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November 17th, 2015

Senior Tech: Sometimes Linux Isn’t the Solution

Most of you know I live in a retirement community. Read that to say 55 years and older living on a fixed income.

Fixed income. I’ve always liked that term. It beats the hell out of “I’m too poor and I didn’t plan adequately for retirement.” And no, that’s not really the case for many who live here. The cost of living has indeed blossomed to be out of reach for those of us who do live on a fixed income; even a well-planned retirement can need some lifestyle changes. Hence, government subsidized places like where I live.

Helping handsYou know what? I like it here. People my age listened to Jefferson Airplane. Not Starship…Airplane. I’ve had protracted arguments with someone who wanted to argue that Jefferson Starship was the band formed by the kids of Jefferson Airplane. No really…I’m not kidding. Sheesh, even a lame Yahoo search engine will show that to be bologna. But I have to admit it sounds good. The busted meme that is.

Before we moved here we lived about six blocks away. It was a nice enough house. A rental house with builder grade move-in carpeting and cabinets. Nice enough, but not like here. Here, when I walk outside people don’t pretend to be busy so as not to acknowledge a friendly wave or the beginnings of a conversation. We range in age from 55 to 93 years, and in a true community way we take care of each other…we watch out for each other. Those of us who are more technically astute will help those who are not.

Claude and Joyce live directly across the street from us, and they were the first to greet Diane and me when we first moved in. Fact is, we weren’t even moved all the way in before they arrived and offered their help. It’s places like this that make the cut-throat condo lifestyle fade from memory.

When Claude stopped by a couple of weeks ago, I invited him in for coffee. DeeAnn, the lady at the end of the cul-de-sac, was having fits with her computer and she had asked Claude who might help her. Claude told her that I had put a different operating system on his machine and it was now running problem-free. His visit was an intermediary plea for help and I told him I would go over later that afternoon.

DeeAnn is a nice lady. Recently widowed, she found herself unable to keep her house, so she sold it, put the money away, and found a place here with the rest of us. She invited me in and ushered me into her “office,” where her computer was set up amid a lot of half-emptied moving boxes and the sundry stuff that clutters our lives upon a change of residence. I wanted to do the “well, here’s yer problem right here” routine, but my sense of humor doesn’t always translate as, uh…funny.

She was using a Dell Optiplex with Windows Vista installed, and it was a mess. It wasn’t virus-laden, it was I-love-all-of-these-toolbars-they-make-life-so-easy laden. She mentioned that Claude said I could put a program on her computer that was better than what she had, and I said, yes, I did have such a program and would she like to see how it worked before I put it on her computer. She said she would be thrilled to do that.

With age comes wisdom. Mostly. Sometimes. Maybe.

A previous experience last year in this same senior laden neighborhood had produced deep wounds in my psyche, and I still have an involuntary twitch every time Windows Vista is mentioned. Many of you would probably have done the same thing I did: I installed Linux on a computer, showed the new user the basics and she claimed that she was comfortable with her new system.

She lied.

It wasn’t thirty minutes later that she was pounding on my door, demanding that I fix her computer back to the very same way I found it, which included 87 viruses and more malware than I cared to identify. It took me weeks to get her computer back to an identifiable state. It took longer for a healthy state of mind to return to me. Long enough in fact, that DeeAnn was going to get to sit down to a day of using a live flash drive version of Lubuntu and make any more permanent decisions after doing so.

It didn’t even take an hour before she was back at my house. “Can you fix it so it comes back to my computer?”

Uh-huh. Whadid I tell you? But I had saved myself a ton of misery and a bevy of new uncontrollable twitches.

I told her to give me a couple of days and I would have her fixed up as good as new. True to my word, a legal, licensed Windows Vista installation disk arrived via UPS and side by side we installed her fresh operating system. I put all of her pictures and settings back in place and told her that I would not be available to do much more for her unless the entire computer blew up. Then I would charge a flat fee of $75.00. She was happy with that. I took the liberty of installing Avast antivirus and a sponsored installation of Malwarebytes. I did that for me, not for her.

So, did I sell out? Did I go against everything I thought was right? Yeah, I did and I would do it again given the same circumstances. Here’s the deal…

As we get older, we are less malleable mentally. We don’t want to learn new things if the old things are serving us. We don’t want things done for us “for our own good.” We forget stuff.

Really, we do forget stuff. The initial article I submitted to FOSS Force to run today was largely an article I had already submitted here a few months ago, one that I thought I’d put on Blog of Helios, so I had to write another article. That didn’t go over well. Actually it was fine, but my point is my point. When we get older, we don’t want anyone to save our world for us. We like the world we live in and if it’s ultimately a pain in the ass for us, that’s okay. We’ve learned how to work around those pains in the ass. Most of them anyway.

DeeAnn wanted her computer to work and do what it did before it got all gummed up and wouldn’t work any more. That’s what I gave her. She got her working computer back and I got some peace of mind. New and better isn’t always better. Most often, it’s best to find some middle ground, and if that middle ground turns out to be a turd of an operating system…well, let there be turds.

At least I won’t have to pretend I don’t see her when she waves at me while we’re outside getting the mail.

**********

Reglue needs a new delivery vehicle in order to continue its mission to deliver computers to school children who can’t afford them. You can help by visiting its Indiegogo page.

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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

26 comments to Senior Tech: Sometimes Linux Isn’t the Solution

  • tracyanne

    What I do, if the person tells me they are comfortable with Linux, is resize the Windows partition to as small as it will go, after backing up all their files. For most people, in my experience, that’s often pretty close to the size of the original OS install. Then install Linux in the unused space, and copy the backed up files into it.

    If they later complain, I simply remove Linux and resize the partition, and leave them with what they started with.

  • jymm

    It is way more about attitude than age. I started on Linux at the age of 57 on my own with no problems. If one’s attitude is open to new things, then great. If it is make Linux into Windows then forget it.

    It is one reason I am against all the “looks just like Windows” operating systems or blogs that tell you now to make any Linux OS look like Windows. I say show them something that does NOT look like Windows, so they are making an informed decsion rather than thinking they are getting exactly the same thing as their old OS.

    If you make Linux look like Windows, then yes the first time they try to install an .exe file they will have a serious problem and blame you for their troubles.

  • Eddie G.

    I make it a point to always inform the person I’m helping, that THIS IS NOT WINDOWS! I purposefully show them that “.exe’s” won’t work on this system. I show them Firefox, Icedove, Thunderbird E-Mail client. The media players, VLC, RythymBox, Parole,and finally LibreOffice. I try to get them to “do” things with their files, music, videos, photos, documents etc. So that they can get a “feel” for it. Then….AND ONLY THEN do I actually install Linux,….(after backing up all their stuff on an external USB hard drive!) And give them my “alternate” email address that they can use to specifically contact me when having problems with their Linux machines.

  • Agree with tracyanne. If Windows runs, leave it on there. Gives you an easy way out if needed.

  • Mike S.

    In my experience, most people have one or two areas where they are adventurous and happy to explore, and they want to fly on autopilot elsewhere. I happen to love exploring computers and software. But I’m not too comfortable with art, cooking, electrical wiring, plumbing, camping, foreign languages, and a million other things.

    DeeAnn clearly has her explorer side in other areas. Maybe she can cook fifty different kinds of pie. Maybe she can speak three languages. Maybe she can knit like nobody’s business. Maybe she can build the best brick homes in the state.

    If we the free software community fail to convince the average person that software freedom and user privacy are important, that’s our failure. The average person is not to blame.

  • Mike S. said:

    “If we the free software community fail to convince the average person that software freedom and user privacy are important, that’s our failure. The average person is not to blame.”

    Not necessarily our failure, Mike. We can only present the option of free/open source software and its clear benefits over proprietary software, but ultimately it’s the decision of the person who wishes to use it — or not use it — to choose for themselves.

    Freedom essentially means that folks are granted the option to make the wrong decision. It doesn’t mean we have to like it, or even have to help them when bad things happen as a result. But it’s their choice.

    Ken: Been there, done that. But after being burned the first time, I usually make the person in question use a live CD/DVD/USB for a significant amount of time before asking them if they want an install of whatever distro it is, and then present a “red pill/blue pill” option. Usually this works, but your mileage may vary.

  • Mike S.

    Larry Cafiero,
    We are not wholly at fault if people make the wrong choice. As you said, ultimately it’s their decision.

    But I would compare this in concept to buying diamonds at a jewelry store. The average shopper sees the store, the employees, and the beautiful merchandise. They don’t know that the diamonds were probably obtained using slave labor in Sierra Leone and unless someone explained it to them, you can’t expect them to know.

    Obviously proprietary software is not as evil as using slave labor. But just like jewelry shopping, when you buy computers, smart phones, and movies and e-books it’s not apparent when you look at the merchandise what is going on behind the scenes. And it’s harder to articulate to the average person why the behind-the-scenes situation is bad.

    I can’t even get my own wife and kids to care about these issues, much less other adults in my social circle.

  • Roland

    Second disk drives are cheap. 1TB for ~$50, that’s 40mins of your time at the above-mentioned rate. Most BIOSes these days have a boot-disk selector built in.

  • Luis

    Yes, it happens…

    One time in a BBS one guy was asking for a Linux solution to somebody that was running Windows 3.1 (in a Windows 98 era). He said that the person did not want to invest in hardware. The specs were not great, these were i386 with little RAM and disk space to speak of. So, the consensus in the BBS was to just leave it alone. If the person did not want to invest in upgrading to a modern hardware, there is so much that you can do.

    I have another guy that is running an unlicensed XP system that he got “from work”. I offered him to swap it to Linux, but he is using it for a karaoke and music backup band system and he was hesitant of doing the change. So I left him alone even though eventually, the system might croak.

    So yes, it happens.

  • Juan

    I came to the conclusion is not worth the effort unless I have total control of PCs. With that said I only force my immediate family members to use Linux since I bought the computers (turns out they are all happy with my choice of OS). All others I just tell them I don’t fix/install Win any more and I don’t have even pirated versions, they need to go find someone else.

    At work only servers or PCs I directly use will run Linux all rest I tell them I can’t help pass some simple config stuff. Any viruses, crashes, etc they have to go get help somewhere else (we have someone for that).

    I have come to a point in life where I don’t enjoy trying to help computer users, they are basically too dumb to understand or care that there are better and more productive ways.

    So my little corner of the universe keeps being productive and they all keep having issues.

  • Mike

    @Mike S.

    Well said. Yes we cannot (and should not) make decisions for people, but in my opinion, the FOSS community had never done a very good job of getting the word out to ‘ordinary people’ as to the importance of FOSS, the problems inherent in proprietary software and why it might be in their best interest to choose FOSS, even if it comes with some difficulty.

    In many ways, choosing FOSS is like being a vegan. You are on the fringe of society and do not factor into the thoughts of almost all commercial product makers. This makes it hard to go out and do the same things your peers are doing unless you compromise your principles. It is a hard sell to convince your friends of the importance of eating fruits and vegetables (FOSS) when they are surrounded by the attractive lure of salty, fatty foods (proprietary software). Take Netflix for instance. In order to get the delicious desert of binge watching your favorite shows, many people are willing to put up with the absolutely unhealthy DRM in their proprietary player software.

    It’s a difficult sell, and it does not help when half the FOSS world is running around denigrating those who care about this stuff by calling them ‘religious fanatics’ and claiming only utilitarian pragmatism makes sense (Arch linux I am looking directly at you here!)

    We can’t even sell the importance of FOSS to those primarily using FOSS!

  • Tommy Flanagan

    Still posting this BS after all these years. How’s Karen of the AISD?

  • archuser

    For a casual user Linux is just fine, but when you need to work on stuff from office ,linux just cannot handle it, last time I had to join a webex session for training setup by my office and Linux does not support Cisco Webex , so I had no choice but to borrow my brother’s laptop with windows and join the webex session.

  • Somewhat Reticent

    It helps to take the time to get to know a person before offering help, in order to know what would help.

    In this case, going Linux would involve a major lifestyle change and massive learning curve, rarely a pleasant prospect for a senior.

    You’re likely not a Microsoft Windows Vista expert, and DeeAnn likely has no idea what the difference between that and (say) the world of LXLE (or HandyLinux) would entail. A dual-boot setup could give her some perspective, but it would take time for her to learn all the differences between operating systems, programs, and procedures – especially those for recovery and repair.

    A remedial “Introduction to Computers” class might be a better start, IF she’d be open to it.

    (ByTheWay, I once wanted to take a class online, and was told I needed Microsoft Windows & Internet Explorer as well as costly Cisco WebEx tools of all sorts. I used Firefox on a Linux OS and one small free Cisco download to play lecture(s) and take quizes – no extra charge, so to speak.)

  • Somewhat Reticent

    “DeeAnn wanted her computer to work and do what it did before it got all gummed up and wouldn’t work any more. That’s what I gave her.”

    Yes, you gave her a fish … but did she want to learn how to get her own? Some people certainly don’t – but they make great cookies!

  • fogpipe

    “As we get older, we are less malleable mentally. We don’t want to learn new things if the old things are serving us. We don’t want things done for us “for our own good.” We forget stuff.”

    Speak for yourself, or better yet, shut the hell up.
    You know i really hate this “old people are stupid” stuff. Im 60 and have no more trouble using linux now that i did 20 years ago when i started.
    The only difference between then and now is that i cant get a job using linux because the “old people are stupid” meme has been repeated often enough that almost everybody believes it.
    The people in the linked article that were having problems with computer usage likely always had those problems, correlation does not imply causation, and not everybody who is old is stupid or a technophobe.

  • Mike S.

    @fogpipe,
    To your point, as I said earlier I’m having a hell of a time convincing my wife and kids to switch and clearly age isn’t related to the problem there.

    I’ll say again the real problem is that most people – including me – have a few areas where they’re happy to devote mental energy and dozens of others where they fly on autopilot. That’s independent of age. The people on this site are just among the lucky ones that count free software in one of the areas we like to explore.

  • CFWhitman

    I always make a way back for people who are changing their computer over to Linux. Really, though, that is something I rarely do unless specifically asked to. That’s not because I don’t put people on Linux, but because I usually do so with a computer that they haven’t been using as a Windows computer. That is, the Linux computer I set up for them is a computer that I provide or their “old” computer that “doesn’t work anymore.” Even when using their old computer, if it has a Windows recovery partition or a way to create a set of recovery disks, I usually try to save that just in case. In those cases, though, I don’t think I’ve ever had occasion to use the recovery media.

    One woman I installed Linux for recently (several months ago now) is coping with the learning curve because of the lower malware risk. To be honest, the learning curve for her seems mostly about learning how to use the Google Play Music Web interface rather than iTunes to purchase new music and burn it to CD. That’s her primary usage for her laptop. Yes, it seems odd to me who is more concerned about ripping my CD’s to files, but people have their own ways of doing things.

  • archuser

    As I have realized Linux is not worth the trouble , pay some money get MS , it is easy, for the totally broke though, Linux is an option.

  • Mike S.

    @archuser,
    If you want the latest proprietary PC games, and you don’t care about your rights as an end user, your privacy, government or criminal snooping into your affairs, using hardware for a long time, or digital rights management… then yes, Windows is your best option.

  • Mike

    In other words, if you prefer sticking your head in the sand, then Windows is the OS for you.

    MS Windows – The option for people who:
    1) Don’t care about privacy
    2) Don’t care about security
    3) Don’t care about throwing money away
    4) Don’t care.

  • Duncan

    I debated my reply here for a couple days, but it basically comes down to this:

    While my MS skills were quite advanced at one point, I was beta testing and volunteering in the MS newsgroups, my MS malware (for that it now is, along with any other software with features there for no other purpose but to inconvenience the user) days ended when with eXPrivacy it crossed the line into malware, and 9x skills are pretty stale at this point.

    And as I consider MS a personal dead-end, I’m not particularly interested in updating those skills. Sure, I would if someone paid me enough, but it’d have to be quite a lot, enough, frankly, that they’re better off finding someone else to work on their systems if they want to keep them MS, because by the time they pay good money for my time to get back upto speed, plus to do whatever they wanted in the first place, it’d be cheaper just to pay someone else to do it.

    In theory I could do the shrink the partition thing someone mentioned, and I might even do it if I thought the smaller size would help persuade them to come into the world of freedom, but otherwise I’d rather not even touch it, so if there’s any doubt, a plugin livedrive install, unplug and they’re back where they were, is a useful test.

    A $50 or whatever new drive for the Linux install, as someone else mentioned, is another great alternative, pretty much the one I took myself, back when MS pushed me off by drawing the eXPrivacy malware line I could not and would not cross.

    But the less I have to touch the current installation, other than by wiping it, the happier I am, and if they want it cleaned up, yes, I can do it, but as I said, I’ll tell them that frankly it’s not going to be cost effective to have me do it, for all the reasons mentioned above, and they’re better off either just buying a new machine (they no longer cost what they once did) and having someone else set it up if necessary, or going elsewhere for services of that nature.

    Since I decided on that policy, and people realized I meant it, they’ve gone elsewhere for their MS maintenance services, and I’ve not had to worry about reinstalling MS, legal or otherwise (which I wouldn’t do either, potentially adding further to the cost), nor dealing with half-working anti-malware, since if it really worked it’d kill anything recent MS due to its anti-features as well.

    And that’s just fine by me! =:^)

  • Terry S

    I’m not sure why it should take weeks to restore someone’s PC if you back it up first. The best method I’ve found to do this is using Clonzilla (which is free) to make an image of your hard drive. It’s incredibly easy to use (all you need is a USB device to store your image on and a CD drive to boot your Clonzilla CD from. We regularly do this for our Linux workstations, and the whole process takes around 10 minutes to restore a drive (depending on its size of course)

  • Somewhat Reticent

    It can take weeks (of research and/or spare_time) to restore a computer to pre-malware condition without an all-app re-installation that doesn’t restore settings, configuration and data. I can empathize.

    I’m sure Claude meant well, but he may not have fully appreciated the difficulty and cost involved in helping DeeAnn, for whom the learning curve might be a much tougher challenge. (I doubt Joyce would want him to spend much time tutoring DeeAnn.)

    IT support for a group normally involves constantly balancing safety and agility.

    Most Dell Optiplex boxes I remember only ran well with Vista after many researched (with many installs) tweaks; W’7 took a bit less research only because it was more popular/common.

    One strategy that eases transition is introducing cross-platform apps.

  • CFWhitman

    In a way, it’s funny that someone would say that ‘Linux is not worth the trouble’ because for me Windows is not worth the trouble. Don’t get a misimpression. I have a Windows 7 virtual machine that I have to use regularly at work. I also have a Windows 8 Surface (soon to be Windows 10) at work and a Windows 8 installation on a second drive at home. I am up to speed on Windows, but I find it more trouble than Linux at this point.

    With Linux it’s easy to take old hardware that people give me or that is written off at work and install whatever distribution and software that I want. With Windows you have to go through the hassle of a software DVD that matches the license on the hardware (assuming it’s 7 or newer, and thus arguably worth it), put up with activation. Then when you run the computer it seems sluggish next to the Linux installations I use on the same hardware. Also, once you’ve used Linux as much as I have, Windows feels very restrictive.

    Of course, I’m a tech type, so most others won’t feel so much more restricted by Windows than Linux. Still, the regular users who I provide Linux for don’t seem to have much problem using it.