10 things for non-coders to do with free software over Christmas

Some of us will find some kind of alleged spare time on our hands over the next few weeks. Certainly, there's often some kind of break from "work" over the festive season. Traditionally free software developers have used such times for long coding sessions, get-togethers and "hack-fests". Of course we're not all hard-core (or even soft-core) hackers so here's a few suggestions for the rest of us who might want to try something new over Christmas.

I'm aware that not everybody wants to do such things during their breaks and I'm not insisting you do. However I suspect there remains a reasonable proportion of FSM readership who might like to try some of these. Above all else, these are meant as a bit of fun; a side-show; a useful break from the norm. Don't take them too seriously. If you try one and it doesn't work out, chalk it up to experience and move on but... at least you had a go.

1. Try a new distribution

Wound up by Windows? Distracted by Debian? Stuck with SuSE? Fed up with Fedora? Unimpressed with Ubuntu? No? Well even if you are settled and happy with your GNU/Linux distribution, trying a new one can be a useful experience (I'm pretty certain it can be if you are currently using Windows). Download a live CD and give it a go, see if it works on your kit, see if there's anything you prefer about the way it's set-up or laid out. You may well find it justifies your decision to use the distribution you are currently on, which in itself is a good exercise.

2. Run an application you've not tried before

If you like your distro (or -- shudder -- Windows) you might like to try a new free software application instead. Most people tend to use one or two applications for much of the time. If that's you and you fancy a change, try firing up a new one. I don't mean try Epiphany instead of Firefox: I mean if you are almost always in OpenOffice Writer, why don't you try playing with Inkscape. If you mostly use GIMP, why not try ripping (sorry - "making backup copies") of some of your CDs onto your computer and playing them with Rhythmbox or Amarok?

3. Write a tutorial

If you've any experience in just one application, chances are you've got some knowledge somebody else might like to partake of. Writing even the briefest of tutorials can be a great help to you (confirming and formalising what you know and can do) and to other free software users. You might think you're not a writer; well so did I, and I'm willing to state that you can explain how to do a mail-merge in OpenOffice.org, touch up a photograph in GIMP or manage a play-list in Amarok. Yes, much of this stuff is in manuals and other documentation but you know what? Sometimes people don't want to wade through that; they want a quick guide instead. In a piece of shameless self-promotion, you can always post such pieces as community posts here on FSM. They don't have to be long or complex, and indeed are probably better not being so. Even if you decide not to post it anywhere, again, it can be a useful way to formalise your own processes and methods.

4. Resolve that ongoing issue

If you've got a list entitled "Things I must get around to one day", why not try to make it one entry shorter?

We've all been there: an issue which is not critical appears on the horizon. We ignore it or workaround it, but don't resolve it. It might be a quirk in the way your e-mails are displayed, a weird tray-icon that you're unsure about, or the fact that your wireless doesn't work unless you enable the hardware before booting your PC. If you're like me, you've got a list entitled "Things I must get around to one day": why not try to make it one entry shorter?

5. Contribute to a wiki

If you've been passively using Wikipedia, an online user guide or some other collaborative work, perhaps you could become a more active player. Sometimes this can be as simple as correcting a typo, but be warned: once you get involved with them, wikis can draw you in. They are incredibly easy to get started with and usually contain some kind of sandbox feature. This enables you to play and edit until your heart's content with minimal risk of damaging anything.

6. Help a Sourceforge project

Hang-on -- didn't I say this was for non-coders? Relax, it is! However, Sourceforge projects often require a lot more help than just programming. Things like translation, graphics, documentation and testing are all required by projects on a regular basis. You don't have to even be able to name a programming language, and your help could be all the project needs to get it kick-started. Have a look at Sourceforge's help wanted page for more details. When you consider how many times we hear complaints about free software not attending to the aesthetic and user-oriented side of things, it seems a good idea to try and rectify that.

7. File a bug report

At the very least you'll confirm what another bug report says and at best you may get a fix for it

If you've had something on a package which has bugged you, stop putting up with it. This isn't the proprietary world, you know. Most free software projects have some mechanism for reporting bugs and issues. Why don't you report your issue? At the very least you'll confirm what another bug report says, and at best you may get a fix for it. Either way if you say nothing -- or leave it to somebody else -- you could be in the same place next year with the same issue.

8. Read a book

Yes you read that right: I'm suggesting you read a book, or a PDF or a help file. Often we are all in such a hurry to use our software that we "forget" to read the manual (if one exists). Some manuals are hard to wade through but easier to dip into; so, perhaps you could read up on something you've always wondered how to do. Perhaps you could find out why the software gets you to do something a particular way (you may find it doesn't, but that it's just the preferred method). For some packages a manual can be the wrong place to start if you want to just learn more about the software. In those cases, perhaps a book or some downloadable resource could be of more help.

9. Play a game

Computer games might not be for you, and free software games have always taken a bit of a beating in comparison to proprietary offerings. Many of them though hark back to the days when gameplay came first and -- although the concepts seem dated now -- they are great ways to pass an hour or two. If you are a hard-core gamer, I doubt you'll be reading this bit and saying "must do that" but if -- like many of us -- games are a side-show to the main event of using your computer, then perhaps you should take some time and "waste" it playing a game or two. Sometimes you need to do something frivolous and unproductive to bring the productivity into focus.

Why bother?

Before I finish the list I want to address another point. This list is not complete or perfect and contains things which you might not really care about, but there's also the issue of why bother at all. I mean most of these things could get picked up and done by others, the software will continue to be developed where there is demand for it, and life will continue. The world won't stop if you just stick with the distribution and software you know and love. However, if you ask me the real reason for doing these kinds of things is personal. Yes much of them will benefit the community (in whatever terms you choose to define that) but I happen to believe that these things will enhance your computing experience. Test driving a new GNU/Linux distribution might not make you change, but it might allow you to see why you prefer to use the one you do. Learning how to use Amarok might not change the world, but it might mean you can listen to your music while using your PC in future - not a bad thing surely?

10. Switch off your computer

In the UK there was once a children's TV show called "Why don't you...?" The full title was "Why don't you just switch off your television set and go and do something less boring instead?". Yes it was a TV programme aimed and getting you to watch less TV (the irony being that it was one of the most popular shows of its time). This final idea is similar and is probably aimed more at those of us who use our computers more than we should. That group may be different to my stated audience, but I'm guessing quite a few techies have read this far if only to see if they agree with the rest of what I've written.

It was a TV programme aimed and getting you to watch less TV, this final idea is similar

Sometimes we can focus too much on our computers and the software on it. Sometimes we can be so close to the problem for so long that life outside of it becomes a faded memory. Sometimes we can work so hard at something (and that might be on or via our computer) that we can't see the wood for the trees. You may not be there yet, you may not be close but it can quickly happen to the best of us. If you spend a lot of your "spare" time on your computer, my final tip is to switch it off for a day or two -- right off. Do something else, allow your mind to focus elsewhere. Read a novel, paint, walk, call somebody for no real reason, do something that doesn't require electricity and then come back. When you do, I am guessing you will find your focus will be sharper and your perspective will be more balanced. There will be one person reading this who will think it's about them. It's not, but your experience did prompt me to write something I've been meaning to for some time, Tony.


None of the things I suggested above should take up too much of your time and all could serve as a useful distraction from the day-to-day stuff. If you find yourself with some spare time, try one. If you don't, try the last one.


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