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Changing the World, One Penguin at a Time

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Ken Starks is a testament to the power of single individual, and to the power of the distributed, community Free/Open Source model. He shows that the most effective advocacy is one-on-one, up close and personal. And that one person can multiply himself by inspiring many others. Does the idea of "advocacy" make you nervous? It does sound a bit scary, doesn't it, like those annoying door-to-door religious people. But it's not that way. If you're interested in helping people learn to speak Linux, here are a few easy, non-scary tips.

The first tip is Show, Don't Tell. Most people are visual, and it's easier and faster to demonstrate on a Linux PC than to chase them away with dull yakking about how great it is. Linux does have a large number of strengths and advantages, so reduce these to a list of nice short sound bites that you can use at the appropriate occasions. "No viruses! No spyware! Stable! Secure! Runs great on older hardware! Does what you tell it to! Easiest software installation and removal!" And so on.

Tip #2 is tie your hands behind your back. Watching someone else play with a computer is boring and often uncomfortable, because there usually is not a comfortable way to sit or stand behind a computer user. Sit them down in front of your Linux PC and let them control the mouse and keyboard. Then you can easily point out how any graphical desktop interface is pretty much like another-- system menu, click icon, use application. Nothing weird or scary at all. Play Penguin Planet Racer, or for us old people with no reflexes, solitaire or Mah Johngg. Keep your ears open for what is interesting to your new baby Penguin. Ask questions. Listen. Let them engage themselves. They don't care what you like, they care what they like.

Master the use of slick showoff tools like Linux LiveCDs and USB sticks. Linux on a bootable USB stick is the coolest of all; it's a lot faster than a CD, and people always like cute toys.

Be kind and patient. Getting grumpy chases people away. If you don't want to help new users then don't.

Look for existing projects that you can join, such as a local LUG, community computer lab, what-have-you. Going it alone can be hard, and finding kindred spirits keeps you energized.

Invest your time and energy into people that will pay off. In other words, don't waste your time on people who are not receptive. Using a well-set up computer isn't very hard for even the greenest Linux greenpea, despite all the propaganda and FUD to the contrary. But no matter how easy it is, there will always be people who have mental blocks against even trying, so don't waste your time.

Plan for the long-term-- you will be the system administrator and guru for your new Linux users. You can't just give them a CD and then walk away. However, you can put one very powerful tool in their hands that will save you both hours of pain-- a good howto book. I like "Ubuntu For Non-Geeks" by Rickford Grant; I think it's the best Ubuntu book for beginners. You may have your own favorite book. Your new Penguin should pay for their book because when they put out some of their own money they'll try harder.

Remind yourself how much work it is to learn Mac and Windows. Linux is not unusual in requiring some actual learning; "intuitive" is an evil pernicious myth. "Intuitive" really means "the same way I've been doing it all these years." Depending on which graphical desktop you choose, Linux and Windows interfaces are lot closer than Mac is to any other operating system. Yet Macs are lauded as "easy, intuitive, elegant, never in your way!" Baloney. The learning curve for all three is similar.

If this all sounds like too much work, that's fine, the idea is to find a niche that is a good fit. Such as dropping in on your favorite Linux forum and helping occasionally, or improving some documentation. Everyone pitching in a little bit makes big jobs small.

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