Three a.m. can be an interesting time to be in a 24 hour Denny’s Restaurant. The clientèle can range from graveyard shift workers on their lunch break to people who have spent all night partying. I never did understand the “Let’s go to Denny’s” mindset after a night of drinking. Why would I want to ruin a $100.00 drinking spree with a $4.00 pancake breakfast?
Of course, the closest thing to alcohol I put in my mouth most days is mouth wash. I honestly don’t miss the hangovers. Neither do I miss the round of apologies I usually had to make the next day for the dumb stuff I had done the night before.
So, sitting at the counter at 3:20 a.m. working on my third cup of coffee, I watched an older gentleman grow more and more frustrated with the laptop in front of him. After a bit, he pulled an old flip phone from his shirt pocket and left a message when the party did not answer.
“James, this is Ed. Give me a call when you get up. This laptop is going blue screen again.”
Ed is a wholesale parts manager for a local car parts chain in Austin. His Windows 7 laptop was giving him fits. He was having to restart his computer a number of times before it would boot to the OS. The number of times he had to reboot was growing each day and now it didn’t want to boot at all. Ed was seeing the BSOD on most boots.
Being one who has trouble keeping his mouth shut when tech problems arise, I asked him if I could help. He had to travel to Dallas that morning to make a meeting with his division head and the only phone number he had for the Dallas guy was on a PDF document on his computer. He would need that number later.
I told Ed that I might be able to help. I reached into my jeans pocket and fished around until I found the DataStick. I then explained to him what I was going to do and how I was going to do it.
I could tell that he wasn’t comfortable turning over control of his laptop to a stranger, but after a few seconds I got a slight nod to the affirmative. I pulled the Acer over to my part of the counter and booted the Linux Mint KDE LTS I keep for just such purposes. As the computer accepted the DataStick as the boot option, I explained to Ed what I was doing.
It was obvious he had no idea what I was talking about so we waited in awkward silence for the next few seconds. Finally, the Mint logo appeared on the screen. I opened Dolphin and located the Windows drive then asked him for the name of the file. He couldn’t remember but was sure it was a PDF. A few minutes later, I pulled a pen from my pocket and wrote down the number he needed and slid it back over to him with his laptop.
Ed let go a big sigh or relief. “Thanks for fixing my laptop. What do I owe you?”
I explained to him that I had not “fixed” his computer but only had accessed the information he needed. The computer would not work until someone in his IT department corrected the OS error. It was still clear that he had no idea what I was talking about.
“So you can open my files even if the machine is broken?”
Yes, I told him, but the computer hardware itself wasn’t broken. It was a corrupt operating system and the Linux live environment actually did the work. It was then his curiosity began to show.
“Walk me through that sequence again. I want to see how it works.”
This time, we went step by step with him actually paying attention to the details. First the boot choices, then the down arrows to pick out the flash drive, and then the actual system boot that gave him an environment in which to work.
What amazed him most was the fact that almost any computer could be accessed by this method, even if the computer wouldn’t boot on its own. I made sure that he understood it was useless if the problem was in the hardware, but in a broken operating system error, this worked well.
Ed navigated the Linux system, opening and closing some of the software choices, then asking me what they each did. But no matter how hard I tried, what analogies or similes I used, the entire concept of live boot software making his computer usable just didn’t take hold. After a few more minutes, he asked me how to turn the laptop off and I showed him.
Then he surprised me…
“How much does that flash doohicky cost?”
I told him it was free to anyone who needed it. It was then that his right eyebrow raised…as well as his doubt. I spent the next few minutes finishing my coffee and explaining to him, in layman terms, how FOSS works. I gave him my business card and told him he was welcome to call me if he ever needed my help.
This isn’t the first time someone had questioned the legitimacy of free and open source software. Some of you may remember back in 2008 when I was met head-on by the same doubt.
He shook my hand and left with my flash drive in his shirt pocket. I waved off the waitress trying to fill my cup again and made my way out the door as well. Dawn’s first light was beginning to show itself as I turned the key in my old Explorer.
First thing on my list after I got some sleep was to make another portable drive. You just never know when you are going to need it…
Ken Starks is the founder of the Helios Project and Reglue, which for 20 years provided refurbished older computers running Linux to disadvantaged school kids, as well as providing digital help for senior citizens, in the Austin, Texas area. He was a columnist for FOSS Force from 2013-2016, and remains part of our family. Follow him on Twitter: @Reglue