Say Hello to “Barbarian,” the Crowd-Funded Ribbonfarm Laptop

When I went free agent a few weeks ago, I solicited micro-sponsorships to help keep ribbonfarm free.  Thanks to my first spike of generous sponsorships,  I raised approximately $1100, which I used to buy a new laptop to replace the one I had to return to my former employer. Say hello to the new crowd-funded ribbonfarm laptop,  a Lenovo Thinkpad T510 that I named Barbarian, to commemorate the circumstances of its purchase.

A big thank-you to everybody who signed up as a sponsor. I can think of nothing more appropriate than my primary creative tool being a gift from readers. If I were religious, I’d call this  an auspicious start.

On a more practical note, you have no idea how much of a relief it is to get back to a machine that I am comfortable with. I’ve been getting things done using my aging Windows desktop and my wife’s Macbook for the last 3 weeks and I learned two things about myself: I can no longer work at a regular desk for more than a couple of hours without a coffee-shop break, and I will never be able to make the mental gear-shift necessary to become a Mac guy. I nearly went crazy for three weeks. Things are back to normal now, whew. Evil empire or not, I guess I am a Windows guy until Microsoft goes under.

Sponsorships are continuing to trickle in slowly after the initial spike. Check out the sponsors page if you’d like to support the next crowd-funded ribbonfarm capital investment.

In other news, Information Week just soft-launched a new site The Brain Yard. I will be posting there biweekly on Enterprise 2.0 topics. Check out my debut column, Hard and Soft Power in Enterprise 2.0.

Lots more brewing in the background, so stay tuned.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Yeah, I’ve been using Linux + Windows for over 10 years… and I touch-type VERY fast. Used a Macbook for over a year and never could get as productive.

  2. I am seriously baffled why most people don’t use linux. Much better than windows, never had chance to use mac but have no idea why should I anyway. Linux all the way (except for gaming).

  3. Great article, (in The Brain Yard) as usual. I’ve always thought of you as an arch nemesis to Seth Godin, and this piece really cemented it for me.

  4. Lee and Sasha:

    Used to be mainly a Unix (Solaris) guy back when my main use of the computer was programming. But once LaTeX (MikTeX) and Matlab became available on Windows back in the late 90s, with no noticeable performance difference, it made more sense to switch for me. If I’d been doing heavy-lift numerical computing, I’d have stayed with *nix probably.

    But if you have a more varied mix of things going on, as I do now, and don’t want to screw around with drivers etc. everytime you add a peripheral, Windows is just simpler. Throw in the fact that people send you Word and Powerpoint documents, and Windows becomes even more of a no-brainer.

    And Linux doesn’t actually save much money (or any money really, if you use one of the reliable packaged distros) since the machine is still the expensive part.

    If I ever need a Linux box now, I’d probably just fire one up on EC2 for as long as I need it. I don’t really see the point in owning one now unless you are a Web developer. Even CygWin is not worth the trouble for me anymore.


  5. Been using Linux Mint 10 as of late, running it on an older model macbook and im really impressed by it. It looks neat. Runs neat. You can still dig really deep into the system if you want using terminal and all that linux-magic, but its also possible to just install, update, and off you go!

  6. I’ve just gotten my first Mac laptop after a lifetime of Windows. I chose it because I’m doing a lot more hobby programming lately and this provides a comfortable integration with the linux VPSes I like to play with.

    I tried Ubuntu on my recently deceased HP laptop but it never quite worked out for me. I was hoping to find a “just works” unix system in OSX and for the most part it’s doing the job for me.

    Now you need to tell us which browser you use so that you can further fragment your fanbase. Here’s a hint – I hope the answer is Chrome.

    • Ha ha! I am in the transition between Firefox and Chrome actually. FF has a bunch of toolbars and things I am committed to, but is now getting so slow and such a resource hog sometimes, I am starting to use Chrome more.

      But I use ’em all a little, Safari and Opera included. Result of doing a bunch of product testing I guess.

  7. David Schoonover says

    You appear to have accidentally linked to the comments for your Brain Yard article. I wasn’t quite paying attention and was a bit bewildered when I found the tab, heh.

  8. Why did you choose a Thinkpad?

  9. David Schoonover says

    This is only obliquely related to the point of your post, but…

    > Ever wonder why World of Warcraft is more popular than The Sims?

    Actually, it’s not. By a lot. The Sims is the best-selling video game in history (125 million copies sold since 2000[1]).

    When the Sims was 5 years old (2005), it had sold over 16 million copies [2]. To date, World of Warcraft (6 years old) has 12.5 million subscribers [3][4].

    Normally I wouldn’t consider something like this a big enough deal to point out, but there’s a persistent myth that video games are played by young (<20) men who love gory violence, big tits, and fart jokes. The Sims is one of the most important rebuttals, as it's widely considered the first mainstream game to attempt to appeal to women.

    In an attempt to stay on topic with your article, the years have seen many games like the Sims–especially in the ascendant casual gaming scene–that are wildly successful because of (not despite) their non-competitive mechanics. I think you're more than a bit unfair tarring all Web 2.0 optomists as "harbor[ing] feelings of oppression and marginalization, under layers of denial" — there's surely a normal psychographic profile that prefers cooperation to competition. This is not to say Carrotists are right that the business world is fundamentally changed, just that Carrotists need not all be emotionally wounded rationalizers, safely ignored.

    And it's likely both views hold a shard of truth. There's ample research showing incentives sometimes reduce motivation; perhaps more people participate in projects like Wikipedia because they're cooperative endeavors that inspire their inner idealist.

    [4] Things we can bicker about: Whether there's a difference between a "sale" and a "subscriber" for the purposes of popularity. How to count the Sims' expansion packs.

  10. Damn, you had to go find real numbers, didn’t you? I concede :) The Sims vs. WoW is probably a bad way to make the point.

  11. You got a Windows laptop and you called it ‘Barbarian’? Ironic, given that Windows is the second most civilized operating system alive today.

    I’m curious as to the specifics of your troubles during the Mac switch. I have a sort of anthropological interest in the sharp polarization caused by Apple among the technically adept. Had some trouble myself, but I could resort to the command line easily enough, so it wasn’t too bad.

    I have been thinking about Mac-Windows-Linux in the context of your barbarian-civilization ideas, and they helped clarify several things for me. But before I dive into that, a little aside on user interfaces:

    The ideal human-computer interface presents data in a form compatible with the most appropriate human cognitive module (the one with the best “impedance match”) for the task at hand. The GUI, for instance, arranges objects on a two-dimensional surface, engaging human visual-spatial cognition to identify and select the desired object.

    The command line interface, on the other hand, engages an evolutionarily newer, though no less intuitive cognitive module – language. This enables the user to generate open-ended, arbitrarily complex sentences to express his desires.

    Both modes are useful in different contexts. The GUI is good for picking one of a limited set of objects, or viewing and manipulating items which are inherently visual (image files) Many common tasks and canned workflows are best presented in GUI form. But it’s not so great when the number of objects is very large, or when the object specification and operations are not straightforward and possible to represent in simple visual terms (move all files larger than 10 MB, named .mp3, not accessed in the last year to an archive folder)

    The CLI user gets his job done by constantly creating ad-hoc tools via recursive sub-assembly of tool-fragments, just like creating sentences in a language. Admittedly, it is a language which requires some effort to learn, though much less than that needed to learn a human language.

    Both do middling or poorly out of their comfort zones, which is only to be expected. (Joke: How does a typical Windows user create a thousand directories? He right-clicks, selects “Create new directory”. Repeat a thousand times.) My own frustrations with MacOS are usually when there isn’t a CLI to do something involving large numbers of files, like in iTunes, or in Time Machine.

    [ VS Ramachandran has a fascinating conjecture on the role of tool creation on the origin of language – “It’s entirely possible that the brain mechanism that implemented the hierarchical subassembly strategy in tool use became coopted for a totally novel function, the syntactic tree structure” – The Tell-Tale Brain ]

    To return to the barbarian theme: one of the key distinguishing characteristics of the average barbarian is his ability to improvise, to assemble (multi-part) tools out of whatever’s available to do whatever’s needed. In contrast, the average civilized man uses a far greater variety of specialized tools, but his ability to improvise and create new tools is limited. In the civilized society, tool-invention and production is a separate, specialized function of tool-making guilds. The average man is merely a consumer of tools, and if they break, he lacks the ability and/or the materials to fix them himself.

    By now the analogy should be obvious. Unix users are “lower” barbarians. Windows users are civilized. CLI+GUI Mac users are “higher” barbarians.

    So now I know why the Mac appeals so to me in Veblen’s terms: Having spent my youth as a lower barbarian and reaching middle age, I now appreciate the creature comforts of civilization: reliable plumbing and waterproof roof and so on. The Mac is the perfect retirement home for my type – excellent GUI and the comfortable old CLI – the best higher-barbarian lifestyle you can get for love or money.

    Moving from Windows to Mac is not much of a change: it’s still a GUI. Sure, some of the keystrokes are different, but it engages the same (visual) cognitive processing modules. Moving from a mixed-CLI/GUI background to Windows is very different, since the CLI-language modules are no longer engaged. I now understand why using Windows fills me with claustrophobia and sputtering, wordless rage: Windows literally makes me dumb as it robs me of the ability which raises us above the beasts of the field: language. Moving from a fully functioning visual+linguistic mode to purely visual is like getting a stroke and becoming aphasic. Moving from using ten fingers to compose sentences to crude single-finger object-selection gestures adds to the lobotomized feeling.

    One can also appreciate why some of the traditionally-CLI populace – even MacOS fans – went apeshit over iOS. Not only is it the most civilized OS in existence, the civilization is a totalitarian one. The end user cannot make tools. To make new tools, you must pay guild-fees, join the tool-making guild and make only specialized tools. These may then be put up for sale at the government’s authorized tool emporium (the only operating emporium), from which worthy citizens may purchase tools to make fart noises. You cannot make generic tools which the citizens can use to create tools of arbitrary complexity.

    The day MacOS becomes completely civilized, I will jump back to Linux in a heartbeat. Never to Windows. Though I hear good things about Windows 7 and a new powershell.

    The same kind of barbarian-civilized dichotomy can be applied to other areas, of course: I am pretty civilized outside software, but I greatly admire the barbarian DIYers and barbarian cooks among my friends.

  12. There’s something in your mapping. I may have become an iPhone fanboy after 1 week of use. Still prefer windows for general work. But the phone may be the thin end of the wedge for me :)

    The iPhone has been called a digital Swiss Army knife, which is both accurate from my experience and fits your higher barbarian classification. Otoh it is ridiculously refined making it more civilized than windows.. need to think about it more.

    • Err.. I don’t think you quite got me. iOS – which runs the iPhone and iPad, is ultra-civilized, without a trace of high-barbarian features. It offers a vast array of pre-made tools, with no way for barbaric improvisation, no way to compose new tools from the existing ones. It’s an excellent GUI, streets ahead of anything else, but completely and utterly civilized.

      MacOS X – the desktop OS, with a strong CLI undercurrent, is the high-barbarian among them all.

      Historically too, the UNIX baggage came from NeXT, with Jobs-the-barbarian coming in and taking over the beleagured Apple civilization. There were, apparently, NeXT-Apple culture wars and though MacOS X looks like something sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus, a superficial peek under the covers reveals a mixed parentage. (Although I’m not sure whether the mixing happened in NeXT itself, when they combined a Unix/Mach core with the GUI or after Apple bought NeXT)

      • Oh damn, now I go back read your comment on a REAL computer, I can see I misunderstood. Previous comment was posted via iPhone hurriedly between 2 weekend activities :) Ironic huh?

        Okay, got you now… Mac OS X is the high-barbarian. Haven’t actually used the CLI on that yet, but yeah, I might never see that, and end up thinking of the Mac as a regular civilized computer. I haven’t kept up my investment in CLI skills and now I am too lazy… besides very basic shell commands, I’ve forgotten all the more complex shell scripting type crap I once learned.