How to Help Someone Use a Computer by Phil Agre

image of two women looking at soimething in front of on older mainframe. Black and white image

 

Note: This list, written in 1996 by Phil Agre is the best advice I can give people who are helping novice users with computer issues. Phil Agre was a visionary technologist and this list was up on his website forever but has been up and down lately so I am reprinting it.

Computer people are generally fine human beings, but nonetheless they do a lot of inadvertent harm in the ways they “help” other people with their computer problems. Now that we’re trying to get everyone on the net, I thought it might be helpful to write down everything I’ve been taught about helping people use computers.

First you have to tell yourself some things:

  • Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
  • You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
  • If it’s not obvious to them, it’s not obvious.
  • A computer is a means to an end. The person you’re helping probably cares mostly about the end. This is reasonable.
  • Their knowledge of the computer is grounded in what they can do and see — “when I do this, it does that”. They need to develop a deeper understanding, of course, but this can only happen slowly, and not through abstract theory but through the real, concrete situations they encounter in their work.
  • By the time they ask you for help, they’ve probably tried several different things. As a result, their computer might be in a strange state. This is natural.
  • The best way to learn is through apprenticeship — that is, by doing some real task together with someone who has skills that you don’t have.
  • Your primary goal is not to solve their problem. Your primary goal is to help them become one notch more capable of solving their problem on their own. So it’s okay if they take notes.
  • Most user interfaces are terrible. When people make mistakes it’s usually the fault of the interface. You’ve forgotten how many ways you’ve learned to adapt to bad interfaces. You’ve forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface would be able to do for you.
  • Knowledge lives in communities, not individuals. A computer user who’s not part of a community of computer users is going to have a harder time of it than one who is.

Continue reading “How to Help Someone Use a Computer by Phil Agre”

Ask A Librarian: How do you get/pay your intern?

tweet from the linked URL including a photo of my intern and me

Here is a post talking about how Drop-In Time functions. Now I’ll talk about a recent addition: my intern.

From the mailbag: I love your tech drop-in tweets. They’ve inspired me to get outside of my comfort zone in troubleshooting and helping patrons with their technology. I have reached out to my local high school about getting a student to help me run a drop-in time. My contact at the school has asked for a job description for the student and I’m wondering if you have any advice on specific skills I should list? (e.g. I know I am pretty hopeless when it comes to Macs so it would be very good to have someone who could fill that gap.) Also, I think you mentioned that your program is grant funded? May I ask if you pay your student assistant? and if so, ballpark $? I would love to hear any other advice that you have. Maybe I should just take a field trip to one of your drop-ins for the in-person rather than tweeted experience!

Now this is a question near and dear to me because I give the stink-eye to “for the experience!” unpaid internships for adults or college kids but when a kid is supposed to do community service as part of school, it seems odd to make that a job. So E and I had a compromise. He could keep an erratic schedule and show up when he felt like it and I’d treat it like an unpaid internship. Once he was a regular part of drop-in time (which I am hoping will happen this year), we’ll find a way to reimburse him. And, luckily, I had a short-lived job this summer where I wound up with an extra nice laptop. So that is going to be his payment for this year. Here’s the rest of my response email. Continue reading “Ask A Librarian: How do you get/pay your intern?”

Sensible talk about HTTPS

https showing in a browser bar

(this is a slightly amended reprint of an article I wrote for Computers in Libraries magazine in 2016 and I’m putting it here because it’s timely. Original title: Practical Technology – Digital Privacy is Important Too. If something seems inaccurate, let me know.)

This month’s column is amplifying the signal on a movement that has been brewing in the library world: getting libraries to make patron’s digital activities as secure as their lending records. There are a few ways to do this but I’m going to focus on using HTTPS. Continue reading “Sensible talk about HTTPS”

National Library Week – thoughts on cybersecurity

cyber

[this is a transcript of an email I sent to someone doing cybersecurity+libraries research]

There are two ways in which libraries could be doing a lot better in the realm of cybersecurity. And I should note, I work for rural libraries and digitally divided patrons for the most part so a lot of my ideas are on human scale but there are a lot of good ideas in the larger scale about just encrypting and anonymizing data but they’re sort of the same as they would be for any big business.

1. Being better at patron privacy re: cybersecurity. So if we offer patron privacy in terms of what they’re reading (and we do, in the US this is a big deal) why don’t we go to more trouble to help their patrons’ browsing experiences be more secure (https, Tor, encrypted wifi, who knows….)? The answer is boring: money. But it’s a useful concern and one that library leadership (professional organizations etc.) could be doing a HELL of a lot better at. Also pushing vendors (since we buy a lot of b2b software) to offer safer tools. We still have vendors who will email you a password in plaintext. Those vendors should not be getting money by anyone and it’s just a highlight of how little we understand. Like, you’d never buy a car without seatbelts (and, well, can’t) so why are these people still in business?

2. Being better at raising awareness of cybersecurity issues and communicating that to our patrons. So “talking the walk” if you will. This line is trickier because at some level if a patron says “I don’t really care about privacy…” it becomes a challenge to figure out what to do. Do you try to “incent” them to get more serious about it, or do you just realize there are a lot of different ways to be human? I think there are a lot of smart people in the Open Source world who sort of shot themselves in the foot being OS purists and people couldn’t get on board if the only way you could support free software was go ALL IN with OS tools. The same with cybersecurity and privacy, we have to find ways to allow people to twiddle the knobs for themselves. They want to use facebook, but do it safely. Do we have something to offer them?

THAT said I think we need, as a profession, to become a lot more aware of what threats really look like and who we’re really in danger from (imo, it’s more government and advertisers and not what we’ve traditionally thought of as “bad guys”) and having our own way to frame the narrative so that the library is part of that conversation and can help people understand the issues. You read “old media” and you get the feeling that a lot of them don’t really understand the problem (and TV news, my god) so it’s no wonder people who are of average computer intelligence can’t figure it out better. We need to provide options and sensible information to those people not just more FUD.

learning git to share more free stuff

screen shot of the page with the search box I made

I made a thing. It started out with me just reading Twitter. A friend built a thing and tweeted about it.

The thing was a super-simple search box which returned content on Flickr that was public domain or Creative Commons licensed. Very cool. However, when I use stuff on my talks, tools or otherwise, I like to make sure it’s free content. Creative Commons is great, I just was looking for something a little different. I noticed the code was on Github and thought “Hmmm, I might be able to do this…”

I’ve used Github a bit for smaller things, making little typo fixes to other people’s stuff. If you don’t know about it, it’s basically a free online front end to software called Git. At this site, people can share a single code base and do “version control” with it. This is a super short and handwavey explanation but basically if someone says “I made a thing, the code is on Github” you can go get that code and either suggest modifications to the original owner OR get a copy for yourself and turn it into something else.

In the past we’ve always said that Open Source was great because if you didn’t like something you could change it. However it’s only been recently that the tools to do this sort of thing have become graspable by the average non-coder. I am not a coder. I can write HTML and CSS and maybe peek inside some code and see what it’s doing, maybe, but I can’t build a thing from scratch. Not complaining, just setting the scene.

So, I “forked” this code (i.e. got my own copy) and opened it up to see if I could see where it was doing its thing and if I could change it to make it do something slightly different. Turns out that Flickr’s API (Advanced Programming Interface) basically sends a lot of variables back and forth using pretty simple number codes and it was mostly a case of figuring out the numbers and changing them. In this image, green is current code, red is older code.

a copy of the code showing what was changed.

The fact that the code was well-commented really helped. So then I changed the name, moved it over to space that I was hosting (and applied for my own API code) and I mess around with it every few days. And here’s the cool thing. You can also have this code, either Dan’s which searches free and CC images, or mine which only searches for free images. And you don’t have to mess with it if you don’t want. But if maybe you want to use the thing but make a few of your own modifications, it’s easier than ever to do it with something like Github. Please feel free to share.

If you’re always looking for more ways to get public domain and free images, you may like this older post I wrote.