoming version switches to the proven and stable base of Debian. This is version 10, named “Statler,” (naming is based on Muppet characters) and the alpha version available now has been receiving an enthusiastic reception from the CrunchBang community – a number commenting that it’s more stable than many distros’ final releases.

Now, while I’d love to see a stable Linux distro that works for everybody, a version that works extremely nicely for semi-geeks like myself is very, very welcome.

via Release Notes – CrunchBang Linux 10 Alpha 2 ~ CrunchBang Linux Wiki.

Appropriate software design

It makes sense to have an option only if an unsophisticated user can understand what it does and how to set it.  Otherwise you should Do The Right Thing for those users.

That’s a comment from an LXDE developer on their mailing list. LXDE is a Linux desktop environment (i.e. user interface) with a focus is on lean code, and a level of usability appropriate to new users. Principles like the one above are central to what makes the project work so well.

Of course it can be more complex – it can be good to have advanced options, as long as they’re marked as such, and the default is suitable for regular users.

Usability in blogs and stoves

Design prototypes in Myanmar. Which is cooler?

Over at 3brick design, a project spawned from Stanford’s Extreme Affordability class, they take user-centered design seriously, and respect the dignity of the people they’re trying to serve. The examples they’ve displayed so far look elegant and functional – I’ll be interested to see what they come up with.

One thing is sure: it’s unlikely to be a single design. As the context changes, the appropriate technology for the situation tends to change as well. Do the users mainly frying or do slow cooking, for example?

Showing that they think about their users in more than just a cooking context, the project has chosen a nice lean blog skin for WordPress called Darwin, designed to be fast-loading and easy on the eye. Good work.

Picture credit: “3 bricks. Many users.” at the Stanford Cool Product Expo blog.

Lean browsing – and a plea to Mozilla

An essential part of lean code is lean browsing. Web browsers are often the most resource hungry program running on a personal computer, and a leaner web browser will mean less power used, less heat, less greenhouse gases produced, less crashes, and less need for CPU speed, RAM, and cooling.


There are a bunch of very lightweight browsers for Linux, such as Midori, Dillo, Hv3 and w3m. These prove that a browser can be well under 1 MB, be lightning fast to load, and still successfully browse. Unfortunately they are seriously lacking in features.

W3m is the most basic of these – it’s a text browser (and there are others to choose from, if you’re in the market). Text browsers are not something most users ever need to know about, but they do have niche uses. On to more practical choices (for most of us).

Midori, at about 350 kb, seems to do the best job of displaying pages the same way Firefox does – but it doesn’t seem to save any cookies, and doesn’t offer to remember passwords. You’ll be logging in to your favorite sites every time you start Midori.

Nice idea, but not very usable, in my view. You can try them out if you’re keen – if you run a mainstream Linux distro, they should be in your distro’s repositories (except maybe Hv3).


There’s a big jump here – the code for one these browsers is roughly 20 to 50  or more times the size of the flyweights.

Opera is an established, full-featured browser. It’s claimed to be lighter than the mainstream browsers such as Firefox, and it might be, but to be honest I don’t notice a huge difference – I can easily get it to 90 MB once I have a good number of tabs open.

It’s not open source, and it doesn’t quite manage everything as nicely as Firefox. I use this as a backup browser, e.g for checking secondary accounts without logging out of my main account.

Then there are browsers based on the same technology as Firefox, e.g. Kazehakase and Epiphany – again, they’re likely to be in your Linux distro’s repositories. But I wonder if the reason that these are faster is mainly that they don’t have all the addons that we’ve installed on our Firefox?

I still find these to be a compromise – you’re definitely giving up a fair bit in usability to have a lighter browsing experience – though Opera comes pretty close to Firefox in usability and fancy features.

If Midori would just save cookies, I’d say Midori was a much better trade-off than most or all of these.


SwiftFox and SwiftWeasel are two tweaked versions of Firefox, to improve speed and reduce memory usage. I haven’t noticed a huge difference in speed, but there’s a significant reduction in the RAM used by both of these, and that’s A Good Thing. They’re also very compatible with Firefox – I find I can install the same addons, and have had no problems with them at all. This is lighter browsing without compromising usability.

The main difference between these two projects is that SwiftFox is trademarked and the binaries are proprietary. If I’ve got it right, then in theory, the guy who packages SwiftFox might be doing something sinister. That’s unlikely, but since I use this for my internet banking, I’m going with the security of a fully open source package, which means SwiftWeasel.

Unfortunately, they’re only in Linux, and they’re not in the repositories of most Linux distros. Installation can be confusing for a newbie, especially for SwiftWeasel (in brief: ignore the “source” packages, and install the latest “non-source” package, which is a compressed binary. Unpack into your home directory, and run the “swiftweasel” shell script. It needs an installation guide like the one for Flock.)

Light heavyweight

Firefox – the premier browser on all mainstream operating systems today. If you’ve got the resources, and/or don’t share my bad habit of having way too many tabs open, this is a practical option. The only serious contenders for a better all-round browser, in my view, are those in the previous section, tweaked versions of Firefox.

Version 3 is a big improvement, and memory management was one of the areas they worked hard on. I still find it suffers from inflation of the amount of RAM used when it’s been open a long time, but nowhere as badly as version 2 did.

But Mozilla people, please – could you please make it easier for us to tweak our installation of Firefox to make it less resource hungry? There are instructions out there, but relying on random blog posts and forums for instructions is dangerous. I broke my installation of Firefox that way, which is when I gave up on Firefox and tried SwiftFox, then SwiftWeasel. Really, I’d rather be able to keep using Firefox, and supporting the Mozilla Foundation for all your good work. So – could you please make it easier for us to be light and green in our browsing?

For now – SwiftWeasel is my recommendation for the average Linux user. But if you’re a newbie or semi-newbie, make sure you’ve got support, from a Linux User Group or a geek friend – that might save you some hassles in installation.

Browsers for Windows

This is outside my experience (I used Firefox when I was last a Windows user, and it was all-round a better browser than Internet Explorer), but there seems to be talk on the web about lightweight browser for windows.

Lightweight Linux

A fellow Appropedian asked me about options for lightweight Linux distros, for using on old hardware. Thought I’d share my response here.

My knowledge is limited, but what I’ve learnt:

  • Join a local LUG – look out for days when they help people install Linux. Beware of installing Linux when you won’t be face-to-face with Linux geeks for a long time, especially if you’re doing something more problematic like installing on a laptop – I made this mistake, and it was a horrible time sink. Online support doesn’t cut it.
  • Vector & other Slackware distros don’t seem user friendly, and neither does DSL (Damn Small Linux) – I looked into it, but with only about 2 years experience in Linux, I didn’t feel up to any of these choices. With more experience, and the backing of geek friends, it may be an option for you. (DSL is also a much older distro, with much older packages a.k.a. program versions, but it works on very limited hardware, and is possibly more reliable than other ultralight distros such as Puppy Linux).
  • I recommend Openbox (window manager) and LXDE (desktop environment using Openbox – meaning Openbox is the lighter of these two light options). These are really nice and lean – lighter than XFCE, but nicer to use. Expect to see these become more popular. You can add them to any distro, but where they’re not one of the standard options, in some cases there can be clashes (probably a bigger problem on a laptop).
  • I like to find a distro where it’s set up to be lean, but it’s easy to use.
  • I’m not hung up on installing “free” (open source) only – I want Skype and I want video codecs. (I install Linux firstly because I want an operating system that does what I need, not to make a statement.) Ubuntu makes for a little hassle with this – you have to add repositories and certain packages (programs and codecs), and the new user doesn’t know this – they just wonder why things don’t work. Debian makes it really hard work for a newbie, especially if any of your hardware doesn’t have a perfectly free (open source) driver.
  • I strongly prefer something that is at least based on a major distro, and uses the package repositories of that distro. There’s the potential for better support and in theory for bug fixing (Ubuntu is buggy anyway, in my experience, but it does have good support). It also means far more software choice. This, with the previous points, leaves me with one distro:
  • CrunchBang Linux: it’s based on Ubuntu, but uses Openbox, but with some very cool usability tweaks, including partial use of LXDE. It also comes with Skype and video codecs installed. This is the only distro I know that comes with Openbox by default (excluding Debian and Knoppix which I don’t recommend – see below). I’m not usually a fan of Ubuntu, for several reasons including bugginess when I used it in the past – but in spite of that, it’s working quite well for me at the moment, and it has an active and helpful community. This is the most promising distro I’ve used.
  • Debian 5.0 comes with with LXDE as one of its standard options, which means it has Openbox – but Debian was unnecessarily difficult for me. When it didn’t even recognize the hard disk on my ThinkPad, I thought: if this is a sign of how things work in Debian, I’m trying something else.
  • And Knoppix also comes with LXDE standard.  It’s not designed for installation to hard disk though, unless you really know Linux. However, it’s apparently a great rescue disk, with a reputation for hardware recognition – the MacGyver of Linux distros – so I keep a Knoppix LiveCD handy, just in case. (I’d try the CrunchBang LiveCD first, but if things are really screwed up and that doesn’t work, I’ll try Knoppix.)
  • I’ve heard good things about Puppy Linux – it was flaky when I tried it ~2006, but may have improved. It’s also kind of a backwater in Linux development – a lot of non-standard stuff, running as root by default (which sounds like a bad idea to me and to many Linux people), with its own kind of installation, and far fewer packages than a major distro. So unless you need to go super-light (even lighter than Crunchbang) I wouldn’t recommend it.
  • I just discovered boxpup – looks like Puppy with Openbox. I’m guessing it’s a bit harder than CrunchBang, with less package choices, but probably even lighter than CrunchBang. I would still have some concerns about bugginess, security, package choice and maybe usability, but if you’re keen, you could try it out with some help from your LUG.
  • Anything I’ve said related to something being hard to use (e.g. Debian) becomes much less of an issue if you have geeky friends close by and/or belong to a LUG. My preference though: Get something you can mostly handle yourself. You’ll still need help, but there’s no need to make it harder than necessary.

So join a LUG, check out CrunchBang, and enjoy Linux!

Thanks to Jon Camfield for his input at the talk page where this started.

Lean code #2: Luxury computing

Efficient code is green code, as I blogged a few weeks back. And more than that, efficient code is just really, really nice to use.

I’ve been using LXDE for a couple of months now. This is a “desktop environment” – that is, the window manager, panel, all the “GUI” stuff, that makes up the top layer of a Linux distribution. I’m using it with Mandriva (and like other major desktop environments, it also works with many other distributions).

And this is a very lightweight distribution – i.e. it’s efficient code. It’s much smaller than even XFCE, one of the best known lightweight alternatives. But here’s what it means to me:

  • Stability. The last time I restarted my laptop was about 20 days ago – in that time I have suspended and woken the machine several times every day, with no hiccups. My browser (Swiftfox, a slightly faster and lighter version of Firefox) has crashed a few times, thanks to way too many tabs, and to a document-viewing site called But the operating system has been rock solid.
  • Speed. I wanted a lightweight distro so that I could just open my laptop and be writing in seconds rather than minutes, before I forget the idea I’m planning to write down. I thought that would be hard to achieve, but it was as easy as installing LXDE. Plus, I rarely get the hangs and long waits I used to get with Windows, and to a lesser extent with fatter Linux systems. (If I do, it’s usually because I have a file search going that I’d forgotten about, and that’s quickly fixed.)
  • Much more flexibility. I can now keep open whatever programs I want, without upsetting the system. I always have multiple documents open in Abiword and text editors, Skype, often I have two browsers open, plus a PDF viewer and more. Even when most of the memory is in use, when Mandriva with heavier desktops would be slowing to a crawl, Mandriva with LXDE is perfectly happy and responsive. And with its smaller footprint, it’s harder to use up the memory in the first place.

Perfect, huh? Well, not quite. It’s a work in progress, and while I’m told everything works well on LXDE with Debian or other distros, I have problems on Mandriva: I have no audio, no flash video, and USB drives and external hard drive don’t work at all. I live with this for now, because the speed and stability is letting me get my work done in a way that no operating system – Windows, Mac or any Linux distribution – has ever done for me before. For the occasional backup, I can boot up in Openbox and the USB connection works perfectly. (Openbox is an even lighter option, just the window manager used by LXDE with no “desktop environment”, but it’s slightly confusing for newbies.)

At some point soon, I plan to bite the bullet and switch to Debian. But whatever system I end up using, one thing is sure – LXDE has spoiled me. I have experienced sleek, efficient code, and there’s no going back.

Footnote: In the interests of better documentation, and making life easier for newbies, I’ve been adding what I learn to the Mandriva and LXDE wikis. Of course!

Education for the poorly connected

Innovative uses of the internet in education, in Mexico and India:

Universidad de la Tierra – Mexico

Located in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca de Juarez, the Universidad de la Tierra is an alternative learning initiative through which students learn from the world by doing. This process happens largely in communication with others, in the form of study/reading circles (“communities of practice”) and intercultural exchange. The NewWorkSpaces online community tool (Unitierra’s space here) enables learners to access “collaborative technology that will help [them]…convene conversations, co-create and publish documents, invite others into…learning experiences, and exchange…knowledge and resources.” Other means of sharing learning experiences include libraries, documentation centres, community radio, media campaigns, and publishing. These modes also provide dialogue opportunities around Unitierra activities such as those with indigenous communities engaged in cultural regeneration, technological and socio-political innovation, and social struggle (e.g. through workshops, videos, the creation of ecological dry toilets and solar arrays, organic agriculture, and alternative media). More.

Samvidha – India

This project is a response to the need to make relevant internet-based information accessible to all of India’s teachers and students at a low cost. Carried out by the non-profit Media Lab Asia in collaboration with Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, the Samvidha project is an effort to bridge the digital divide by providing off-line access to curriculum-related internet content using a query-based system. Individual variations among the different students can be captured by their user profile, which includes each student’s individual interests and capabilities. This idea of offering personalised content access and presentation is also reflected in the fact that navigation interfaces are offered in Bengali, Hindi, and English. Content which is appropriate for the user’s needs is then emailed to the user in the school; information located on the internet is provided to the user in English or, where available, in a given Indian language. More. See also the Samvidha page on Media Lab Asia’s website.

Thanks to The Communication Initiative Network for this news – “Where communication and media are central to social and economic development”.

Relevant Appropedia wiki pages: