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July 7th, 2015

How I Discovered Linux & Changed the World

There are pivotal times in our collective and personal histories when we remember exactly where we were. Those moments do not fade through the years, ever. For me, that first memory was President of the United States John Kennedy being assassinated. I wasn’t old enough to understand the weight or importance placed upon the event, but I knew, based on the reactions around me, something terrible and far-reaching had happened. Something terribly profound. Parents were called to come get their children. School would resume in three days.

Apollo 15 Lunar RoverAnd then, there I was, standing in my pajamas at 10:30 p.m., staring at the screen of our first color television set. My mom made us stay up late to watch “the most important event in history,” according to her. Neil Armstrong was about to set the first human footprint on the moon. Although later I thought the real important event was David Scott taking the coolest dune buggy ride ever during Apollo 15. Of lesser impact to most might be the Kent State massacre, Woodstock and the death of John Lennon.

These were times of horror, of wonder, and sometimes, hopelessness. Because of their emotional impact, these are events and memories that we’ll always carry, be they burdens or treasure. And yet, there are some of these memories that mean absolutely nothing to anyone but the individual, and they are priceless. We know where we were…what we were doing.

In relation to the real accomplishments in the Linuxsphere, I was late to the party. In 2005, my three city network of business offices had been hacked and defaced. I had no idea of what to do. I was our local IT guy, but that ain’t sayin’ much. The buddy who set up our network was living in San Antonio at the time and I called him at 6:30 in the morning. I called him out of panic…I didn’t know what else to do.

1960's TVLong story short: I closed us down for the work week. When we returned, we were up and running, and we were running Linux on both desktop and server. The IT company that initially set up our Windows servers wanted a ridiculous amount of money to come fix it. And if I hadn’t thought about it for a minute, I would have paid the ransom and we would not be having this conversation.

But even at home, with the three computers I had set up for family use, we still used Windows. It nagged at me…the ease by which someone had taken over our work computers in three different cities and made a mockery of our work. It ate at me for a long time, but something different was tugging at me, something that couldn’t be easily explained. At least not as any justification to switch operating systems.

I didn’t work much from any office. Most of my work was out in the field. I was the boss but I was also the chief lead in Austin. The only time I came into the office was to sign paychecks and pick up new hires for training. Most of the paperwork was done by the folks who held the fort down at the various city offices. But the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t explain why Linux was ever present in the back of my mind.

When Rick migrated us over to Linux, I had no idea what Linux was or why it would be any better than the Windows systems we had been using. I had seriously considered changing the whole operation to Macs, until the sticker shock set in. The fact that Rick assured me the hack would have not occurred on Linux was surely one of the reasons I went along. With some online guidance from Rick, I installed Linux on my personal/work computer at home under a dual boot. Prior to that, I had been looking at a lot of screen shots of Linux systems. A lot of them.

There was something that I couldn’t put my finger on. In those pictures, I saw something…I dunno. I saw something raw. Something a bit dark. Something a bit dangerous. There were a number of things tugging at me, maybe a bit of bad boy image. Well, maybe a lot of bad boy image. But there was more to it. There was the sense of community and a “screw-those-other-guys” attitude that was coming to the fore. A sense that all these people were intertwined…all a part of the whole. I think that’s what pushed me over…the “screw-those-other-guys” thing.

That’s when I paid my money and booted the live installation CD for Librenet. As far as Linux was concerned, I never looked back. I hope the universe blessed Jon Danzig. He personally answered over three dozen of my inquiry emails before he died in June of 2005.

It was a few minutes before 11 a.m. on a warm June morning when I booted my first Linux system. It was a day that changed the direction of my life. It was a day that changed a lot of lives. Later in that month, I would fall 38 feet, face-first, upon a concrete slab. It was during that recuperation that the beginnings of our present Reglue project came to fruition.

Two months ago, I received an email from someone I had never heard of. He wanted to “take me to task” for my arrogance. Somewhere I had mentioned that HeliOS and later, Reglue, was in the business of shaping the next generation of scientists, doctors and pioneers, regardless of where or what they would discover.

It was explained to me that it’s all well and good to be enthusiastic about one’s profession, but to refer to it as “a calling” was absurd. He went on for a bit, justifying his belief that I was some spotlight seeking megalomaniac and narcissist. He closed by hoping that his email was a “grounding” moment for me. That I should start seeing my role as just one in many. That there is never any one person who can change or guide history in any particular direction.

I thought for a minute that he was going to mention an attached invoice for his services.

First off, I don’t believe that I have ever referred to my work as “a calling.” If I did it was with tongue firmly in cheek. If I took all the good things people have said about me with anything more than surprise and a sense of humility, I’d have built myself a castle out of broken computers and I’d be knighting You Few Chosen from that throne.

Empty stageSo do we change lives? Was “that moment in time” truly a life-changing thing? I can’t see how it wouldn’t be, but with no more impact than when you decide to take route B to work instead of Route A. What would your life, and the lives around you, be like if you had done so? Stopping to speak with the newspaper vendor on the street? Or not? Butterflies and all of that…

No, I’ve seen this movie. The one where someone sends a writer a nasty email with innuendos and barely-veiled threats. The one where the writer replies in an open answer to said email and the Internet loses it’s friggin’ mind. Nope…I’m not gonna be the one to give you your fifteen minutes of fame. Trust me, based on the last one, you wouldn’t like it. That stage will remain bare.

Now if you all will excuse me, I have an empire to build and other important stuff. You know…just like the rest of you. I’ll be busy changing lives. I’ll just be doing it my way. The way it started on that warm June day in 2005, just a few minutes before 11 a.m. The day I booted my first Linux system.

Do you remember yours?

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Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

20 comments to How I Discovered Linux & Changed the World

  • Jorge

    Yeah, I remembered.
    And it was AWFUL 🙂
    Don’t remember the date, sometimes around ’93, at home, in my twenti-something. I discovered a mysterious spanish magazine called ‘Solo programadores’ (programmers only magazine) with a cd included (remember CDs?). The cd was “Slackware Linux OS”. Needles to say, having no idea of what I was doing, I ended with a black screen with a prompt “login:” and not a clue that what I supposed to do was to type “root” and the password that in some moment of installation was asked to me. When I finally figured it, I was staring at a DOS-like black screen (remember DOS?). After a few days I was able to “startx” a window manager (twm I think it was), execute some programs, even some X programs. But having no internet in Argentina in that times, was an 1-week frustrating experiment.
    But that was it, it bugged me for months until I was able to do something meaningful with that “thing”.
    And now it pays the bills 🙂

  • Mike

    Ken,

    Sounds like the guy who sent that email needs a bit of “grounding”. Talk about arrogance…Especially this: “That there is never any one person who can change or guide history in any particular direction.” That’s complete and utter BS. One person can make a fundamental difference. I think you already know that.

  • sed ‘s/Librenet/Libranet/’

    My experience was more of a gradual transition, enabled by stubbornness and a desire to do it my way.. “screw-those-other-guys” probably describes it well.

  • Elder-Geek

    For me it was 1999. I was worried about Palladium. With Intel putting a serial number/id on each CPU that Microsoft would then be able to use to tie a copy of windows to a particular CPU as “DotNet” would become a software as a service. At that point in time MS was looking to rent Windows and Office out on a monthly basis. Don’t pay your bill, or suffer from a billing error, it would be impossible for you to access your documents.

    I decided that if Microsoft succeeded in their goals, it would be better to be on another platform. I spent like $20 purchasing a set of 10 Walnut Creek CDs of different versions of Linux. Soon I had installed RedHat 3 and was looking up the hsync and vsync settings for my monitor so I could get X11 up and running.

    As far as changing the world goes. One person can change it, but it is all about timing. If you stand against the crowd to soon, you get mowed down or burnt at the stake. However the world is ONLY ever changed when someone in the right time period stands against the crowd and does it their way no matter what comes at them.

    To soon your a nut, at the right time you are a visionary and to late you are just following the crowds. You

    You can’t change the world by going with the flow. You have to do something different and typically at great personal cost. This is why those that change the world tend to believe in something.

    You and your people do good work Ken. It may not be the whole world, but the are many kids and families out their whose whole world has been changed for the better because HeliOS/Reglue decided to make a difference.

    As for me? I set up Linux for people whenever they are willing to take the plunge. I am glad I now live in a world where thanks to Linux the appetite of Microsoft has been tempered because they know of they try to set up a one-wolrd-order, people will flee to Linux.

  • gus3

    April 1, 1998. The Chernobyl virus wiped my drive’s partition table. I lost Windows and Linux. FAT was recoverable, but ext2? Not so much.

    The next day, I installed Slackware on a dedicated Linux system and never looked back.

  • archuser

    I am windows/citrix admin by profession and use archlinux at home, prefer linux because i can tinker it to my liking and archlinux because i like minimalism.

  • Caesar Tjalbo

    I was developing a Drupal website on Windows, Apache, MySQL and PHP on my desktop. When it started to look good, I looked into hosting. The best I could find was something running CentOS. I burned the CD’s and tried to create this “dual boot” thing…

    I ended up with a zero boot system. And since I didn’t have the re-install media for Windows present but a nice stack of CentOS and Ubuntu CD’s, I could continue.

    I didn’t like Ubuntu but CentOS was alright, especially after I changed Gnome for KDE. Which was an eyeopener: an OS where you can change the window environment!

    On CentOS my sound didn’t work. I patched the driver and compiled it and that was my second week using Linux. A convert ever since.

  • Don

    I installed Linux from a box set of RH CDs in 1997. Life got so much better when the package management improved to the point of eliminating conflicts in the random packages available on the network.

    I used Win98 under Win4Lin to get access to 1) a Windows-only scanner; and 2) WordPerfect. I graduated to various other versions of Win4Lin and its successors and then to VirtualBox but I run Fedora 21 and will be installing F22 soon.

    My wife runs F20 and we’ll update her two computers soon. Windows? Well, my laptop has a small Win 8.1 partition that can run tax software and Canon’s raw conversion program. I expect to buy a copy of Win10 to install as a VM under VirtualBox but we’ll see how onerous they make that.

  • Jaye

    Greetings Ken:

    I’ve had several of those memorable moments. Most good fortunately.

    I wonder if I offered you help with Libranet. I was a power forum user back then. I didn’t install the last release since it was full of bugs, and at the time, had no idea that Jon was so terribly ill.

    I paid for Libranet several times over and was always grateful. I would still be using it if Jon was alive and hacking.

    However, I was using Linux hard by 1996.. Debain stable–guess it was Rex, then Bo etc… Problem was Debian was really falling behind and I wanted more contemporary bits of software and that is why I migrated to libranet. Jon was outstanding both with his crazy fast hacking and support. The forums was outstanding too, you must recall that. I think it was the last text install I did. To Jon’s credit to great work, I keep a desktop with the last stable Libranet on it. It boots and runs great, though I don’t spend much of any time on the net with it!

    I’m running Mint now, just due to the Debain upstream and apt. I’ll never give up apt here. Mint and Ubuntu might go away too, but Debian will still be okay with me.

    BTW, only reason for migrating away from Debian was I started school and I felt I had to reserve my time for homework, not figuring out vert/hortz freqs! 🙂

    Thanks for the nice read.

    Regards,
    j

  • Mark

    It must have been in the late nineties. The IT guy at my job showed me how easy it is to dual boot, and suggested I try Debian. I did. Liked it. Then I discovered that I could run it through VMWare right off the physical partition. No need for dual booting any more.Then I got a new computer and didn’t bother to install Windoze any more.

  • Markus

    Late 1999 i installed my first Linux (Red Hat 5.xxx?) and found it pretty hard task indeed. That’s why it took 7 years to make another try, this time with Ubuntu 7.04. That second try was pleasant surprise. I found installing even more easy than that of XP. Since 2007 i have used only Linux and helped about 20 individuals and families to move to Linux.

    Linux Mint is my favorite and nowadays i mostly install it to computers of others too. If they had at least 2 GB Mem and not very old pc i mostly install Mint with Cinnamon.

  • onebuck

    Hi,

    My one Gnu/Linux is Slackware and I started when PV released in 1993 and changed a few systems to Slackware over the years. 🙂 Slackware provides me with a stable UNIX-like OS. I do test drive a few LiveCD/DVD for diagnostic/repair needs. I still keep MS Windows on a few machines for when clients need support. Not a purist, but someone who looks at the OS as nothing more than a tool so I can support more clients that way by using different OS.

    Good article!

  • Around 95.I was working with AIX in the workplace, and a coworker gave me a Linux book with Slackware. Previously I had tried Minix at home [from floppies. Remember floppies?;)], but was unimpressed by it. Slackware piqued my curiosity, more so when I was able to set up twm and fvwm95 graphical environments. From then on, it was all about dual booting all the time, but 90% of the time spent on Linux (Windoze only for work-related stuff or an occasional AOE game). Mandrake, Fedora, then Ubuntu, and currently using Mint. But between them I tried many distros. A happy Linux user for 20 years, and many more to come. Also, My 11yo daughter feels so at home with Linux that she seldom boots into Windows.

  • Jonathan Guthrie

    In the early part of 1992, I got a FidoNet email from someone I knew telling me about this wonderful new UNIX-like system you could download. So, I fired up an FTP client against tsx-11.mit.edu and downloaded a kernel and root filesystem. That was version 0.11, as I recall. There were no such things as Linux distributions back then.

    I wound up patching the serial driver in kernel version 0.13 to do RTS/CTS handshaking so I could drive a high speed modem. A couple of versions later, that driver had been re-written in C so my assembly language patches no longer applied, but the updated driver had the hardware handshaking built in so I was good.

    I didn’t run Windows on my primary desktop until the fourth job I got doing Linux programming, and I only do it now because the company essentially requires my desktop to be Windows.

  • nitecrawler

    my uncle had introduced me to ubuntu linux and had done a dual boot on my windows system too a decade ago but i was too ignorant and impatient to look into it…believe it or not i had it scrapped the day he left our home….but today i regret it….well better late than never and

    as recent as last october 2014 i installed my first distro …it was pclinuxos or an ubuntu….not sure which one….but now i know which one i’d use forever….its slackware..must admit slackware with fluxbox is simply a cool os with the best fit environment for my hardware….and am quite happy no rephrsing to really happy with it…with slackware-current….and i like tweaking it once in a while to get it up running…like say patting him on the back and saying go on boy….i face issues still today but thats the fun of it…

    why the sudden change from windows to linux?
    open-source principle…
    freedom to humanity….
    edward snowden….
    security issues….
    privacy issues were the ones for starters….

    PS: by the way, i mailed my uncle the day i started enjoying using slackware and from the moment i never regretted uninstalling windows…and has removed windows for good for months and i dont regret it one bit except for my ipod….well there are better mp3 players and with today’s smartphones availability i dont think u really need to carry another big junk in your hand for music on the go…..

  • nitecrawler

    just wanted to mention the folks at LQ for the huge support and again slackware 14.1 for being so stable that a newbie couldnt also break the system….well thats the impression i have of it…slackware 14.1 rocks!!!

    moved on to slackware-current now…only because its edgy..

  • I pretty much hold to my rule…You’ve written your article. It’s been submitted for the world to see. It’s not your article any more. Get in the back seat and let the smart people drive the rest of the way.

    However, this does comes to mind.

    I’ve been reminded by my writing professor over the years, a good writer listens to the people who reads their work. They see things differently, in ways the writer did not. A writer becomes a good writer by listening to the comments. You guys rock.

    In my family, I took a different bent in getting some of them to test and switch to Linux.

    I quit supporting them.

    In or around 2011, I sent an email with 47 kazillion cc’ed that I would no longer be the family IT guy. From then on in, I would bill them $75.00 an hour to fix their computers. Either that or I would help them to install Linux. I would provide help with them after that for free. Like many of you, I took on the roll of helping family with their computer problems, even as far as having them ship it to me and then shipping it back when it was fixed.

    It got so out of hand that I was spending two hours an evening, every evening; fixing family computers. The day one of them griped that I had broken it worse than it had been when they shipped it became the proverbial last straw. (I changed their browser from IE to Firefox to “break” their computer.)

    After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, some of them did ask me to help with said change. The only time I hear from them now is the obligatory Christmas or Birthday card. Funny how something can change behavior en bloc.

    It’s not so funny when you discover that the only reason you were in their contact lists was to fix their computers. Good riddance I guess.

  • DuskoKoscica

    In order to elaborate more on this side of the story, I would need to say that I would not need any other operating system than Linux on my desktop.

    It looks to me that Ubuntu runs very fast and it is very stable, now when you go to Internet you are exposing you self to net and that might be interesting stuff.

    Still would like to figure out what gets hidden when I use netstat?

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