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March 29th, 2016

The Great 2016 Dell Latitude Massacre

The Heart of Linux

The story of a donation that should have happened, but didn’t.

That sinking feeling. The feeling you get in the microseconds after someone sneaks up from behind and scares the bejeebus out of you. The feeling you get when you pat your back pocket and discover your wallet isn’t there. The gut dropping three seconds directly after reading the email notifying you of imminent layoff. The feeling that something has taken place that is going to impact your life, and possibly the lives of others, in the most unpleasant of ways.

Reglue placing laptop

Not to be confused with Michael Stipe, that’s me in the corner handing over the Samsung paper thin laptop mentioned in this article to a deserving family.

I had one of those moments just last week. As much as I tell myself that I can’t erase the event or remind myself that suckification happens…it still nags at me like a tenacious ear ache or like a hangnail that induces the impulse to scream every time it’s brushed against something. It’s the feeling that washes over you when you find out you have lost something extremely important and there is no way in the real world that you will be able to reverse that loss.

Most of you already know that I am the founder and executive director of Reglue, or by its proper legal name, Recycled Electronics and GNU/Linux Used for Education. That’s the 501(c)(3) that friend and co-conspirator Don Davis gave us. The organization he stepped out of, which allowed us to step into was a recognized organization in-good-standing we were financially unable to create ourselves. We are a non profit that fixes donated computers and then give them to students who cannot afford one. It’s the most gratifying work I have ever done, and it’s only right that I mention that without Dr. Davis, Reglue would probably not have happened.

Operating a project like Reglue is intense. Without a steady flow of cash and hardware, we cannot do our job. It’s those of you within the Linuxsphere who devote much of your time to free and open source software, with your donations of cash and tech hardware, that allow us to achieve the success we’ve experienced since February, 2005.

Often we get phone calls, emails or texts asking how to donate hardware to the Reglue cause. If it’s local, as within a 50 mile radius (or 100 miles for the really good stuff), we offer to pick it up. If it’s further away and it’s not going to break the donor’s bank, we give our shipping address.

Sometimes, however, the amount or weight of the donated equipment rules out shipping due to cost. That’s when we have a hard decision to make. Is the equipment good enough or plentiful enough to be of real service to Reglue? Will acquiring this stuff allow us to go beyond our abilities at the time? If the answer is yes, we then begin to plot a way to go get it, whether that be by renting a truck or accepting a Reglue supporter’s offer to make the trip in their truck or vehicle. We will find a way to get it, even if it involves a time intensive cannonball run to, uh…let’s say Indiana.

I mention Indiana because I once took a trip to the Hoosier State in the 3/4 ton monster Ford pickup truck of a good friend of Reglue — back when we were known as the HeliOS Project — who offered to drive me to pick up such a load. Those dozens of computers and monitors served the needs of our organization for months.

I was reminded of that trip recently, when I was notified that another old friend had quit his job in Indiana and had moved back to Austin to accept a much better paying job. I had known this guy for years, and while he had never taken an active role in supporting Reglue, he had often promised that when he graduated college and started making some real money he would help our effort.

His let’s-meet-and-catch-up phone call mentioned that he had almost been able to do so before he left the Midwest to return to Southeast Texas.

“Yeah,” he said. “I had 25 laptops I was going to bring with me from work. They had been released for recycle so they were mine to do with as I pleased. But after looking them over, I decided they were just too old and I would be burdening you more than helping you. I pulled the hard drives and crushed the rest.”

I nodded to myself in agreement. Not too long ago, someone “trying to help” dropped off 20-some Pentium III laptops, along with nine 21 inch CRT monitors and a slew of obsolete cabling and other assorted junk. They left the stuff by the back door of the shop while we were closed with a note saying, “I hope you can use these.” No name, no organization, and if being saddled with this garbage wasn’t bad enough, the majority of the laptops were broken, as were seven of the monitors.

So I thanked my buddy for his consideration.

“We just got in brand new Lenovos and Chromebooks so those old Dell Latitudes were boat anchors,” he said and laughed. “They were still running Vista Business. I can imagine the look you’d have on your face when you opened the boxes and saw all those dinosaurs”

He was drawing a breath to continue when I stopped him.

“Dell 6500s? You crushed 25 Dell Latitude E6500s? What the hell were you thinking?”

He waited for a few seconds, as if trying to gauge my tone. That’s hard to do when you are listening to someone speaking through an electrolarynx.

“Man, do you have any idea what we could have done with those?”

It was a long five seconds before he responded. “You are kidding, right? You’re giving those kids that kind of junk? What the hell do you expect them to do with those?”

“Junk? Those are enterprise-grade laptops and they were meant to last for years and years. I have a number of grad students using them, as well as maybe a dozen other kids in high school. Dude, those are mostly core 2 duos. Those could have…”

That’s where he cut me off. “Ken, today’s student needs at least an Core i5 machine with 8 gigs. You are not helping them at all by handing them junk like the Dells I crushed. I’m going to have to strongly reconsider my donation path to your organization.”

With that he hung up. Enter sinking feeling mentioned above.

When thinking about my buddy, I take into consideration that he was raised in and around wall-to-wall affluence. His first car was a Christmas present, a Lexus SUV parked in the driveway. He wasn’t just born with a silver spoon, his family owned the factory that manufactured them. But in all, I’ve spend the better part of a week thinking about how out of touch someone has to be to destroy monster laptops like the E6500s.

Sure they were heavy. They’re probably better suited as a desktop replacement than a laptop. Compared to the Samsung 14 inch paper-thin laptop I gave away earlier in the month, the E6500 is a blunt instrument. A blunt instrument with a screaming CPU and an HDMI port, that is. Did I mention that the least memory in any of the crushed laptops was 6 gigs? He didn’t even bother to harvest the memory. I’m sure that someone at the company that crushed them harvested that RAM, not to mention the chips and the DVD drives. I know I would have.

So here I am, sitting in the presence of some of the tech-smartest people I’ve ever met. Some of you are extremely well off, others are like me, living on a disability stipend and struggling from month to month. The majority of you are comfortably in the middle. You are raising your family, climbing the corporate ladder as it were, or you are still in school, trying to figure out what you really want to do with your life.

Whatever you decide, remember that someone, somewhere, is going to look to you at one time or another for help and that what you might consider junk may something of immense importance and value to those seeking your help. Pick up the phone and ask.

A two minute conversation could potentially impact a single person’s life in a profound way, or it could impact many people in the same profound way. In the time that you can comfortably hold your breath, you can turn someone’s uncertain world into a hopeful place. Two minutes.

May your stomach never sink.

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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

14 comments to The Great 2016 Dell Latitude Massacre

  • Mike

    In addition to the view from affluence, your friend was probably viewing the PC’s from the ever-present, and oh-so deluded, Windows point of view.

    It is a viewpoint which does not know the power of Linux.

    It insists that anything which won’t run Microsoft’s latest and (not so) greatest, isn’t fit for use.

    In short, it is the viewpoint of the indoctrinated, the brainwashed, and the foolish.

  • eMBee

    here is hoping that the reason the guy hung up was because he suddenly realized his mistake and just couldn’t continue the conversation…

  • Dion

    Privilege and its stupidities. I have a E6500 which is currently loaded up with Ubuntu MATE 16.04 (Beta) and it runs very well, indeed. What a waste indeed, given that large 15 inch screen and the durable casing of the E6500.

  • James Dixon

    I can’t imagine how he would react to my personal laptop (a Dell Mini 9 with a 32 bit single core Atom processor, 2GB of memory, and an 8GB SSD). It’s battery has finally died, but otherwise it runs fine and meets my needs.

  • Bob

    I kinda wish you would have left your comments out about his affluence. Yes, that may have played a roll in his ultimate decision but that is just your opinion as you were upset with what he did with those machines. You let your emotions get to you. The jest of this story should have been to inform and teach us readers, as well as your former friend, that older machines like the Dell 6500 can be easily transformed into a great Linux based computer that will eventually go to a needy family. But now, you have played the “spoiled rich kid” card and your story, IMO, took away from a great opportunity to teach but instead you took a cheap shot at a person’s character.

  • Uncle Ed

    I’m sorry about the computers and sorrier about your friendship. But I hear the same thing here at home–“xxx because my computer is so old.” (It’s always that it locked up and the last humpty-dillion times it has been because some combination of keys will blackout the monitor. Explaining that a black monitor isn’t a lockup is–never mind. Some of you guys are married.)

    Your former friend misses out that you could pass out computers like that if you could get them, either as donations or because Reglue was swimming in cash. That would be the easy answer, if you were still speaking.

    One of the factors you probably wouldn’t throw into the argument is that you’ll have a track record on computers that are a few years old and know which ones will stand up to usage. (Said too many times–I got my wife’s computer as a perk from Reglue and was setting it up for myself. She “acquisitioned” it as a loaner when her W7 laptop bit the big one and it just never has come back. I went to eBay and bought an identical one for myself. What do I do that needs more power than this thing?) I hope you get some more of these to give out, as they’re certainly working for us, despite the lack of shiny-shiny.

    Back when I was in high school the snappy comeback was, “If it won’t run, chrome it.” Do you suppose if I put chrome strips and maybe some stickers on her monitor and gave her a new mouse, she would think it was ummmm…

  • NoDough

    So, I’m sitting here reading this and I think, “Wait a minute!”, look down at my laptop and read “LATITUDE E6510”.

    I have two drives for it. One with the Windows 7 that it originally shipped with, and one with Linux Mint.

    I booted Windows 7 this week for the first time in several months. It was more than a day of updating and waiting before it was usable. And then, it was only barely usable after waiting around 10 minutes for it to finish booting and loading background processes.

    Happily switched back to my Linux drive yesterday. Booted and ready to rock in less than 30 seconds.

    Yeah, I can see why Mr. Corporate thought they were junk.

  • Tom

    My home laptops are t61p dual core with mint, upgraded to 8gb RAM. My 9 yr old daughter happily uses YouTube on a t60 with 1.8 GHz & 4gb RAM. Linux mint plus Google chrome so she can use Google docs.

    It’s amazing what crafts she learns on YouTube. It’s way more than I had for my engineering degree.

  • Ken, from your brief description, it sounded like you sorta got mad when he told you… and he switched into defensive mode. I think with some effort you could repair this… and maybe work together in the future. I would also lay off comments that suggest “affluence” as those don’t seem to be productive.

  • RandyNose

    What a bummer. Not to mention that those Dells specs are most likely have more zap and zing than some new chromebooks.

    That sinking feeling… A gnot in your gnut.

  • Aaron Bittel

    It may not be affluence per se that is responsible this sort of thinking, but it’s most certainly privilege. It’s the same privilege that lets folks believe that they “need” to upgrade to the latest iThing or shiny new laptop every year without regard for the environmental or human impacts, let alone the economic rationality of that mindset. The whole notion of short-lived, disposable electronics is founded in privilege, and that privilege is enabled by affluence — at least affluence relative to the folks who benefit from programs like Reglue.

    Ken, I’m so sorry for the setback, but keep fighting the good fight. It’s people like you that remind the world that everybody having at least basic access to something (in this case, technology) is far better than only the most fortunate having access to everything.

  • tracyanne

    He doesn’t sound like much of a friend, old or otherwise. Old acquaintance yes, but friend I doubt that.

  • I did a poor job of following through with stuff that may have been confusing. John Parmer and I have been friends since 1972 and we served in the same combat deployments. His “threat” to rethink his “donation vector” was pure silliness, and I should have made that more plain with the sarcasm tag. He’s spending this Sunday with Diane and me, binging on baseball and beer.

    But he’s still a spoiled putz. The one thing that John did to earn and keep my respect was to brush aside his father’s offer to have his health status officially changed to 4F to avert him from Combat service in Viet Nam. He also gave 75% of daddy’s trust fund away to various charities.I’ll shame him into writing us a check Sunday. Something he’s promised to do for years. John Parmer always keeps his promises. Self-proclaimed Putz that he is. We should all be so lucky to have friends like John Parmer.

  • Eddie G.

    On your friendship I’ll not comment on since I don’t know either of you personally, nor the dynamics of your relationship. But in regards to the Dells, yeah those machines were “enterprise” tough, and a lot of people don’t know this, but the computers that are sold to companies are different from the ones sold to the consumer at best Buy. Enterprise machines are built to last a ot longer than the shiny new what-cha-ma-call-it at the local Big Box outlet. These machines have sturdier frames, for those times when someone walks past a desk and accidentally pulls the laptop off due to the power supply cable. Their screens are a bit more watertight for those times when someone spills coffee on it during a meeting. The chassis usually have a strong metal in an exo-skeleton just beneath the outer casing to survive the bumps, knocks, falls, rattles, and other high impact blose dealt to a machine in a work atmosphere. So while those machines might have appeared slow to a Windows user? a Linux user knows just how valuable and how physically hearty those machines are. I feel for your loss, and I hope you find another “windfall” of machines. (Speaking of which I have an old Gateway that ceased to work for me, even though it survived a house fire. So I guess I’ll be visiting the ReGlue web site soon to arrange shipping it to you