Thursday, August 27, 2015

Fix My Computer? Part 1

This is a conversation I have at least once at nearly every conference:

Me: “That's a classic laptop. It's great that you've kept it in great shape…. reducing e-waste.”

Person using old laptop: (quizzical look) “Don't you sell new computers?”

Me: “Ew. No. Well, not really. I build computers. Then there's an exchange [transaction] so my company can build more.”

Person: “Oh, ok, cool.” (continued discussion of laptop specs)

CC-SA ZaReason
I often ask, especially when giving presentations, “How many of you have built your own computer?” When those hands go up, it is a faith-in-humanity moment. Warranty laws make it so hard to take full ownership of your computer.

I love opening a machine. But only when I have the time. If your life isn't too cram-packed, then you have probably looked under the hood of your machine too.

It is this mindset that made me go into overdrive last week when a friend asked me to “make my computer connect to the Internet.”

Since I had not touched the insides of any electronics in over two weeks, I ran upstairs to his office to check it out. I literally ran, but not fast since this is a 400 old stone house in a remote village in France. The house is in good shape but it has a few bizarre twists between downstairs and upstairs.

After 60 seconds: Well, dear friend… it is running XP… This is what I did not say.

CC-SA ZaReason
CC-SA ZaReason
Instead I said “Sure!” and I began courting which distro will be best for this monster tower that has spider webs on every cable in the back.

So far I've looked at:

Mint? It'd give my friend that feeling of familiarity because the UI is vaguely similar to his old OS. I'd have to upgrade memory, but that's a given. I want this to cost as close to $0 as possible.

PuppyLinux? Maybe, but that's just because I remember Larry Cafiero talking about PuppyLinux and I couldn't hear a word he said because I was caught up in “Aw, how cute!” each time Larry said the word “Puppy.” Stereotypically blond reaction, but at least I'm owning it.

Lubuntu? Suggested by a cool French dude. It might be the right one.

Other suggestions?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Giving back to... who?

Short version: If you want ZaReason to buy pizza for your LUG, sign up below. Thanks!

Update: The first group was chosen at random (promise!) on 27 Aug and will be Partimus, a non-profit in the Bay Area of California.

Back to the post:

Ever since we first saw that ZaReason would continue to grow despite my (founder Cathy Malmrose) stunning lack of business acumen, we saw that a computer company that uses the free and open tools of the community should somehow find a way to give back to the community.

I have been brainstorming for how to give back to the community in that very personal yet nearly anonymous way they give to us. While our end goal is to donate to big non-profits, we have been craving a more personal approach.

Linux User Group of Davis, CA Pub Dom
A Linux User's Group meeting might be the ideal small size group meeting to support. But, personally I've had a hard time making it to LUG meetings except when they ask me to speak and then of course I go. If I'm not speaking, a few hours before the meeting I find a good excuse not to go because, like lots of good programmers, laziness is a precious part of my worldview. Even our company's business plan lists "organic growth" as our marketing strategy (because that's how the volunteer work of F/LOSS grows too)*.

Thankfully, none of us need to feel guilty about this particular type of laziness. Philipp Lenssen, explained Why Good Programmers Are Lazy and Dumb clearly enough that even non-programmers, the world at large, could see why and how we work the way we do.

So, I asked around: "What would make you want to attend a LUG?"

The almost unanimous answer? Feed me.

It turns out the basic human need to eat dinner is the missing piece. The thinking is: "I would overcome my natural tendency to stay in my cave at night in front of my many beautiful screens only if it satisfied a basic human need -- food."

Good programmers are lazy... : If your LUG uses MeetUp or other tool, you'll know approximately how many people will be showing up. Whoever runs the meeting will have one of our personal cells you can call if the meeting is cancelled or if more people show up or whatever. We'll order  some pizza to be delivered whenever you want. I don't care if you only have only three people in your meeting. Good things don't always need big numbers.

One Bitcoin worth of pizza, way to go Nejc Kodric!
Good programmers act dumb... : If I wanted this to be "smart" I would do some sort of contest or have you fill out a form or something. It would look intricate and professional. I might even list this in our marketing plan as an "outreach initiative". Um, no thank you. Instead, let's keep it simple: enter your LUG by commenting below and we'll pick a LUG at random for that month's winner. Sound good?

If you like this idea, thank Laszlow, the guy who spent $2,000,000+ on pizza and brought the concept of warm pizza to mind every time someone talks about Bitcoin or cryptocurrency or mining or how much I love people who can create new concepts. Nearly anything makes me think of Bitcoin.
I'm not poking fun (my son has a $5,000 yo-yo) just in awe of how far cryptocurrency has come since it's infancy.

* While we still have mostly organic marketing, we have an amazing marketing person on board now, Vy. If you have any questions, comments or helpful insights on how we can help ZaReason become more well-known, please let her know at

Want pizza? Comment below!

Update: We're having a beastly time getting the word out to LUG leaders. If you know of someone who might know of someone who runs a LUG or similar group, please let them know. Thanks!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How long should a laptop last?

I've been waiting to see the day we could get an email like the one below:


Hi lovely people,

I bought a LightLap off you back in 2007 [the year ZaReason opened] and it's lasted me 7 years and still going strong. 

However, I'm now getting into some video editing and need something faster... Would also be interested in you opinions regarding what aspects/upgrades would be in the most beneficial for video/audio and professional image editing. <clip>

Cheers Jesse the Wind Wanderer
Username: storyjesse

P.S. I'm a professional storyteller/actor/entertainer and I make my own publicity materials using gimp and inkscape. Now I'm getting into making my own video's and thus far have been using kdenlive, which is the only open source video suite I could get working reliably. 

P.P.S. Feel free to use the 7 year lifespan of my laptop to promote yourselves. The only thing that failed on my laptop was the HDD which I replaced with a SSD and this gave it a new burst of life. I think I also upgraded the memory. That's all though, the rest of the system has been rock solid and I recommend you to all my friends when they are thinking about buying a new computer. <clip>


This email made do an involuntary "Yippee!" I hadn't realized how much I had been hoping to receive this type of feedback. 

The Linux community probably has more old-use machines than any other community. At several conferences, I've seen a few laptops that could be in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Two in particular were ancient. Talking to both of these laptops' owners I found they were dedicated to minimizing e-waste. They were also competitively testing how long each laptop could last. 

CC SA, Cathy Malmrose
Every time I see one of these old machines, my reason is, "Wow! So cool that you've kept it in good shape... reduce e-waste... love seeing people who know how to tweak a system to last longer."

Personally, I love a fast, new, shiny machine, but grow attached to each one. Currently, I am using a machine from five years ago, an R&D model. I love it. I use only one laptop at a time and made sure the others were either gutted or other
wise reused. 

If you can benefit from the increased speed and space of a new laptop, then by all means, go for it. As long as you donate your old laptop to someone who can use it through non-profits like or any other, there's no reason not to upgrade - life is short and a fast computer feels oh, so good. Just resist the urge to let the retired laptop sit, especially if you know you won't have an active user for it later. 

I have access to some of the hottest, newest machines. Yet, my five year-old beat-up machine has circled the globe many times over and will continue to be my trusty workhorse for as long as possible. 

I was so glad that Jesse took the time to let us know that his laptop had had a good life. My laptop is having a pretty awesome life too. If you have a ZaReason laptop too, you're in good company. 

Better look of my laptop

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Yes, ZaReason accepts BitCoins

We have been following the growth of bitcoins since soon after they started. We followed the tough parts (when Mt. Gox was hacked and many lost funds, something that occurs in all markets), the happy parts (when some nice guy gave our teenage son 50 bitcoins for winning a silly contest), and the funny parts (when people compare the previous value of bitcoins to current value as in the $2,000,000 pizzas).
Public Domain Neutrality
Meet the $2 Million Dollar BitCoin Pizza by Katherine Mangu-Ward explains how two pizzas purchased mid-2010, "...are generally acknowledged to be the first tangible goods purchased with bitcoins, the online crypto-currency."

Silliness aside, bitcoins are a common sense next step for currency / merchant processing.

CC-SA ZaReason
Our personal favorite happened a while ago. A young kid, a Bay Area pre-teen, walked into our ZaReason shop in Berkeley and asked, "Can I buy a laptop with bitcoins?" We were about to ask him, "Shouldn't you be in school?" but once he mentioned bitcoins we knew he was probably serious.* He bought a Teo Pro, a subnotebook (I'm typing on a 3+ year old Teo prototype right now). He paid the dollar-to-bitcoin equivalent of the laptop. We transferred the money to USD and everything was properly accounted. 

If you're unfamiliar with bitcoins and do a few searches online you'll find all sorts of bad information. People tend to be scared of things they don't understand (though the less-dsyfunctional, smarter reaction is to be curious).

Bottomline: Currency is a funny thing. We could trade laptops for cookies if we wanted to** (which would require a which is simple enough). Bitcoins are easy enough to turn into USD and despite the way they are typically slandered, they are a potential solution to the many issues that plague the merchant processing industry. Bitcoins are a great solution and the merchant processing industry could see that if they stopped being scared and started being curious.

We are thrilled that there are enough people who buy computers from ZaReason who are smart enough and curious enough (open-minded enough) to ask us if they can use bitcoins. If you want to purchase an item from (or for Australasia) when checking out please select the Purchase Order option and mention in the Notes field that you'd like to pay with bitcoins.

People get their computers using cards, checks, wires, purchase orders, all sorts of payments. Using bitcoins isn't bizarre. It's just different.

--Cathy Malmrose for ZaReason

* Later I tried to hire him but it was too late. He was already working on other projects.

** We don't actually accept cookies as payment. Please don't ask, especially don't ask in the late afternoon when we are hungry for a snack. Thanks.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Growth Curve of FOSS --> what the best investors know

There hasn't been, and probably never will be, a nuclear bomb on the Timeline of Growth for Free and Open Source Software, no point where an earth-shattering radical shift occurs.
Big Bang / Atom Bomb CCO 1.0 Zdnrp

UEFI's SecureBoot may come close to Hiroshima levels, but my guess is that five years from now, it will have the "ripple equivalent" of the 1991 message to the Minix newsgroup that Linus sent about his "hobby" code.

It started innocently enough, but lead to massive change.

If you look at the timeline for Free and Open Source Software, you see slow, steady, and massive growth, same as anyone would want to see for a company, group, or idea they want to invest in. And by "invest" I am not referring to money. I am referring to invest as, "to use, give, or devote."

This slow and steady growth curve is the nickel-and-dime approach to growing a code base and I am a huge believer in the nickel-and-dime approach. There are three principles good investors understand:

Public Domain by EricFoard
1. Slow, steady growth is where you find the true winners -- ask Warren Buffet.

2. Don't give up. Patience pays. Don't stop supporting it just because it is not growing fast enough. Ask any good gardener.

3. It is the less obvious stock that is often the best pick.

So many of the GNU/Linux distros have been growing in the background, being used and built by Devs, Sys Admins, and generally good people, the geeks behind the scenes, which is the perfect place to grow.

As we have helped ZaReason grow as a hardware builder that supports FOSS, we have been happily surprised at how many of those blips on the map have directly helped people find ZaReason so they can get built-for-FOSS computers. Especially now that UEFI's SecureBoot is in full swing, we are extremely happy to be part of the world that helps get non-locked-down computers to people.

CC-Share Alike Unported 3.0 by Jawed
In fact, I just got a speaking gig at FOSDEM in Brussels, Belgium Feb 2 & 3 where I'll be talking about UEFI's SecureBoot. I'm hoping to cover CoreBoot and many other juicy details. There will be approx 5,000 of the most brilliant hackers at FOSDEM. We hope to see you there!

Dear developers, thank you for your work. Keep chugging along and we will too. Onward and Upward!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Elderly Gentleman and Linux

The ultimate test of a man's conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard. --G. Nelson

Several months ago I was lucky enough to have an email conversation 52 replies long with the well-loved Cory Doctorow, a sci-fi writer and EFF fellow. In it, he said:

I hope and expect that firms like ZaReason will be critical... but it'll be by articulating a story about value and functionality, not (just) values.

His comments supplied dozens of improvements at ZaReason, but this one: "articulating a story", was the most delightful. For once, I had the, "Hey, I can do that!" reply instead of the, "Please, o, please don't ask me to do more," response. Recording these interactions on The Inner Workings of Linux Hardware is nothing but fun.


Occasionally I fill for someone at our Berkeley office, answering the phone, helping people who are interested in ZaReason. One day I answered a call that gave me a perspective I wish I could share fully with developers, especially Canonical people.

The man calling had a quaver in his voice, the type of quaver when vocal chords are EOL (end of life). He seemed like a nice elderly gentleman, polite. He asked if I could help him find a computer.

GNU General 1.2 David Gil
He explained how his computer kept crashing, how it was "always getting viruses." He explained how he had spent hours, even days trying to get his computer working. As he explained some of the problems he had experienced, one of which was typing in a product code that was too long, in print too small, mistyped again and again, his voice began to quaver. He began to cry. Not much, but enough to show that this man had been brought to his knees in frustration.

We got him a computer and he now had the virus protection he needed built in. No more humiliation asking family members or friends to clean the viruses off his computer that he inadvertently clicked in a moment when his mind -- probably intelligent and sharp in his younger years -- was now occasionally not as sharp.

I wish there was a way to communicate to developers how important your work is. You bug fix to scratch an itch, for the simple pleasure of bug fixing, but the end result is a happy collection of code that directs the desktop that I got to place on order for an elderly gentleman and ZaReason's shipping people got to ship, all to help minimize difficulties and soften the last years of this man's life.

The man on the phone took time to tell me not just about his frustration but also about how important it was to him that he be able to send emails to his grandkids without it increasing his blood pressure and stress levels. For those supporting FOSS, especially those fine-tuning the code, your work is more important than you know.

Cory Doctorow made it clear I have the values part of "value and functionality" covered. The above story (and many others) are testament to the functionality of a Linux-specific computer and a company built to provide that computer.

Functionality covers many, many areas: this is just one, but it covers a wide enough range of functionality to cover a full spectrum of needs that our customers have, from government labs to small businesses to elderly seniors who need Linux machines.

Developers, you won't hear enough thank yous in your lifetime to compensate for what you have created, not even close, but here is a drop in the bucket:

Thank you! 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Removing Barriers for Linux Hardware

Since 2007 I've had to send emails saying: "Sorry, we do not ship to your country."

I have squirmed in my seat while typing that reply. Free and Open Source Software doesn't have borders. The hardware shouldn't either.

It's impressive that people seek out GNU/Linux hardware builders, but it's even more impressive when people email asking, "Here is my background ___. Could I set up a ZaReason shop in my area?" Antonio, Marcus, Tommi, Richard, and so many others, when you emailed us expressing that you wanted to set up shop, I looked you up. All of the people, approximately 125, who requested this were "viable prospects", smart people who could follow through.

Please know that typing the "no" reply was literally painful. It's a problem I have not been able to solve.

For the first five years of ZaReason's beginning, I asked people in Silicon Valley for advice on global expansion, seemed the obvious source of support. 

There's always a part of the conversation where I have to clarify my personal intentions: "I'm not in it for the money." 

At that moment, I lose their respect.

Occasionally, there's an unkind comment indicating I'm financially clueless. 

Actually I'm financially savvy. I'm just not ruled by it. I have different priorities.

Today, I had lunch with @kiwiseabreeze an experienced lawyer. I said, "I'm not in it for the money," and instead of giving me that look that says, "You hippy twit," instead her eyes glowed, she "got it"; no more trying to explain the impossible. What a breakthrough! For the first time, I was able to express my main objectives without being dismissed.


She respectfully heard me out, listened to some of my goals and objectives, mulled them over. It's the first time I've been able to get past that initial first step.

Result: I can see more potential options for The Next Step.

It looks like the wish I've had since 2006 might be possible. My wildest hope:

1. We put together "the packet" that allows ZaReason shops to be set up in other countries by people other than myself.

2. We send out word to those who want Linux hardware in their country. "Find two people who have the time and energy to set up a shop and contact us." 

3. At our Berkeley headquarters, Tony Lam, the CTO, has fully transitioned to doing the core of R&D. Iqbal Haider, the CFO, has fully transitioned to taking care of all ZaReason finance, making sure we're profitable, so Earl & I have been free (since April 2012) to set up other shops. Problem is there are only 2 of us and 20+ countries that could use Linux hardware asap.

Description of shops: 
Early days at Berkeley, CA shop, L-R, Earl, Vincent, Mark Terranova ("Hi Mark!"), Aaron Thomas, Kory
  1. 1,400-1,600 sq ft / 130-150 sq m of ground floor retail / office
  2. two salaried employees: Tech Lead and Office Manager
  3. access to both full-time and plenty of part-time employees, flexible employees, preferably walking distance to research university
  4. near a major port (preferable) to reduce shipping costs

Sidenote: When a company takes the "light & local" approach, it's usually called a franchise. A regular franchise costs five to six digits to get going and franchisees anticipate these fees, including licensing fees (shiver-cringe). 

But ZaReason won't be run by people who attend franchise fairs.

ZaReason will be run by people with deep experience in the Tech Sector.

* people who have already had careers programming, developing, managing and are more than qualified to run a ZaReason shop

* recent grads or people with untapped enthusiasm who recognise the value of building high-end hardware for Linux only 

* LUG groups, maybe previously inactive, coming back together to form a group who run the local shop, combining talent and expertise

Since ZaReason in US and NZ don't have "extra" funds, the people setting up ZaReason shops in different countries will cover the startup costs such as getting their country's site set up, getting initial inventory, legal docs to set up business, and similar costs.

For initial funds, maybe they'll self-fund, a Loan from Shareholders like we did, small outlays in incremental steps, $500 initial investment, a bit of bootstrapping and reinvesting profits. 

ZaReason US is doing alright, chugging along. ZaReason NZ, set up in a country of only 4 mil people, the size of just San Francisco, is doing alright also. NZ gets crummy service (or none) from most computer companies because the country is "too small". We figured if we could survive in NZ, we could survive anywhere. And NZ has done nothing but delight. (Thank you!)

We've had a bit of success and aren't proprietary / greedy. We just spent some time wandering while trying to figure out a non-corporate way to build a FOSS hardware company. As of four hours ago, our plan was for my husband and I to set up every shop ourselves (a spine-crushing amount of work). Even our 11 year old could see that our approach was insane: "Mom, that's like trying to write an entire game engine on your own. That's a freakin' waste of your time."

Ah, the wisdom and clarity of an 11 year old boy. Somehow the business advice of a kid making disgusting noises seems more sane than advice from SF business sharks.

I haven't been able to wrap my mind around the appropriate type of business structure while I've been surrounded by regular business people, talk of licensing, market segmentation, profit margins, and all sorts of fees that raise the cost of "the product".  (I refer to my laptop as "my trusted companion", not "the product".)

But NZ business people are different. Of course they want to make money so they can feed their kids and go surfing on weekends, but the thought of big profits is a "meh". I've been surrounded by the Kiwi business culture for five months now and my mind has finally opened up to new possibilities.


Ah-ha moment -- I couldn't conceive of the appropriate structure because the appropriate structure for building and distributing FOSS hardware involves essentially giving ZaReason away to the world at large. No one gives away a successful start-up. 


But FOSS is some sort of organic, wonderful thing that often reminds me that the human race does have some redeeming qualities.

SF Bay Area
In the afternoons I sometimes wander on Mount Victoria where scenes from The Hobbit were filmed. I've been loosening up to ideas: Maybe the people who've offered to set up Za shops will Kickstart it for their country (could run through Za US since Kickstarter is still US based). I don't have the energy to single-handed produce a Kickstarter video, but who am I to stop others from doing so? 

Maybe they'll raise the funds themselves. Maybe they'll bootstrap it like Earl & I have done, starting both ZaReason North America and ZaReason Australasia out of a house to keep overhead as close to $0 as possible. 

Maybe they'll pool together their own investor funds. 

Here's the kicker -- the core work, the R&D has already been done to get these machines out to people. The supply chain is in place. There are still hurdles, like keyboards in your country's layout, but we've been working on global expansion since 2007 and have structured ZaReason to handle this type of growth.

Over the last six years we have fine-tuned the structure for ZaReason. It is profitable. Our shop in NZ is in the black, barely, but it's an amazing start. 

Since 2007 we've received requests, "Can I set up a ZaReason shop in _____ (name of country)." We set up ZaReason's procedures so that it would adapt easily to the EU, South America, Scandinavia, and at my son's request, Iceland, at my daughter's request, France, and so many others. 

"I envision hundreds of ZaReason shops dotting the globe. Light, lean, local. Computers built and supported in-country."

We're pulling together a list of potential shop owners now and will do it on a mix of first-come, first-served + viability. Please email if interested. 

It's time to stop saying no.